Notes (2002/11/03)

Sunday, November 3, 2002 at 3pm
“A Program of Psalms”

how to pray
David Lang
Born January 8, 1957 in Los Angeles, CA
Now living in New York, NY

“There is no name yet for this kind of music,” writes music critic Mark Swed, but audiences around the globe are hearing more and more of David Lang’s work: in performances by such organizations as the Santa Fe Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the Kronos Quartet; at Tanglewood, the BBC Proms, and the Almeida, Strasbourg, and Huddersfield Festivals; in theater productions in New York, San Francisco and London; in the choreography of Twyla Tharp, La La La Human Steps, and the Royal Ballet.

Lang has been honored with the Rome Prize, the BMW Music-Theater Prize (Munich), a Kennedy Center/Friedheim Award, and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1999 he received a Bessie Award for his music for choreographer Susan Marshall’s The Most Dangerous Room in the House, and The Carbon Copy Building won the 2000 Village Voice OBIE Award for Best New American Work.

David Lang is co-founder and co-artistic director of Bang on a Can, and Composer in residence at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. He holds degrees from Stanford University, the University of Iowa, and received his doctorate from the Yale School of Music in 1989. Mr. Lang has studied with Jacob Druckman, Hans Werner Henze and Martin Bresnick, and his work is recorded on the Sony Classical, BMG, Point, Chandos, Argo/Decca, CRI and Cantaloupe labels.

About the work, the composer writes:
The reason why the psalms are so central to religious experience is that they are a comprehensive catalogue of examples of how to talk to the Almighty, not by a prophet or a priest but in the voice of a single person, a person out in the world, with problems and concerns not unlike those faced by real people in all times. Of course, it’s like reading one side of a correspondence-we can read David’s letters but the letters back are the ones we really want to see.

I am not a religious person. I don’t know how to pray. I do, however, know some of the times and places and formulas that are supposed to help make prayer possible. Sometimes I find myself sending those messages out. And then I wait, secretly hoping that I will recognize the response.

My first thought for this piece was that I could somehow “borrow” my favorite running piano line from the beginning of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, bringing into the concert the piece that had introduced me to the idea of psalm setting, many years ago. I have been thinking about the psalms ever since.

For the past few years I have been setting the entire book of psalms, in an evening-length work for solo piano called psalms without words. I have been transcribing my own cantillation of the psalms-the rhythms, the accents and the pacing of the Hebrew. I used a similar strategy to convert the prayer before saying the psalms into the music for how to pray.

how to pray is scored for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, piano, timpani, 3 percussionists, and strings.

Jon Magnussen
Born December 28, 1967 in Sierra Leone, Africa
Now living in Princeton, NJ

Composer Jon Magnussen’s compositions span the disciplines of the concert hall, drama, and dance. Combining richly textured rhythmic and melodic patterns with a deft sense of form, his works are at once emotionally appealing and intellectually stimulating. Magnussen also creates computer interactive environments for live performers, uniting the acoustic and electronic worlds.

Magnussen holds doctoral and masters degrees from The Juilliard School, and degrees from Conservatoire Nationale Supérieure de Musique de Paris, and is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Cornell University. As Artist-in-Residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, he leads the annual concert series, introduces new works to the community, and presents lectures on new music.

Commissioned by the José Limón Dance Foundation, Psalm was composed in Princeton during the winter of 2001-2002, to accompany José Limón’s classic 1967 ballet of the same name. The work was premiered at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic Arts Festival with baritone André Solomon-Glover and the Weber State University choir under the direction of the composer.

About the work, the composer writes:
The inspiration for Limón’s choreography of Psalm came from André Schwarz-Bart’s novel, The Last of the Just. Based upon the Jewish tradition of the Lamed-vovniks, the novel recounts the struggle of Ernie Levy, an Auschwitz victim and a “Just Man.” Limon abstracted this theme for Psalm, creating a solo role for the “Just Man,” and a community of dancers which supports him. According to Carla Maxwell, Artistic Director of the Limón Company (and my collaborator throughout the project), Psalm, like many of Limón’s works, is about a people faced with annihilation, rising above it all. Limón wrote in his choreographic notes from 1967 that Psalm would be “&ldots;an evocation of the heroic power of the human spirit, triumphant over death itself.”

At the time Limón began working on the dance, he apparently knew he had prostate cancer, from which he would eventually die. And according to Maxwell, who was one of the dancers upon whom Limón created the original work, Limón choreographed the dance beating on the back of a chair for nine months. He initially wanted to use Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms as the score, but was unable to afford the licensing fee. After the choreography was finished, Limón commissioned composer Eugene Lester to create a score for the ballet. After Limón’s death in 1972, the dance eventually fell out of the repertory, becoming largely unknown even in dance circles.

The text Carla Maxwell and I chose for the ballet score comes from various Psalms from St. Jerome’s Latin version of the Vulgate. In the selection of the text, our concerns were twofold: that the sound of the text be rich with consonants and open vowels, and that the message of the text be consistent with our conception of Limón’s Psalm.

The excerpt performed by American Composers Orchestra begins soon after the midpoint of the ballet. The community performs a rousing “Running Dance,” followed by the Just Man’s last, climactic solo. The denouement brings the community together for its last ensemble dance, the Finale. This dance, an intense, almost demonically rhythmic circling of bodies and patterns from which the soloist emerges leading his community, ends with a final image of the ensemble, forever moving upward in a tighter circle.

Psalm is scored for piccolo, flute, clarinet, trombone, harp, piano, strings (without violins & violas), baritone solo, and chorus.

From the Psalter
Milton Babbitt
Born May 10, 1916, in Philadelphia, PA
Now living in Princeton, NJ

The compositional and intellectual wisdom of Milton Babbitt has influenced a wide range of contemporary musicians. A broad array of distinguished musical achievements in the dodecaphonic system and important writings on the subject have generated increased understanding and integration of serialist language into the eclectic musical styles of today. Babbitt is also renowned for his great talent and instinct for jazz and his astonishing command of American popular music. His All Set, for jazz ensemble, reveals an extraordinary compositional flexibility, uniquely American and vintage Babbitt.

An extensive catalogue of works for multiple combinations of instruments and voice along with his pioneering achievements in synthesized sound have made Babbitt one of the most celebrated contemporary composers. He is a founder and member of the Committee of Direction for the Electronic Music Center of Columbia-Princeton Universities and a member of the Editorial Board of Perspectives of New Music. Milton Babbitt is the recipient of numerous honors, commissions, and awards, including a Mac Arthur Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize Citation for his “life’s work as a distinguished and seminal American composers.” Babbitt is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

About the work, the composer writes:
The text of my From the Psalter is a conjoining into a continuity of Psalm 13 and two stanzas each from Psalms 40 and 41, as realized in verse by Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586). As one would expect of the author of the celebrated Defence of Poessie and the immense sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, these versions of the psalms are scrupulously formed, particularly in their syllabic and terminal rhyme structure. The three instances I have chosen have a predominant ten-syllable line, alternating with a three-syllable line (in Psalm 13), with six and eight syllable lines (in Psalm 40), and with six-syllable lines in Psalm 41. This verbal, metrical constancy necessarily was an initial, defining condition of the composition, which is mirrored musically in the genidentity of the musical “settings” by way of their shared referential norm.

The syntax of the poetry may sometimes appear intricate, even convoluted; an occasional word is “archaic” (at least, for most of us), and familiar words occasionally are employed unfamiliarly, but the verses of this remarkable poet, essayist, and courtier are never ultimately obscure, but elegant, original, and-even-memorable.

I think of this composition as an accompanied recitative, dedicated to Judith Bettina and American Composers Orchestra.

From the Psalter is scored for string orchestra and soprano soloist.

Supplications (for Chorus and Orchestra)
Shulamit Ran
Born October 21, 1949, in Tel Aviv, Israel
Now living in Chicago, Illinois

Shulamit Ran, came to the U.S. at the age of fourteen, having received scholarships from The Mannes College of Music in New York and the America Israel Cultural Foundation. Her composition teachers in Israel and in the U.S. have included A.U. Boskovich, Paul Ben-Haim, Norman Dello Joio and Ralph Shapey. Among her awards, fellowships and commissions are those from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fromm Music Foundation, and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Symphony, first performed in 1990, Pulitzer Prize 1991, first place Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, 1992). In 1990, Ms. Ran was appointed by Maestro Daniel Barenboim to be Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of the Meet the Composer Orchestra Residencies Program, a position she held for seven seasons. From 1994 to 1997, Ran also served as the fifth Brena and Lee Freeman Sr. Composer-in-Residence with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Shulamit Ran, who has performed extensively as a pianist in the U.S., Europe, Israel and elsewhere, is presently the William H. Colvin Professor in the Department of Music at the University of Chicago, where she has taught since 1973.

About the work, the composer writes:
Supplications is a work I consider to be the seed of a large-scale composition I envision tackling at some future point which would posit the eternal human quest for faith with the challenges of life’s often inexplicably cruel realities. Such a work would draw on multiple sources for its texts, juxtaposing quotes from Psalms and Ecclesiastes with more recent writings.

In Supplications, a 7-minute precursor of the larger anticipated composition, the Shma (Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad – Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord is One), the verse from Deuteronomy that functions as the central article of the Jewish faith, is heard at several of the work’s junctions, interspersed with fragments from three different Psalms.

To me, one of the truly striking elements in the Psalms, in addition to their great poetic beauty and moral depth, is the all-encompassing diversity of attitudes, sentiments and affects with which the Divine is approached. Indeed, as has often been commented upon, it is one of the extraordinary things about the Jewish religion that confronting God, even to the point of challenging God’s actions and judgment, is acceptable.

In Supplications my intent was to create a narrative, which may be likened to a one-way conversation with God which, ultimately, is also a journey of self-revelation. It opens with the universally beloved Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want” (Adonai roi lo echsar) being gently intoned. From the supreme security of God’s benevolence, and after the Shma is first heard though, it is Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Eili, eili, lama azavtani) that surfaces, questioning, pleading, becoming progressively more confrontational. Following a second, more extended “Shma,” Psalm 115, “Not unto us, O Lord, but unto thy name give glory, for thy truth, and for thy truth’s sake” (Lo lanu, Adonai) is expressive of a quest for a higher meaning, a transcendence of one’s personal trials. This leads finally to the serene acceptance of Psalm 22 in “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel” (Ve-ata kadosh).

I chose to set my music to the original Hebrew text, but also, often simultaneously, to English. The translation appears in the Friedlander Bible, first published in England in 1884. The bi-lingual volume I consulted was given to me, just before I first came to the U.S. from Israel, by the late General Haim Laskov, the fifth Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, a person who was a great admirer and eternal student of the Bible, and a true music lover whose support of my music in my early youth will always be remembered. His words to me, when he gave me this volume, were: “Take care of it, and it will take care of you”.

Supplications (for Chorus and Orchestra) is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (one doubling Eb clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, timpani, percussion, strings, and chorus.

The Sixty-Seventh Psalm & Psalm 100
Charles Ives
Born October 20, 1874, in Danbury, Connecticut
Dies May 19, 1954, in New York City

While best known as a pioneer in American experimental music, Charles Edward Ives may yet be remembered more for his remarkable versatility than for his revolutionary musical compositions. Long before Nicolas Slonimsky dubbed him “America’s musical prophet,” Ives worked as a church organist who regularly wrote for the volunteer choirs at his disposal. Throughout the 1890s and early 1900s, Ives composed for the unique circumstances of each congregation, choir, and denomination at the numerous churches that employed him. After more than a decade of working as a church organist, Ives took on the role of choir director at the Bloomfield Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield, New Jersey from 1898-1900; and at Central Presbyterian Church on W. 57th Street from 1900-02. During these four years, for the only time in his career, Ives the choir director could try out his own compositions as he wrote them, on his own choir. Already a veteran organist, he explored a new musical voice by stretching the boundaries of choral writing in works such as The Sixty-Seventh Psalm (1898-99) and Psalm 100 (around 1902).

Both psalms reveal the hand of an organist. Both transfer the block chords and close, triadic structures of keyboard writing directly to the voices. The result is a dense, rich texture with each voice part split into two or more pitches (SSAATTBB). This “choral organ” is used to achieve variable and marvelous effects. In Psalm 100, it is a powerful celebratory declamation, truly the overwhelming, dramatic “joyful noise” the text requires. In The Sixty-Seventh Psalm, the same vocal density expresses not only sacred power, but the hushed awe of the supplicant praying for mercy.

Beneath this unconventional vocal writing, which must have baffled Ives’s choirs, stands a surprisingly conventional foundation. Despite some crunching dissonances, most of Psalm 100 is diatonic. The Sixty-Seventh Psalm follows a three-part form with an imitative middle section framed by outer, repeated sections – the standard format for American sacred anthems at the turn of the century. The work’s most unusual feature is its use of bitonality. Even here, however, the experimentation serves a purpose beyond mere musical adventurousness. Each bitonal chord combines two independent tonal areas into a uniquely resonant complex, suggesting that a single, predictable tonality is inadequate for depicting the expanse and mystery of divinity. Ultimately, these psalm settings reveal the depth and paradox of Charles Ives, conservative experimenter and pragmatic visionary.

— Gayle Sherwood

Four Psalms
John Harbison
Born December 20, 1938, in Orange, New Jersey
Now living in Boston, Massachusetts

John HarbisonJohn Habison is one of America’s most prominent composers. He has written for every conceivable type of concert performance, ranging from the grandest to the most intimate, pieces that embrace jazz along with the pre-classical forms of Schutz and Bach, the graceful tonality of Prokofiev, and the rigorous atonal methods of late Stravinsky. He is also a gifted commentator on the art and craft of composition and was recognized in his student years an outstanding poet. Today, he continues to convey, through the spoken word, the multiple meanings of contemporary composition.

In 1998, Harbison was named winner of the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities, a prize established in honor of the late Senator John Heinz, by his wife Teresa Heinz, to recognize leaders annually for significant and sustained contributions in areas including the arts and humanities. John Harbison has also received the Kennedy Center Friedheim First Prize of 1980 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989. With his wife Rose Rary Harbison, for whom he has composed much of his violin music, Harbison runs the Token Creek Music Festival on the family farm in Wisconsin.

About the work, the composer writes:
Four Psalms celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. Composing such a piece at such a moment in Israel’s history has been an honor and a heavy responsibility.

Four Psalms opens with a prelude for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, a prayer composed by Amemar in 454 A.D., which states the major themes of the piece, both musical and philosophical. A rabbi and mystic in Babylon, Amemar studied the theological meaning of dreams. His prayer asks God for dreams of Israel that are true and enduring visions: “If they are good, strengthen them&ldots;But if they require healing, heal them.” There follow four psalms, in Hebrew, alternating with the voices, in English, of people now living. The psalm settings employ fully developed forms-march, antiphon, passacaglia, and aria-suggested by the majesty and mystery of the Hebrew language. In contrast, the contemporary voices are set within brief inventions, their form echoing the momentary illuminations granted to those reflecting upon their own time.

The contemporary voices are those of people who were kind enough to speak to me freely and openly about Israel during the course of my preparation for this piece. From some thirty conversations I have drawn three scenes, using fifteen voices in all. Visionary, contentious, humorous, virulent, fragile, these men and women represent our present moment. By contrast, the psalms are the ancient and enduring voice of our collective past, continually renewed by their liturgical role. Each marks a point in Israel’s journey through adversity and triumph, achievement and loss, toward the Israel of Amemar’s dream.

I am grateful to many people for their contributions to this piece. I thank especially Arthur Avnon, Consul General of Chicago at the time the commission was offered: his successor, Tzipora Rimon; and the members of the Consulate’s Steering Committee for Music. Help with Hebrew came from Michael Rose, Joel Gordon, Cantor Richard Cohn, and Eli Friedlander. Support of other kinds came from Stanley and Cathleen Cavell, Shulamit Ran, Talia David, Rose Mary Harbison, Susan Feder, Ann Harleman, and the Bogliasco Foundation.

Four Psalms was commissioned by the Israeli Consulate of Chicago, with funding provided by Joan and Irving Harris.

Four Psalms is scored for 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo, 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings, chorus, and soloists.

Related Essay: Four Psalms & Many Critics: John Harbison Talks About the Work
by Mic Holwin