Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Some previews, and other news

August 4, 2009

I have some exciting news as a composer—I'm writing what amounts to a new opera. Details will be forthcoming as soon as it's appropriate to make an official announcement. In the meantime, because so much time is spent composing (and practicing) and September 8 (when I have to start teaching again) is right around the corner, I will not be blogging as frequently as I have, at least until the opera-composition task is out of the way. But there is much to be said, and I'll try not to get TOO far behind.

Later today, at a private home overlooking Long Island Sound, Phyllis and I will present a preview of some things we're doing this fall. First on the program will be the song cycle Gitanjili by John Alden Carpenter, on texts of Rabindranath Tagore. We have performed these pieces at least a half-a-dozen times over the past decade, including a performance at the Dartington International School of the Arts (Tagore was a consultant in the founding of Dartington College and visited the school many times in the early twentieth century). We're getting geared up to do the cycle again at South Congregational Church in Middletown as part of an event that will be a tribute to Tagore, with a short speech, readings from his poetry, some of Tagore's own musical compositions, and a public exhibition of prints of some of his paintings. That's going to happen on Sunday 27 September, and we'll be ready for it!

After the Carpenter songs, I'll preview the Twelve Fugues of Gerald Shapiro. They are coming along, but they are the sort of thing one needs to play privately as many times as possible, before playing them publicly. I'll be playing them for the composer again this coming Thursday, two days from now! Yikes! (As anyone knows who plays new music, playing for the composer can be nervewracking—but forewarned is forearmed.) Shep is a great critic, and has a very clear idea of what he wants his music to be. So the fugue preview today is preparation for the next composer preview, as well as the public performances in October. I will have at least two more private performances of these pieces in August. I've become very fond of them, as has my teacher, Sophia Rosoff. I'm about to find out what a few other people think.

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:


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.)

* * * *

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 Orgelbüchlein. 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:


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 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):









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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Blog #15, Orbits & Henry Brandt

The score to “Orbits” is enormous, as you can imagine. In the NY Times picture it is clearly visible, on the special black backing the folks at the Guggenheim made for me and placed on a music stand that they then adjusted so it would actually be straight on the ramp! On the subject of the oversized score, I have received the following Email from Peter Beck in Chicago. I have never met Mr. Beck, but we have several common interests, especially The Sacred Harp and Henry Brant. He read about “Orbits” and sent me the following Email, which I have annotated in italics:

“I was a student of Henry Brant's at Bennington during the time when he wrote the piece. You knew Henry, and everybody has their own stories to tell; here's one of mine.

“Henry was a brilliant composer but not particularly adept with mechanical things. (Do you know the story about him ‘learning’ to drive a car?)

I do not. But I can imagine. I never saw him drive, and I knew the man for twenty-eight years.
“I remember passing by the photocopier in the music building one day and encountering the abandoned and evidently unsatisfactory results of Henry's attempts to cut and paste to create a copy of the score for "Orbits." There was paper everywhere, taped (and glued?) into gigantic sheets, overflowing the wastebasket and covering the floor. Lots of it was crumpled up and there were toner smudges all over everything.

Frustration with getting this musical conception on paper is entirely understandable. And since the score was made, thirty years ago, the frustrations continue. Even in its final form (what one rents from Carl Fischer) it is awkward to handle. The noteheads are tiny, making it very difficult to read. I wanted to produce an oversized copy of it, for purposes of conducting, but I was totally defeated. You can’t really get the original onto the glass in a position to copy it efficiently, and I quickly realized that a lot of Scotch tape was going to be required, not to mention a paper cutter much larger than any to which I had access. After fooling around with the blowups for fifteen or twenty minutes I realized that it would take me an entire day, including the cutting and pasting, to do this job. The solution—I learned to live with the published score.

“Needless to say, I treated myself to a longish peek at what was there (but felt it would be wrong to walk off with any of it), and you could just see it, how it was absolutely essential for the performers to be separated in space in order for the polyphonic textures to be anything other than brutal sludge, but that if they were separated, there was a ton of cool stuff going on in the piece. (I prevailed upon one of my NYC friends to attend your performance, and he called me right away the next day to share his excitement and enthusiasm. I wish I could've been there.)
“I also remember a photograph of Henry with a diagram/model of where the performers would be placed when the piece was premiered in San Francisco, very cleverly using paperclips to represent the trombones.

I have seen this photo somewhere but it was decades ago. Peter sent me some suggestions about tracking it down.

“A little further afield—I don't know if this is something he routinely told everybody, or if I was somehow privileged, but one day when Henry was in one of his rascal/raconteur moods, he said that whenever one of his pieces was performed on a program with the works of other contemporary composers, he always proposed that, for a finale, all of the pieces would be played simultaneously. None of the other composers ever wanted to go along with this idea. He was somewhere between wistfulness and outright disappointment at the intransigence of his colleagues. (And that's Henry in a nutshell—his world was chock full of enticing sonic possibilities, and he figured out, early on, that the only way most of those possibilities would ever be realized was if he made it happen.)”

About Henry wanting to perform lots of pieces simultaneously—he used to say to me, along these lines, that "If any piece of music sounds good, it will sound better if you play another piece of music at the same time." He told me that, to demonstrate this, he arranged a simultaneous performance of the last five piano sonatas of Beethoven at Bennington. I pressed him on this point, and he admitted that he had used phonograph recordings. So I filed this information in the back of my head. When we did a big concert at Wesleyan for his 85th birthday I arranged for this to be done live, with six grand pianos! Why six, you ask? Because the "Hammerklavier" is so much longer than the other four, it needed to be split up. Henry played the first two movements, and I played the last two. The four other pianists were Christopher Oldfather (Op. 110), Jacob Smullyon (Op. 104), Paul Marquard (Op. 111) and William Braun (Op. 109). Needless to say, the six pianos were spatially separated, surrounding the audience. It was a brilliant success, and I would love to do it again some day.

The resulting Beethoven bash is called "Homage to Luigi." Elsewhere on this website it is listed in my catalogue. I was going to call it "Homage to Ludi," thinking that Ludwig's nickname would be, back in the early 19th century, what it would be today. But Henry informed me that Beethoven's friends actually called him "Luigi" because he was such a fan of Italian music. (Not the image that Luigi/Ludi has today, that's for sure.)

Peter Beck should have the last word on Henry today. In a subsequent Email he writes:

My first term at Bennington (I was a junior transfer), Henry was assigned as my faculty advisor. Not a role he was particularly well-suited for, but we did fine together because a) I wasn't a freshman and b) I was a musician. I fell into the habit of greeting him, “Hey, Henry, how’s tricks?” and he would always say, "Getting trickier!” and give me the eye-twinkle and impish grin.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Blog #14, Orbits

There have been several events in the past few days worthy of mention here in these blogs, among them seeing the thought-provoking production of Dido and Aeneas by Mark Morris (I finally got to see it, in New Haven) and the death of Michael Jackson. But one must prioritize in blogging as in all else, and surely the most important thing for me to write about right now is the recent performance of “Orbits” by Henry Brant at the Guggenheim.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, here is a link to the review by Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times:

The next edition of The New Yorker, on the stands Monday June 29, will have a feature review of the performance by Alex Ross. There are other reviews of the piece various places on the internet, and clips are already posted on YouTube.

On June 10, eleven days before the performances (June 21 at 7:30 and 8:30 p.m.) I wrote about this piece on my other website, www.ivesvocalmarathon.com. This blog hasn’t been read by many people (it’s on a website devoted to Ives, after all), and it’s a good introduction to my ideas about “Orbits” and what the performance involved. So here it is:

“Yes I know it's a piece for 80 trombones. But it does have a single soprano voice in it, and Ives wrote songs, and it has an organ in it and Ives was an organist. Moreover, the two soloists improvise their parts, and Ives was a great improviser. So I'm going to write briefly about ‘Orbits’ by Henry Brant. It's been the main thing on my mind today. I've been spending most of my time, the last six hours, working on the rehearsal schedule. I've got eight groups of ten trombones, and one of them has already had its only rehearsal, and one of them has its rehearsal scheduled for late afternoon on Saturday 20 June. There's another group that has its rehearsal scheduled, but we have no venue. (Several people are working on that.) So that means I've got to find times and places for five groups of ten+ trombones.

“When Ives ‘gave up music’ to become a rich insurance man, he didn't just give up playing on Sunday morning and writing pieces he didn't really want to write. More than that, he gave up the scheduling problems, dealing with what some have called ‘ze artistique temper’ment,’ lugging instruments about, and all sorts of pesky real-life details that we can call ‘the business’ end of music. As the late great character tenor Jim Atherton (my long-time friend from back home in Alabama) used to say, ‘I hate the business part of this business.’

“I can't say I hate this sort of stuff, but sometimes it's a lot to juggle. And since the performance is only ten days away, and the rehearsal schedule isn't set, I have a right to be apprehensive. But this sort of grunt work is what makes the glorious artistic experience possible. My reward for doing the schedule is that I get to conduct 80 trombones (actually 87, we have a few extras and no one will hear the difference I assure you) in a fabulous space in one of my favorite buildings. Just as my reward for four years of preparation and Emails and negotiations was that I got to play all of the Ives accompaniments in three days!

“Performing is a funny thing, and it's not for everyone. The hard work isn't just practicing—in fact, the practicing is part of the fun, at least for me. The real hard work is ‘the business part of the business.’ Charlie is my hero, no doubt about it, but he didn't have the stomach for the business of music.

“Having said that, ‘Orbits’ is truly one of Henry Brant's finest pieces, probably the finest piece for a mass of instruments that I know. Amazing contrapuntal conception—eight masses of instruments, moving together (though not usually in unison), making dense chromatic clusters, and even at one point an 80-note quarter tone cluster (yikes!). Imagine eight groups of brontosaurs bellowing back and forth at each other from different points on a curving hillside. Rarely loud, and never too loud, nonetheless you get the impression they mean business.”
On Tuesday I’ll continue about “Orbits,” making reference to a particularly interesting Email I have received about Henry in the days when he taught at Bennington College. But this is certainly enough for today! It’s time to practice, not to mention to write some music.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Blog #12, Hansel and Gretel's 3d production

May 4-12, 2009

The third production of my Hansel and Gretel is now history. It was, if I do say so myself, a triumph. I hope the word gets out this time. The perceived wisdom used to be that it was easy to get an opera premiered, but if you got a second production of the work it would surely have a life of its own. Well, the first full production of H&G, meaning two acts with orchestra, took place in 1998. (In 1996 and 1997 it had 60 performances as an abbreviated show for school kids.) The second production was in 2002 and, taking the perceived wisdom for granted, I thought the piece had it made. Even though an intense effort was made to interest many professional and university opera agencies, the third production wasn’t immediately forthcoming.

All of this was going to change, starting on February 17, 2006. The Wind Symphony of the University of Illinois, under the baton of James Keene, made its historic debut at Carnegie Hall that evening. Phyllis and I were invited to the concert by Karl Kramer, director of the U of IL School of Music and long-time friend. Karl also invited us to have lunch with his wife Jean and various members of the Illinois faculty and administration at Rosa Mexicali, earlier that same day. I was seated next to the recently-appointed director of the school’s opera program, Eduardo Diazmuños. We hit it off immediately, and in my usual shameless fashion I began to promote Hansel and Gretel. He was taken with the idea of the piece, and asked me to send him stuff about it. I sent the vocal score, a program, and a CD of the original cast with me at the piano, conducted by Robert Ashens. Eduardo contacted me soon afterwards and said he definitely wanted to do the piece, and by the summer of 2007 the production was projected for the spring of 2009.

The foresight and imagination of Maestro Diazmuños included engaging a first-class director, Ricardo Herrera; a kick-ass choreographer, Rebecca Nettl-Fiol; and conductor Serge Pavlov, who is as devoted to the work as any composer could ever wish. Phyllis and I arrived in Urbana on Friday 24 April, just before the start of the second Sitzprobe. (For those of you not familiar with opera lingo: the Sitzprobe, or just “Sitz,” is a seated rehearsal for singers and orchestra. No moving around the stage, just staying still and working with the conductor once more on musical details before the chaos of the final rehearsals sets in. An operatic “calm before the storm,” as it were.) I didn’t see the director and choreographer at work, but I quickly realized that the orchestra was in more-than-capable hands and that Serge was going to do a great job with my piece.

The schedule:
Sunday 26 April—first dress rehearsal with piano
Monday 27—second piano dress
Tuesday 28—first dress rehearsal with orchestra
Wednesday 29—second orchestra dress
Performances on May 1, 2 and 3

There was to have been a performance on Thursday the 30th, but there was a massive power failure in the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and the Chancellor of the university ordered the evacuation of the facility and the cancellation of all events, rehearsals, etc. So opening night was actually on Friday.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As Becky Nettl-Fiol said, the cast really needed a night off. Gretel was on the verge of getting really sick, lots of the dancers were feeling their aches and pains, vocal fatigue was starting to show in most of the cast (especially Hansel, who cracked on his high C in all four dress rehearsals, but not on opening night). After a good night’s sleep and not having to do the show eight times in a row (!!) we opened on Thursday to tumultuous applause.

I have more to say about this production, and will write again soon. In the meantime, you may want to know more about the original Grimm Brothers tale. I found a great comparison of their first edition of the tale (1812) and their final one (1857). Check it out:


Friday, February 27, 2009

Blog #11, Hansel and Gretel and the Ives Vocal Marathon

It’s hard to believe that I have not posted a new blog on this site
in two and a half years! Tempus fugit. The Ives Vocal Marathon
simply took over my life. That event has its own website, and its
own blog (with a number of interesting responses). Check it out at:


But it is time to get back to writing about my own music and my own
activities. What has prompted me to resume blogging here at
neelybrucemusic.com at this particular time is the upcoming
production of my opera Hansel and Gretel at my alma mater,
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This is a singular
honor, and I am delighted to be returning to Urbana on such a
festive occasion. Thanks, Opera Program! Thanks, School of Music!

This will be the third production of this work, and in the future I
will write about the other two. But for now, here are the
performance dates: April 30 and May 1, 2, 3, 2009. For details about
starting time, ticket prices, etc., go to:


Here are some notes I have written about the piece, including the
cast of characters, the orchestra, and some details about the first
production. These are tweaked versions of material that can be found in the vocal score and program notes from the earlier productions.



In 1996 Connecticut Opera commissioned me to write a new opera on
the subject of Hansel and Gretel, surely the most famous children
ever lost in the woods. I have known and loved the story all my
life, and one of my earliest memories of opera is seeing the famous
Humperdinck piece on the screen when I was about ten years old. The
film showed at a theatre that no longer exists in Birmingham,
Alabama; it featured films like The Red Shoes, the re-release of
Fantasia, and Stravinsky’s chamber opera The Nightingale, which,
like Hansel and Gretel, was done with puppets. The look of that film
has stayed with me ever since, and I have carried the music around
in my mind as well. At the age of seventeen I wrote a short set of
variations for piano on the folk song with which Humperdinck opens
his show, “Suzy, little Suzy.”

Composing my own opera on this subject would never have occurred to me. George Osborne proposed it, and I agreed to write it on the spot. Friends asked me how this piece would differ from the one which already existed. I imagined several ways, prompted by Osborne’s vision of “a new Hansel and Gretel with American pop music.” First, the Humperdinck is, in spite of its subject matter, Wagnerian in scope, with expansive music for large orchestra and lots of special theatrical effects. My piece would be streamlined, and would exist in two versions. The first would have a small cast and could be done with piano or a small number of instruments; this Hansel and Gretel has been done dozens of times in schools and other venues appropriate for Opera Express, the touring wing of Connecticut Opera. The second and complete version is represented by this vocal score; it has a somewhat larger cast, chorus, dancers, and an orchestra, albeit not a large, Wagnerian one. Incidentally, the role of Hansel, a mezzo-soprano in Humperdinck, is be sung by a tenor. The trousers role convention seems no longer useful for portraying children on the operatic stage, and boys who can sing demanding roles are quite rare, so my protagonists are a young man and woman, pretending to be fourteen and twelve years old. And they dance a lot.

Second, my opera by design contains many vernacular musical styles, with healthy doses of rock, pop balladry à la Whitney Houston and Harry Connick, Jr., funk, rap, and other genres as they presented themselves to my imagination. Since 1971 when I wrote my opera The Trials of Psyche, which has a rock band on stage throughout the piece, I have written several large-scale works incorporating American popular music, including the song cycle cum musical review Neighbors, the “Piano Rock Album,” and the “rock phantasma-goria” for Electric Phoenix, The Plague. My biggest work, the opera Americana, or, A New Tale of the Genii, has a rock band and a bluegrass band in it. During the twenty-five years I was composing these pieces George Osborne was envisioning a new Hansel and Gretel with a strong pop music element; I’m delighted he chose me to write it.

Finally, I decided to make my opera as faithful to the Brothers Grimm as possible. To prepare myself to write the libretto I read the entire collection of 200-plus tales from cover to cover, and re-read “Hansel and Gretel” about twenty times. Humperdinck makes a lot of changes. The distracted but basically kind mother in his opera is, in the Brothers Grimm, the prototypical wicked stepmother.

The gingerbread children whom Humperdinck’s little heroes save from enchantment are, in the original, tasty meals which exist only in the witch’s memory. And there is much which Humperdinck left out, especially the marvelous duck, ferrying the children across a vast lake. I have added a few touches of my own for the sake of stagecraft — in the last scene the Father has built an observation tower, and the Stepmother’s death occurs on stage. (In the original production this was considered too gruesome and the villainess simply screamed and ran into the woods.) But every episode and most details of the story are there, including the no-longer well-known fact that witches have red eyes, which is why they have such poor

And this old German tale is so much more frightening than all of its sanitized retellings. The version told in the early nineteenth century to the Brothers Grimm touches much more deeply on the anxieties and hopes of children and the mysterious ways in which nature and humans interact. While the first production has demonstrated that my music can entertain and the action is lively, I hope that my opera taken as a whole in some measure approaches the depths of this marvelous and profoundly satisfying story which, in one version or another, has amused and instructed us for so many generations.


The difference in the various vocal styles should be clearly marked; in particular Hansel and Gretel’s rapping should attempt to be as authentic as possible, and since the Witch is a bit of a hick she should sing her waltz song accordingly. I strongly prefer to have a male voice singing in falsetto for the role of the Duck, but so far no one has been willing to do it!

The orchestra parts are virtuosic and should be played as if they were chamber music. This is especially true of the string parts, which are designed for one on a part but do not sound good unless they are approached as if they were a Bartok quartet. Of course if a small section is used (I suggest 4432) a more moderate playing style is appropriate.

The words are crucial in an opera such as this, and to that end George Osborne decided to use body microphones and discretely amplify the singers. This was a total success in Bushnell Memorial Hall, where the first complete production took place, and I recommend it for all performances in large halls. In more intimate spaces it is of course not necessary.

All of the characters dance at one time or another, and dancing is crucial to the plot as well as entertaining. Although Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel do not dance, Humperdinck’s do, and dancing is a completely appropriate activity for bored children trapped in apparently hopeless situations, just as children dance today on the corners of inner-city streets.

Animals play an important part in this story, and the role of animals has been expanded in this opera. The “Ballet of the Beasts” can be cut, of course, but it is great fun for the audience, and can be done on a small scale as well as a large one. The “pretty white cat” is mentioned in the original tale, and it was George Osborne’s inspiration to have the cat become a full-fledged character and dance along with the children.

Details concerning the cuts for the Opera Express version of this work can be obtained from the composer or from the ConnecticutOpera. This version is slightly longer than one hour.

Inquiries concerning future productions of this work, and orders for
copies of this vocal score, may be addressed to

Chamberlain Hill Publications
c/o Neely Bruce
440 Chamberlain Road
Middletown, CT 06457
(860) 347-3003

Email [PREFERRED]: neelybrucemusic@comcast.net

The composer also welcomes inquiries concerning his other operas
(there are three of them, and many more in the works).


HANSEL, a boy of about 14 tenor

GRETEL, a girl of about 12 soprano

their FATHER baritone

their STEPMOTHER soprano

a wicked WITCH mezzo soprano

a messenger BIRD soprano

a DUCK baritone

Chorus of BIRDS treble voices [women or children]

the pretty white CAT dancer (silent)

other dancers as BIRDS, BEARS, WOLVES and ELEPHANTS


Flute (doubling piccolo)

Oboe (doubling English horn)

Clarinet in A (doubling bass clarinet and Eb clarinet)

Bassoon (doubling contrabassoon)

Saxophone One (alto, doubling soprano)

Saxophone Two (tenor, doubling baritone)

Timpani (doubling

Percussion, two players (trap set with 4 toms; large bass drum;

cowbells; vibraphone; marimba; optional other instruments)



Violin (solo or small section)

Viola (solo or small section)

Violoncello (solo or small section)

Double Bass (solo or small section)

NOTA BENE: There is no second violin part.


Opera Express began to perform this work for school children on
March 30, 1997; the first complete performances took place on March
20 and 21, 1998, in Bushnell Memorial Hall, Hartford, Connecticut.
The singers and principal dancers were as follows (the asterisks
indicate the singers at the Bushnell):

HANSEL: Daniel Cafiero* and Timothy Olson*

GRETEL: Teresa Eikel* and Regan Stone

FATHER: Kenneth Overton* and Jason Parkhill

STEPMOTHER: Rebecca Carbino* and Dana Fripp*

WITCH: Jennifer Grum Seiger* and Holly Sorensen

BIRD, DUCK: Jennifer Ayres* and Rebecca Carbino

CAT: Alyssa Alpine* and Merissa Starnes*

Children of the school of the Hartford Ballet were the BIRDS and
other animals of the forest.

Other credits, for both the school performances and at the Bushnell,
were as follows: conceived and directed by George Osborne; conducted
by Robert Ashens; costumes by Margaret Carbonneau; scenery by
Crystal Tiala; choreography by Ambre Emory-Maier; lighting by James
F. Franklin.

The composer would like to thank all of the members of the cast for
their good singing, hard work, and patience with all of the
rewrites. And special thanks go to Robert Ashens, who from the
beginning was a wonderful music director for this piece, coaching
the singers, playing the piano for the school shows, and conducting
the world premiere of the complete work with complete cool control,
under harrowing circumstances! (How else does one premiere an