PROGRAM NOTES for January 28, 2017

The following notes are copyright Susan Halpern, 2017.


Structures. . . Morton Feldman
(Born Jan. 12, 1926, in New York City; died Sept. 3, 1987 in Buffalo, N.Y.)

Morton Feldman, a unique and influential 20th century American composer, experimented with non-traditional notation, improvisation, and timbre creating a distinctive style that is intimate and emphasizes isolated and small, quiet moments of sound. His music is intimate and often slow. His work in the 1950s utilized graphic notation in which only approximate indications were given to the performers.

Feldman, whose parents came to America from Kiev, grew up in New York during the time when Mayor LaGuardia championed high art for the working man and many European artists emigrated to the city. Feldman studied piano with Vera Maurina Press, a legendary pedagogue who had been a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni. Feldman did not have a university education, and did not care for the academic approach to music composition that he felt did not allow artists to be free. Feldman was a true American composer, who took great pains to differentiate himself from traditionally trained European composers. He felt that being American gave him the special freedom to work unfettered by tradition.

Feldman’s first composition teacher was Wallingford Riegger, one of the earliest American followers of Arnold Schoenberg. He also studied with Stefan Wolpe, but John Cage, whom he met in 1950, a year before he composed Structures, was his most important musical friendship. The influence of painters and artists of all mediums with whom Feldman made friends allowed him to develop his personal and instinctual method of composing. His friendship with Cage had an immediate galvanizing effect on Feldman. Although Feldman composed for ordinary instruments at that time still in the usual way and thus did not follow Cage’s practices, he felt inspired by the unconventionality of Cage’s mind. The friendship allowed Feldman to be true to himself: “I owe him everything and I owe him nothing,” Feldman said.

Although it could be said that Feldman’s music is full of repetition, and individual chords, textures and rhythmic ideas do recur, they are very rarely the same, and patterns of sound are not predictable in the way that they proceed, patterns don’t progress in a predictable way, which makes Feldman’s aesthetic radically different from such minimalists as Reich or Glass.

In 1973, he became the Edgar Varèse Chair in composition at the University of New York at Buffalo, which he held until his death in 1987.

Here are some interesting quotations from Feldman: “If a man teaches composition in a university, how can he not be a composer? He has worked hard, learned his craft. Ergo, he is a composer. A professional. Like a doctor. But there is that doctor who opens you up, does exactly the right thing, closes you up—and you die. He failed to take the chance that might have saved you. Art is a crucial, dangerous operation we perform on ourselves. Unless we take a chance, we die in art.”

“Polyphony sucks.”

“Because I’m Jewish, I do not identify with, say, Western civilization music. In other words, when Bach gives us a diminished fourth, I cannot respond that the diminished fourth means, O God. . . . What are our morals in music? Our moral in music is nineteenth-century German music, isn’t it? I do think about that, and I do think about the fact that I want to be the first great composer that is Jewish.”

Alex Ross, in The Rest is Noise, put it very well: “The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure.”

He continued: “In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music, and performers must set aside their training to do it justice. Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his Feldman barked, ‘It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.’” Asked why he preferred soft dynamic levels, he replied:“- Because when it’s loud, you can’t hear the sound. You hear its attack. Then you don’t hear the sound, only in its decay. And I think that’s essentially what impressed Boulez. That he heard a sound, not an attack, emerging and disappearing without attack and decay, almost like an electronic medium.
Also, you have to remember that loud and soft is an aspect of differentiation. And my music is more like a kind of monologue that does not need exclamation point, colon, it does not need….”

Structures, composed in 1951, was a testament to Feldman’s particular variety of artistic courage, when this courage was newly being expressed, a year after Feldman met Cage. Although there are debts to Webern, Feldman utilizes none of the organic development of the Second Viennese School, of which Webern was a part, although it does owe it a debt for its quiet and spare style. Structures is only six minutes long; later, Feldman would go to the other extreme with a string quartet that lasted over four hours, but though understatement is its guiding principle, there is much that engages the listener.

It is important to understand that in Structures the sound of a note is not like any conventional idea about a note’s traditional function, and the “events” Feldman brings together do not have a dramatic curve. It is said that Feldman’s approach to composition was similar to that of the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who Feldman had also met in 1950. Rauschenberg said he wanted to make neither art nor life, but something in between. (An interesting side story is that Rauschenberg sold Feldman his first painting that year, at the price of whatever money was in Feldman’s pockets at the time: $16 and change.)

Frank O’Hara, quoting from Morton Feldman’s Essays, ed. Walter Zimmermann, writes
“One of the most remarkable pieces (…) is ‘Structures for String Quartet’ (1951). It is a classical string quartet without sonata development, without serial development in general without benefit of clergy. Like Emily Dickinson’s best poems, it does not seem to be what it is until all questions of ‘seeming’ have disappeared in its own projection. Its form reveals itself after its meaning is revealed, as Dickinson’s passion ignores her dazzling technique. As with several other Feldman pieces, if you cannot hear ‘Structures’, I doubt that studying the score would be a help, though it is a thoroughly notated field of dynamic incident, whose vertical elements are linked through some sort of shy contrapuntal stimulation of great delicacy and tautness.”

Lejaren Hiller wrote, “The ‘structures’ of the piece follow one another in a quite straightforward linear pattern. The opening section is pointillistic and sparse in texture. This is followed by what I will call, for lack of a better word, a series of quasi-ostinato passages. Each one of these is almost but not quite a precisely fixed ostinato of a type almost resembling a tape loop in electronic music. Four of these occur in sequence separated by short rests or simple intervening chords. A second pointillistic passage, reminiscent of the opening, appears next and this is followed by two more quasi-ostinati and a concluding section again reminiscent of the opening. The dialectic of the piece thus is one of emptiness versus density, and of irregularity versus periodicity.


String Quartet . . . Ruth Crawford Seeger
(Born July 3, 1901 in East Liverpool, Ohio; died November 18, 1953, in Chevy Chase, Maryland)

Ruth Crawford Seeger, a remarkable American composer, was the wife of Charles Seeger, her composition teacher and renowned ethnomusicologist, and the stepmother of the folksinger Pete Seeger. She gave courses at the American Conservatory in Chicago from 1925-29, and in 1930, she was the first woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship in Music. She was mostly known as a compiler of American folk songs, furthering a hobby as a collector that she began when she was still a child, and to which she devoted much of her time after being inspired by the New Deal to spend more time on the preservation of American folk music.

Her compositions were rarely performed during her lifetime but had a revival in the decades after her death. They are bold in their experimental perceptions, incorporating techniques developed by Seeger including dissonant counterpoint and rhythmic freedom between contrapuntal voices, anticipating the future techniques of modernist composers.

The work that Crawford Seeger is best known for is her String Quartet, composed in 1931 while in Europe on her Guggenheim fellowship. This work displays her as among the most daring American avant-garde composers. Each movement of her quartet reflects her aim to effect change and diversity.

Each movement is extremely dynamic but maintains the conventions of a string quartet. The fast first movement, Rubato assai, is built on counterpoint of almost completely independent themes of arching intervals that were influenced by the Webern-Schoenberg style. Each of the four themes is expressed in dissonant counterpoint and accretes in energy as the movement progresses.

The second movement, Leggiero (lightly), develops a three-note motive that undergoes many shifts of accent and implied meter. It is canonic, with as Joseph Stevenson says, “the lines of the music . . .often linked from one instrument to the next like a chain.” The third movement is composed in what Crawford called “dissonant dynamics” or “heterophony of dynamics” in which although all four instruments are playing together, they each increase to their dynamic peaks at different times. This effect can be understood by the listener as the subject passed among the instruments. Each of the four instruments has its own independent dynamic range. The finale, Allegro, is written in a kind of musical palindrome, creating extraordinary dramatic tension, with the second half an exact retrograde of the first, transposed up a half step. The first violin leads with answers, sometimes in unison from the other strings. In the later part of the movement, the three lower instruments take on the style and thematic material of the first violin as it becomes the accompanist. In the end, the instruments revert to the texture of the beginning.


Intonations . . . Derek Bermel
(Born in 1967 in the United States)

Grammy-nominated composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel has been widely hailed for his creativity, theatricality, and virtuosity. Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Bermel is also Director of Copland House’s emerging composers institute Cultivate, served as Composer-in-Residence at the Mannes College of Music, and as artist-in-residence at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton. Bermel is also the curator of an unusual concert series that spotlights the composer as performer.

Bermel’s engagement with other musical cultures is part of the fabric and force of his compositional language, in which the human voice and its myriad inflections play a primary role.

He has received commissions from the Pittsburgh, National, Saint Louis, and Pacific Symphonies, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, WNYC Radio, La Jolla Music Society, Seattle Chamber Music Festival, eighth blackbird, Guarneri String Quartet, Music from Copland House and Music from China, De Ereprijs (Netherlands), violinist Midori, and electric guitarist Wiek Hijmans among others.

The Boston Globe wrote, “There doesn’t seem to be anything that Bermel can’t do with the clarinet.” His many honors include the Alpert Award in the Arts, Rome Prize, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships, American Music Center’s Trailblazer Award, and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; commissions from the Koussevitzky and Fromm Foundations, Meet the Composer, and Cary Trust; and residencies at Yaddo, Tanglewood, Aspen, Banff, Bellagio, Copland House, Sacatar, and Civitella Ranieri.

Bermel recently made his Cabrillo Festival debut, conducting his Dust Dances, and he served as composer-in-residence at the Bowdoin Festival. Recent and upcoming are appearances or premieres include the Intimacy of Creativity Festival in Hong-Kong, the Seattle Chamber Music Festival; Hyllos, his evening-length collaboration with The Veenfabriek and Asko | Schönberg Ensemble, which premiered in the Netherlands; performances and recordings with the JACK quartet and Music from Copland House ensemble; and as soloist with the New Century Chamber Orchestra.

Intonations, composed in 2016, was commissioned by the 92nd St. Y in New York , where it was premiered on May 23, 2016 by the JACK Quartet as part of the opening concert of the 2016 New York Philharmonic’s Biennial.

Bermel has written: “Intonations is my first multi-movement quartet, inspired in part by the novel ‘The Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison. Each movement explores a distinct quality of the human voice, from the breath of harmonica blues to a gospel singer’s melodic thread to vocal cadences in hiphop.

“It has been a great joy to collaborate with the JACK Quartet for several years, both as performer and composer. I’m grateful to Clement So at the 92nd Street Y and to Ellen Highstein at the Tanglewood Music Center for helping bring this new composition to life.”
Intonation is Bermel’s second composition for the JACK Quartet and his first multi-movement quartet (comprising JuHarmonica, Hymn/Homily, and Hustle) — utilizes the string quartet as an expression of the human voice. The composer writes: “Each movement explores a distinct quality of the human voice, from the breath of harmonica blues to a gospel singer’s melodic thread to vocal cadences in hip-hop. The title comes from a quote from Ralph Ellison about the perception of music. It has been a great joy to collaborate with the JACK Quartet for several years, both as performer and composer.”


Early that summer . . . Julia Wolfe
(Born December 18, 1958 in Philadelphia)

Composer Julia Wolf takes her inspiration from a combination of folk, classical, and rock genres. The Wall Street Journal declared she “long inhabited a terrain of [her] own, a place where classical forms are recharged by the repetitive patterns of minimalism and the driving energy of rock.” Wolfe’s music has “an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from the audience.” Her works are rhythmically vigorous and complex and often dissonant, and she is often described as post-minimalist.
In 1987, Wolfe was a founder/co-artistic director of the international music collective Bang on a Can, which she began together with composers David Lang and Michael Gordon, her husband. She received her B.A. at the University of Michigan, her Master’s degree in music composition from the Yale School of Music, and has held a doctoral fellowship at Princeton University.

Wolfe has written a major body of work for strings, with pieces commissioned by the Lark, Ethel, Kronos, and Cassatt quartets. Wolfe has also composed music for theatre, for Anna Deveare Smith’s House Arrest, and she won an Obie award for her score to Ridge Theater’s Jennie Richie. She has compiled a series of collaborative multimedia works with composers Michael Gordon and David Lang.

Wolfe composed the spirited Early that summer in 1993 to a commission from the MTC Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Consortium Program. The Lark Quartet premiered Early that summer at The Kitchen in New York on May 30, 1993. The piece is a study in contrasting styles of discourse.

Wolfe has written, “While living in Amsterdam [in 1992] I began Early That Summer. I was reading a book about U.S. political history and the author kept introducing small incidents with phrases like ”Early that summer…” The incidents would eventually snowball into major political crises or events. I realized that the music I was writing was exactly like this — that I was creating a constant state of anticipation and forward build. Early That Summer was written for the Lark Quartet. I asked them to play it the way they play Beethoven. They are so clear and strong, full of fire and aggression.”

Wolfe won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music.


Tetras. . . Iannis Xenakis
(Born May 29, 1922 in Braila, Romania; died February 4, 2001 in Paris

Iannis Xenakis was a Greek avant-garde composer of electronic music and musique concrète, who moved as a young adult to Paris after he was branded a communist dissident. There he worked initially as an architect for Le Corbusier’s firm while studying music composition with Olivier Messiaen, who encouraged Xenakis to follow his unique vision.

An ethnic Romanian and naturalized French composer, Xenakis created electronic music using mathematical equations which he saw as an antidote to the prescriptive demands of serialism. Pursuing the unique, Xenakis included statistics and probability (stochastics), markov chains, game theory, set and group theory, and sieves. Musically, he was most renowned for his technique of overlapping glissandi (or slide from one pitch to another) in the large ensemble works Metastasis and Pithoprakta. The glissando became so universal in Xenakis’s music that it had become a kind of sonic signature, in which static pitches were incorporated in a more chaotic state where pitch became inherently unstable. As Kevin McFarland puts it: “Through math Xenakis was seeking to unlock secrets from the language of nature and imbue his music with this kind of savage beauty.”

McFarland explains that in Tetras, which was composed in 1983, Xenakis “reflects on many different musical vocabularies in one work. Microtonal glissando clusters, alien scales that don’t repeat at the octave, extended techniques, clouds of pizzicato, and torrential tremolo swarms could make strange bedfellows but seem to be a cohesive whole here.” The quartet was composed for the Arditti Quartet; Xenakis, Mc Farland attests “pushed their virtuosic abilities to the limit and in doing so created a tour de force and a modern classic.”