Thursday, July 30, 2009

News Flash about A. P. Heinrich

July 30, 2009

Through a series of surprising connections on FaceBook I find myself contemplating the remarkable music of Anthony Philip Heinrich (1780-1860), known in his day as "The Beethoven of America." One of the early champions of the performance of this most original composer (he is the subject of my DMA thesis), I have become aware of a small groundswell of interest in his music among the next generation. I've just been in communication with two other Heinrich fans, and I think it's time to start playing his music again.

After the premiere of the Gerald Shapiro fugues in October I'm going to start practicing APH, relearning the pieces I did in the late 1960s, early 1970s. There's a lot of misrepresentation out there about this man. For a sample, check out Bernard Holland's piece in The New York Times on February 25, 2008:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/25/arts/music/25cham.html

I promise I will return to the subject of Shep's fugues on Saturday. But for the moment all I can think of is Papa Heinrich! Now to force myself to practice for my lesson in NYC with Sophia Rosoff…

Monday, July 27, 2009

More about Hansel and Gretel

July 27, 2009

I have just discovered that this blog was never posted. I'm still getting used to Blogger.com and I'm sure this was posted earlier. However, it seems to have disappeared somehow, so I'm putting it up again, a month later! (Good thing I save these blogs as files.)

* * * *
BLOG #13 – CHANGE OF BLOGGING SCHEDULE; H&G WRAP-UP

June 25, 2009

It’s hard to believe that I wrote Blog #12 about Hansel and Gretel in Urbana and only now am finishing up the task, almost seven weeks later! Of course I have very good excuses. I’ve begun a number of new pieces, I have to practice for the premiere of Shep Shaprio’s Twelve Fugues in the fall, ditto Tom Johnson’s Organ and Silence, and above all I’ve had to recruit, organize and conduct 80+ trombones for the New York premiere of “Orbits” by Henry Brant. And I’ve been busy writing as well. I’ve been able to keep up with my other blog, the one on the Ives Vocal Marathon website.

But something clearly has to change. There are too many things to write about that are not related to the Ives songs, and I’m getting restless to discuss and promote my own work to a greater extent. So here is the New Blogging Policy—three days a week I’ll write about the Ives songs, and three days a week about my own music and other projects. Specifically:

MWF see the latest musings about the Ives songs at www.ivesvocalmarathon.com
TuThSat read about what I’m doing otherwise at www.neelybrucemusic.com

Notice that today is a Thursday—I’m getting started with the new schedule right now. This includes new announcements of upcoming events, to be posted later today.

And what about wrapping up Hansel and Gretel? The main thing I have to say about this piece is that it works. I’ve seen three different productions with different strengths and problems. I’ve conducted it, I’ve played the piano part in the orchestra, and recently in Urbana I sat in the house and watched/listened to a Sitzprobe, two piano dress rehearsals, two orchestra dresses and three performances. I’ve observed the reaction of audiences in three different cities in two different countries, as well as groups of school children in many towns around and about Connecticut in the late 1990s. I have gone over the parts more times that I care to remember, and tweaked the piece and tweaked the piece until I know it represents my final intentions. And of course I wrote the thing in the first place. I know it inside and out, as composer, copyist, performer, spectator and observer of other spectators, all this over a period of twelve years. I have earned the right to say it works!

I also know that this opera has succeeded in making the dance an integral part of the drama, one of my conscious goals in composing it. I learned that the preparations for the Illinois production began with Rebecca Nettl-Fiol teaching the dance steps, before the cast learned a note of the music or even read the book together. The first two rehearsals were entirely devoted to dancing. The principals were also required to take dance classes the semester of the production. The result was a seamless integration of the dancing into the flow of the show, to the delight of composer, cast and audience alike.

This opera has, I believe, a bright future. I just have to find the key that unlocks the door to it. There are seven directors around the United States who have expressed an interest in doing it, and I’ll be sending out some sample vocal scores very soon. And I hope the wonderful singers who devoted so much energy and expertise to my work will tell others about it. Electronic communication is remarkably fast these days, but word-of-mouth moves more slowly than in the past. We’ll see what happens. My goal is to replace Humperdinck on the stages of the world in five years.

For the record, the wonderful cast of the Urbana production was as follows—my deepest thanks to you all.

The singers:

Hansel: Jeremy Fisher
Gretel: Alison Wahl
Their Father: Chadley Ballantyne
Their Stepmother: Yoo-Sun Na
A Wicked Witch: Laura Kimmel
A Messenger Bird: Jackie Schiffer
A Duck: Sam Lopata

Non-speaking roles:

Storybook Reader: Renata Herrera
A White Cat: Young-Sun Lee
A Pigeon: Joseph Hutto
Lead Dancer: Aaron White
With other dancers and a Chorus of Birds, big and little

A New Organ Stop

July 27, 2009

Not really meaning to take a week off, nonetheless I did it. The principal reason was practicing Twelve Fugues by Gerald Shapiro! But it's time to catch up. I've been analyzing the fugues as well as practicing them, and I'll have a lot to say about them, starting tomorrow. This is just a short note about yesterday at South Congregational Church in Middletown.

Five years ago the baritone soloist at our church died. His name was Heyward M. Foreman, Jr., but everyone called him Woody. Woody was not a musician by profession, but he had a wonderful natural voice. He also had an uncanny resemblance to my father. We were friends for years. He beat two forms of cancer and died of a hospital infection. He was so popular that there was an outpouring of generosity from his family and friends towards the music program at South Church. We decided to build a new stop for our 1963 Schlicker organ in his memory.

These things take time, of course, but after five years of planning and the usual delays the stop was installed and presented to the public yesterday. Woody's widow Mary, his two sons, and his grandchildren were there, along with lots of other Foremans. (Mary said they would double the size of the congregation, and she was about right!)

The stop is an 8' trumpet, installed on the great. It has a real 16' extension and the lowest C is quite something. It is the work of the Austin Organ Company of Hartford. Its indefatigable president Mike Fazio was there to do the installation himself, with an able crew of course. The result is fabulous. This organ was always very good (it's the study organ for the Schlicker that used to be in the Wesleyan Chapel, now in St. Laurence Church in Killingworth) but it had three problems. First of all, it lacked color. Second, the only reed on the manuals is on the Swell, limiting the solo possibilites quite a bit. Most important, it's not an enormous instrument, though it's beautifully proportioned to the space—and while there was a nice kick to the top and a good full sound on the bottom, there wasn't a great deal in the middle.

The new trumpet takes care of all of these problems. It is very colorful (one young man in the congregation was amazed that it sounded "just like a trumpet"). It's on the Great. And it really fills in the middle register.

I will have more to say about this beautiful instrument in future blogs, when I start to write more about Tom Johnson's masterpiece, Organ and Silence. But for now—thanks, Mary, and all the Foremans, for your generosity. Thanks, South Church, for following through with an amibitious project in difficult times. And thanks to Mike and all the guys at Austin Organ Company for doing such a great job. We now have the best organ in Central Connecticut!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Shep's Fugues: General considerations

BLOG #22, July 16, 2009

As some of you will know, since 2004 I have been writing fugues myself from time to time. But there is a big difference between Shep’s fugues and mine, and that is the nature of their subjects. My fugues are based on the names of family and friends. Shep writes his own subjects, and thinks about them for a long time. So my fugues are essentially games. I don’t think this makes them trivial, because some games are very serious, and games can even be matters of life and death. But the basic idea of my fugues is to generate a subject by a pseudo-random process and see what I can do with that.

There is a sense of gamesmanship in Shep’s fugues too, but it is definitely not the focus of these compositions. Rather, the expressive character of the subject is what counts. And even if there is a direct connection between the subject, or the fugue, and a person, it is of a different nature, as the reader will learn when I consider these pieces individually.

Then there is the question of contrapuntal devices. I’m always on the lookout for tricky things to do with my subjects. I delight in multiple stretti, finding useful retrogrades, fun ways to combine and recombine the subjects in a double fugue, etc. Of these various devices Shep likes to write stretti, but that’s about it. Such contrapuntal games do not interest him—again, the expressive nature of the pieces is what is important.

Shep’s avowed model is the keyboard fugues of Shostakovich. I must confess that these fugues are a mixed bag for me, although Shep has done me a great service by communicating his enthusiasm for them. He especially likes the performance of Keith Jarrett, which I must say is far superior to other performances I have heard. With Shep’s encouragement I’ve listened to them many more times, and find that they grow on me. (My teacher Sophia Rosoff also really likes the Shostakovich preludes and fugues, so I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before I like them too, just as much as Shep and Sophia!)

There is one more thing. Since Shep is not primarily a pianist, he is not particularly concerned that his piano music be “pianistic.” The result is that the pieces are usually straightforward and of intermediate difficulty, but when they are hard they are really hard. I can also report that they were written one voice at a time, with three or four different instruments in mind (a saxophone quartet, for example), then reduced to two staves and tweaked if necessary to make them playable by one person at a keyboard. So these fugues, while almost never virtuosic by design, contain passages of great difficulty and always require attention to the voice leading.

These are pieces of great beauty and subtlety. Every day I find some new felicity of voicing, or something distinctive about the harmony, or figure out some new rhythmic effect. They are a joy to work on, but they are keeping me on my toes! And they are pieces one must practice every day. Yikes! It’s July 16 and the premiere is less than three months away. Gotta get to the piano… Saturday I’ll start commenting on individual pieces.

Twelve Fugues by Gerald Shapiro

BLOG #21, July 14, 2009

[The reader may notice that I wrote this entry on the 14th and posted it on the 16th. That was simply a function of getting used to working through Blogspot, rather than posting my blogs directly to my website as before. From now on there should be no such inconsistencies, knock on wood!]

Gerald Shapiro, a.k.a. Shep, is one of my oldest friends. We teach at Brown and at Wesleyan, an easy hour-and-a-half drive. We met when we were freshmen at the Eastman School of Music in 1960-61. We lost track of each other for the rest of the ‘60s, but when Shep showed up at the University of Illinois around 1970, for a performance of his milestone piece of live electronic music entitled “From the Yellow Castle” we reestablished contact, and have seen each other on a regular basis since I came to Wesleyan in 1974. We’ve collaborated on lots of projects since then. He wrote a fabulous piece for Wesleyan Singers back in the day when I was the choral conductor here, he arranged for me to write a piece for Trio Saxiana (two saxophones and piano), he helped me with the tour of the Ricciotti Ensemble in the early 1980s, we both wrote pieces for a tour of the Mondriaan Quartet, and so on. A complete list of these projects would be an interesting exercise in itself, and would chronicle some neat pieces and bring back lots of great memories—the stuff future blogs are made of.

About five years ago we were sitting around, talking about piano playing. I was telling Shep about my lessons with Sophia Rosoff and the pianistic principles of Abby Whiteside. We were also reminiscing about unorthodox methods piano practicing recommended by the late Armand Basile (he was teaching at Eastman the one year I was there) and generally talking shop about aspects of piano playing. Shep is a sometime pianist—he likes to play and has a good sense of rhythm, and from time to time writes piano music. I feel that my playing has taken a series of quantum leaps since beginning to work with Sophia in 1998, and I said—“Since I’m playing so well these days you should write me a big piano piece to play.” He thought this was a good idea, and agreed to do it.

At first both of us imagined it would be a big piano sonata, or some other magilla of a piece. But it turned out to be a set of twelve fugues, elegant, brief and to the point. They appeared one or two at a time, over a period of about three years. The whole set has been in my possession about two years, and I’ve practiced them off and on since they began arriving. Since the completion of the Ives Vocal Marathon my principal focus as a pianist has been to prepare these pieces for their first performances in October of this year. I’m going to write briefly about each one for the next several blogs. These are beautiful, subtle pieces that raise interesting issues about the technique of composition, how to play the piano, and the current state of the art of music. I’ll begin with the first of them in the next blog.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

BLOG #20, Seven Songs on Poems of Emily Dickinson

In 1970 I set seven poems by “The Belle of Amherst” to music using a different method than I usually employ for setting texts. First, I chose the poems using chance operations. Here are the results:

Exultation is the going / Of an inland soul to sea [76]
I felt a cleavage in my mind [937]
It’s such a little thing to weep [189]
The reticent volcano keeps / His never slumbering plan [1748]
My friend must be a bird [92]
From all the jails the boys and girls / Ecstatically leap [1532]
God permits industrious angels / Afternoons to play [231]

(The numbers in brackets are the numbers of the poems in the Thomas H. Johnson edition, published by Little, Brown and Company. Just the act of looking up the numbers raised some issues about these little pieces. Clearly I didn’t use this edition when I composed them almost 40 years ago—the punctuation is almost completely different, and there are even a couple of different words. What to do? Shall I start doing critical editions of my own songs? The mind boggles… Well, not today, that’s for sure.)

The vocal lines are in a free chromatic style—not serial, but lots of pitches all the time, often with a key center but no clear modality. My model for these melodies was clearly Charles Ives in his more experimental aspects. David Barron and I were doing all-Ives programs at the time, including songs like “August,” “Paracelsus” and “The New River.”

The accompaniments are made up of individual sonorities or short phrases—usually three or four gestures, but the third song (“The reticent volcano…”) has five, and the last song (“God permits industrious angels…”) has only two. These gestures are always fragmentary and usually distinctive as to contour, pitch content, register, etc. Each is indicated as a single measure of music and given a letter: A, B, C, D or E. Variables include the number of beats of rest between gestures. The damper pedal is to be held down throughout the entire set of seven songs. The voice part and the accompaniment are not coordinated.

Pitches are always specified, that is, there is no improvisation, but each accompaniment is quite free in another way. The various gestures are linked with concatenation operators, for example:
A • B • C • D *

to indicate that the performer may play the fragments in any order, as many times as he or she chooses. A spacious, open reading of these piano parts is the way to go—the gestures should not interfere with the voice, though obviously they will overlap often. Both performers should allow plenty of time to hear the resonance of the instrument, which will change constantly.

Why am I writing about these songs today? Two reasons. Phyllis has decided to learn a lot of my music that she has not sung before, and is starting with these songs. So we are practicing them. I’m not sure about public performance, but we’ll certainly do them for a class of mine this fall.

The other reason is that I had occasion to play the accompaniments as a solo on Michael Pestel’s magnificent 1920s prepared German Steinway. I have described this piano on my other blog more than once (go to http://www.ivesvocalmarathon.com/ and search for “Pestel”). It turns out that these little accompaniments make an amazing piece for prepared piano. We hope to record them that way later on this summer, with and without the voice part. In the meantime, my mind is full of ideas for compositions involving the prepared piano. As if I didn’t have enough to think about!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

BLOG #19, Organ music

Later this morning I will be meeting at South Church with a young woman named Sharon who wants some tips about playing the organ. She is a pianist who has a summer job in a small church and wants to get some advice. The organ, of course, is a tremendously seductive instrument, and I think she’s feeling the pull. (She writes enthusiastically about practicing and playing services on Face Book—a dead giveaway.) As my professor Hubert Kessler used to say, back in the day in Illinois, the thing that is so majestic about the organ is the “effortlessness” of the thing—all that enormous sound, produced with so little effort. (On the part of the player, at least.)

Sharon is a college student who lives in the greater New Haven area. In the summer she comes to the shaped note singings we have here in Middletown. The connection between organ playing and The Sacred Harp brings to mind a project of a few years ago, which I mean to reinstitute later this morning. In the summer of 2003, and for some time thereafter, I began my practice sessions at South Church by improvising on Sacred Harp tunes. My intention was to work through the book in a systematic fashion, then write a sort-of-shaped-note-tradition response to J. S. Bach’s Orgelb├╝chlein. This project came into my mind at the same time I was writing “The Sacred Guitar,” a set of seven free pieces, “take-offs” as it were, on Sacred Harp tunes. There were two immediate effects—first, I played “The Sacred Guitar” on the organ (with appropriate elaborations) and found it worked beautifully. Then I began to introduce this sort of improvisation into the services at South Church. (For this purpose, by the way, I use a copy of the 1936 edition of The Sacred Harp I inherited from William Satler.) I kept a notebook of what I thought was working particularly well. When the South Church sanctuary was restored and painted two years ago the notebook, like everything else in the choir loft, was packed away. It’s time to dig it out and resume systematic practicing along these lines.

This meeting with Sharon will also be the occasion to stick around and practice Tom Johnson’s Organ and Silence. I’m playing this unique collection of pieces in Kansas City on Friday, September 4th of this year, as part of the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music. I’ll be writing a lot more about this conference and Tom’s pieces in future blogs. If you’d like more information right now see:

http://2ndminimalism.org/

Practicing the organ, and writing organ music, are very satisfying activities. Writing this blog is firing my imagination and making me want to get more performances of my organ pieces. There are over seventy of them, composed over a period of almost fifty years!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Blog #18, Additions to my catalogue

I’m going through the academic exercise of updating my curriculum vitae, which Wesleyan requires me to do from time to time.

Obviously, this entails updating the catalogue as well. So here’s a list of what I have to work into the catalogue in the next few weeks. In it’s final form it will have dates and (estimated) timings, just like the entries do now.

“Two for Helen,” settings of Emily Dickinson in honor of the 92nd birthday of Helen Boatwright

Scotsman (a humorous song on an anonymous text)

A Garland of Sacred Song

The Portals of Saint Bartholomew

Where I am… (a quasi-improvisational piano piece; see last Thursday’s blog)

A Friendly Fugue for…
Peter Alan Hoyt
Mary Luongo
Joyce Hubbard
Lorry Yelding
Mary Decker Klaaren

A Double Fugue for…
Sarah and Richard
Peter Standaart
Kay Briggs
Jennifer and Andrew
Jim and Carol

A Partita for Wilhelm Gertz Prelude; Fugue; Allemande; Eccosaisse; Gigue

Trazom: A prelude for piano, based on a familiar passage from Mozart

Modal Study No. 1

Arrangements of earlier works for two pianos:
A Fugue for Bitsey Clark Chorale Fantasy on Old 124th

The Year of Jubilo

Fifty-Four Nifty African Countries (mnemonic chant)Spatial Chorales (2003)

Lamentation for Good Friday (1996)

The last two items are omissions. (There may be others—I have to go through the catalogue with the proverbial fine-toothed comb…)

Otherwise this is music I’ve written since the summer of 2006. I think it’s striking that there are so many fugues. I never thought that at this point in my life I would be so interested in imitative counterpoint. I have a handful of unfinished fugues as well, and ideas for lots of others. In addition to the fugues there is a great deal of imitative counterpoint in Portals (see earlier blogs on this subject), though the spatial nature of that work insures an emphasis on its non-imitative aspects.

I’ve been writing on my other website about A Garland of Sacred Song—see the various “Composition lessons from Charlie.” These are songs for David Rinald and Susannah Knoble to perform—there are four of them so far.I’m also struck at how many of these pieces involve gamesmanship.

From time to time I pick up Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. I’ve got to read this book from cover to cover. I have other books on this subject I have yet to read.

Anyway, the whole art of musical composition has a profound element of play in it, and that seems to be where a lot of my ideas are coming from right now.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Blog #17, Independence Day

Happy Independence Day everyone! I hope all readers of this blog will take a few minutes and sing through my setting of the First Amendment, which can be downloaded elsewhere on this site. We’re going to sing from The Sacred Harp at my house tomorrow (Sunday 5 June) and sing the First Amendment as well.

My previous blog elicited spirited responses from both Susan Matheke and Ian Ganassi. Just to set the record straight, Ian did indeed do the exercise, and I stand corrected. I jumped to the conclusion that didn’t do it because I didn’t see him fill out the paper. He wrote to me that he “assigned two instruments to each of [his] responses,” which indeed I noticed at the time.

Susan liked the blog, but took exception to my use of the word “routine” to describe a dance phrase. What I learned from her response is that dancers really don’t like the word “routine,” which has pop culture overtones they find objectionable. My piano teacher Sophia Rosoff has a similar aversion to the word “exercise” when used in the same sentence as “Abby Whiteside,” as in “Abby Whiteside has a wonderful exercise for developing awareness of flexion and extension in certain Chopin etudes.” At her insistence, in Sophia’s presence I always refer to “Abby Whiteside principles” and never to “Abby Whiteside exercises.”

What is interesting is that in both cases I have inadvertently used words that have (for me) a positive connotation and have (for others) a negative one. I suppose everyone does this from time to time, and I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill. However, I would like to observe that to a person such as myself, whose life is almost chaotic in its irregularity, the word “routine” has connotations of blissful self-assurance, especially if that “routine” is a springboard to making beautiful art. Similarly, the word “exercise” means something desirable, even wonderful, to someone who needs more of it and is afflicted with middle-age spread.
So I can say with pleasure, and some measure of pride, that blogging has become an important part of my daily routine. And speaking of exercise, it’s time to get in the swimming pool.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Blog #16, Where I am

Tuesday I got a call from Susan Matheke to see if I could fill in as an improvising pianist for a dance workshop she is doing at the Educational Center for the Arts. Susan is a wonderful dancer and choreographer, and the head of the Dance Department at ECA. Her husband Willie Feuer is also on the ECA faculty, and the two of them were members of the legendary Viola Farber Company, back in the day.

Working with dancers is a special joy. Every time I do it I wish it did it more. To see Susan work with so many talented students and adults in such a high-energy situation was inspiring. Two things stood out. First, her students have such a high degree of concentration that they can learn rather complex routines almost instantly. Susan demonstrates once, and eighteen people just do it! A little has to be fixed, but surprisingly little. The other thing was how easily Susan could get some interesting but rather etude-like and somewhat routine sequences to turn into art with the simplest instruction—a tribute to her imagination as a teacher and the ingenuity of her students alike.

There were two examples of this. First, she gave the instruction to cross the open dance space doing one of the routines, but on the return do the same routine but interrupt it—either with “silence,” or with a sudden stop, or with some unspecified surprise. The musicians (Ian Ganassi and myself) had a similar instruction. We made straightforward eight-beat phrases for the first cross, and really opened it up for the second one. Instant choreography, instant music, very satisfying—just for us, though. Not for the public.

The last part of the workshop Susan handed out a sheet of paper. Ian didn’t do this, but I did, along with the dancers. The paper had instructions at the top, and three incomplete sentences, with space to write:

Please finish these beginning phrases with a simple sentence or two. Then create a small phrase of movement for each phrase. To get started on your phrases you may want to find one word or idea in your sentences that seems to stand out.

I am from…

I am now…

I will be…

I will make no attempt to describe what the dancers did as a result of this exercise, because I saw too little of what it was to say anything meaningful. As a musician and as a composer, however, I have something to report. In such a situation there is no time to think, and first impressions are essential. So I wrote the first things that came into my head, which were place names (a combination of autobiography and wishful thinking):

I am from the South—Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee

I am now from New England—Middletown CT Maine

I will be from South Carolina from France from London from Illinois

I have reproduced the punctuation as I wrote it, no editing, but I have not attempted to reproduce the space on the paper. I used the piece of paper as source material for a series of pitches, register free, all over the keyboard. I made no use of letters other than those of the musical alphabet, but I did allow that H was B natural and S was E flat. (For more about my use of letters as pitches see my earlier blog about the Friendly Fugues.) I also eliminated Susan’s original instructions, using only the words in my own hand. The resulting series:

B E Eb B A A B A A G E G A Eb Eb Eb Eb E E Eb Eb E E

F E E A D D D E C A E

F Eb B C A A F F A C E F D F Eb

I found this series of pitches a provocative combination of redundancy and self-imposed limits. The distribution of these pitches is also beautiful, suggesting but never confirming certain tonal centers (though the F major seventh chord does occur). Specifically, the numbers of the pitches are (in the order of appearance):

B—4x

E—11x

Eb—9x

A—10x

G—2x

F—6x

D—4x

C—3x

So in addition to a little pocket money, from this unexpected gig I got a new piano piece! The working title is “Where I am.” (I hope I can come up with something better than that, but for now “Where I am” will do just fine.) There were four groups of dancers, so I played the series four times, with different register games going on each time through. All of this will be written down sometime soon, before I forget it. Perhaps Susan will dance to this music sometime, or she and Willie can make a duet out of it.

Susan and Willie, by the way, have become first-rate tango dancers, as well as heirs to the Viola Farber legacy.