Monday, February 20, 2017

Ives Uncaged

The microtonalist composer and theorist Johnny Reinhard invited me to his New York apartment Sunday to hear a new recording, which he is producing, of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata. There must be dozens of recordings of the piece. What makes this one unique is that it involves two pianists ― the young powerhouses Gabriel Zucker and Erika Dohi ― playing separate instruments tuned according to what Johnny calls an “extended Pythagorean” system, or “the spiral of fifths.”

The tuning creates 24 tones per octave and, Johnny says, comes closer to what the composer must have had in mind when he wrote the sonata. In this score, as in others, Ives distinguishes between tones that in equal temperament are enharmonic ― placing, for example, an F sharp beside a G flat in the same measure. To his copyists, this was just bad notation, and it drove them batty. In the Pythagorean system, however, the tones are distinct, and Johnny insists that with his version, he is merely taking Ives at his word.

He also finds justification for his approach in this paragraph from the Epilogue of Ives’s Essays Before a Sonata:

In some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter-tones ― when the diatonic scale will be as obsolete as the pentatonic is now ― perhaps then these borderland experiences may be both easily expressed and readily recognized. But maybe the music is not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may be a transcendental language in the most extravagant sense. Possibly the power of literally distinguishing these “shades of abstraction” ― these attributes paralleled by “artistic intuitions” (call them what you will) ― is ever to be denied man for the same reason that the beginning and end of a circle are to be denied.

The century Ives predicted, Johnny said, is now. The circle has been broken, swept up into a spiral of fifths.

Of course, the proof of any theory is in the listening, and I have to say, there are many stunning, ear-stretching moments in this recording. The word that kept recurring to me throughout the 40-minute running time was “liberated.” The dense, complex “Emerson” movement, in particular, gains a new power and resonance. The music seems propelled by a long-pent-up energy, like a tiger suddenly let loose  from a cage. The fresh charge comes at a cost, however, as the last two movements, in which Ives progressively thins out the textures, lose some of their accustomed flavor. “The Alcotts” sounds less naive, “Thoreau” less transparent, with the flute solo at the end (performed sensitively enough by Erin Keppner) struggling to break through the haze. But these are initial impressions, derived perhaps from a lifetime of familiarity with standard performances ― if any performance of the Concord may be called “standard.”  With repeated listening, I expect I might find new values to replace the old.

The two-piano version did not require any form of re-arrangement, Johnny said. All he did was take two copies of the score, black out some of the notes in each, and highlight others. The problems of coordination for the two musicians must have been staggering, but Zucker and Dohi rise to the challenge with astonishing precision. The performance is seamless.


Tuning for the two-piano, microtonal Concord Sonata:

Piano I (Zucker)
  C#   D#         F#    G#   A#
C    D     E     F     G      A     B

Piano II (Dohi)
   Db   Eb            Gb    Ab    Bb

B#   Cx    Fb    E#    Fx    Gx   Cb

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Thought for the Day

The most redundant phrase I know
Would have to be "the winds that blow."
For if the wind's just standing there,
Then what you're looking at is "air."

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The New New Colossus

The Lady with the Lamp looks out to sea
And tells the world, "I'm changing my criteria.
Send all your homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
Unless the little bastards come from Syria."

Monday, January 23, 2017

Oh, how these people have suffered

Russia went through hell in the 20th century (at present it appears to have graduated into purgatory), and its many great artists bore witness to its suffering, either by confronting it directly; or by dreaming, like the early Christians, of the peace beyond the apocalypse; or by simply getting out and moving on. The Fine Art Music Company, a too-well-kept secret in Philadelphia, presented a taste of that survivalist spirit over the weekend with perhaps the strongest program we’ve had from it -- two hours music and poetry that was rooted in Russia’s so-called Silver Age and carried over into the Stalinist era and beyond. 

The composers on the bill were Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Pärt and Schnittke. The poetry, read sometimes in Russian, sometimes in translation, by mezzo-soprano Tatyana Rashkovsky, included the work of Osip Mandelstam, Alexander Blok, and, most prominently, Anna Akhmatova, whose biography  reads like a summary of what befell the country at large.

Performances at the Ethical Society Sunday were uniformly excellent. Rollin Wilber was in top form in three of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes from Op. 32, as was Kasia Marzec-Salwinski in Scriabin’s Sonata-Fantasy Op. 19 and four early Preludes by Schnittke, which have been discovered published only recently. (For all we know, Wilber said during the Q and A, it might have been a US premiere.)

Cellist Yoni Draiblate added sensitive readings of Schnittke’s Musica Nostalgica and Pärt’s Fratres, though I found the pieces themselves unremarkable. Rashkovsky, in songs by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, was thrilling.

It was a heavy afternoon, but Draiblate and Wilber ended it on a hopeful note with Rachmaninoff’s touching Vocalise, which, in context, felt like a pale ray of sunshine breaking through the gloom. 

The poetry of oppression raised inevitable comparisons to current political situation in the US (the woman sitting in front of me wore a pink pussy cap), but Rashkovsky put it in perspective after the concert. She began life under the Brezhnev regime, she said, and very little can scare her now. While hardly a ringing endorsement of our new chief executive, it makes one grateful for large mercies.

One side note: Kasia and I had a disagreement over the meaning of this verse by Akhmatova, written in 1921:

Don’t torment your heart with earthly joys,
Don’t cling to your wife or your home,
Take the bread from your child
To give to a stranger.
And be the humblest servant of the one
Who was your bitterest foe,
And call the beast of the forest brother,
And don’t ask God for anything, ever.

Kasia saw it as advocating an otherwordly, Christlike ethic of selflessness and renunciation. I took it to be an ironic manifesto of the revolutionary regime, stating, in effect, that from now on life will be miserable, and one has no choice but to submit. I am strengthened in my opinion by the poem’s timing: It was written the same year Akhmatova’s former husband was executed by the Bolsheviks. One the other hand, I must admit my understanding of poetry has often been wide of the mark. I have a talent for missing the point. My college essay on Robinson’s “How Annandale Went Out,” for example, remains one of the signal embarrassments of my life.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Oh, How Do You Feel About Schoenberg?

For Marjory

Oh, how to you feel about Schoenberg?
Please tell me in ten words or less.
I'll need your opinion in writing
Before this affair can progress.

And how do you feel about Webern,
And Carter and Ives and Varèse?
Would you tolerate Boulez and Babbitt
Despite what the Times critic says?

Because if we move in together,
You're going to hear them a lot,
And the last seven women I lived with
Ran out of the house like a shot.

They took all the money and children.
They transferred the cable connection.
They took all the furniture, china, and books,
And left me my record collection.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Shall we gather at the river?

Congratulations and thank you to the Fine Art Music Company for its exhilarating program of American music this weekend in Philadelphia. The performances, held Saturday evening at Ivy Hall and Sunday afternoon at the Ethical Society, were timed -- intentionally, I am told -- to correspond with Tuesday's general election. I joked, ruefully, that it might be the last time I feel good about being an American for a long time to come.

But feel good I did. The program was well-chosen and lovingly presented. I was familiar with most of the music, but two pieces -- Paul Bowles's Six Preludes for Piano and William Grant Still's Suite for Violin and Piano -- were new to me.

Bowles's Preludes are short, finely etched studies that the pianist, Kasia Marzec-Salwinski, compared to the character pieces of Schumann. Still's Suite shoehorns elements of jazz and spirituals into rather a conventional framework.

By contrast, Charles Ives's Fourth Violin Sonata, which opened the second half of the program, does away with frameworks altogether. Subtitled "Children's Day at the Camp Meeting," it is not one of Ives's more avant-garde works, but it bristles with mischief, and Jonathan Moser, the afternoon's violinist, navigated the mood swings with remarkable clarity of tone, while Kasia, on piano, more than held her own in a piece that mocks the very notion of holding your own.

The Ives was one of two high points of the afternoon for me. The other was the finale, Gershwin's ubiquitous "Rhapsody in Blue," in Henry Levine's arrangement for piano four hands. This is not a piece I need to listen to a lot, though I certainly don't avoid it. Gershwin's concert music is often better remembered than heard -- that is, the melodies are so good they stick in the mind long after you've forgotten just how clunky the structures are. But any doubts as to the music's ultimate value were banished here. Kasia and Rollin Wilber breezed through it with an enthusiasm that proved infectious. It was obvious they were having a high old time.

I don't want to leave out flutist Elivi Varga, who performed Copland's Duo for Flute and Piano and Samuel Barber's Canzone (with  Rollin on piano in the former, Kasia in the latter). These are relatively minor works, but they are pretty, and Varga gave a radiant luster to both of them. She was especially effective in the Barber.  

I also want to thank the musicians for inviting me to join them onstage for the Q&A session after the concert, when I was asked to say a few words about Charles Ives. In gratitude, I kept my comments short.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Another mystery solved

In an earlier post, I mentioned that the director of Choral Arts Philadelphia was at a loss to explain the presence of the sopranino recorder  in Bach's Cantata BWV 96, Christ her einige Gottessohn. Bach always assigned extra-musical meanings to his instrumentation, of course, and the director couldn't determine just what the recorder was supposed to symbolize.

Well, inspired by Choral Arts' performance, I purchased a CD of the piece (Bach-Ensemble, cond. by Helmuth Rilling), and found the following in the booklet: "This cantata is one of those compositions, starting with BWV 94, where Bach accorded the modern flute a major role. In aria no. 3 it provides the 'bonds of affection' by which Jesus should draw the spirit. Inn the opening chirus the same player probably had to  use a sopranino recorder to convey the light of the morning star mentioned in the text in a suitably high register."

The complete text of the chorus is as follows:
Lord Christ, the only son of God,
Father's eternally,
From his own heart descended,
Just a scripture saith;
He is the star of morning.   

People try to make this stuff hard.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Meine Lieblingsmusik

Wer sagt, die Deutschen haben keinen Sinn für Humor?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"Like a complete unknown ..."

I suppose I'm going to have to weigh on on this whole Bob Dylan-Nobel Prize thing, but since Dylan himself hasn't acknowledged  it yet, I haven't felt too much pressure. According to Adam Kirsch, our latest laureate isn't even returning the Swedish Academy's phone calls, and now the Lords of Literature are getting all huffy, accusing their newest poster boy of being "impolite and arrogant."

They're surprised? The guy has made a career of being impolite and arrogant.

The truth is, I'm neither outraged  by the prize, nor am I raising huzzahs, as some have. I'm just not that into Dylan, and the Nobel is not a ticket to immortality. Every year when the prize is announced, we recall the greats who were never named -- Proust, Tolstoy, Conrad, Joyce, Nabokov, Auden -- and we overlook, yet again, the many mediocrities who were. Every Novel, every Pulitzer, every Oscar, every Grammy is a reminder, as if we needed reminding, that life is unfair.

And then there's the question, is what Dylan does literature? I'd say yeah, sure, why not?, but that admission doesn't make me prouder to be an American living at this particular time.

In the New York Review of Books, Luc Sante argues that while Dylan's lyrics, on their own, might not scan as well as those of Cole Porter or Smokey Robiinson, he added a new dimension to song: "As great a Porter and Robinson were as songwriters,  they were working in -- and profiting from -- the air of frivolity that attended lyric-writing by the mid-twentieth century, an era that prized verbal dexterity and rapid evaporation. Dylan, through his ambiguity, his ability to throw down puzzles that continue to echo and to generate interpretations, almost singehandedly created a climate inn which lyrics were taken seriously."

In other words, Dylan is more pretentious. What, one may ask, is un-literary about lightness and frivolity? And I hardly think Porter's lyrics have evaporated.

But Dylan was not awarded the Nobel Prize for his lyrics. He was given the ward for his songs: the combination of lyrics and music. Anyone who recalls "Like a Rolling Stone" or "When I paint My Masterpiece"  doesn't recite the words.  They sing them to themselves, and it is this mutual dependence of words and music that led Alex Ross to compare Dylan to Wagner.

I don't think the comparison quite holds, since Wagner is regarded primarily as a composer. The music, without the words, is still ravishing. Gershwin's melodies, too, stand on their own and have become standards of the instrumental jazz repertoire. Dylan's have not.

Give him his due, though: There may be  better lyricists, better guitar players, better tune smiths -- heaven knows there are better singers, but few others have combined their talents into something so memorable. He  is one of the few cases where the overused word "synergy" is appropriate.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The holes are very small

Conductor Matthew Glandorf gestures for a soloist to take a bow 

after The Choral Arts Society's performance of J.S. Bach's 
Cantata BWV 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.

I didn't need an excuse to blow off Wednesday night's debate between the presidential candidates, but if I had, I couldn't have asked for a better one than the hourlong "Bach at 7" concert by Choral Arts Philadelphia. This season, the choir is working though the cycle of 18 of J.S. Bach's cantatas from 1734-35. Wednesday, it presented BWV 80, the familiar Ein feste Burg isst under Gott, and BWV 96, Herr Christ, der einige Gottesohn, which I had not known, despite my great affection for Bach's cantatas. Of late, they have absorbed me more than any other aspect of his work, but there are 260 of the things. There are only so many hours in a life. 

Herr Christ charmed me with its prominent part for sopranino recorder, played in this performance by Rainer Beckmann, who must be at least 6-foot-2. (It's always the biggest guys who play the tiniest instruments. In every bluegrass band I've ever seen, the mandolin player is a giant.) The sopranino is the dog-whistle of the recorder family. Its lowest pitch is fˊˊ, and the holes are quite close together. Modern instruments, like my little plastic job, are tuned at A=440, but Choral Arts uses the Baroque tuning of A=415. (The string players also use old-style, convex bows, which produce a softer sound than modern, convex bows.) Because of the lower tuning, Rainer explained, the finger holes are very small (though he didn't say why). Then he took his instrument out of its case and showed it to me: The holes were like pinpricks.

One mystery of the cantata concerned the symbolism of the recorder part.  In Bach's religious music the instrumentation always carries extra-musical connotations, Matthew Glandorf, the Choral Arts conductor, told me, but he has been unable to turn up any information on just what the recorder is supposed to stand for in this work.

"The Holy Spirit," I offered. "Flutes are always the Holy Spirit."

Unfortunately, the Paraclete is not mentioned anywhere in the libretto.  

I also asked if there might have been practical reason for the scoring: The sopranino's piercing sound should guarantee that it can be heard over the chorus and the orchestra -- although in the cavernous nave of St. Clement's Church, that was not always the case. No, Matthew replied, mere practicality was not an issue for Bach. There is always a spiritual justification for the choice of instruments. If anyone has any ideas, now's your chance to show off.

Rainer also said Wednesday night was his first professional gig as a sopranino player. In that, I have him beat by 20 years. I played the instrument back in the late 80s in a production of Jean-Claude Van Italie's Mystery Play. It drove the other actors crazy.