Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Lou Kosma on Muse Mentors

I first met Lou Kosma in a cafeteria in New Jersey. He was a friend of Michael's mother, and, once we got talking, it turned out that he played in orchestra pits for years and years in New York with my friend Danny Morganstern.

In 2015 Lou came to my father-in-law's memorial service, and he recognized my father from Tanglewood (where Lou had studied and my father had taught). Turns out they both grew up in the same neighborhood in Philadelphia, and had gone to the same high school (or was it junior high school).

I just listened to this podcast episode about and with Lou that I thought I'd share, because he gets to the "why" of music in such a direct and musically-driven way. The musical "illustrations" are fantastic.

The title of the podcast episode (clicking the link will take you to the episode) says it all: Lou Kosma: Mensch of the MET.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

American Discoveries

Since I started reading The Heart of a Woman, Rae Linda Brown's biography of Florence Price, I have come to realize that my knowledge of twentieth-century American orchestral music is not is comprehensive as I would like it to be (or thought it was). This could be due to the programming and re-programming of music by the same well-known (and accessible) American male composers alongside the same well-known (and accessible) male European composers, many of whom came to America to escape pogroms, Nazis, and totalitarian regimes.

In the case of Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith, Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch, and Arnold Schoenberg (to name some of the better known men), the direction of influence almost always went "back" to Europe, which is completely understandable.

The American-born composers who dominated concert programs during the twentieth century like Charles Ives, Howard Hanson, Vincent Persichetti, Irving Fine, Samuel Barber, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein gave us a set of lovely framed musical pictures that defined an American "voice" for many of us. 

Then came a set of American-born (male) composers like Roger Sessions, George Crumb, Eliot Carter, John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Milton Babbit that stretched the idea of new American music towards the experimental, the minimalist, and the intellectual. The music that these composers wrote sometimes scared audiences away, but orchestras still programmed them because they wanted to have some skin in the game regarding new directions in music.

I'm not passing judgement. I'm just reporting on the male-dominated (and white-dominated) musical landscape that we are all starting to look at through a rearview musical mirror.

There have been female composers who held a place of importance in American music. Or of relative importance. The best known American woman composer would be Amy Beach. I was surprised to see the small number of people on this Wikipedia list of female American Composers, and I was equally surprised to see the people who didn't make that particular list (like Marion Bauer). I hope to see this list expand soon. I might have to take matters into my own hands.

Not present on this list are the three composers that have music on this recording of newly-discovered orchestral music by women: Priscilla Alden Beach, Linda Robbins Coleman, and Alexandria Pierce. The project represents a great deal of care and work (during a pandemic year) by the Landsdowne Symphony Orchestra, its conductor Reuben Blundell, and the the librarians that take care of the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970) wrote "City Trees" in 1928, and Howard Hanson gave the first performance that year with Rochester Philharmonic. "City Trees" is a lush and romantic piece that brings to mind the paintings of the Hudson River School. The trees depicted musically here progress from rural trees to early twentieth-century urban trees. In scope, variety, and color it brings to mind Respighi's "Pines of Rome," but (and I wrote this in my listening notes before reading the liner notes) the trees here might be better associated with Rome, New York than Rome, Italy. Turns out that the composer, a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden of Mayflower fame, spent her childhood in Rome, New York!

Beach went to Smith College, and the studied at Eastman (I imagine with Howard Hanson), and had a fellowship at Juilliard. She wrote music for a series of silent movies that were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and then disappeared from musical life entirely to write books about pets and work as a laboratory technician. 

I wonder if there is more of her music hiding in a closet or a drawer, somewhere.

Professional life as a composer has been far less difficult for Linda Robbins Coleman. She enjoys an impressive career, and the American heartland (she lives in Iowa) has been good to her. What she has given back is music that reflects her love of the nature around her.

I noticed that "For a Beautiful Land," which she wrote in 1996, is "informed" by the Americana of Copland and Stravinsky. This piece is episodic, and is filled with interesting textures. Overall the wind, brass, and percussion sections seem far more present and important than the strings, though there is some enjoyable playful interaction that involves the strings. The woodwind solos and duets (there are a lot) are engaging and beautiful. "For a Beautiful Land" is relentlessly tonal, and, after a brief nod to Ravel's "Bolero," comes to a bold and optimistic conclusion.

Alexandra Pierce was born in 1934 and just died this past February. She studied at the University of Michigan, earned Master's degrees from New England Conservatory and Harvard, and her doctorate from Brandeis. She taught at MIT and at Antioch College, and spent the bulk of her career on the faculty of the University of Redlands (she retired in 2001). 

Her 1976 "Behemoth" is a five-movement tone poem that explores ideas presented in the Book of Job. Pierce's use of orchestral color is typical of the 1970s, but I do not find it derivitive of any particular composer. Her technique at orchestration is excellent--as good as any better-known twentieth-century composer (see the list above).  She often lets her material travel in a hocket-like fashion around her very large-sounding orchestra. Like Coleman's "City Trees," Pierce's "Behemoth" is very wind, brass, and percussion forward, with the strings mostly creating atmosphere (they engage in a healthy amount of pizzicato and tremolo) and giving support. 

I particularly like the transparent and layered third movement that has a dialogue between the oboe and the horn that seems to travel over a foggy plain: ephemeral, questioning, and suspended. A bright flute glides above, and fades away. The percussion-rich fourth movement has a solo flute and a gauze-like color in the strings that reminds me of "The Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome.

You can buy the album here. It is both inexpensive and rich.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Brood X Has Arrived!

Well, one of the brood has arrived. I think it might be a scout. I haven't seen another one all day, but there's a great deal of mole activity in our yard. There are few real molehills, but there's a lot of soft and spongy ground.

Cicada minded readers might enjoy the post I wrote ten years ago called "Kafka's Cicada."

Monday, May 17, 2021

Waiting for Brood X

This is music I wrote for another brood (the one that emerged in 2011), but it will have to do.

You can listen to a computer-generated recording here, and watch a fascinating film about cicadas here.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Price “Adoration” on Tuba!

It's so great that Cristina Cutts Dougherty, my new favorite tuba player, was able to use my transcription for flute and piano to play "Adoration" on Tuba! Sometimes it feels like this piece has grown into a "super organ" piece, with magnificent options for registration that Florence Price, as an organst, might have only dreamed about. And every performance is different, which serves as a constant reminder that as a composer (and arranger) I only play a small part in the whole dance of music making.

I only wish I knew where and when she wrote the piece. It was first published in 1951, and the copyright wasn't renewed. In short it was forgotten. Thank goodness the Sibley library entered it (along with their other public domain holdings) into the IMSLP, or it could have had a fate like "To A Wild Rose," if Marian MacDowell, according to legend, hadn't it fished out of her husband's wastebasket.

While I'm thinking about it, let me recommend The Heart of a Woman, Rae Linda Brown's new biography of Florence Price, which my husband gave me as a birthday present, and I am currently reading. I first learned about Florence Price from an article Rae Linda Brown wrote for an issue of the Maud Powell Signature, which she expanded into this excellent biography. The only thing that seems to be missing from the book is any reference to "Adoration"!

Dr. Brown is no longer alive. I bet she would love all the attention that "Adoration" is getting, even if she didn't know about the piece. Maybe some dedicated scholar will pick up Rae Linda Brown's trail, and maybe some day we will know a little more about "Adoration."

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

My transcription of Florence Price's "Adoration" on Decca!

What a surprise to find that Randall Goosby is including my 2013 violin and piano arrangement (at least the violin part) of Florence Price's "Adoration" on his forthcoming premiere recording (being released on June 25th) with Decca. He is a terrific violinist and certainly has a bright career ahead of him. Goosby is presenting "Adoration" here as a "calling card" for the larger recording.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

My Mother, Her Self

This painting by my mother spent several decades hanging in her mother's apartment. My aunt found it a few years ago, and decided to give it to me. Now it hangs next to my desk.

The girl, who does not have a face, has my mother's hair and my mother's posture. She seems to be young, and seems to be contemplating something beyond the white flowering plant next to her and the glowing obelisk beyond it. A scary-looking tiger-like creature sits in front of the marble pillar supporting the bench.

The lines are straight and strong, but the girl, the obelisk, and the flowers are impressionistly blurred. The tiger-creature (could it be a scary dog?) seems to be smiling, but in an ironic/evil sort of way. Except for the ironic and evil creature in the foreground, the painting is rather serene.

I think that Freud or Proust would have a great time talking about this painting.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Freedom and free stuff

As a child I was in an odd position of freedom to cobble together my own sense of what is right, moral, and true in the world. I did it mostly through books. One of my favorites was Arnold Dolin's Great American Heroines.
It was a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book that was published in 1960. Through reading it I learned about Pocahontas, Anne Hutchinson, "Mad Ann" Bailey, Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, Barbara Frietchie, Dolly Madison, Sacajawea, Mary Lyon, Dorothea Dix, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Idawalley Lewis, Maria Mitchell, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Barton, Emma Lazarus, Juliette Low, Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Amelia Earhart, and Helen Keller.

The title above will take you to the Internet Archive entry, which will let you "borrow" it for an hour to read on the screen.

Another really important part of my elementary school childhood was the kindness I found in the parents of my various friends. I can still visualize the interiors of the houses my friends lived in better than I can visualize the interior of my own house. I also had a music teacher who used to let me hang out with her after school. Home was a place I slept, read, and practiced. I had a relatively safe childhood (with the exception of a few incidents), and learned to make my way around the various neighborhoods of childhood without any parental input (really). I envied the fact that the parents of my friends had rules and limitations. I had none. Maybe I was just a very good child (I doubt it).

I really wanted to do something important when I grew up, like the women I read about in Dolin's book, but I had no understanding of how to go about how to go about it because I was a child. I couldn't ask for help from my parents. In the material things department they were adequate. There was always plenty of food, and I could ask for clothes. They took care of me when I was sick. My brothers and I got presents for holidays which were often thoughtful and appropriate, but I have only sketchy memories concerning my emotional needs. And though my friends and their parents helped me to navigate the social world, I could not ask them for the kind of emotional support that I needed in order to grow into a confident adult (or even a confident child). Grown-up people often commented on how happy I seemed to be, but they had no idea that my happiness was due to the fact that they paid attention to me, asked me questions, and listened to my answers.

So what does this have to do with free stuff? Very early on I learned that I could give myself the illusion of being loved if I gave love. If I wanted to have a friend, being a friend was the way to do it. If I waited for friends to come to me, it just wouldn't happen.

This pattern continued for a long time, and as a teenager the friendships I pursued were not always the best. Sometimes, in the case of older friends who thought being friends with me would help them gain access to my father, those choices had lasting consequences.

Let me get back to the point of this post. My intention was to explain something about why I make so much of the music I write available for free in the IMSLP. The basic reason is that for me writing music is a kind of energized play with purpose. I set up a set of relationships, the instruments or voices being characters, I set a few boundaries (working with a text is one example of a boundary), and I introduce a set of problems that will need to be resolved. I wrestle with the beast, and I use my executive authority to remove or modify anything offensive that messes up the soup. I do my best to make sure what I write feels good to sing or play, and I do my best to make it easy to read. Then I release it into the world of musicians I do not yet know as a gesture of friendship, and when it is accepted as such I am deeply happy.

Perhaps if I grew up with more of a sense of entitlement, or if I had been given heartfelt encouragement from my parents when I was a child, I would feel more energized by having music published and would enjoy the whole song and dance of musical commerce, where composers are taken seriously only if their work carries a price tag. After nearly twenty years of having music published, I am finally getting royalty checks. It is nice when publishers see commercial value in the work I do, but what really matters to me is how the people playing the music enjoy relating to each other through playing it, and, in the case of solo music, how people enjoy navigating through phrases, and using their creativity to create a kind of a dialogue between themselves and me, through the notes and phrases on the page.

I wish that in the future more people (non-musicians in particular) will be able to appreciate the value of music that is written in the spirit of friendship rather than music that is written as an expression of ego. Sometimes I wish I could be a person who thrives on praise, but I'm just now wired that way. I never developed that particular habit. But I love hearing from people who play my music (and arrangements) and accept it as a gift of friendship.

Maybe, at sixty-two, it is now time to put the deficiences from my childhood behind me, and celebrate, rather than bemoan the way I have learned to compensate.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Thoughts after Proust

Michael and I finished reading the last volume of À la recherche du temps perdu in the In Search of Lost Time translations the other day. We began in December, and through twice-daily installments of reading together, we finished in May.

I suppose that everyone has their own particular set of responses to the act of reading this novel. For me it was a set of responses that drew upon many memories that I had either forgotten or had repressed. The various characters at various times reminded me of interactions, feelings, obsessions, helplessness, confusion, and blindness that I recall experiencing in the various theaters of my life.

And now in the "aftermath" I am left with a set of pathways into my own unconscious mind that I am forced to explore. I can understand how after finishing the novel it would be very easy to flip to the beginning of Swann's Way and experience the narrator's experience with new eyes, revisit the art (some of which we can now look up at the touch of a button, and some of which we need to paint out of our own imagination, within the guidelines that are being offered), and hear (once again) what we imagine the music to have been. I feel no such inclination to take another trip around the Proust world's sun until I have done a more thorough examination of my own life.

I offer no spoilers, but I can tell you that the narrator often talks about love (and other things) as being driven by habit. I suppose that by having had the twice-daily habit of reading Proust: experiencing the sometimes overwhelming beauty of his sentences as well as the sometimes unbearably long periods of obsessive cluelessness, hating the narrator for his inability to understand how women are "wired," (perhaps it is too much to ask), and then loving the narrator for describing music, sleep, art, light, weather, travel, household sounds, characters I know from literature (from Balzac, in particular), and history as he lived it (the Dreyfus Affair, World War I), I have taken on a new set of habits myself.

Proust's set of characters functioned as a kind of a social life for us during this time of not being able to socialize because of the pandemic. Now that we have closed the book (literally) (please forgive the pun) on that world, I wonder how Michael and I will function in the real social world of later 2021 or 2022. Not that we had a Proust-like social life, with parties, salons, royalty, cads, and louts, but before the pandemic we did have occasions to interact with some interesting people, and we could do it in places other than in the grocery store, where we go double-masked once every three weeks (our only real outing aside from Michael's mother's place of assisted living), with little to talk about with our neighbors except for the fact that we are wearing masks and we are trying to survive in a backward-thinking and science-denying place like Charleston during a pandemic.