Notes (2003/03/02)

Sunday, March 2, 2003 at 3pm
“Zappa and the Emerging American Composer”

L’alma respira
Dan Coleman
Born January 12, 1972, in New York, NY
Now living in Tucson, AZ

Dan Coleman was recently named Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with the Tucson Symphony, as part of a national residency program of the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet The Composer. Coleman studied composition at Juilliard, the Aspen Music School, and the University of Pennsylvania, where his teachers included Stephen Albert, Robert Beaser, William Bolcom, George Crumb, and George Tsontakis. While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center commissioned a work from him, and based on the success of that piece, Coleman was invited to be a composer-in-residence for both the Seattle Chamber Music Festival (1993), and the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra (1994-1999). Two years later, Coleman was chosen as the first composer ever on the roster of Young Concert Artists. In 2002, he received the Beyer Chamber Music Award for his Quintet (after Elizabeth Bishop).

Coleman has composed arrangements for three popular albums by A&M Records’ artist Lisa Loeb, and has also contributed to a number of feature films, most recently as an orchestrator for David Mamet’s Heist (2001). His concert music has been recorded for Albany Records.

About the work, the composer writes:

L’alma respira (“my soul breathes”) takes its title from one of Petrarch’s Sonnets to Laura. The speaker of the poem laments the unbridgeable distance between himself and his lover, but discovers that by meditating on his loss he can recover a connection to her.

Ove d’altra montagna ombra non tocchi
Verso il maggior e il più spedito giogo
Tirar mi suol un desider intenso
Ind’ I miei dann’ a misurar con gli occhi
Comincio. E’n tanto lagrimando sfogo
Di dolorosa nebbia ‘l cor condenso
Alhor ch’ io mir’ e penso
Quant’ aria del bel viso mi diparte
Che sempre m’ è si presso e si lontano,
Poscia fra me pian’piano,
<<Che sai to lasso, fors’ in quella parte
Hor di tua lontananza si sospira?>>
Ed in questo pensier l’alma respira.

Where no other mountain can cast a shadow on the loftiest peak, an intense desire consumes me, and with my eyes I measure my loss. In such weeping, I clear my heart of sorrow. I gaze and think of how much space separates me from the beautiful face that is always so close and yet so far. Softly from within me I hear: “Do you know that far away, in some other place, she sighs?” And with that thought, my soul breathes again.


My work may be heard as a song of unrequited love, echoing the sonnet, but the poem can also serve as a parable for the challenges of composing orchestral music in an age when the medium itself has been frozen in the past. I am distanced from the historical ideals of symphonic music, just as the poem’s speaker is distanced from his lover, but in the act of creation I attempt to close the gap. Within a contemporary frame, I endeavor to redeem and personalize certain traditional musical gestures.

The work begins with a long, quiet sigh in the strings: a chord that is only resolved in the final cadence of the piece. I explore lyrical, “breathing” melodies as well as strands of counterpoint that begin euphoniously intertwined, but which are pulled apart over time, revealing great musical distances.

L’alma respira was commissioned by American Composers Orchestra with the generous support of the Helen F. Whitaker Fund, and was also funded in part by the Margaret Fairbank Jory Copying Assistance Program of the American Music Center.

The work is scored for Piccolo, Flute, Alto Flute, 2 Oboes, English Horn, Piccolo Clarinet, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, Piccolo Trumpet, 2 Trumpets, 2 Tenor Trombones, Bass Trombone, Tuba, Timpani, 3 Percussionists (playing Vibraphone, Cymbals, Glockenspiel, Crotales, Chimes, Snare Drum, Tam-Tams, Marimba, Xylophone, Sleighbells, Bass Drum, Anvil, and Thunder Sheet), Harp, Piano, Celesta, and Strings.

Autumn Fall
Hsueh-Yung Shen
Born March 30, 1952, in Washington, DC
Now living in Georgetown, Texas

Hsueh-Yung Shen, had an early start in music, beginning piano at six, and composition at eight. He received most of his musical training with Nadia Boulanger in France, and also studied with Darius Milhaud at Aspen, and Leon Kirchner and Lukas Foss at Harvard University. He received his DMA in composition from Stanford University in 1980, has taught at Stanford and Harvard, and since 1987 he has taught theory, piano, percussion, and composition at Southwestern University in Texas. Mr. Shen is also timpanist with the Austin Lyric Opera. His works have been performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Concord String Quartet, and Grand Teton Music Festival. In 1998 three works were performed at the Summartónar Festival in the Færoe Islands (Scandanavia), including the première of his Third String Quartet with the Marselis Quartet. His Concertino, written for the Aldubáran Ensemble, was performed and recorded in the Færoes. The Met Orchestra recently performed Legend with its principal percussionist, Greg Zuber, at Carnegie Hall.

About the work, the composer writes:

There is indeed a play of words in the title, Autumn Fall, as on some levels the work is a meditation on the changing colors of leaves, which eventually all fall off at the end. The work follows a large unbroken arch, where there is a very slow build-up, and a slow fade-out as the various mysteries are finally illuminated.

As perhaps usual in my music, one may hear allusions to a great variety of composers from the last century. The distribution of instruments of the symphony orchestra, along with the numerical dominance of the strings, already alludes to its history. Even the notes of the scale have historical baggage; when the entire orchestra sits on the note A in various ways for almost a minute, one senses the history of that very note. Note that the most “modern” instrument used in the work, the marimba, does stand out as a relative newcomer; it is used very softly but prominently with rolled chords for two players, like a distant chorus.

The work was commissioned by American Composers Orchestra with support from The Helen F. Whitaker Fund.

Autumn Fall is scored for two flutes, one doubling piccolo, alto flute, two oboes, English Horn, two clarinets, one doubling E-flat piccolo clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, crotales, vibraphone, marimba (two players), chimes, two pitched gongs, cymbals, two pairs of bongos, large tam-tam, Mark Tree, maracas or large rain-stick), piano doubling celesta, harp, and strings.

In Search of the Miraculous
Brian Robison
Born April 24, 1964, in Bryn Mawr, PA
Now living in Cambridge, MA

Brian Robison is Assistant Professor of Music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He completed his doctorate at Cornell University, where he studied with Steven Stucky, Roberto Sierra, and Karel Husa. Previously, he studied composition with Burt Fenner at Pennsylvania State University, where he graduated with highest distinction, and with Tristan Murail and Philippe Manoury at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, where he was awarded the Maurice Ravel Prize in 1991.

About the work, the composer writes:

In Search of the Miraculous takes its title from a book by P. D. Ouspensky (1878-1947); for me, the phrase conveniently describes composers in the act of composition. My process of writing music always begins as a rational enterprise of design and construction, but many of the music’s attractive characteristics develop from intuitions I can’t explain. In the end, no matter how extensively I apply technical knowledge and logical calculation, they merely provide a framework for unpredictable, evanescent, magical phenomena in sound.

Ouspenky’s book records teachings of the charismatic cult leader G. I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949). I couldn’t make sense of Gurdjieff’s arcane metaphysical disquisitions, and his meditations on the traditional European musical scale didn’t inspire me. Nonetheless, a geometric figure in one of the book’s illustrations caught my eye: the enneagram, a figure comprising nine equidistant points along a circle, connected by various straight lines to create a figure of bilateral (rather than radial) symmetry. I have based the form of the piece on the enneagram.

The work comprises nine mutually contrasting passages of music, arranged so that the end of music #1 overlaps with the beginning of music #2, and so on, suggesting a trip along the circumference of the enneagram. The peak of each section incorporates some reminiscence of previous music or foreshadowing of later music, in a manner corresponding to the chords that connect the nine points of the enneagram. Thus, as one musical motive begins to fade, the next is already underway, and as each attains its peak, it simultaneously recalls an earlier idea and foreshadows a later one.

The specific character of each music derives partly from its number-for example, music #3 is based on a three-note motive (derived from the call of a wood thrush), outlining an equal division of the octave by three (that is, an augmented triad). Some of the characters refer to specific musical styles: #4 presents a lopsided disco groove, and #9 imitates a festive parade samba; others present more generic manifestations of “two-ness” or “seven-ness.”

I mention all of this only to explain the relationship between the work’s title and its form. It really doesn’t matter whether listeners are consciously aware of these connections-in fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t. My goal wasn’t to create a puzzle for listeners to solve; rather, I wanted to create music that would exhibit certain symmetries and connections, that would offer energy, beauty, shimmer, and wit, but that would ultimately ask more questions than it answers.

In Search of the Miraculous was commissioned by American Composer Orchestra with the generous support of The Helen F. Whitaker Fund.

In Search of the Miraculous is scored for 3 flutes (two doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (one doubling cor anglais), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 4 percussionists, piano, harp, and strings.

The Adventures of Greggery Peccary (U.S. Premiere)
G-Spot Tornado
The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat (a.k.a. Dog/Meat) (NY Premiere)
Peaches en Regalia (U.S. Premiere)
Frank Zappa (Arr. Ali N. Askin)
Born December 21, 1940 in Baltimore, MD
Died December 4, 1993 in Los Angeles, CA

When talking about a creative fusion of various worlds of popular music with the classical tradition, it is impossible to ignore Frank Zappa, who uniquely fused everything from jazz and rock to avant-garde classical music into work performed by every kind of ensemble from rock to symphony orchestra. His role went far beyond the music, however, because he was also, in many of his pieces, a satirist as well as a political commentator both on and off the concert stage.

When he first began work as a performing musician, his appearance, his music, and his associates could all easily give the impression that he was just a rock musician with a band. But the band, The Mothers of Invention, contained musicians schooled, and/or willing to be trained by Zappa, in a variety of genres, including classical music. Zappa’s first album, Freak Out! (1966), combined elements of these musical styles in music of greater complexity, both rhythmic and structural, than pop music’s fans were generally accustomed to.

Early in life Zappa was captivated by avant-garde classical music. In the early ’50s, he started playing the drums. When his parents were unable to afford rental of a snare drum, he began using anything within reach as a percussion instrument. “I was just interested in the sounds of things that a person could beat on.” After reading an article about record-merchant Sam Goody’s ability to sell anything-even a recording of Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation, which the writer explained was “nothing but drums…dissonant and terrible…the worst music in the world,” young Zappa bought that LP-his very first. When he started playing the album at home, his mother insisted that he move the record player to his bedroom. He followed up on Varèse with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Webern’s Symphony, Opus 21, listening to them over and over.

Eventually, due to illness, Zappa gave up the life of a touring musician to concentrate exclusively on composition. During this period, Zappa continued to utilize the Synclavier, a computerized keyboard-synthesizer he initially adopted in the 1980s, to create and realize performances of his works. Classical musicians (including Pierre Boulez) undertook performance of his music. He made one of his last public appearances at a concert by one of Europe’s leading new-music groups, the Ensemble Modern, in Frankfurt in 1992.

Following an early death, a large part of Zappa’s recorded heritage was reissued on CD, and a body of scholarly studies have demonstrated growing interest in his music. Moreover the composer’s family has authorized Ali N. Askin, who originally assisted Zappa with the Ensemble Modern arrangements that resulted in The Yellow Shark album (including G-Spot and Dog Breath Variations), to transcribe orchestral versions of works.

Zappa’s earliest pieces were prepared for one or another of his bands. Peaches en Regalia was frequently played by Zappa’s bands between 1970 and 1988. Dog Breath Variations started as a pair of rock pieces in the 1960s. The version of The Adventures of Greggery Peccary heard today was transcribed for the Ensemble Modern and receives its US premiere. His later works were most often realized with and performed on the Synclavier, among them G-Spot Tornado.

Zappa’s music embraces the fullest range of American popular culture while simultaneously satirizing American political and social convention. Its energy, many layers of activity, sly quotations, and cross-references have continued to arouse interest and comment since the composer’s death a decade ago.

Each of the works of Frank Zappa heard today are available on compact disc, in performances presided over by Zappa.

–Steven Ledbetter

Related Essay: Essay: Digging the Nuggets