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!