Let’s be real, this was pretty much inevitable. Music Mondays very deliberately don’t have a theme or central organizing principle (beyond being music I like), but still, there are patterns. Twentieth–Century works, works a little off the beaten path, bassoon features — these are all things I’ve come back to again and again. So how better to wrap up the last Music Monday with an off–the–beaten–path work for solo bassoon from late in the most recent century?Read More
As much as I like many aspects of city living — the density, the hustle and bustle, the major cultural institutions, just to name a few — there are other aspects of it I’m less fond of. Like many kids, I was fascinated by space growing up, and loved to go stargazing whenever I could. I don’t really remember if I had many opportunities in Columbia, but Amherst is rural enough that finding a sky free from the worst of the light pollution isn’t terribly difficult, and the UMass stone circle (not quite as imposing as Stonehenge, but constructed along similar principles) was basically walking distance from my house, so I have many memories of summer evenings spent staring heavenwards.
Rather unsurprisingly, Los Angeles is . . . not like that. I’ve definitely seen stars here, but only the brightest of them, and even then not reliably. The fainter tracings of nebulae and the dusty sweep of the Milky Way are all blotted utterly from view. I’ll probably be living in cities for the rest of my life. I may well have seen the majority of all the stars I will ever see in my life. So pieces about stars and stargazing have a special resonance for me, tinged with nostalgia both for the past and for an imagined future.Read More
One of the things I find most interesting about other performer-composers is seeing their different approaches to writing for their own instrument. I’ve always been hesitant about writing for solo bassoon (other than a few bits of juvenilia, Rotational Games was the first solo piece I wrote for it), but many performer-composers write primarily or even exclusively for the instrument(s) they play. Jessie Montgomery falls more in the latter camp. Introduced to the violin at the age of four, her first compositions grew out of her improvisations, and most of her works are for string instruments in various combinations. She’s gradually been expanding her comfort zone — she recently earned a Master’s in composition and film scoring from New York University, and her second work for full orchestra will be premièred sometime next month.Read More
For most composers and audio engineers, speaker feedback is something to be ardently avoided. Not so for Lesley Flanigan, who builds her own assemblages of speakers, electronics, and wood, then carefully layers feedback from them to build hazy, beautiful soundscapes that often incorporate her own voice. She can do all this live in real time, and many of her works were conceived as site-specific installations for various museums and performing spaces, putting her somewhere in the nebulous overlapping regions of electronic composition, noise music, and performance art.Read More
Described by the New York Times as “an indie pop diva with an avant-garde edge”, Du Yun makes a point of being hard to categorize. Born in Shanghai in 1977, Du was drilled in the Western solo piano tradition from an early age, but in her own words she was “not your typical Chinese good student at all”. Her inclination towards the subversive was only amplified when she began studying composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. It was rapidly becoming easier to access 20th–Century Western culture, but she describes the music as coming over in a wash — without Western contextual frameworks in place, Penderecki seemed on an equal footing with Pink Floyd, with everything up for grabs. Du embodies this eclecticism herself, being an active performer as well as having written everything from chamber operas to electroacoustic pieces to uncategorizable performance art spectacles. (She also has a dance pop album out called Shark in You which I have not listened to yet but am very eager to.)Read More
Generally, when I discover a work via a recording instead of a live performance, it’s a recording on Spotify. I still like CDs, but my budget is limited, and if I bought a physical copy of every album I listened to online, I would literally be unable to afford rent or food. (I’d probably be able to build a pretty sizable room from all the jewel cases, tho.) Today’s piece is an exception: I first encountered it on a CD I bought on a whim at the final concert of the 2016 Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition at the Colburn School, and on my very first listen, I fell in love. When I decided to write about it for Music Monday, I assumed that I’d be able to find it to link to on Spotify. The good news is that there is indeed a recording I can link to, but the bad news is that it’s a different recording, and one that I’m not very fond of. I’m still sharing it, because I think the piece holds up, but if you’re on the fence about it and have $10 to spare, the Nicolasa Kuster recording is superior in every way, and comes with a bunch of other interesting bassoon repertoire to boot.Read More
This week we’re doing something a little different! A few months ago now, Rene Orth, a composer friend I met at the fresh inc festival back in 2013, posted a recording of her new string quartet, Stripped. As soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to feature it in a Music Monday post, but since she’s a friend, it felt weird to write about her and her work in my usual manner. So instead, I approached her about doing an interview instead, and this is the result!Read More
Vocal music hasn’t made much of an appearance so far in these posts, which may be kind of surprising given that I’m interested in making a career out of composing for voice. In part, that’s simply a result of awkward lengths — standalone songs are too short to make a whole post about, while song cycles and operas (the latter being more my stomping ground than the former) clock in at such lengths as to be impractical to adequately cover in a single blog post — but it’s also an issue of familiarity. I’m not a singer, so I don’t deal with this music on a day-to-day basis, and presentations of the repertoire often center on Romantic-era lieder, which are written in a musical language I find phenomenally uncompelling. Still, there are plenty of great songs out there, and every now and again I stumble on some that I really like.Read More
Right, so. This is another one of those times when I don’t have a lot to say about either the composer or the genesis of the work I’m featuring. This time, tho, it’s not because the details weren’t recorded and slipped away into the maw of time, it’s because she’s just starting out, and the work in question received it’s première this past November. Sarah Rimkus was born in 1990 in Washington DC, and moved to Bainbridge Island, Washington state in 1998. Somewhere along the way she got interested in music, and earned a Bachelor’s in music composition from the University of Southern California in 2013. From there, she went on to study vocal music at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where she is currently pursuing a PhDRead More
Despite living less than two hours away from the place, I’ve never actually been up to Santa Barbara, which means, at least according to today’s composer, that I am Missing Out. Emma Lou Diemer describes the joyous theme at the start of her Santa Barbara Overture as reflecting what one might feel after “enduring the clogged freeways and smog of Los Angeles”, to which I can only rejoin “Yeah, no, that sounds about right.”. Diemer was born in November 1927 to a very musical family (she had learned piano by the age of five, and family road trips would often involve sing-alongs accompanied by her sister on flute and one of her brothers on trumpet. I can’t decide if this sounds amazing or horrifying.)Read More
Rarely do pieces with exclamation marks in the title end well. Usually they’re a sign of desperate over-enthusiasm, and presage a pandering piece of peppy schlock, so determined to be relentlessly upbeat that all concerns for musical quality are cast carelessly aside. There are exceptions, but they’re few and far enough between that I approached Rehnqvist’s Arktis Arktis! with some trepidation. Happily, my misgivings were misguided.Read More
Christened Sofia Fridman-Kochevskaya, Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté was born in Moscow in 1899 to a rather well-off family (her mother worked as a governess in Leo Tolstoy’s household), but she didn’t live there long. Her family moved to a commune in England, and Eckhardt-Grammaté entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eight to study violin and piano. She had already made her public debuts in Berlin and Paris by the age of eleven, frequently playing both instruments on the same concert program. She was already interested in composition, but her teachers at the Conservatoire discouraged her from pursuing that path, presumably because sexism.Read More
Zwilich understands the bassoon. Or rather, she understands the bassoonist’s way of life. “I not only don’t know how you play the bassoon, I don’t know why. You get up in the morning, you have to put this thing together. It’s got wood, which is very temperamental. It’s got cork, which is maybe even more temperamental. You’ve got to make the reed. It’s got all kinds of issues.” Painfully accurate.Read More
Evidently Sally Beamish (b 1956) once physically collided with Peter Pears. Pears was singing the title role* in a production of Peter Grimes, a production in which Beamish’s mother was playing in the pit. Beamish, who was eight at the time, got turned around backstage after the show, and wound up running into a “big, scary figure” who turned out to be the great English tenor. Still, she was so taken by the storm music in the opera that, upon returning home, she immediately got out some staff paper and began scribbling ideas down.Read More
Exceptionally gifted and hard working, Seeger spent the summer of 1929 at the MacDowell Colony, and, in 1930, became the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, allowing her to study in Paris and Berlin. (This, at a time when critics still wrote that she could write music “like a man”, a full 48 years before Aaron Copland would opine that “the female mind doesn't like to concern itself with abstract things, and that's what music is.”, despite having worked with numerous female composers, including Seeger herself.) It was in the brief window between 1930 and 1936 that she wrote most of her best known pieces, most notably the string quartet from 1931, which is one of the first pieces in the Western musical tradition to explore integral serialism (i.e. subjecting rhythm, timbre, loudness, and even formal structures to the same techniques that regular serialism applies to pitch).Read More
"Daaaaaaaaaaa, ba du ba du ba du ba deedle-dee" — It's not often that the first two bars of a piece grip me so suddenly and surely as the opening of Madeleine Dring's trio for flute, oboe, and piano. Yet the very first time I heard them — streaming background music at the office, on a CD I had clicked on for a completely different piece — I dropped what I was doing and frantically tabbed over to Spotify to figure out what I was listening to. It's good to be reminded that even with all the repertoire I already know, there are still delightful surprises out there in the world of this music I love.Read More
Elisabeth Lutyens became known colloquially as the Horror Queen, and would paint her nails a lurid green to further the association. While it's certainly true that she didn't hold her film scores in the same regard that she did her concert works — she was infamous for asking producers "Do you want it good, or do you want it Wednesday?" — but she was genuinely proud of her ability to score a 50-minute film in as little as five days.Read More
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.Read More
Before diving into the music for today's post, I want to draw attention to a quote by the poet whose texts are set in it. When faced with the question of why black authors were less prolific than their white counterparts, Langston Hughes pointed out [Google Book, p 528] that, due to racism, black authors were not afforded the same lucrative opportunities to write for mass media as white authors, and thus "[are] not in touch with the peripheral sources of literary income that enable others more fortunate to take a year off and write". He was talking specifically about writers of words, but the same considerations apply to writers of music as well. Conductors and performers have never made commissioning decisions based solely on musical quality (if that can even be determined objectively); they've always tried to work with people they like. Given the entrenchment of structural racism in our society and the oblivious self-positioning of concert music as the music of the cultural élite, it is wholly unsurprising that African-American concert composers would find many fewer opportunities to ply their craft, and that the works they produced for what opportunities they did get would languish in relative obscurity.
(Obviously, things were somewhat better financially in the world of Jazz, a rich and vibrant genre created and shaped at every turn by African-American musicians. White mainstream culture's treatment of Jazz was (and frequently still is) baldly racist, and many white composers are guilty of pilfering from it in highly questionable ways, but at least black musicians could have successful careers in it. My focus on concert composers for African-American History month is emphatically not meant to claim that concert music is in any way superior to or more legitimate than Jazz — these posts are not trying to replace the old canon with a new, equally exclusive one — I am merely focussing on the genres of music I know best. While my knowledge of concert music is far from complete, I know enough about Jazz only to be aware of the vast, yawning chasms of my ignorance.)
Now for the music! Margaret Allison Bonds was born in Chicago in 1913, and she spent the first two decades of her life there. Her mother was a practiced musician and gave Bonds her earliest training on piano, an instrument that Bonds continued playing thruout her life. While studying music at Northwestern University, she became, at the age of twenty, the first African-American soloist to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and had earned her Master's in Music by the age of 21. She continued her studies at Juilliard, but returned to Chicago to open her own music school (where she taught, among others, a young Ned Rorem), and was also active as a performer, composer, and impresario. In 1968, she moved out to Los Angeles, where she lived until her death in 1972.
Dark, brooding chords introduce her setting of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" from 1942, a setting of the poem by Langston Hughes. (Bonds had a long and enduring friendship with Hughes, and they collaborated on several projects including a cantata and at least one musical.) As with the opening words, these chords return at various points to anchor the song, sometimes in the original, but sometimes transformed from melancholy to grandeur and even joy. The music slips easily, almost dreamily, between styles, but never loses its powerful cohesion. (According to Wikipedia, Bonds submitted this piece as part of an application to study with the great French teacher Nadia Boulanger, but when Boulanger saw the song, she declared that Bonds needed no further lessons and declined to teach her. Listening, it's not hard to hear why, even if the story is apocryphal.)
Several years later, Bonds set three more poems by Hughes, resulting in the "Three Dream Portraits" (published 1953), a cycle that shows up in pretty much every biographical sketch of the composer that I've found. The first is "Minstrel Man", set to a rolling accompaniment that seems to hover right on the cusp between comfort and tragedy — fittingly, for a text that has to do with missing a black man's deep suffering because of his (forcedly) happy surface. The mood lifts in the "Dream Variations", with a whirling, expansive fantasy land that blossoms almost to the point of ecstasy before catching on a moment of poignancy and ending on a reserved note. It's back down to earth for the concluding "I too Sing America", which is at turns sarcastic, falsely cheerful, and boldly swaggering. The swagger wears off by the end, however, and the cycle draws to a close in a somewhat gloomy mood despite the assurances of the text. Looking at the subsequent and continuing history of racism in this country, it seems a sadly prescient choice.