Sunday, January 9, 2000 at 3pm
A pre-concert discussion takes place on the Carnegie Hall stage at 1:45 and is free to ticket-holders.
Composers Spanning Centuries in Search of Unique American Voice
The American Composers Orchestra begins the new century with Roots, the next installment in its “20th Century Snapshots” millennium series at Carnegie Hall, on Sunday, January 9, 2000 at 3 pm. Conducted by ACO Music Director Dennis Russell Davies, Roots offers music from the end of the nineteenth century to the dawn of the twenty-first. The program includes the work of two historic figures in American music, Amy Beach (“Gaelic” Symphony) and John Cage (Quartets I-VIII for 41 players), and two world premieres by African-American composers of different generations, Muhal Richard Abrams (Tomorrow’s Songs, As Yesterday Sings Today) and Daniel Bernard Roumain, (Harlem Essay for Orchestra and Digital Audio Tape).
Roots explores not only national and ethnic backgrounds in American music, but varied musical and aesthetic sources as well. America, probably more than any other country, has incorporated the unique utterances of its diverse people, as well as an eclectic individuality, to fashion a distinctive music that is more easily recognized than defined.
The earliest work on the program premiered in 1896, Symphony in E Minor, “Gaelic” by Mrs. H.H. A. Beach, as she always signed her music, typifies the use of folk materials as an inspiration for classical music and presages the growing influence of women composers in the twentieth century. A pioneer in the development of American music as well as for her gender, Amy Beach was a musical prodigy by any standard in any century. Born Amy March Cheney in New Hampshire, she began playing piano and composing at age four, made her piano debut at 16 and her highly-acclaimed 1885 debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at 18 playing Chopin. A year later the premiere of the “Gaelic” Symphony, also with the BSO, solidified her position as “one of the boys,” the exclusive body of Bostonian men who were the first established American symphonists.
Working in a period of quest for an American national identity, Mrs. Beach was part of the debate about the need for a distinctly “American” sound in music. Although her influential Boston colleagues generally saw no need for a nationalist music, she sided with Dvorak’s advocacy of music based on ethnic and traditional idioms. However, Dvorak’s choice of African-American folk music as the best source for an American music was rejected by Mrs. Beach in favor of English, Scotch and Irish songs, better known to her in the Northeast and also deeply enmeshed in the mainstream of American music. In the development of her American sound, she searched for older, authentic folk song collections and continued to use them in many of her 300 compositions.
The music and ideas of John Cage challenged the definition and establishment of an American sound refined by composers in the first half of the century. It has been said that John Cage did to music what Karl Marx did to government: he leveled it. If he did not raze it, Cage certainly reshaped thinking about how to answer the perennial question: What is American music? Cage’s absorption of diverse musical influences, including fellow American composers such as Charles Ives, trends and ideas in visual art, and world influences ranging from Zen Buddhism to the I Ching, made a dramatic impact on how contemporary composers think about music. His compositions and pronouncements about the purpose of music (not to communicate but to sober and quiet the mind), his exploration of non-intention (music incorporating chance), and his emphasis on the listener’s experience of the moment rather than as a reference to a past, fixed ideal performance, changed the sound of concert music forever.
Quartets I-VIII, a series of works for 24, 41 or 93 players, written in 1976 by Cage was premiered by Dennis Russell Davies in 1977 at the Cabrillo Festival in California. The work is arrived at by means of I Ching chance operations (deletions of notes) and applied to scores of religious hymns composed by the Revolutionary-era American composer William Billings. The 41 instrument version scored for double winds, trumpets and horns includes movements II (The Lord Descended), III (Old North), V (New York), VI (Heath) and VIII (The Lord is Ris’n).
The ideas of John Cage and fellow thinkers set the stage for the world premieres on the program, Tomorrow’s Songs, As Yesterday Sings Today by distinguished experimental jazz veteran Muhal Richard Abrams and Harlem Essay for Orchestra and Digital Audio Tape by 28-year-old Daniel Bernard Roumain. Both composers draw upon diverse techniques, musical influences and diverse life experiences in forging their personal musical languages.
Tomorrow’s Songs, As Yesterday Sings Today, was commissioned by the ACO with generous support of the late Francis Goelet. In keeping with his practice of declining to discuss or explain his music for the audience, Mr. Abrams is content to describe his piece simply as orchestral. Other works by Abrams have explored the interplay of written and improvised parts. Legendary as a pianist-improviser, his works for chamber ensemble and orchestra are less well known. He has written works for a variety of groups, including NOVI, for Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Quartet; a Quintet for Soprano, Piano, Harp, Cello and Violin for The Kitchen; String Quartet III for the Bang On a Can festival; 2000 Plus the Twelfth Step for The Carnegie Hall Jazz Band; and Improvisation Structures I-II-III-IV-V-VI for The New York State Music Network. As founder of the Chicago school of avant-garde jazz known as The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Abrams is the first recipient of the Grand International Jazz Award, the JazzPar Prize (Denmark) and the honoree of Muhal Richard Abrams Day in Chicago on April 11, 1999. Mr. Abrams has taught jazz composition and improvisation privately and at The Banff Center, Columbia University, Syracuse University, New England Conservatory, BMI Composers Workshop and the Sibelius Academy.
Florida native Daniel Bernard Roumain, now a resident of Harlem, was commissioned to write Harlem Essay for Orchestra and Digital Audio Tape, despite Rouman’s view that, “concert music is dead. It’s been dead. I don’t know why I’m doing it anymore.” He came to the attention of the orchestra through the ACO’s performance of Hip-Hop Essay for Orchestra in its 1997 Whitaker New Reading Sessions. That work impressed the Orchestra’s artistic leaders enough to award him ACO’s annual Whitaker Commission for emerging composers. An accomplished violinist as well as composer, he is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and has received his Master’s and Doctorate Degrees, studying with Michael Daugherty at the University of Michigan.
A musical polyglot, Roumain is as admiring and comfortable with the music of Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs as he is with “Papa” Haydn, Bach or Beethoven. Described by one of his teachers as, “a combination of Mozart, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Prince,” he has an affinity for the rhythms of urban American. In Harlem, Roumain has found his spiritual home, and has incorporated pop and hip-hop with classical language in his own highly individual 21st century musical voice. His views are consonant with Cage’s ideas that art does not have to be created out of art materials and should not be separate from the world around us. Roumain is concerned with “the Real, with reality, everyday reality and relevancy; the relevancy of what we hear and see to what we think and do.” He shares compositional credits for Harlem Essay with the people of Harlem. The composer asserts that the work is not “about” the orchestra or music. It is about him and his view of Harlem and his “experiences living, learning, and relearning myself and my music here. In Harlem, I found something more than an occasion for a new orchestral work. I found something beyond a home, my history or my adopted heritage. I found my humanity.” As part of Roumain’s work with ACO, he has been working with elementary children at P.S. 125 in Harlem, exploring the process of composition, hands-on, with the students.
Tickets for Roots, Sunday, January 9 are $46, $33, and $16 and are available through CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800. The concert begins at 3 pm and is preceded by a 1:45 pm discussion that is free to ticket holders. ACO’s next Carnegie Hall program in the 20th Century Snapshot Series, Lindbergh…, Sunday, February 27, features Kurt Weill’s The Lindbergh Flight and the world premiere of A.E., “Songs for Amelia Earhart” by Laurie Anderson, and music by Philip Glass and Samuel Barber inspired by flight, one of the 20th century’s most awe-inspiring technological and human achievements.
Major support of the American Composers Orchestra is from Alliance Capital Management L.P., Mr. Thomas Buckner, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Booth Ferris Foundation, The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Geraldine C. and Emory M. Ford Foundation, Mr. Francis Goelet, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, J.P. Morgan & Co., the Virgil Thomson Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund. ACO programs are also made possible with public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.