Thursday, October 17, 2013

Some information/thoughts about Antiphonies for Charlie

THE HARTFORD NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL CONTINUES with the premiere of my Antiphonies for Charlie. The combined forces of the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra and The Generous Ensemble perform Saturday 19 October at 7:30, Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford; and Sunday 20 October at 2:30, CT Historical Society, also in Hartford. Come and enjoy! Both performances are FREE and open to the public.

Antiphonies for Charlie is my biggest piece for orchestra alone — if you allow that the combined forces of The Generous Ensemble and HICO constitute an orchestra. 35 minutes long. It is also my very individual response to a unique combination of instruments, and the possibility of arranging them antiphonally.  

Those instruments are: flute (piccolo), oboe (English horn), alto sax, tenor sax (bari), electric guitar, electric bass, two percussion (mostly traps and marimba), two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, strings (44432).

“Charlie” is of course Charles Edward Ives. I had already written a short piano piece “Homage to Charlie,” and his imprint is all over my music for solo voice. In 1913 he was at the height of his compositional powers, right in the middle of producing the Concord Sonata and the Fourth Symphony. 1913 is also the year when Henry Brant was born. Henry was, in the words of Virgil Thomson, the greatest American orchestrator, and the composer who, more than any other, awakened my interest in the orchestra.

So AFC is, among other things, my tribute to these two geniuses. One of them died when I was ten years old, the other was a close personal friend. Each has had a profound impact on me, both as a composer and as a performer. I don’t think AFC sounds particularly like either Ives or Brant, but certain Ivesian procedures, which Henry adopted and freely acknowledged, permeate the work. These include:

The spatial separation of instrumental forces
Overlapping rhythmic cycles (as in the Universe Symphony)
Stacking blocks of sound on top of each other (as in the Fourth Symphony)
Extreme stylistic eclecticism

To these I might add whimsical titles (more like Henry than Charlie) and whimsical instructions to some members of the orchestra (more like the Charlie of the Second String Quartet).

“Clumps,” the first movement, is just that. Sonorous blocks, clusters, what my orchestration teacher Steve Sample used to call “fat melodies” — these combine and recombine and even, to some small degree, develop. There are some interruptions, to thicken the plot, including a really second-rate parlor tune, ineptly harmonized, and some rather more elegant three-part counterpoint.

“Solos” are just that. Each of the 32 instruments has its own part with its own integrity. Four of the solos are melodic, the other 28 are pointillistic. “Duets” are similarly literal. Not all of the possible pairs are used, but 23 are (if I have counted correctly), including some bizarre ones. The duets are also carefully positioned within the ensemble, and if you listen closely you can hear them coming from different directions.

“Something Different” is just that, at least from the point of view of the materials it uses. The techniques of collage and overlapping rhythmic cycles (9 beats + 11 beats + 15 beats, etc.) are the same. To these Ivesian/Brantian procedures is added the Lisztian one of thematic transformation, although my use of it is extreme and is almost like serialism.

These notes make my music appear to be quite intellectual, and my modus operandi is certainly self-conscious. But one aims for a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. You, the audience, should have a good time listing to this piece. I’m not so concerned that you be able to follow the intellectual apparatus behind AFC, though it is fun to know it is there. Rather, I hope you find sections of it beautiful, exciting, amusing, or even moving.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Three Chamber Works

Hartford New Music Festival OPENING CONCERT
Sacre d’Automne: 016 New Music Ensemble
Charter Oak Cultural Center, Hartford
Friday 11 October 2013 at 8:00 FREE
featuring three chamber works of Neely Bruce,
two of them world premieres 

So much for blogging three or four times a week. There has been an explosion of activity around various performances of my compositions, and I've had increased duties at Wesleyan as well. My concert on September 29 has come and gone. The performance of "Flight Over a Global Map" by Henry Brant has also come and gone. And tomorrow begins the Hartford New Music Festival. I'm one of two featured composers. But I've had to write program notes for the first concert and I realized that I should post them on this blog! So here they are.
(I’ll get back to the piano music soon. Promise! Cross my heart and hope to die…)
Neely Bruce writes of the pieces on tonight’s concert:

The Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano was composed over a period of three years. It is in two large sections, each almost exactly six minutes long. The first of these is a long quasi-palindrome that is repeated. It was composed in small bits and pieces over a considerable period of time. If I may indulge in an organic metaphor, I wanted to see what kind of sub-microscopic bacterial stew I could suggest with three instruments very close together, churning about, evolving a bit, sticking out a tiny antenna from time to time. In addition to being palindromic, and repeated verbatim, the pitches are the result of additive processes. All of this suggests a strict approach to composing that is more apparent than real.

The second large section is a reaction to, or even a rejection of the first. Rather than amorphous primordial soup, one hears clearly delineated melodies and the sonorities of individual instruments. Instead of quasi-rational process one hears counterpoint and balanced, almost neo-classical phrases. Instead of activated static sonorities, full of activity but with little direction, one hears large-scale harmonic progressions. The first section was written with enormous attention to detail, and took two and a half years to write. The second section was written spontaneously, in a matter of days.

This piece has grown out of several artistic considerations and one deeply personal one. Over the years I have written a great deal of music for flute, violin and piano, in specific theatrical contexts. I wanted to produce an abstract work for the medium that would revisit some of the abstract techniques I had used in the past. I wanted to achieve maximum contrast between the two sections.  Like many of my pieces, this Trio was written for me to play with two of my friends. But the speed and intensity with which the second part of the work was produced are the direct result of the passing of my wife Phyllis from this world to the next on November 8, 2010.

Meditation for Solo Cello. In 1968 I set the 23rd Psalm to music for unaccompanied voice. I have a dim memory that the original version was for soprano, but I cannot confirm this. If this is true, I probably intended the piece for Jean Geil, a remarkable soprano at the University of Illinois. She had perfect pitch and was much in demand as a performer of new music, and I had written other pieces for her. In any case, the piece was difficult to sing and difficult to program and
was never performed. In 1984 I took it out and recast it as a piece for baritone voice without accompaniment. It was no easier to perform and still hard to program.

The piece has stuck in my craw, so to speak, for 45 years. It is wide-ranging and chromatic in the extreme. When Jordan Jacobson and I were discussing what music of mine would be appropriate for the 016 New Music Ensemble he was particularly interested in a piece that would feature the cello. Our conversation was a lightbulb moment. Perhaps the difficulty with “Psalm 23” was that it was not a vocal melody but an instrumental one. So I have recast it for solo cello. This involved minimal rewriting of the pitches and a lot of editing. I am delighted that after all these years this not-so-hummable but memorable melody will see the light of day.

I met the great trombonist Stuart Dempster in the mid-1960s — not too long before writing the psalm setting that turned into the Meditation for Solo Cello. I was asked to play the piano parts in a recital he gave as part of the Festival of Contemporary Arts at the University of Illinois on March 10, 1965. We became friends for life, performing again as a duo several times at the U of IL, and on tour in the Northeast in the late 1970s, after I had come to Wesleyan. In 1971 I got up the nerve to write a piece for the two of us to play together. It was performed twice at Illinois, shortly after I wrote it, and again as part of our tour.

The Grand Duo for Trombone and Piano is the first of several grand duos for various solo instruments and piano: soprano sax and piano, percussion and piano, trumpet, viola, flute and cello. Others were projected, and I actually began to work on GDs for double bass, euphonium and Eb alto clarinet — however, none of these have been forthcoming.

Ideas that relate music to information theory have had a deep and lasting impact on me. One of my principal professors in graduate school was Lejaren Hiller, whose pioneering work in computer music is well known and invaluable. He introduced us to Abraham Moles, whose Information Theory and Aesthetic Perception remains a classic in the field. Between classes with Jerry and classes with Herbert Brün I developed a fine appreciation of statistical probability as a compositional tool. I also learned from Jerry how one can use stylistic juxtaposition as a way to increase the information content of just about anything.

The main event in the GDTP — the first and longest section of the piece — is the gradual transformation of the probabilities of the penultimate A major section into the probabilities of the final G major part. The former has literally hundreds of As and Es, with other pitches in lesser number; the latter has only a few Gs and Ds. Neither section contains all twelve chromatic pitches. The section is divided into twelve “variations.” Scores of As and Es gradually give way to considerably fewer Gs and Ds. The transition from an implied A major to an implied E major is concurrent with a gentle thinning of the texture. All is sweetness and light, and one hopes that the audience is sufficiently surprised by what happens next.

Thus the main body of this piece is based on what follows it, rather than what proceeds it. The composition manipulates basic notions of cause and effect, as well as statistical frequency. It is the converse, so to speak, of musical development in the Beethovenian sense. All of this would not mean a thing, of course, if the piece were ugly or boring. But it is neither, though one could certainly discuss wherein lies its particular beauty and fascination.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

News from Neely

Of course when I announced I would be blogging three or four times a week, because I had hit my stride, I entered a complete creative fit. Said fit, which involves finishing my orchestra piece Antiphonies for Charlie (more about that very soon), and my duties as the current chair of the Music Department at Wesleyan, plus getting ready to conduct Henry Brant’s Flight Over a Global Map — all of these things conspire to put a damper on my blogging. However, I should write something, if for not other reason than my Blogger account was evidently hacked (one hopes by mistake) and I had to reset my password!

There is no end of stuff to write about, of course. But I have just read an article entitled “America’s orchestras are in crisis” by Philip Kennicott, in the New Republic, August 25, 2013. Here’s what I just wrote on Facebook:

“As usual, this latest jeremiad about the crisis of the orchestra (or the opera house or chamber music, etc.) is all about the symptoms and says nothing about the cause. When what I'll call ‘serious music’ was taken out of the curriculum of most public schools in the 1950s the stage was set for one crisis or another. Imagine the state of mathematics if our schools took math out of the curriculum, or made it an after-school elective! We would be desperately trying all sorts of stopgaps to 'interest the young,' 'interest the person on the street,' 'make math fun,' etc. And of course all of this would fail, because the real problem is — we have created, systematically, over the last 60 years, a less-educated public. And anyone who doubts that we have a less-educated public isn't paying attention.

There! I’ve gotten that off my chest. Back to work on Antiphonies for Charlie.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Two Friendly Fugues

The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT!
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut

In the fall of 2006 I programmed two of my Friendly Fugues on a recital I played on the beautiful August Foerster piano in the Wesleyan Chapel. These fugues were written in honor of Katchen Coley (a local conservation leader) and Billy Weitzer (at that time a member of the Wesleyan administration.) On September 20, 2006, I wrote in this blog as follows:

For the past two and a half years I have been composing a series of “Friendly Fugues,” based on the names of some of my friends. Some of them, including the first one, have been composed at the request of the person whose name becomes the subject (see below). Katchen Coley approached me at a Christmas party in 2003 and asked, “Neely, will you write a piece for my eightieth birthday?” Of course I agreed, and this piece was the result. I turned her name into a fugue subject by writing down the letters of the alphabet in seven columns, thus:

            a     b     c    d     e     f     g
            h     i      j     k     l     m    n
            o     p     q     r     s     t     u
            v     w    x     y     z

then I mapped any letters in the various columns—below the first row—onto the letters in the first row, i.e. the letters of the musical alphabet. (For example, the letter R, which is not used in musical nomenclature, becomes the note D.) In this process I also allow the German alphabetic equivalents of certain letters, so B can be B flat, H can be B natural, and S can be E flat (my choice). Incidentally, I didn’t invent this method of transforming words into notes, and there are other ways of doing it.

Katchen’s name becomes “D A F C B E G C A E E D,” with an appropriate rhythm of course, and Billy Weitzer (a member of the Wesleyan administration who has been quite supportive of the Music Department and helped us purchase the August Förster) turns out to be “Bb B E E D B E B F E E D,” something of a challenge as a fugue subject because of the repeated cell (EED EED), but challenges are what makes composition fun.

Other Friendly Fugues were written as birthday presents (Eric Gordon, Clem W. Hitchcock, Lara Hoggard, Louise Faircloth, a fugue for piano four-hands for Bitsy Clark) or surprises (Blake Reynolds, Janet Gross) or just to demonstrate how I make fugue subjects out of names (Peter Alan Hoyt, Henry Dreyfus Brant—though Henry’s fugue is only begun, since he insists I write it for brass ensemble and not piano).

BACK TO THE PRESENT: At this point there are 22 of these friendly fugues. Two more fugues, composed in the same manner, are part of the partitas in memory of Virginia Ellen and Wilhelm Gertz. There are 19 others, in various states of completion.

The fugues I have chosen to play in this first concert are the two most recent ones. Sophia Rosoff has been my piano teacher since 1998. This fugue was written as a birthday present, earlier this year. Sophia was born on January 27 — as she likes to say, she was born between Virginia Wolfe and Mozart.

Urip Sri Maeny is the wife of my colleague Sumarsam. She taught Indonesian dance at Wesleyan for decades and retired this spring. This fugue is a present on the occasion of her retirement. It is also a surprise! Maeny and Sumarsam are in Indonesia visiting friends and family. Just before I posted this blog I sent them an Email telling them of the existence of this little piece of music (PDF attached).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

More thoughts on the Ives songs

I am writing this blog in the sky. I am on a small plane bound for Nashville, where I will meet my daughter Meriwether Brown and her family and spend the night. Tomorrow we will begin an adventure. We will journey to Wisconsin by car and see whooping cranes. That will be the subject of another blog or two, I’m sure. But for now I want to return to the subject of the Ives songs, albeit briefly.

Sometimes I think I am foolish to continue to record these songs. As of now, we have about 50 of them in the can, about 35 of which are edited. Counting all of the alternate versions, Ives wrote a total of 201 pieces for solo voice. At this rate I figure it will take fourteen years to complete the project. Since it is unlikely that any of us involved have fourteen years to devote to this, even intermittently, and I am committed to doing it, the only alternative is to speed up. To do that in a significant way would require the time and money to isolate ourselves for an agreed-upon period of time and simply do it. While I ponder this, let me say a few more things about this music.

Peter Dickinson said, back in 2009 at the Ives Vocal Marathon, that he didn’t really enjoy hearing all of the unknown early songs of Ives. (They are published as Forty Early Songs, edited by John Kirkpatrick and James Sinclair.) He was familiar with them, of course. He found too many of them trivial or boring or both. Peter felt that Ives himself had already gone through the material, picked the best of the lot, spiffed them up and included them in 114 Songs. He has a point. Some of these pieces drive me crazy, actually.

But most of the early, non-114 songs are quirky and interesting — even lovely. At least that’s the way I hear them. A case in point is “In Autumn,” which David and I recorded on Thursday. This song is not to be confused with “Autumn,” which most who know it would agree is an uncontested masterpiece. To begin with, literally, “In Autumn” has an odd introduction. Kirkpatrick/Sinclair suggest that the first verse be introduced the same way the second verse is, with a pretty routine four-measure phrase. But Ives actually wrote a truncated version. Who knows if it was shorthand for the complete phrase, but K/S (who are very good about truth in packaging) clearly indicate, with smaller notes, that the first two measures or so are an editorial suggestion. The brief, asymmetrical introduction (what Ives wrote and what I play) throws the whole thing delightfully off-kilter.

The first verse is a stereotypical sentiment, stereotypically expressed:

The skies seemed true above thee,
   The rose true on the tree,
The bird seemed true the summer through
   But all proved false to me.

But the second line of the second verse ends with a clunk, revealing that the song is almost a joke:

World, is there one good thing in you,
   Life, love, or death, or what?
Since lips that sang “I love thee”
   Now say “I love thee not.”

In retrospect the three “true”s in the first verse are a tipoff that we shouldn’t take this young man’s plight too seriously. If, when it’s over, it’s not entirely a joke — after all, he has been jilted — at least one can chuckle a bit and walks away with a smile.

Ives is the master of this kind of gentle irony. It’s almost as if “In Autumn” were a study for “In the Alley.” Needless to say, the music underlines the gentle irony of the text from start to finish, once one is clued in. Who wrote this text, pray tell? K/S say “author unknown,” but I suspect it was Ives himself. And there is no doubt that he wrote “In the Alley,” a far greater song, if greatness is what counts with this material.

Concerning other songs — David and I have produced what is surely the most successful recording to date of “Naught that country needeth,” a problematical song if there ever was one. After almost ten years of fooling with the thing we have it flowing along, reaching a viable climax, and generally making sense of what might appear to be a rambling mess. Beth and I have done “Grantchester” better than we’ve ever heard it done (if we do say so ourselves). Flush with enthusiasm, we exclaimed, almost at the same time, “We have to do this again!” And if someone gives $50,000 (more or less) we can do just that!

CODA: Rereading these comments, I realize that many of my readers may not be familiar with the Ives songs, or the Ives Vocal Marathon, and in any case this doesn’t have much to do with my piano music — except that the way I write for the piano can be heavily influenced by Ives, but that’s a topic for another day. If you are reading this blog and are curious about my involvement with the Ives songs, I suggest you check out the website of the Ives Vocal Marathon:

This was a five-year project that culminated in a complete, contiguous performance of all 201 Ives songs in three days. The four principal singers were Johana Arnold, Elizabeth Saunders, Gary Harger and David Barron. The entire series can be heard on iTunesU. We decided to go in the studio and record the whole shooting match — but it’s taking a long time!

CODA SECUNDA: I’m actually posting this a day late. (Internet access problems.) So the aforementioned adventure with the Brown family has begun. I write most of this in the air, but I am posting it on the ground in Wisconsin.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Some singing, some accompanying

Today I'm in Brooklyn recording Ives songs with David Barron. We had a very good session — "In Autumn," "The World's Wanderers," "On the Counter," "Romanzo di Central Park," "Feldeinsamkeit," and "Naught that country needed" are in the can. Tomorrow Elizabeth Saunders joins us. I'll let you know what she does after it happens.

David and I were able to do a few edits as well. "Ann Street," "Like a sick eagle" and "In April-tide" turned out to be single take wonders. We had some alternates to choose from, but decided that these three were fine just like they were. "I knew and loved a maid" had to be put together from three takes, and we were only able to start the editing of "Naught..."

Practicing and recording Ives songs is a nice break from all that Neely Bruce music. Speaking of songs, I had a wonderful rehearsal yesterday on my John Finlay settings with Christopher Grundy. He has started to learn Whitman Fragments, and we started working on that too. 

Back to piano music shortly...

Monday, August 5, 2013

Forty Times Forty

The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT!
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut

 (A brief note about blogging frequency — it is clear to me that I’m not going to be able to post on this blog every day. Not that I’ve ever been able to do that. But a pattern is emerging. I think I will be able to post three or four times a week, on a regular basis. Just in case you’re wondering…)

“Forty Times Forty” is a birthday present for Jacky Miles. Jacky is the wife of Bill Brooks, my closest friend from graduate school. I was best man when he and Jacky got married. Phyllis and I were invited to contribute something to an elaborate book that Bill assembled on the occasion of one of Jacky’s birthdays that ends in a zero. Phyllis’s contribution was an elaborate verbal fantasy on the word “forty,” a single page of text surrounded by a border made up of the word “forty” repeated over and over as it threaded its way around the edge of the paper. My contribution was this piece.

“Forty Times Forty” is a title that says it all. Forty one-beat licks, each played forty times. Ten measures of four-four time, forty ten-measure units. What you see is what you get. The reaction to this piece always brings me some amusement. Some people are very dismissive of it, others like it very much. I recently played it for a young Dutch couple I met. He couldn’t find little enough to say about it, and was almost intent upon changing the subject. She, on the other hand, liked it. When I played it in Birmingham in 2004 the reviewer singled it out as the best piece on the program. And when I played it last semester for the students in my twentieth century compositional techniques class they really got into it.

I think the people who like this piece react to it by counting the licks. Even if I don’t explain what I’m going to do, they catch on and begin to count sooner or later. It takes between nine and ten minutes to play, so sooner or later the pattern becomes irresistible, at least to those who get into it. For the performer, it is strenuous and virtuosic — an endurance contest that becomes more and more flashy and more and more dangerous.

My goal in compositing the various one-beat licks was to make memorable, brief gestures of maximum variety. The reader of this blog, and others who are familiar with my music, may have noticed that I am shameless about saying where I get my ideas. So it will surprise no one that some of these licks sound like Stravinsky, some like Chopin, some like all that motoric stuff by Prokofiev, some like Mozart, etc. There is even a lick modeled on the repeated chords at the end of “The Banjo” by Gottschalk.

For the most part this piece speaks for itself. There are some surprises, and I don’t want to go into any more details. But in preparing this piece, as in preparing this entire series, there is a general problem that rears its ugly head. I’m a composer in my late sixties, relearning a lifetime’s worth of work. The urge to edit, tweak or even revise, or (God forbid) rewrite can be irresistible.

As a matter of principle I believe that “What I have written, I have written,” as Pontius Pilate would say. So even if I have learned something about compositing in the fifty years I’ve been doing it, I refuse to second-guess my youthful self. No Hindemith am I — rewriting and revising are out. But tweaking is another matter, and editing is essential. In relearning all this stuff, and making final copies of much of it in FINALE, I found outright mistakes that had to be corrected.

But when one is practicing one gets ideas. A really good one turns out to be placing four specific pitches in the sostenuto pedal at the beginning of this piece. (They have to drop out on the second page.) These pitches, vibrating sympathetically, reinforce the opening licks in a very pleasing way. I didn’t think of that in 1995, but I sure thought of it in July of 2013. I decided to do it. This is certainly not an edit. But is it just a tweak or is it really a rewrite? It’s a conception that is far from my concerns when I wrote the piece in the first place. So I can call this a tweak, but to an outside observer it’s probably a rewrite. Tweak or rewrite? Truth or rationalization? You decide. (In the immortal words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.”)

Finally, a word about minimalism. This is not my only minimalist piece, but minimalism is a relatively small percentage of my output. (More on this topic when I talk about my Esercizi two years or so down the pike.) But I like the idea, I like the aesthetic, and I’d like to express my unreserved admiration for certain minimalist pieces. These include virtually the entire output of Tom Johnson; certain works of Alvin Lucier, especially “I am sitting in a room” and “Music on a Long, Thin Wire”; the haunting Time Curve Preludes of Bill Duckworth (OK, that’s postminimalism,, but let’s not quibble). And above all “Music for Eighteen Musicians” and “Drumming” by Steve Reich. Phyllis and I had our first date when “Drumming” was performed at Wesleyan in the late 1970s. After the concert we went to the old Lake Beseck Café in Middlefield and danced well into the night.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Tuckaway in Early Summer: Part Two


The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT!
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut

In yesterday’s blog I gave some background about descriptive piano music and briefly discussed the method of this, my only descriptive piece (its structure, mode of sketching, producing the finished product). Today I’ll talk about the component parts of the piece and what I do with them, some of the nitty-gritty, so to speak.

First, a general outline. (To follow this, I suggest that you reread the indented paragraphs in yesterday’s blog.)

The piece begins with some generic walking-around music, followed by musical descriptions of the three smaller buildings — the woodshed, the playhouse and the workshop/boathouse. One then comes across the low-lying stone wall, and follows it to the edge of the property. Turning around, one has an excellent view of the grand house and notices the wind for the first time. Some more walking-around music gets us inside the house, where people are indeed  “singing songs of another time.” The wind outside the house kicks up and begins to howl, even, but one can still hear the singing, modulated by the gale. The wind subsides. Presumably folks go to sleep.

The first point to make is that none of this is specified in the score. The great master of the descriptive piano piece is of course Erik Satie. Satie’s pieces describe imaginary places, things and events, rather than concrete ones like Tuckaway, its various buildings, and singing around the piano. Satie also forbad the reading of his descriptions while the pieces are played — so the pianist is free to imagine a nightingale with a toothache, but the audience cannot share the conceit. I’ve gone one step further than my beloved ES. Aside from my aforementioned note, which I have modestly placed at the end of the score, there are no clues about what is actually being portrayed in this composition. What you’re getting here is insider information.

1) General, walking-around music. Notice I do not say “promenade,” though obviously I had in mind an outdoor version of Pictures at an Exhibition. I’ve gone to some lengths to make my walking-around music totally unlike that of Mussorgsky, although he was hanging around in the back of my mind the entire time I was writing the piece. His promenade is very purposeful, full of rhythm and destination. My walking-around music is a casual, undirected stroll, NB being a flaneur for a few minutes.

2) The three smaller buildings. Each has its own character — repetitive, playful, or expansive. The sketches for these buildings are only a few measures, but they were indeed made on location, while I stood right in front of each of them and listened spontaneously to my inner compositional voice. When it came time to write out the whole piece, the woodshed and the playhouse are quickly taken care of. The development of the workshop/boathouse took some doing.

3) The wall. The music for the beautiful old stone wall, which I imagine slowly crawling toward the sea, needed to begin in a low register and end at the top of the keyboard. In real life, this wall, if faced so that the great house is behind you, runs from left to right as it approaches Long Island Sound. Based on my slender melodic sketch (a single voice) I devised a three-part canon that slowly inches its way up and up. I am very proud of this part of the piece. It’s a very successful marriage of the descriptive (and emotional) effect of the wall itself and the technique used to paint the wall in music. It’s also a foreshadowing, in 2008, of the unexpected ways in which counterpoint has taken over my musical imagination in recent years. (This recital has three fugues in it. If someone told me ten years ago that I would write something like twenty-six fugues, and many other contrapuntal pieces, over the next decade, I would have laughed incredulously.)

4) The great house, suitable for entertaining. The great house is represented by crashing chords, a stentorian bit of quasi-recitative, and some noisy development of some of the earlier material associated with the smaller buildings. The wind quickly asserts itself. One is glad to be inside.

5) The wind. The arpeggios that constitute this bit of wind music are derived from the arpeggios that waft around the woodshed (remember the woodshed?). I find that as I practice the wind music I want to play it in in a more and more exaggerated manner. Ideally I can make it whoosh and howl around the house, making everyone glad to be inside.

6) The song of another time. When I was writing this piece I was also practicing the Waldszenen of Schumann (opus 82, also known as Waldescenen and other spellings.) I decided I spent too much time practicing hard music, and I should learn some easier pieces. I had learned “The Prophet Bird” in my youth (that’s the only piece from the set that anyone plays these days) and liked it a lot. I took one look at the entire opus and was hooked. — a very imaginative, original and somewhat dark collection that seemed to have my name written on it. For various reasons I have not played Waldszenen in public, but I still practice it from time to time, for my own pleasure. The tune in Eb that floats in towards the end of “Tuckaway” is consciously modeled on the sixth movement, “Wayside Inn.” Looking at “Wayside Inn” today, I’m surprised at just how similar the tunes are. Mine is somewhat slower, and takes a deliberately grandiose and sentimental turn (in the manner of Percy Grainger's "Colonial Song"), but the shape of the two tunes is quite close.

7)  How all this ends. The wind swells and takes over. I imagined a movie camera looking in at the window, pulling back gradually so that one sees and hears more and more of the weather and less and less of the party inside. Eventually everything quiets down. Inside the cozy house everyone goes to bed, with little Ivesian touches as they settle down.

Having written “Tuckaway in Early Summer” I have no desire to write another descriptive piece. That being said, I’m very happy to have written this one.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Tuckaway in Early Summer: Part One

The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT!
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut

As I mentioned before, the first program in this series of recitals will begin with some of my most recent compositions for the piano and conclude with pieces written much earlier. (See the blog of July 30th for the list.) The one exception is “Forty Times Forty,” written in 1995. I’ll discuss that in due course. Today I’m going to write about the first piece on the program, “Tuckaway in Early Summer.”

For many years I was active as a performer at the Florence Griswold Museum, one of our state’s most beautiful small museums. Located on the shores of the Lieutenant River, only a stone’s throw from Interstate 95 (though you would never know it, so cleverly is the noisy highway masked by trees and water), the FGM is devoted to American art, particularly American impressionism. Before it was a museum it was the home of Florence Griswold, heiress, spinster, and patron of the arts. It became an artists colony, frequented by painters of all backgrounds and levels of reputation, including the great Childe Hassam.

As part of a silent auction in 2007, to benefit the museum, I agreed to write a piece for whoever made the high bid. The couple who did this wanted me to compose something inspired by their vacation property, named Tuckaway. In the fall of 2007 I made a visit to the site, manuscript paper in hand. I revisited the property in the spring of 2008, to make more on-site sketches. I composed the piece at my home, and played it informally at Tuckaway in June of the same year.

The official premiere of the piece took place at the FGM on Wednesday 23 July, 2008. It opened a concert called Piano as Palette,  a tribute to American impressionist composers, performed in conjunction with a major exhibit of paintings by American impressionists. The museum has a very fine piano, which was moved into the largest of the galleries. The music, presented in the middle of so many gorgeous paintings, made a wonderful effect.

After “Tuckaway” I played the Roman Sketches of Charles Griffes, “Impressions of the Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas” by Arthur Farwell, and a virtuoso piece by Farwell entitled “Flame-Voiced Night,” inspired by a poem of Tagore. After intermission I performed lighter fare by Zez Confrey and Bix Beiderbecke. The evening closed with Phyllis singing Gitanjili by John Alden Carpenter—six of the finest Tagore settings you will ever hear.  (Phyllis loved this cycle and sang it beautifully. More on this subject in a later blog.) Here’s what I wrote in the program notes, which includes what I wrote in the score:

“’Tuckaway in Early Summer’ is my most recent piano piece. Its method of composition directly parallels that of many of the American impressionist painters working in Giverny. The listener will clearly hear the influence of Debussy, the master of musical impressionism, as well as other early twentieth century composers (including Ives). As I say in the score:

“This composition is inspired by property (buildings and grounds) atop a hill on Black Point, near Niantic, Connecticut. There are three smaller buildings (a woodshed, a playhouse and a workshop/boathouse) and a grand house suitable for entertaining. A magnificent stone wall crawls in the direction of the water. The wind is almost constant. One imagines people gathered around the piano, singing songs of another time. One is always aware of the weather.

“All of the musical ideas used in this work were scribbled on location, then made into a piece at my home studio, much as a visual artist might sketch en plein air and paint in his or her atelier.”

“Tuckaway in Early Summer” is my only descriptive piano piece. I have loved the genre of descriptive piano music, déclassé as it is, ever since I discovered it as a teenager—quite serendipitously. In a small volume of Elizabethan works for the virginals (selections from My Ladye Nevells Booke), I found “The Battell” by William Byrd. When I became so fascinated by American parlor music in graduate school, I discovered lots of other descriptive stuff. Although I never played the Byrd battle piece in public I made up for it by recording “The Battle of Marengo” by Bernard Viguerie, and playing many. many performances over the years of “The Battle of Trenton” by James Hewitt. There are lots and lots of other action-packed descriptive pieces in the American repertory — “Ben Hur’s Chariot Race” by E. T. Paull, for example, or “The Great Crush Collision March” of Scott Joplin.

“Tuckaway” is a description of a landscape, rather than an action, and it has a very different feel from the aforementioned battles, or even something like “A Day at Berkeley Springs” — a description of a famous resort hotel in West Virginia, composed in 1851 by Erneste Szemelnyi. (Now there’s an obscure piece! It’s wonderful, BTW.) Today’s comments are by way of introduction. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the music itself.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Brief autobiographical note

I’ve been traveling — to NYC for a lesson with Sophia Rosoff; to Brooklyn to rehearse Ives songs with David Barron; to the Fischer Center to see the current production of Oresteia; and to suburban Red Hook to visit Kyle and Nancy Gann. (That's the upstate Red Hook, not the neighborhood in Brooklyn.) Drove back to Middletown to play part of my September recital for Sarah (Starnes) Simonitis (Wesleyan '99), her husband Ken, and their two-year old son David. (A second Simonitis child will arrive in about two months.) Came home, took a nap, and started attending to all the Emails I hadn’t kept up with while driving around NY and CT, visiting, rehearsing, etc.

For Sarah, Ken and David I played “Tuckaway in Early Summer,” the two new fugues for Sophia and Maeny, the first three moments of A Partita for Wilhelm Gertz, and “Seven Variations on ‘Suzy, Little Suzy.’” David was very well-behaved, but it was clearly going to be a problem if my preview recital went on much longer. (I didn’t take it personally. Any toddler would have had a similar reaction to an all-Neely Bruce piano recital, I’m sure.) Lunch at O’Rourke’s was excellent, as always.

I am going to resist the temptation to write about Oresteia by Sergey Taneyev, except to say that I really liked it, it’s a fine piece, and that Bard and the Fischer Center are to be congratulated for putting it before the public. The singers were uniformly good, and occasionally better than that. The best thing in the vocal department was the chorus! They sang the best and had the best music. Thrilling actually. Kudos to chorus director James Bagwell and his splendid crew.

Tomorrow morning I start writing about individual piano pieces. I promise.

Addendum: Christopher Grundy went with me to my lesson with Sophia and sand the "Five Songs on Poems of John Finlay" for her. He sings those pieces so well! Come to the September 29th recital and you'll see what I mean.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The program for September 29th

The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT!
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut
* * * * * 

Here is the program for September 29th. You will note that the music is either very recent or written when I was a teenager (there is one exception). In addition, you will see a set of songs, which I offer as a change-of-pace number and also because Christopher sings them so well. The next step in this blog will be to talk about individual pieces, which I will start doing in the next few days.

Tuckaway in Early Summer (2008)
Forty Times Forty (1995)
A Fugue for Sophia (2013)
A Fugue for Maeny (2013)
A Partita for Wilhelm Gertz (2007/2012)
Five Songs on Poems of John Finlay (1964)
     with baritone Christopher Grundy
Seven Variations on “Suzy, Little Suzy” (1962)
Fantasy in C major (1963)

Monday, July 29, 2013

NB at the piano: I get started

The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT 
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut
* * * * *

My mother’s name before she married was was Mary Beulah Neely. Her mother was Lela May Hemphill. There are a number of references to my grandmother as a music teacher in various small towns in Mississippi. She married rather late in life (as did my mother). Once a year my father, Woodrow Wilson Bruce Sr, would pack his wife and three small children in the car and we would go visit Mrs. Neely in Mendenhall.

Visits to Granny were a highlight of my childhood. I have vivid memories of her, and of her plain but memorable house by the railroad tracks (across from the tower where the steam engines took on water) and two blocks from the famous Mendenhall Hotel which had (and still has) a fine restaurant, once written up in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Granny had no central heating, and boiled water to get rid of the ants on the kitchen floor. We all went outside to use the privy.

The visits of which I speak took place took place in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. About 1958 my father became concerned that she could no longer live alone. He drove to Mendenhall, packed her things and moved her to Homerville, Georgia, where the family lived at that time. Granny and her only daughter (my mother) didn’t get along all that well, for reasons I never knew. But she adored my father, because he saved her from ending her life in squalor and he would slip her a bit of whiskey from time to time. She died in her sleep in December of 1964 at the age of 84. She is buried in Jackson, Mississippi next to her husband, John Todd Neely, who died two years before I was born.

Although my grandmother didn’t have a lot of things, she did have a piano. Her ambition as a girl was to be a concert pianist. As a young woman she travelled to Louisiana to hear Paderewski play. She told this story the rest of her life. The Polish virtuoso, whom she always called “Pader-ROO-skee” (like most Americans of the time), made an indelible impression on her. In her last years in Homerville her greatest pleasure was watching the Liberace show. She was fond of his playing  and she wholeheartedly approved of the doting attention he bestowed on his mother.

My first memories of music are singing in church, listening to the Grand Old Opry on Friday nights (a family ritual second only to church attendance) and climbing up on the piano bench at Granny’s house in Mendenhall to bang on the keys. Many years later I told this anecdote to Herbert Brun, who wryly observed “You’re still doing it.” (This was a reference to my performance of the cluster-laden assault on the piano that is the finale of the Lejaren Hiller Suite for Two Pianos — but I digress.)

Granny had severe arthritis and knew that she would eventually have to quit playing the piano at the Mendenhall Baptist Church. By the time I remember her, she had already stopped teaching piano pupils. Mama made a deal with her. When the time came that her mother could no longer play, she would send the piano to us in Birmingham so that I could have the piano lessons I repeatedly requested. When that time finally came, shipping the piano to Birmingham was prohibitively expensive. Granny sold the piano for $300 and send the money to Mama. She bought a sturdy upright, upon which all three of us learned to play the piano. (The instrument is still in the family, by the way. It’s in the home one of my inlaws on the Driggers side, in a comfortable farmhouse near Waycross, Georgia.)

My sister Linda inherited the contents of Granny’s piano bench, but she eventually gave them to me. I still have this music. It is completely typical of bourgeois taste in music in the early twentieth century: the Beethoven “Moonlight” sonata, a piano arrangement of the overture to William Tell, “In a Persian Market” by Albert W. Ketèlbey, the Chopin waltzes, and several songs by Carrie Jacobs Bond. Just typing this list of pieces gives me a bit of a shiver. So many of the issues in my musical life come straight out of Granny’s piano bench. My life-long love of Beethoven, my intense involvement with opera, my fascination with parlor music, the seminar I teach on Chopin, and those haunting, delicious tunes of CJB that Phyllis sang so beautifully — not a bad encapsulation of my entire musical career. Ives isn’t there, of course. I was to learn about Ives much later. But perhaps the music of Ives is just the Danbury equivalent of the contents of that piano bench in Mendenhall, long ago, all jumbled up together.

With our new (used) piano in place at 2867 Norwood Boulevard, Birmingham, Alabama, I was about to begin lessons. At the age of eight I started working my way through the John Thompson books with Mrs. Marguerite Groover. Her house was a twenty minute walk from ours. My life-long involvement with the piano had begun.

At the age of nine, while we still lived on Norwood Boulevard, I wrote down my first composition. It is a waltz, sort-of like Brahms, sort-of like Chopin. It takes about two and a half minutes to play. Eventually I will play it for the Wesleyan audience, but not now. My next blog will begin to discuss specific pieces that I will perform on 29 September. That recital will feature very recent work, along with a few things I wrote as a teenager.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

One Opera, Two Reviews

First thing tomorrow I’m going to start writing about my current, and most exciting long-range project — I’m preparing to play and record my complete works for solo piano. This will be the focus of this blog for the next four years. Not my exclusive topic, to be sure. There are too many interesting things to write about. But I want to get my thoughts about the piano, and my contribution to its literature, down on paper, at least in cyberspace!

But first a comment on a subject Mary Jane Leach raised on Facebook. I find Facebook a remarkably stimulating arena of ideas about all sorts of things — politics, the state of American culture, how our friends overseas regard our fair country, how my relatives are getting on, who’s getting married, who’s had a baby, etc. But above all I enjoy posts about music.

On July 11th I visited Tanglewood and saw a semistaged concert version of The Great Gatsby by John Harbison. I had seen the premiere of the piece at the Met years ago, and had the privilege of hearing the composer speak on this opera, and his intentions to revise it, at Yale, shortly after the first production. Mary Jane reviewed the Tanglewood performance by Emmanuel Music in the Times Union, the newspaper serving the greater Albany (NY) area. Here’s the link:

Her Facebook post was an invitation to compare what she had written about John’s opera with what Zachary Woolfe had written in The New York Times:

If you ever wondered about what actually happened somewhere, and who’s telling the truth about what, there is no more perplexing field of enquiry than music reviews. Here’s what was said, back and forth, on Facebook. I’ll identify Mary Jane as MJL; I’m NB; another relevant comment shall remain anonymous. Call this writer SE (Somebody Else). Since the exchange can be viewed by any of our thousand-plus friends, I don’t see any problem with repeating it here, slightly edited and abbreviated.

MJL: After reading the review of Gatsby in the Times, I began to wonder if Zachary Woolfe and I had seen the same thing.
NB: Hi Mary Jane. I was at Tanglewood. I saw the opera you saw, not the one Zachary saw. Enjoyed it very much.
MJL:  The Times makes it sound as if it was a disaster — pretty mean spirited. Granted there were flaws, but there still was a lot to enjoy.
NB:  The good far outweighs the not-so-good in The Great Gatsby and none of it is bad. I would go see it again, for sure.
SE: I saw it at the Met. Not perfect, needed to be cut by about 45 minutes, which I heard he subsequently did. The music, when you focused on it qua music, was amazing.
MJL:  Agreed — Woolfe seemed needlessly hostile in his review, since there were many wonderful moments.
NB:  The NYT reviewer didn't get it. MJL got it. JH's opera is a subtle piece. It brings you in stage by stage, and then proceeds to a very satisfying conclusion, after you're totally on board. Not to everyone's taste, I know, but I enjoyed it immensely. As far as being "moved" by the piece, it's a contemplative take on the subject matter. A great deal to ponder, a great deal to admire, very little emotional manipulation.

I’d like to add a word of praise for the orchestration, which is uniformly good and sometimes thrilling. There is one special effect that is dazzling and not mentioned in either of the two reviews. When Harbison makes a transition into the party scenes, he does it by means of a clever and quite well-calculated spatial move. The stage band (that is, the jazz instruments playing at the parties) is at the back of the orchestra. The chorus, who sing flapperesque pop music and gossip about Gatsby, are against the upstage wall in a line. The jazzers are immediately in front of them. The orchestral music, which is never pop, never jazz, fades out by degrees, basically moving the sound from downstage to center stage to stage rear. As the symphonic music fades out (by stopping) the jazz fades in (beginning by degrees). As far as I could hear, the cessation of symphony sound spatially was quite strict — first the violins were out, then the cellos, then the other strings, then the winds and brass by degrees, as one became aware of the banjo and piano and the other members of the band. It worked like a charm!

The Great Gatsby is not going to replace Don Giovanni on the stages of the world, but I for one couldn’t care less. We need to think less about what pieces are not and far more about what they are.  What this opera is, as I said first on Facebook, is a contemplative take on the subject matter. We are invited to ponder the story of Gatsby and its implications. We are invited to listen to conversations and consider their nuances. The orchestra takes us on a couple of wild rides. This is a drama that takes place in the music, and inside the mind of the characters, far more than it takes place through the action. Indeed, the most dramatic events take place offstage, and are only referred to in passing.

The notion of introverted opera is not unique. Several come to mind. Pelléas et Mélisande (an extreme case), Eugene Onegin (which has the most beautiful sung conversations I know of in all of opera) and of course Tristan und Isolde. John Harbison is in very good company.