Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Seven Friendly Fugues on SoundCloud

I have just uploaded seven of my Friendly Fugues to SoundCloud: the ones for Katchen Coley, Carl Viggiani, Clem W. Hitchcock, Blake Reynolds, Louise Faircloth, Lorry Yelding and Dr. Hoggard (the late great choral conductor Lara Hoggard, whom I could never address by his first name — he was always "Dr. Hoggard" to me and all the boys at Indian Springs School). Elsewhere on this blog I discuss these pieces. Scroll down to June 5 of this year for brief bios of the dedicatees and other information, and to August of last year for a description of the compositional process. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Partita for Wilhelm Gertz

A few days ago I uploaded one of my biggest piano works to SoundCloud — A Partita for Wilhelm Gertz. Gertz was, for about a decade, Wesleyan's eccentric piano tuner/technician. He had a piano business in New Haven, and had rebuilt the Wesleyan Dowd harpsichord back in the day. When the opportunity arose, we hired him to work on the pianos as well as the Dowd. His work was controversial. Some of us thought he kept the pianos in fine shape, and the harpsichord in superb shape. He brokered the deal with the Godowsky family that got Wesleyan Leopold Godowsky's Bechstein piano. He also helped us with the gift of two other pianos, and sold us the August Foerster piano that is now in Wesleyan Memorial Chapel (one of our best instruments).

When I get to that point in my memoirs I will write more about Wilhelm. He was a complex man, and he rubbed some of my colleagues the wrong way. Not all of them, of course. Some of them really liked him. He was a crusty old German, and very opinionated. His work was not consistent, and that created problems sometimes. But he did a lot of work for us at a minimal price, he got us some of our best pianos, and his tunings were gorgeous. Actually, I cannot remember any more beautiful tunings, especially when he tuned the harpsichord. He used a quasi-Pythagorean tuning that would last for about three months. In my experience, this was unique. Harpsichords are notorious for going out of tune, and tunings that last for three months are virtually unheard of.

Over the years we became good friends. When he died I was very distressed. I had written the Fugue first, when he was still alive, and began to compose the rest of the Partita shortly after his passing. When I played the premiere in the fall of 2013 I took the occasion to make some serious edits and even a few significant changes.

If you would like to get a feel for his personality, and a few nuggets of information about his colorful life, check out this little interview:

Monday, December 15, 2014

Today is Bill of Rights Day!

What better way to celebrate BILL OF RIGHTS DAY (December 15) than by listening to my setting? Check out The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets it the following link on SoundCloud.

This is the performance that we did when Justice Scalia was on the Wesleyan campus in March of 2012. Actually, it's edited from the best bits of both of the performances we did that afternoon. Even though we did it in honor of Justice Scalia's visit, and cleared it with his people so that he would be in attendance, he did not, in fact, attend. Rather, he went to his hotel room and rested for his lecture that evening. Or so I am told, unofficially. Officially we were informed by an official of the university, as we were waiting in the wings to go on stage (or, rather, the Memorial Chapel equivalent of "wings" and "on stage") that "Justice Scalia is unable to attend." No further explanation.

No matter. Between the two performances we had about 500 in the audience, and the whole experience was a resounding success, notwithstanding the no-show of the guest of honor!

Here is a list of all the performances of this piece. We're up to 23 now. Suggestions are in the air for a repeat performance in New Haven in 2015 and our first performance(s) in Virginia. It even looks like we are going to have a performance in Athens, Greece in 2015, and also one in Taiwan in 2016. Not to mention a performance by an excellent women's chorus (much closer to home), if I can finish up the SSAA version...

Public reading, South Congregational Church (July of 2005)
Wesleyan University, Memorial Chapel and the lobby of Olin Library (two performances,
     September 2005)

The Unitarian Meeting House, Hamden CT (2008)
Mitchell College, New London CT (2009)
The First Congregational Church of Lebanon CT (2009)
St Katharine Drexel Church, Alton NH, under the auspices of Arts on the Edge,
     Wolfeboro NH (2010)
Co-op High School, New Haven CT (2010), under the auspices of IRIS (Integrated
     Refugee and Immigrant Services), as a benefit for area refugees and immigrants
Sandisfield Arts Center, Sandisfield MA, September 17, 2011 (Constitution Day)
The Newseum, Washington DC, under the auspices of the Knight Foundation,
     December 16, 2011 (the 220th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights)
Wesleyan University, two more performances, in conjunction with the 21st Annual
     Hugo L. Black Lecture on Freedom of Expression, given in 2012 by Justice
     Antonin Scalia
Monday 25 June 2012: A reading as a part of the series of SummerSings at St. Paul
     Evangelical Lutheran Church, 56 Great Hammock Road in Old Saybrook CT
Sunday 16 September 2012 at Faneuil Hall, Boston, two performances on the eve of
     Constitution Day
Wednesday 19 September at Trinity Chapel, Trinity College in Hartford
November 15, the Tenth Amendment performed at Brown University
November 24, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, as part of the concert series at
     Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in The Bronx
Friday 6 September 2013 at Madry Temple Church, New London CT
Sunday 15 September 2013, two more performances at Faneuil Hall
Wednesday 17 September 2014 (Constitution Day) at Middlesex Community
     College in Middletown, CT
Sunday 30 November 2014, two more performances at Faneuil Hall

Twenty-three performances of a 38-minute new choral work — not bad, I think, even if it is in the style of William Billings. Now to get more conductors involved. All but three of these performances have been conducted by the composer. Thank you Suzanne Bartells and Jeff Douma — and a special shout-out to Ioanna-Vasiliki Koraki, who is seriously contemplating The Bill of Rights in Athens!

If any of you who read this know any good choral conductors, pass on the information! I think this work has a real future, but in order for that future to become present reality there have to be more conductors who do perform the piece — LOTS more of them.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Announcement about SoundCloud

I just bit the bullet and began uploading my complete piano works to SoundCloud. The recordings from the first four of the "This Is It!" series have been edited. These are performances, not studio recordings (that will come later). You can now hear the first four pieces from the first recital, presented in Crowell Concert Hall at Wesleyan on Sunday 29 September 2013, viz:

Tuckaway in Early Summer
Forty Times Forty
A Fugue for Sophia
A Fugue for Maeny

I've been blogging about these pieces for some time — now you can hear them!

To hear these pieces just go to and search for "NeelyBruceMusic." (Not case sensitive.)

This is about 28 minutes out of four-plus hours I will be uploading soon. And the whole series will be at least 12 recitals, finishing up in the summer of 2017. Maybe more than 12 recitals, at the rate I'm writing new piano music...


Thursday, October 16, 2014

This Is It! No. 4

Last Sunday I performed the most recent in the series "This Is It!" — the complete piano music of NB, recital number 4. I will be playing these pieces again in a few days for friends in New Haven who could not attend the performance in Middletown. Here's the program, with a few general notes at the end:

This Is It! Part 4
Piano music of Neely Bruce
performed by the composer

Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University
Sunday 12 October 2014 at 3:00 p.m.

prelude à l’improvisto, in free chromatic style
Serial Invention No. 1 (2006)
Modal Study No. 4 (2013)
Serial Invention No. 2 (2010)
Two-part Invention and Chorale (2007)
Pandiatonic Study No. 2 (2014)
Modal Study No. 1 (2006)
Pandiatonic Study No. 1 (2011)
Serial Invention No. 3 (2006)
Modal Study No. 2 (2011)

Algorithmic Gymnopédie No. 1 (2004)
[algorithim by NB; realized by Dave Ruder]

Andante variée (1969)

The Two-Twin Tango (2010)
For Kai and Micah Klaaren London

Three Lullabies (2001)
A Lullaby for Alex / A Lullaby for Max
A Lullaby for the parents  (the twins are asleep)


Variations on a Polonaise (1968)

Calm and spacious
Lento ma con moto
Presto non troppo
Adagio molto
Fast and crowded
Allegro con brio
Tema, da capo

* * * * *

Marcia da Ballo. Rondo Fanfare
by Anthony Philip Heinrich (1780-1860)

* * * * * * * * *

Today’s recital is the fourth in the series “This Is It!” It is my intention to play in public and record my complete works for solo piano, with the works for harpsichord and my one piece for solo celeste thrown in for good measure. (I will leave the organ works to other performers.) If I am successful in this, I will be the first pianist/com-poser to record  my complete piano music.

There are twelve projected works in the series — fall, spring and summer through the summer of 2017. However, there will almost certainly be a thirteenth recital, and perhaps a fourteenth. So much immersion in my piano music, and the ideas and techniques behind it, is generating new works, some modest in scope, some more ambitious. We’ll see how it pans out. Perhaps I am involved in a situation like the race between Achilles and the tortoise…

In any event, the next recital in the series, “This Is It!” No 5, will be Sunday 22 February 2015 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall. Hope to see you there. The program will include “Homage to Charlie” (in honor of C. E. Ives), more Friendly Fugues, my celeste piece, and various pieces for two pianos (the second pianist TBA).

—Neely Bruce
October 2014

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sound Cloud account getting set up

Dear Friends in Cyberspace — I have promised so many blogs in the last six weeks or so, but nothing has been forthcoming. Mea maxima culpa. I've been astonishingly busy, mostly because of composing my oratorio about Aristides de Sousa Mendes. (More on that subject soon.) But also because of preparing to perform all of my Geographical Preludes, and preparing to finish my Ives recordings with baritone David Barron. But the recordings are done, the performance has occurred, and the composition is not complete but certainly under control. So — a brief blog.

I have been talking about setting up a Sound Cloud account, and I have finally done it. With the help of Mike Arafeh, we are almost ready to unveil the first tracks. The first Jukebox will be excerpts from the WesWinds concert on May 10, specifically:

Circus Galop (Sousa)
Valdres March (Hanssen)
Shenandoah (Ticheli)
Four Chopin Preludes, arranged for woodwinds by my orchestration students
Colonial Song (Grainger)

And a slam-bang concert version of my magnum opus, CONVERGENCE, for WesWinds live and pre-recorded, three percussionists playing bell parts, and Matt Welch as our spectacular bagpipe soloist.

Stay tuned for details! Now to write some more music...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Practice, practice, practice

In the wonderful way things often fall together at the last minute, last night's performance by Village Harmony was a great success, and all of the performers were well fed and properly housed. In fact we ended up with more beds than the 18 we needed!

Larry Gordon's intrepid group of 17 VH alumni performed music from the the USA, renaissance Western Europe, South Africa, Bulgaria and the Republic of Georgia. Rarely does one hear an ensemble of singers in such a variety of music, but to hear different musical styles sung in different vocal styles is almost unheard of. No one would mistake Village Harmony for Ladysmith Black Mambazo, or a convention of traditional Sacred Harp singers, or Les Mystères des Voix Bulgares. But one can say, quite rightly, that Larry's singers know that you just don't sing Byrd like Billings and you don't sing Georgian liturgical chant like a hymn from South Africa. And the programming — mixing and matching pieces from all over the place, producing a timbre appropriate for each part of the world — is eye-opening for those who are not aware of these things, and delightful for those who are.

I also had the singular pleasure of introducing four of the group to the Michael Pestel Musical Menagerie. Every time I am at Michael's house there seems to be a new instrument of two. He makes a lot of them himself, and what he doesn't make he modifies. The prepared piano always has some new refinement... But that's another blog for another time.

My agenda now is — practice, practice, practice! Davd and I are recording "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" on Friday, and that alone is reason to be hitting the ivories several hours a day.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Ives recordings: UPDATE

Believe it or not, the recordings of the Ives songs continue. This month we'll be wrapping up the songs that David Barron and I did on the Ives Vocal Marathon. And just for kicks we're going to do a few more — songs that we did back in the day at the University of Illinois and in the early 1970s ("In the Alley" for example).

We have three sessions scheduled at Systems Two later this month. Very exciting. When we're done I'll start figuring out how to finish the rest of the job, with the other singers. At the rate we're going, I figure it will take fourteen more years to complete this project! Obviously none of us has that kind of time, so we have to speed up.

The order of events will be to finish up with Elizabeth Saunders (mezzo), then Johana Arnold (soprano), and finally Gary Harger (tenor). When we're done with all the voice and piano stuff we'll get cracking on the pieces with other instrumental combinations.

In some ways it is frustrating to have this project drag out. In other ways, however, it is very satisfying. I'm never far from the Ives songs, and that is a great thing. Since I am convinced that Ives is at least as good as any other song composer who ever lived, returning to these pieces is like returning to an ever-renewing spring of clear, refreshing water. One always gets ideas from Mr. Ives, and one always finds something new to admire in his music.

Earlier this year I met Stephen Budiansky, the author of Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel. The book is out now, and I've ordered a copy. We'll see what Steve has to say about the songs! There are so many Ives books coming out now I've fallen behind in my reading...

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Duckworth weights, continued; with more about "This Is It! Part Two"

My last blog was an introduction to the subject of Duckworth weights. They are mentioned again in the program notes to This Is It! Part Two, an all-NB piano recital presented last fall at Wesleyan. Here is the program from that event, which has one-paragraph descriptions of each piece on the program. There is more to be said about these works, but I have to move ahead and start writing about the recital on July 20.

This Is It! Part Two
The complete piano works of Neely  Bruce, performed by the composer
Sunday 16 February  2014
Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University

An improvised prelude, using seven Duckworth weights
Prelude in A major, Op. 28, No. 7, by F. F. Chopin
A Prelude for Sam

Three Friendly Fugues

Katchen Coley
Carl Viggiani
Clem W. Hitchcock

Crackin’ Lobsters: A New Culinary Rag

Four Friendly Fugues

Blake Reynolds
Louise Faircloth
Lorry Yelding
Dr. Hoggard

Memories of You 2012
(William Duckworth memorial version, w/Duckworth weights)

A Partita for Virginia Ellen


Introduction and Variations

The theme of this afternoon’s recital is memory. Each of these pieces is closely associated with a departed friend or relative. It is important to remember those who have left this world, sometimes with sorrow, but more often with joy and pleasure.

What I call “Duckworth weights” were used by the composer William Duckworth in his landmark set of pieces entitled The Time Curve Preludes (see below). They consist of five lead weights, taped together, so that they hold down a specific key of the piano. The resulting resonance becomes a part of the composition, or, in this case, the improvisation. Resonances differ from piano to piano, of course, and vary with the acoustic of the performing space. Each performance with Duckworth weights will be somewhat different.

The Chopin A major prelude was the favorite composition of my grandmother, Lela Mae Hemphill Neely. She was a schoolteacher, a businesswoman, and an aspiring pianist in her youth. For many years she was the pianist at the First Baptist Church in Mendenhall, Mississippi, where she also gave piano lessons. My first experience at the keyboard, as a small boy, was standing on her piano bench and banging on the keys of her piano. She asked me to play this prelude at her funeral, but for various reasons that did not happen. To make amends, I play it from time to time at memorial events (for Ron McCutcheon, for example).

Sam Lowe was a Wesleyan alumnus who died suddenly two years ago in Birmingham, Alabama (his home town and mine). Sam made a name for himself as an excellent free-lance jazz musician in New York and New Jersey, and went home to Birmingham to pursue a second career as a church musician in one of Birmingham’s biggest black churches. A concert in his memory was held in the Wesleyan Chapel in May of 2012, during alumni weekend, when this piece was premiered. This prelude is based on the letters of his name — Samuel Hayes Lowe — in the manner of the Friendly Fugues.

The first of my Friendly Fugues was written as an eightieth-birthday present for Katchen Coley. Katchen was a founding director of The Connection in Middletown, an outspoken advocate for environmental issues, and one of the most outrageous, lively people I have ever known. Shortly before she died in 2013, at the age of 89, she was honored by the City of Middletown for her ceaseless efforts to conserve the Maromas area of our town.

Carl Viggiani was Professor of French at Wesleyan, a World War Two veteran, and for several years the personal secretary of Albert Camus. His favorite composer was Chopin. This fugue was composed shortly after his death. The subject utilizes his full name — Carl Albert Viggiani, Senior — a name he never used in life.

Clem W. Hitchcock was a retired employee of the State of Connecticut (he worked in the statistics office), a life master bridge player, and an amateur vocalist with an insatiable appetite for singing. He was a member of Wesleyan Singers for many years, and sang in many, if not most, of the community choruses in Central Connecticut at one time or another. He took great pride in the fact that he often performed “The Star Spangled Banner” at the beginning of Rock Cats games. This fugue was a present for his seventieth birthday.

“Crackin’ Lobsters,” like the following fugue, is dedicated to Blake Reynolds. Blake was a loyal Wesleyan alum who lived in Cos Cob when I met him. He subsequently moved to Maine. He was a great fan of my ragtime playing, and established three scholarships at Wesleyan, named in my honor. The fugue was a present for his ninetieth birthday. The rag was inspired by a dinner he gave for friends and family at an excellent lobster restaurant near Damariscotta. At a certain point in the evening all conversation ceased throughout the entire room. All one could hear was the sound of lobsters being cracked. Later I remarked to Blake that “Crackin’ Lobsters” would be a great name for a rag. He was delighted with the suggestion.

Louise Faircloth was the mother of my good friend and roommate at Indian Springs School, Jim Mustin. She was widowed twice — first, when her three children were small. She raised them while teaching in the English Department of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa (my alma mater as an undergraduate). Her specialty was English romantic poetry, especially Wordsworth. When all of the children were out of the nest she married James Faircloth, professor of engineering. After a few wonderful years together, he died suddenly. In her second widowhood, when she was retired from the university, she became an expert in the art and craft of needlepoint, and had a second career as a needlepoint designer. Her full name was Louise Tyson Goodwin Mustin Faircloth. All of these names are carved on her tombstone.  The fugue uses all of the names, cumulatively, to form six different subjects. (The sixth subject is a lively variation on the rather somber fifth.) The longest of my Friendly Fugues, it was a present for her 100th birthday.

My sister-in-law Joan married Lorry Yelding, an Englishman whose given name was Lorimer. (No one ever called him Lorimer.) He was a witty, charming man, who loved to play golf, eat well, drink good wine, and take Joan on trips all over the world. He owned a printing company in Roxbury, Connecticut, and had been retired for several years when he married into our family. We would congratulate ourselves on our good fortune in marrying two of the legendary Behuniak sisters. The fugue was a present for his ninetieth birthday.

Dr. Hoggard was my high school glee club conductor, my first composition teacher, conducting mentor, and altogether the single most important musical influence in my life. His full name, which I use in the subject, along with his ubiquitous title, was Doctor Lara Guldmar Hoggard. He was principle staff conductor for Fred Waring, director of music at Indian Springs School (my alma mater, fifteen miles south of Birmingham), conductor of the Midland-Odessa Symphony Orchestra in Texas, and William Rand Keenan Professor of Music at UNC Chapel Hill. He was in every way a larger-than-life character — poverty-stricken as a boy in Oklahoma, a national choral conducting sensation when he was barely out of his teens, a notable career in the US Navy in World War Two, etc. Robert Phillips is writing his biography. Like the fugues for Blake and Lorry, the fugue for Dr. Hoggard was a ninetieth-birthday present. (Even though I knew him from when I was twelve years old until his death over fifty years later, I could never address him by his first name. He was always Dr. Hoggard.)

I met William Duckworth in the group composition class we took with Ben Johnston at the University of Illinois. Our children played together in the bathtub when they were toddlers. I played the premiere of his best-known work, The Time Curve Preludes, at Wesleyan in 1978 and recorded it soon thereafter. His principal choral work, Southern Harmony, was commissioned by Wesleyan Singers in 1980. We wrote “Memories of You” collaboratively in the late 1960s. It is for any four musicians, voices and/or instruments, and can be performed in an indefinite number of ways. When the piece was performed in 1975 in Town Hall Bernard Holland, writing for The New York Times, dismissed it as “a bit of Cagean irrelevance.” This version for solo piano was incorporated in a performance by seven all-star musicians at Bill’s memorial concert at Le Poisson Rouge in the fall of 2012.

Virginia Ellen was the wife of Jim Mustin and the daughter-in-law of Louise Faircloth. She was a successful lawyer and a total charmer. She took a remarkable set of photographs of my piece CONVERGENCE at Lincoln Center in 2002. Her death was sudden and unexpected. The partita was written at the request of her husband. Her name is incorporated in each of the four movements, not just the fugue.

To satisfy part of her requirements for the Yale Doctor of Musical Arts, Teresa Escandon asked me to compose the “Introduction and Variations.” She played the piece several times, as have I. When I first came to Middletown, Teresa was a local celebrity who played major concerts in Crowell Concert Hall. She was married to Dr. Speight, a retired local physician. Upon his death she moved to Florida to become professor of piano at the University of Miami. An enthusiast for the music of Liszt and a protégée of famed Liszt interpreter Jorges Bolet, she was in the process of editing the complete works of Liszt, as played by Bolet, at the time of her death.

* * * * * * *

Art is long, life is short. Since the passing of my wife Phyllis I have thought a great deal about life, death, and art. Many of you will know that I have produced three concerts in Phyllis’s memory, and will continue to do so, on or around December 8 of whatever year it is. Today’s recital is a way to remember other friends, relatives and colleagues who are no longer with us, whose lives were and are inexorably intertwined with my life, and with my piano music.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Duckworth weights

In a recent blog I mentioned what I call "Duckworth weights" — I opened the recital with "An improvised prelude, using seven Duckworth weights."   These are small lead bars, used by piano technicians, to counterbalance the weight of the hammers. They are properly called "keyleads" or "key leads," one word or two. Their conventional use is discussed in detail in the following article:

Scroll down to "Some Historical Background."

When Bill Duckworth composed The Time Curve Preludes he specified that certain keys were to be held down for the duration of each prelude. These pitches would never be struck, but would vibrate in sympathy with the other strings, accumulating resonance as each piece progressed. Each of the twenty-four preludes had its own specified drone pitch (1) or pitches (as many as 7). Bill originally intended the keys to be secured by rubber wedges, the sort that piano tuners use to separate and dampen strings while they are being tuned. George Krippenstapl, who was the Wesleyan piano technician at the time, persuaded him that the wedges, inserted between the key and the fallboard, carried the risk of damaging the keys, and that he should use keyweights, stacked and secured by masking tape. Originally I used stacks of four, now I use stacks of five — heavier and more stable.

The penultimate composition on "This Is It! TWO" was "Memories of You, 2012," the memorial version of an earlier work that I prepared for the concert in Bill's memory at Le Poisson Rouge. (We co-composed it in the late '60s.) I'll write about that on Wednesday. Today I just want to talk about the weights.

I have discovered that these small stacks of keyleads, to be known henceforth as Duckworth weights, are a great compositional resource. When you improvise with them you can use them as a manually controlled sostenuto pedal; you can use them in conjunction with the sostenuto pedal; you can use them to create floating drones that migrate from register to register on the keyboard. They are altogether cool and I hope other composers and improvising pianists will decide to use them. Any piano technician can get you a bag of keyleads. Be sure and get the ovaloid ones, and not the small round ones, which will not stack properly. Wrap some masking tape neatly around a stack of five and you are ready to go. They come in small batches, or bargain bags of various numbers (I have well over a 100, can't remember the precise amount). Enjoy, and help spread the word!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

About Chris McDonald and Bilbao

On Monday's blog I said I would follow up about Chris McDonald's installation in Bilbao. I looked online for details, but could find nothing. So I wrote to Chris and asked him for more information. His reply follows.

Thanks Chris for writing my blog for me today! I spent most of the day organizing CDs, the first step to reclaiming my beautiful studio, which has become cluttered beyond belief. (With the help of Elena I think we can actually get the job done.)

* * * * *
It was so great to see you and I found the concert (and followup dinner) to be a wonderfully stimulating Saturday evening.
  Really weird about the Guggenheim, isn't it?? I remember trying to find a link a while back and realizing Guggenheim Bilbao doesn't seem to have an upcoming events section. 
  The piece opens on Thursday so I imagine they will get its own section on this page:
  The piece is Ragnar Kjartansson's "The Visitors" and it is a nine channel video installation. I've been working with him as director of sound/music producer on his video projects for about five years now. We shot "The Visitors" in 2012 and I recorded the music and mixed it. We had about 2000ft of cable snaking through the mansion at Rokeby, the old Astor estate on the Hudson. All nine videos, each featuring a musician (almost all of them Icelandic) in a different room of the house, were shot simultaneously and they are synchronized for the exhibition. It's like being able to see into these rooms of the house at once and inhabit them all at the same time.
  They play an hour-long song that is wistful and occasionally brooding--and sometimes explosive, quite literally since Ricky Aldrich (the descendent who currently owns and runs the estate) occasionally sets off a Chinese cannon that his family plundered from the Forbidden City long ago in some awful mini war, I'm not sure which one. 
  It'll probably be at the NYC Guggenheim at some point or MoMA since both institutions own an edition. 
  But I'm here now in Bilbao! What a beautiful place. And my hotel is on Salazar Street! But it's named after a fifteenth century Spaniard and obviously not the Portuguese dictator.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Aurora Borealis meets Hiatus Pitch meets "'orgueilleux — in the Garden

The long-awaited concert of works by Wesleyan alumni composers took place over the weekend. Attendance was good, and the performers outdid themselves. I heard the first version of this concert last October. On Saturday, I was delighted how well the pieces hold up seven months later, and how much the performances had matured. I could write a substantial article about this concert, of course, but this is a blog. So I will limit myself to brief comments about each piece.

"Gathering Light" by Benjamin Broening — This piece exists in two versions, for violin solo and for violin with live electronics. The constraints of the concert were: no electronics. Sarah Washburn played the piece beautifully. It is a very strong work indeed, and got the concert off to a great start.

"Companion" by Ed Jessen (two speaking/singing pianists at two toy pianos, violin and cello) made a much stronger impression in Crowell Concert Hall than it did in the Trinity Chapel. It was possible to separate the two toy pianos quite a bit more. One was on each of the downstage corners, on a sculpture stand; violin and cello were upstage center, next to each other. The spatial separation liberated the drama of the piece. It starts as a quiet, if perplexing dialogue, but works itself into something of a miniature fury. Just as you think you may have figured it out, the piece is over...

Theme and Mutations for oboe and piano, by Brett Terry, benefited from having a better piano, and from the clearer acoustics of Crowell Concert Hall. Ling-Fei Kang (who is a superb oboist with the sweetest tone imaginable) and Elisabeth Tomczyk (a superb pianist who seems capable of playing just about anything, so long as it is new) played with clarity and elegance. I appreciated the spacing between the movements, which was longer and more pronounced than at Trinity.

Speaking of Brett, he kindly videoed the entire concert. I'll keep you posted as we get the various pieces uploaded to YouTube.

mensural canon for tri-partitioned body by Brian Parks is indeed a mensural canon, but with a twist. The three male voices sing a rising major scale, followed by a descending octave, in different rhythms. Janet Simone Parks, a beautiful dancer with technique to burn, dances the three parts as they are sung. One part goes with the legs, one with the arms, and one with the head. It is a tour-de-force. I thought it was just about perfect. I checked with the composer, and he informed me that more than "just about perfect," it was exactly correct. A sort piece, but a brilliant one.

Every time I hear "The Lonely Chant" by Walter Frank the stronger the impression it makes on me. It is exactly postminimalist, that is, it uses minimalist techniques in ways that minimalist composers would not use them. It is repetitive, but not systematically so. It is modal but ends ambiguously. It has clearly delineated sections, but they are unpredictable in their proportion. It uses the minimalist apparatus for an emotional end. Most importantly, it's not long! It also had the great virtue of being controversial. I spoke to people who enthusiastically said it was the best piece on the program, and to people who thought it was the worst. (No names, of course.) That's hard to do these days —write a piece of music that stirs up real contention.

"hiatus pitch" is a virtuoso piece for solo saxophone by Keith Moore. In this case "virtuoso" means "brutally difficult." Alto saxophonist Geoffrey Landman was more than up to the task. Extremes of register, extremes of speed, and above all, extreme dynamics — nothing seemed to phase him. I had heard this piece before, played by Taimur Sullivan. Geoff did it just as well! And Keith's elusive sense of rhetoric was well-communicated. A strong performance of a strong piece. (This work replaced Keith's organ piece, "Diary of an Organaut," which Brian Parks performed at Trinity. Crowell no longer has an organ, alas.)

"Aurora Borealis" by Liang Liang is a sumptuous work for violin, viola, cello and piano. It is the only work on the program that I felt did not benefit from the acoustics of Crowell, as opposed to the acoustics of Trinity Chapel. It was still a gorgeous, expressive work, and it was played with great authority and a sure sense of color. But the dryer, clearer hall worked to the disadvantage of some of the more complex sonorities.

I am a great fan of the work of Judy Dunaway, and the performance of "The Sound of Skin" only increased my admiration for her originality. Making music for balloons is no easy task. At Trinity the performance was a duo plus: Janet Simone Parks and Anne Rhodes getting wet in a kiddy pool and Orion Parks helping deliver balloons. (Orion is Janet and Brian's first child. She is four years old and growing up surrounded by avant garde art. Not a bad life.) The stone floor of the Trinity Chapel and all the beautiful dark wood was a great frame for what Janet and Anne did. But Anne, who now has her own first child, was not available, so the Crowell performance became a solo. At Trinity the balloons were in a large basket. In Crowell they were placed inside our beautiful Dowd harpsichord. A stunning visual effect, and a nod to early music that subtly reinforced some of the other pieces on the program.

"Frolic" by Anne Lemos Edgerton was the oldest and newest piece of the program, simultaneously. The oldest because it was originally written when Anne was in the GLSP program at Wesleyan, back in the 1970s. The newest because the revival of the piece last October inspired her to write an introduction, which was completed only two weeks before the concert! A lively and engaging work from start to finish, "Frolic," like other pieces on this program, has the great virtue of not being too long. A note to composers everywhere — oboe and cello together might not sound like an ideal combination, but believe me it is a great sound. Especially if you handle it as well as Anne does!

"L'orgueilleux" by Chris McDonald is a tour-de-force of wit and complexity for flute, viola and piano. Chris's career after Wesleyan has taken him more and more in the direction of pop music, mixed media and video art. (He left the day after the concert to supervise the installation of one of his most recent works in Bilbao — details to follow.) But he started off as a hard-core Tanglewood composer of twelve-tone music, and this example of him writing in that style (completed when he was an undergraduate student, not that long ago) holds up very well with the passage of time. I asked him if he was interested in writing more music in this style, and he replied "I'm thinking about it."

Last but not least, a chunk of Chris Jonas's monumental "Garden" for string quartet concluded the program. It's a sprawling, compelling work. You can hear the whole thing on the internet, and see the gorgeous video that accompanies it. "Garden" is a strong piece of music as well as a strong piece of mixed media, and it holds its own on the concert stage. The West End Quartet shone in this performance as well as the others on the program (Frank, Liang). I hope they keep all of these excellent pieces in their repertory!

After the concert Elena and I had dinner at Haveli India with Judy, Sarah and her family, Brett, Chris, Max and Gabriel. Conversation was lively and far-reaching. A high point was Chris's contention that all of the composers, and all of their pieces on this concert, were to some extent exemplars of modernism. That sparked a discussion that is another topic, for another time...

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wesleyan Alumni Concert tomorrow

Last fall I was invited by the Hartford New Music Festival to be one of two composers-in-residence, along with Michael Schelle. It was a blast getting to know Michael, and the festival was in all other ways a success as well.

There were two enormous perks of this festival. One was a commission to write a new orchestra piece, for the combined forces of the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra and The Generous Ensemble. (I write about this piece in one of my blog posts last October.) The other was to curate a concert of chamber works by Wesleyan alumni who had worked with me in one way or another — most of them were my composition students at one time, but I advised or read the masters theses of others, and we all made music together back in the day.

The concert was a terrific success, and I resolved to repeat the event at Wesleyan when Alumni Weekend rolled around this year. The time has come, and tomorrow, Saturday 24 May at 4:00 in Crowell Concert Hall at Wesleyan, the concert will be repeated. For the most part it is the same program, performed by the same musicians.

Wesleyan is well-known for having produced some important composers who work in electric media and computer music. But because of logistical considerations, it was decided that the concert last fall, in the Chapel at Trinity College, would be an all-acoustic event, no electronics. And that's the way the concert is tomorrow.

The result is an amazing variety of sounds and shapes. Virtually all of the composers involved also write for electronic resources as well as acoustic ones, so it offers a glimpse into another aspect of his or her work. The concert has a whimsical title, derived from the names of pieces on the program. Here's a list of performers, followed by the pieces and their composers. I'll write more after the event. If you're in the area, just slip into Crowell on Saturday afternoon and pretend you're a Wesleyan alum!

Aurora Borealis meets Hiatus Pitch meets 
L’orgueilleux — In the Garden
compositions by Wesleyan alumni

Crowell Concert Hall at Wesleyan University
Saturday 24 May at 4:00 p.m.

Performed by Megan Natoli, flute; Ling-Fei Kang, oboe;
Geoffrey Landman, saxophone; 
Elisabeth Tomczyk and Brian Parks, piano;
Janet Simone Parks, dancer; and the West End String Quartet

“Gathering Light” for violin solo
Benjamin Broening 
“Companion” for two speaking pianists at two toy pianos, 
violin and cello
Edward Jessen 
Theme and Mutations for oboe and piano
Brett Terry 
“The Lonely Chant,” for string quartet
Walter Frank 
“hiatus pitch” for saxophone solo
Keith Moore
“Aurora Borealis” for violin, viola, cello and piano
Liang Liang
“The Sound of Skin,” for any number of performers, 
balloons and water
Judy Dunaway
"mensural canon for tri-partitioned body" 
for solo dancer and three singers
Brian Parks
“Frolic,” for oboe and cello
Anne Lemos Edgerton
“L’orgueilleux,” for flute, viola and piano
Chris McDonald
Two movements from “Garden” — a string quartet
Chris Jonas

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

School is almost over!

I am shocked to realize that I have not written anything on this blog since last October. A semester of being the chair of the Music Department (last fall) and a semester of heavy teaching and lots of outside activity (this spring) has cut into my writing time. As a result, the second of the This Is It! series of my piano works, the third memorial concert for Phyllis, and an all-NB vocal music event earlier this month have come and gone, without a word on these pages in cyberspace! Not to mention the indoor version of CONVERGENCE that I conducted with WesWinds. Some exciting music making that should have been noted and discussed.

It's well beyond the time for making New Year's resolutions, but I'll make one anyway. More regular blogging! Last year I figured out I could write something three times a week, and I'm going to do just that. Starting Friday. Stay tuned for specifics...

For now, I'll list the programs.

The Third Annual Phyllis Bruce Memorial concert, with Kalia Kellogg and Stan Scott, consisted of my Chinese Love Poems, Stan singing Hindustani settings by Tagore, and Gitanjali by John Alden Carpenter. December 8, 2013 at South Congregational Church.

The second This Is It! concert (12 recitals comprising my complete piano works) consisted of an improvised prelude using Duckworth weights; the Chopin A major prelude; "A Prelude for Sam"; seven Friendly Fugues; "Memories of You" (version with Duckworth weights); A Partita for Virginia Ellen; and Introduction and "Variations." At Hubbard House and at Crowell Concert Hall, February 2014.

WesWinds, the Wesleyan Wind Ensemble, conducted by NB (my debut as a band director, loved it!). Works by Sousa, Hansson, Ticheli, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Chopin (!!!), Grainger and Bruce — a version of CONVERGENCE for band, prerecorded band, bagpipe solo, and lots of bells. May 6, 2014 in Crowell Concert Hall.

Vocal Music of Neely Bruce, with Kalia Kellogg, Christopher Grundy, and bassoonist Gary Bennett. Miscellaneous Songs for Low Voice; Chinese Love Poems (again). May 10, 2014 in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University.

This is a lot of performing, and a lot of my music to digest. I hope my friends and fans are not in overload about my compositions, because there are lots more coming through the pipeline.