Music Monday: Moore: Night Fantasy

Music Mondays are back in action! We're still hanging around in the 1970s this week, with an uncompromising clarinet feature by Dorothy Rudd Moore. Moore was born on June 4, 1940 in the town of New Castle, Delaware. Her mother was a singer and encouraged her musical activities from a very young age, including numerous trips to see the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. She began making up music for fun before she even knew that the word "composer" existed, a development her parents actively supported. She was accepted to Harvard and the Boston Conservatory, but ultimately elected to study at the historically black Howard University in Washington DC instead.

Originally, she decided to major in something practical, but ultimately decided to switch to majoring in composition outright, perhaps encouraged by the success that greeted her early works, including the première of her first symphony by the National Symphony Orchestra in 1963. After graduating, she won a scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, whose rigorous course of study had a lasting impact on Moore. (Boulanger evidently refused to even look at Moore's symphony because she thought Moore was "too young to be writing symphonies", which sounds pretty typical of Boulanger.)

On returning to the United States, she settled in New York City, teaching and performing to supplement her compositional income. It was there that she met and married composer and cellist Kermit Moore, and the two were both founding members of the Society of Black Composers, an organization that supported, performed, and publicized their work. (Sadly, this group now seems to be defunct.) Despite this, she was wary of being pigeonholed based on her gender or race, maintaining that "it is important that black composers not be ghettoized. . . . There are many black artists in all disciplines and each is an individual with his or her [sic] unique experiences.". Thus, altho she occasionally uses compositional techniques developed by other black composers (she was especially fond of Duke Ellington), her music is typically devoid of the "black idioms" that many other black composers employed, favoring instead a high modernist style that has much in common with the white European then-contemporary vogue.

Right from the start of her 1978 Night Fantasy, it's clear that we've left tonal waters behind, as the piano taps out a spare, sickly figure with ambiguous harmonies underneath. After this introduction, the clarinet enters with a languid flourish, leading to a series of melodic fragments that sound like the cries of some strange tropical bird. The music continues in much the same vein, a fragmented landscape of half-remembered shapes, suggesting an unsettled night of disquieting dreams. Altho seldom truly consonant, the sparse textures keep the work free from getting bogged down in a chromatic swamp, allowing it instead to float and twist about like a weightless arabesque.

Even tho the second movement kicks the tempo into high gear, some of this weightless quality remains. There is a furtive, searching quality to the music, as tho the two players are wary of trusting each other enough to really come together. In the slower central section, the two finally seem to lock in, but the harmonic ground is still shifting and uncertain. Each instrument makes several feints towards re-launching the faster tempo, but they slide repeatedly back into the doldrums. A sense of frustration at this repeated flagging builds and builds, before the music ends with an exasperated thump.