Notes (2003/10/08)

Wednesday, October 8, 2003 at 8pm “Different Trains ”
notes on the program by Simon Z. Michaels

Christian Zeal and Activity
John Adams
Born, February 15, 1947 in Worcester, MA
Now living in San Francisco, CA

One of America’s most admired and frequently performed composers, John Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1947. After graduating from Harvard University in 1971, he moved to California, where he taught and conducted at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for ten years. His innovative concerts led to his appointment first as contemporary music adviser to the San Francisco Symphony and then as the orchestra’s composer-in-residence between 1979 and 1985, the period in which his reputation became established with the success of such works as Harmonium and Harmonielehre.

In 2003 Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his work On the Transmigation of Souls, a work written in commemoration of the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. In April and May of 2003 Lincoln Center presented a festival entitled “John Adams: An American Master”, the most extensive festival ever mounted at Lincoln Center devoted to a living composer. This season Adams succeeds Pierre Boulez in the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall.

Christian Zeal and Activity, written in 1973, is the middle movement of American Standard. Each movement of the triptych was inspired by a common music form, in the case of the present work, a hymn.

The composer writes:

American Standard was written under the influence of the English experimental composers of the 1960’s, particularly Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra. Cardew’s aim, in keeping with this anti-elitist politics of art, was to create a kind of new Gebrauchmusik, a body of work that could be played by performers with only the minimum of technical abilities. But now, twenty years later, I realize that my New England sensibilities still came through loud and clear in Christian Zeal & Activity, and the mixture of the serene, almost stationary homophonies of the hymn, contrasted with the gritty, active sound of the human voice, was a subconscious reenactment of the scenario of Ives’ Unanswered Question.

The work is scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, pre-recorded tape, harp, and strings.

Grand Bamboula
Charles Wuorinen
Born, June 9, 1938 in New York City
Now living in New York City

Grand Bamboula for string orchestra was written in 1970, and is the first of four works that contain the word “bamboula” in their titles. Among other things “bamboula” was a creole dance; and as the composer has written, he owes the title to the American composer/pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (although he has pointed out that “no other relation to Gottschalk is intended”). Wuorinen’s bamboulas (the others being The Blue Bamboula (1980) for piano, Bamboula Squared (1984) for orchestra and computer generated sound, and Bamboula Beach (1987), an orchestral overture, can all be described at extroverted and celebratory.

In Grand Bamboula, the basic materials can never be heard in the foreground; rather they are shape-defining, harmony-determining, and gesture-unleashing. An underlying process can be heard over the works 6 and ½ minutes – from discontinuity and heterogeneity at the start, to the single long musical “state” or gesture that ends the work.

Charles Wuorinen has been composing since he was five and he has been a forceful presence on the American musical scene for more than four decades. In 1970, he became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Time’s Encomium.

In 1962 he co-founded The Group for Contemporary Music, one of America’s most prestigious ensembles dedicated to performance of new chamber music. Wuorinen is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Wuorinen has written more than 200 compositions to date. His opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories based on a novel of Salman Rushdie with a libretto by the poet James Fenton premieres at the New York City Opera this Fall.

The work is scored for an orchestra of strings.

By Simon Z. Michaels & Howard Stokar

Still Things Move
Anna Weesner
Born, 1965, in Iowa City, Iowa
Now living in Philadelphia, PA

Anna Weesner’s music has been performed by Dawn Upshaw, Richard Goode, Gilbert Kalish, the Cassatt and Cypress Quartets, and Orchestra 2001. She has received commissions from Metamorphosen, Network for New Music, and Music at the Anthology, and had her orchestra music selected for reading sessions by the Indianapolis Symphony, American Composers Orchestra, and Women’s Philharmonic. She is the recipient of a Bunting Fellowship (2002) and Pew Fellowship in the Arts (2003), and has been in residence at the MacDowell Colony, the Wellesley Composers Conference, Blue Mountain Center, and at Foundation Royaumont in France.

Weesner studied flute and composition at Yale and completed a DMA at Cornell University. Her teachers include Thomas Nyfenger, Jonathan Berger, Michael Friedmann, Steven Stucky, Roberto Sierra Karel Husa, John Harbison, and George Tsontakis. She currently lives in Philadelphia, where she is Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

About the work, the composer writes:

I intend and enjoy a double meaning in the word ‘still.’ I mean to suggest both that something fixed is brought into motion, and at the same time describe an abiding sense that in the stillness of a long-held wish—in spite of stillness, that is—things do move; fulfillment looms. Still Things Move opens with a brief hymn-like movement, the spirit around which the work is built. A second movement is set in motion by a single line, played pizzicato, that leads to a recasting of the opening material as rhythmic, spare music that accumulates gradually, gathering energy and drive. The final movement is elemental in nature, returning to the opening stillness and expanding upon it. The movements are played without pause. Still Things Move was commissioned by conductor Scott Yoo and Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra, to whom it is dedicated.

The work is scored for an orchestra of strings.

Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra
Irving Fine
Born December 3, 1914, in Boston, Massachusetts
Died August 23, 1962, in Boston, Massachusetts

Irving Fine, a contemporary of Copland, Stravinsky, Koussevitzky, and Bernstein, spent most of his professional career in the Boston area working on a small but impressive output while holding professorships at Harvard and later Brandeis Universities. Fine’s initial training was as a pianist, though eventually he studied composition and theory, in addition to conducting. Active up until his death—he conducted the premiere of his Symphony less than 2 weeks before he died—in 1962 of a heart attack, his later works are colored by twelve-tone technique, but the higher degree of dissonance never compromised his music’s textural clarity. Aaron Copland wrote that Fine’s music “wins us over through its keenly conceived sonorities and its fully realized expressive content,” praising it for “elegance, styles, finish, and convincing continuity,” its overarching lyricism summed up in Virgil Thomson’s description of its “unusual melodic grace.” Despite his interest in the twelve-tone system, lyricism permeated his post-1950 works, the Serious Song in particular. Serious Song was written on commission by the Louisville Philharmonic, and premiered in 1955. Fine described the work as “essentially an extended aria for string orchestra.”

Serious Song is scored for an orchestra of strings.

The Holy City
Alan Hovhaness
Born March 8, 1911, in Somerville, MA
Died June 21, 2000, in Seattle, Washington

Alan Hovhaness—whose output was over 400 works, including 60 symphonies—was drawn to music, as well as writing and painting, early in life. By his teens, he turned to composition exclusively. John Cage once called Hovhaness a “music tree who, as an orange or lemon tree produces fruit, produces music.” Hovhaness was a cosmopolitan, and his music reflected the places visited. A recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and a Rockefeller Grant, he traveled the world, including stops in South India, the Far East, and Japan to study indigenous music. Extensive Eastern influence is heard in nearly all of his output, as is the religious nature of his music, nurtured during a lifelong interest in meditation and mysticism. Religious overtones are heard in The Holy City, particularly in the trumpet, but this is one layer of the music. The work has been called one of Hovhaness’ most eerily beautiful scores, in part because of the extensive use of multiple subdivisions of the string parts. Conductor Arthur Lipkin commissioned the work in 1965 through the U.S. Committee to Further American Contemporary Music.

The Holy City is scored for trumpet, harp, percussion, and an orchestra of strings.

Different Trains
Steve Reich
Born in New York, NY
Now living in New York, NY

From his pioneering minimalist taped speech pieces to his and video artist Beryl Korot’s recent digital video opera Three Tales (2002), Steve Reich’s path has embraced not only aspects of Western Classical music, but the structures, harmonies, and rhythms of non-Western and American vernacular music, particularly jazz.

Born in New York and raised there and in California, Mr. Reich graduated with honors in philosophy from Cornell University, and studied further at the Juilliard School and Mills College. Mr. Reich studied drumming in Ghana, the Balinese gamelan, and traditional forms of cantillation (chanting) of the Hebrew Scriptures.

In 1994 Steve Reich was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, to the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in 1995, and, in 1999, awarded Commandeur de l’ordre des Arts et Lettres. In 2000 he was awarded the Schuman Prize from Columbia University, the Montgomery Fellowship from Dartmouth College, the Regent’s Lectureship at the University of California at Berkeley, an honorary doctorate from the California Institute of the Arts and was named Composer of the Year by Musical America magazine.

About the work, the composer writes:

Different Trains was originally written in 1988 for String Quartet and pre-recorded performance tape and arranged for String Orchestra and pre-recorded tape in 2001. It begins a new way of composing that has its roots in my early tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966). The basic idea is that carefully chosen speech recordings generate the musical materials for musical instruments.

The idea for the piece comes from my childhood. When I was one year old my parents separated. My mother moved to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since they arranged divided custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Lost Angeles from 1939 to 1942 accompanied by my governess. While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride a very different train. With this in mind I wanted to make a piece that would accurately reflect the whole situation. In order to prepare the tape I did the following:

1. Record my governess Virginia, then in her seventies, reminiscing about our train trips together.
2. Record a retired Pullman porter, Lawrence Davis, then in his eighties, who used to ride lines between New York and Los Angles, reminiscing about his life.
3. Collect recordings of Holocaust survivors Rachella, Paul and Rachel, all about my age and then living in America – speaking of their experiences.
4. Collect recorded American and European trains sounds of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

In order to combine the taped speech with the string instruments I selected small speech samples that are more or less clearly pitched and then notated them as accurately as possible in musical notation. The strings then literally imitate that speech melody. The speech samples as well as the train sounds were transferred to tape. Four separate string quartets are also added to the pre-recorded tape and the live string orchestra is added in performance.

The piece thus presents both a documentary and a musical reality, and begins a musical direction that has lead to a new kind of documentary music video theater.

Different Trains is scored for 12 each first and second violins, violas, and cellos, broken down into four quartets of 3 instruments each, and pre-recorded tape.

notes on the program by Simon Z. Michaels