Sunday, February 28, 2010

Progress: Twombly & Rilke

This weekend the Chorale is in dress rehearsals for its upcoming program, EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women in Music, March 5-7.

In preparation for our final, open dress rehearsal this afternoon,
I am reading poetry, looking at modern art (in a monograph),
and reflecting and writing on the connections between them.

My title refers to Rilke's poem (in the original German: Fortschritt):

And again my inmost life rushes louder,
as if it moved now between steeper banks.
Objects become ever more related to me,
and all pictures are more perused.
I feel myself more trusting in the nameless:
with my senses, as with birds, I reach
into the windy heavens from the oak,
and into the small ponds' broken-off day
my feeling sinks, as if it stood on fishes.

(from The Book of Images, translated by Edward Snow;
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1991).

Anyone who does not understand the connection between the above and preparing for a choral rehearsal has obviously never stood on fishes.

I encountered Rilke's closing image while perusing some pictures
in a recent monograph of Cy Twombly.

Those readers who reside in the Commonwealth of Virginia can take pride (a portion of which must be tongue-in-cheek) that one of the greatest American artists of the 2nd half of the 20th century is an expat from Lexington.

It would be easy to link that fact to a diatribe against the idiots running the state government who are pushing for the elimination of ALL state funding for the arts by 2012 (Cy Twombly joins a distinguished list of Virginians--like Ella Fitzgerald, the "first lady" among musicians--whose artistic contributions have not only enriched the Commonwealth but the world. Never mind the overwhelmingly positive impact the arts have on local and regional economies: they are vital revenue-producing engines, and boosts to tourism! Moreover, vibrant arts communities are a universally positive barometer of the quality of life in the regions that support them).

Twombly's art is difficult to succinctly describe. His paintings reveal a debt to the Abstract Expressionist, "American-Type Painting" famously canonized by the eminent critic Clement Greenberg. Though indebted to Pollock, Johns, Rauschenberg (he and Twombly were traveling companions in seminal visits to Europe and North Africa), Twombly is equally indebted to Monet and Impressionism, Turner and Poussin, and is influenced by poetry as much as any of these.

Twombly is an artist--however reticent to discuss his works, much less their "meaning"--whose layering of contexts and connections emerges on the canvas as an organic and natural evolution from the process of making it. His chief biographer, David Sylvester, observed:

"Living, looking, making: Twombly seems to be someone for whom there is no break between those."

I know I am not the only artist whose experience resonates like a plucked string vibrating harmoniously with that observation.

Such "sympathetic vibrations" resound across the senses of the attuned artist, heightening the experience of and in every genre--poetry, painting, and music.

Twombly's epic series of paintings depicting the four seasons were my first exposure to the artist (and are supreme examples of this inter-contextual, multi-genre layering in his canvases). I first saw the Le Quattro Staggioni series at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Several years later I encountered a series (also called The Four Seasons) at the Tate Gallery in London (the monograph is called Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, and cleared up my confusion about whether the MOMA or the Tate owned the series--they both do, as Twombly did two cycles of Seasons).

Painted in the mid-90's (when the artist was in his mid-late 60's--he turned 80 in 2008, the occasion for the retrospective which produced the aforementioned monograph), the Four Seasons are huge panels which confront the viewer with more white than anything. Whether paint or blank canvas, white is an ubiquitous feature of Twombly's work, from the densely textured expressionist daubs of cream to the "unfinished" symbolism of the tabula rasa (ie: blank slate) canvas. White typically refers to the clouds &/or the foaming sea, and both natural references are resonant in Twombly's depictions of the seasons of the year. Besides the Baroque reference to Vivaldi's famous series of concerti on the four seasons (whose original title is also the Italian used by Twombly), the panels recall Keats' classic poem on the "Ages of Man." "The Human Seasons" contains lines that inspired the artist:

Four seasons fill the measure of the year;
There are four seasons in the mind of man

The poetic associations do not stop there for Twombly. As he has for decades, Twombly scribbles letters, words, and lines onto the canvas. Whether heiroglyph or cipher, object or signature, the juxtaposition of paint and word (now cliched in our post post-modern art world) is a striking feature of his work.

He returns to Rilke for inspiration, reworking the last quatrain of the 10th Duino Elegy. That poem opens with lines that are particularly resonant whenever an artist prepares to present her work (whether via exhibition, publication or performance):

Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,
let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels.
Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart
fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,
or a broken string.

A little further into that great poem the poet notes "how we squander our hours of pain." The difficult truth in that observation is obviated--if only minutely--by communion with works such as Twombly's. The canvases are so layered , so referential, so multivalent, "the emotion that almost overwhelms" (more Rilke) that is always present in them, is like a strange and immense forest one might miss for the peculiar, seemingly incongruent nature of some of its trees.

Twombly's work, like that of great artists throughout history, is open to interpretation. It has the necessary porous quality the critic and writer Umberto Eco cites as a prerequisite for the Opera Aperta (the "open work").

In an ultimate example of making connections across the tenuous threads that shape and color our artistic webs of meaning, Twombly nods to Alvaro de Campos, one of the many personalities adopted by the Portuguese poet and writer, Fernando Pessoa. (Reference within reference, meaning within meaning...)

To feel everything in every way,
To live everything from all sides,
To be the same thing in all ways
Possible at the same time,
To realize in oneself all humanity at all moments
In one scattered, extravagant, complete, and aloof moment.

I find such a motto enervating and energizing,
and take the last adjective, "aloof" neither
detached from, nor disinterested in the "moment"
but a welcome reminder of each moment's transience,
and its inherent possibility...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

New Works: Whitman Interlude & Goodbye

One of the most exciting, rewarding and meaningful experiences I have as a musician is whenever I'm a participant in the creation of a new piece. Whether it is as soloist, chorister, conductor, composer, teacher--or any combination thereof--there is nothing quite like the experience of actively participating in the creation of something brand new.

If you consider yourself a "creative type" or enough of an amateur and devotee to be curious about said process, but have never experienced it, I cannot encourage you enough to seek out such an opportunity. The process itself is more often than not more than equal to the result.

On a number of levels, the evolution of a work--

from conversation, idea & commission;
to plan, design & sketch;
to draft & work-in-progress;
to rehearsal, realization, & performance,
that is, re-creation--

echoes the process of life itself.

The importance and uniqueness of this process--
and every new work that appears as a life-affirming result of this creative and re-creative genesis--
cannot be overstated.

If we believe the arts and culture are central to our experience of life
as human beings--and we regularly affirm that necessity by our embrace of and participation in them--
then the creation of new works of art by and for the human beings involved in the arts (ie: all of us) must be one of the primary duties, responsibilities, and privileges of every generation of artists and audiences.

(I have never apologized for being a preacher of the gospel of the Arts, to paraphrase one of my many musical godparents, Robert Shaw).

It is with deep gratitude and humility I find myself in the unique position of being right in the middle of this process with not one but two composers, in a program featuring two world premieres and three additional regional premieres. I am fortunate to have been involved in as many premieres of new works as I have, and I have been so involved since an undergraduate at James Madison University.

And I attribute my love of new music to an ever insatiable intellectual & aesthetic curiosity AND the exceptional education I received at JMU. My composition teacher, John Hilliard, was the kind of teacher I have aspired to be: one who challenges his student's preconceptions, limits & boundaries, one who is ever-curious and open himself, and one who believes in connecting the present to the past in order to pave the way for a future that is both grounded in the traditions in need of preserving while looking ahead to where progress might lead.

My previous entry is a copy of my program notes for that upcoming program of premieres, EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women in the Arts. If you are in the area, I hope you will join the Chorale, myself, members of Bellissima! Women's Chorale Ensemble, members of our Young Singers Project, and the composers Deborah Mason and Giselle Wyers for an evening of beautiful, engaging & inspiring music by women composers.

I met Deborah Mason at a wedding Amy and I attended for one of our mutual friends, the incredibly gifted soprano, Yunah Lee. Ironically, Amy and I each knew Yunah independently, and several years before we met one another, in another example of how small the world is. Amy and Yunah had toured together in a production of La Boheme (Yunah was Mimi and Amy was Musetta) around Taiwan, and Yunah and I had appeared in Madama Butterfly in Roanoke together (she played the heroine, I was the marriage-broker, Goro). Fitting we both should be participants in Yunah and Ken's wedding, singing together, and meeting many fellow musicians and artists. A cousin of the groom (himself an accomplished pianist), Deb Mason and I met at the reception, began chatting about our experiences, and realized we had at least been in the same performance at the same time once before. She was in the audience for a production of Shostakovich's surrealist opera, The Nose at the Bard Music Festival, where I was in the first of a series of summer residencies that have been particularly interesting and memorable.

Anyway, after establishing that connection at Bard from the summer of 2004, Deb and I began talking about the Chorale, she shared with me about some of the choral writing in her new opera, based on Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" and the next thing I know we are talking about the Chorale premiering a work the following season (even though we had no $ in the projected budget for such a commission)!

This was in December of 2008, throughout the early months of 2009 we corresponded about texts, I mentioned Whitman, and when Deb asked me to forward some favorites, I did. Whitman Interlude sets one of Whitman's greatest miniatures,

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the
spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd till the ductile
anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my

I was excited enough Deborah picked one of my absolute favorite poems--by Whitman or anyone--in which form and content, technique, diction, line and meaning all perfectly balance. Mason's setting seizes on the adventurousness of the imagery--the elaborate weaving of the spider's web and the very creative act itself, the spider "launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself!"

All three fundamental elements of musical composition are literally at work and play here: melody, harmony, and rhythm "launch forth" and "explore the vast surrounding" in a form that combines scherzo-like energy with rondo-inspired, refrain-style choruses. Its an inspired setting of a great poem, and one the Chorale has thoroughly enjoyed putting together. Part of that enjoyment comes directly from the fact that the piece is literally "worth the effort." That is to say, the piece is difficult, and that makes a successful performance of it rewarding for both the performers and the listeners.

I believe too many people assume new music is going to be gratuitously difficult, and/or avant-garde for its own sake only, and to put not too fine a point on it, just plain ugly. And that prejudice is fueled by several decades of such experimental, avant-garde, anti-establishment works that made no connection between the levels of difficulty and enjoyment.

Today, thankfully, the pendulum has finally swung (or is still swinging) back to a happier medium where "new" doesn't necessarily mean "ugly" and "enjoyable" to an audience does not necessarily mean "B-rate" (or any other negative, pejorative association) where depth and substance are concerned.

I believe the Chorale's concert is just such an example of how the "new" is speaking a language that builds on the great traditions of music we know and love from the Renaissance to Bach to Beethoven and Brahms, to Debussy and among others, Copland.

The other brand new work on the program is personal in a number of ways. As I wrote in my program notes, I have known the conductor, composer, singer, and teacher Giselle Wyers since we attended graduate school together at Westminster Choir College some 15 years ago. Giselle and I shared an intellectual curiosity for all of the arts, and poetry in particular, and attended a celebrated poetry festival in New Jersey. In addition to hearing eminent poets like Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Robert Bly and Gary Snyder read their works, we heard the poet and translator Coleman Barks recite his versions of the 13th c. Sufist mystic, Rumi, while the Paul Winter consort improvised acoustic jazz behind him. How fitting that one of the first of Giselle's new works I saw was her setting of a poet from Rumi's circle, the 2009 setting Come, Come Whoever You Are.

Giselle and I discussed a Chorale collaboration last year, and another uncanny, almost parallel gesture of collegial generosity appeared in Giselle's offer to waive a commission fee. I offered her the podium for her to conduct her newest work, and she graciously accepted. I do have to remind myself from time to time--so often am I preoccupied with the day-to-day administrative and executive duties of running the Chorale--that not everyone is so fortunate to actually BE the conductor of an esteemed, established professional chamber chorus. So, thank you, Virginia Chorale, for the opportunity and privilege! I am humbly proud to be in such a position, and share the baton with my colleagues when special occasions such as this arise.

I am equally humbled to have my own poetry set--and for the first time by someone other than me. When Giselle asked me to send some of my own works, I balked. Besides being a rank amateur when it comes to poetry's composition, the styles I favored--from the stream-of-conscious to the confessional--did not seem well-suited to music.

She ended up choosing a short poem I wrote following the death of my cousin Don, who succumbed to AIDS-related illness in 1994. I was reading a lot of poetry at the time, catching up on eminent 20th century poets like James Wright, William Carlos Williams, Muriel Ruykeser, Edna St Vincent Millay. Wright's poem "Once I was afraid of dying" inspired my "(Un)Afraid of Dying." Giselle paired it with a fragment of Lousie Bogan's longer poem, After the Persian. The work's title, Goodbye, is the opening word of Bogan's poem. Wyers sets this central word with a series of interlocking bell tones that both link the poems and function as signals: reminders that reflection and memory are themselves rituals.

Goodbye (Williamson/Bogan)

"(Un)Afraid of Dying" (Scott Williamson)

The leaves litter the ground at my feet,
the ground beneath in which you rest,
where roots thrive in dark shrouds
and Earth’s stories fill old shells.

A leaf floats into the stream.
The waters of change carry it away,
where life circles and death begins
and entombed secrets resurface.

from “After the Persian” (Louise Bogan)

Goodbye, goodbye!
There was so much to love,
I could not love it all;
I could not love it enough.
Some things I overlooked,
and some I could not find.
Let the crystal clasp them
When you drink your wine, in autumn.

Wyers' impressionist setting beautifully captures the images of transformation and loss, the tender, soulful tones of memory and farewell, and the tenuous balance sought in the process of letting go.

Giselle's piece arrived on my desktop while the Chorale's late friend Lisa Coston was in the hospital. I could never have imagined--much less asked for--so fitting a tribute, so personal a memento. It is with enormous gratitude, excitement, and anticipation we look forward to welcoming Whitman Interlude and Goodbye into the Chorale's ever-expanding library of new works through our American Legacies Series.

With the continued support of our colleagues, friends, and patrons, we will continue to foster and cultivate the music of our time, written by and for us, to the benefit and betterment of us all.

Monday, February 15, 2010

EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women In Music

Notes on the upcoming Chorale program
EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women in Music
with Bellissima! Women's choral ensemble and the Young Singers Project
(March 5-7;

It is a privilege and honor for the Chorale to participate in MINDS WIDE OPEN: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts 2010 with this exciting program. EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women in Music features a millennium’s worth of music by great composers who happen to be women. Appropriately, we begin with the early 12th century composer and poet, Hildegard. Like many visionary women throughout history, Hildegard’s creative gifts were deemed unorthodox (read: too threatening to the status quo) and remained buried for centuries. The chant In principio omnes is full of life-affirming, world-embracing imagery, and is a succinct introduction to this pioneering artist. Another primary “first name” of women in music is Fanny Mendelssohn. Though overshadowed by her younger brother Felix, Fanny is to women composers what Jane Austen is to women authors. Arguably more gifted than her brother, Fanny was every bit the craftsman Felix was, and an equally accomplished performer. And like many gifted women, she was a victim of the mores of 19th century culture. Abendlich stands with the German choral songs of Schubert, Brahms, and the composer’s brother (whose debt to his sister continues to be underappreciated). At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners is an a cappella choral part-song that can be traced through the 19th century romantic models back to the Renaissance Madrigal. Spencer’s award-winning composition from 1968 weds John Donne’s Holy Sonnet from the 16th century with music firmly anchored in the 20th century American style of Copland and among others, Barber and Bernstein.

While Spencer’s work has become a staple of the modern chamber chorus, a quick glance at the dates of the remaining works on the program speaks to the abundance of women’s voices just entering the choral music canon. Faith York is a composer, conductor and singer from Peaks Island, Maine, whose music reflects her diverse interests. Traditional choral textures, jazz-like harmonies and improvisational solo lines all weave into a compelling choral tapestry. York’s setting of Dickinson’s Snow is aptly hazy, blurred, and ghostly. Along with Dickinson, the American poet who turned that adjective into a national style is Walt Whitman. When Deborah Mason and I first began to discuss a possible Chorale commission in late 2008, Whitman was the first poet I suggested, and her imaginative setting of A Noiseless Patient Spider is the fruit of that idea. Whitman Interlude springs from the spider’s explorations, the launching “forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself.” What a great image that is for the creative spirit and the creative act itself: “to explore the vacant, vast surrounding.” while “ceaselessly musing, venturing, seeking the spheres, to connect them.” In this miniature masterpiece of a poem can be summed the credo of many an artist. Mason’s challenging setting enacts that creative process with music that is rhythmically propelling, harmonically shifting, “ceaselessly musing, seeking out the spheres.” Indeed.

Judith Shatin is a distinguished composer and professor at the University of Virginia. Like many artists labeled by subcategory (Women-, African-, Native-, LGBTQ-,) Shatin responds creatively to the political and social realities of the world she inhabits. In her own words, this haunting setting of Psalm 23, Adonai Roi “flowed from my response to the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin on November 4, 1995, and is dedicated to his memory.” The Scottish composer, Cecilia McDowall, belongs to a generation of post-WWII composers writing luminous news works, indebted to the English choral tradition yet sounding strikingly original. Regina Caeli pairs radiant settings of a recurring “Alleluia” motto with dancing duets on the Latin Eastertide text.

Our next two works explore corners of the world less familiar to our audiences. The Chinese-American composer Chen Yi is among a handful of Asian composers garnering international recognition for the cross-cultural scope of a musical language that combines traditional Asian techniques with the “classical” European tradition. Yo-Yo Ma may be the ambassador for this welcome trend among instrumentalists: Ms Chen gets my vote for being a leader in the choral field where Asian and American musics [sic] meet. Sakura, Sakura is a traditional Japanese folk song here set with impressionist harmonies reflecting the haiku-like image of the poem: “Cherry blossoms in the March sky…Are they mist, are the clouds wafting through the air?/Let’s go and see.”

This entire program is an example of “let’s go and see”—or “hear” rather, and Hope There Is is the next stop on this journey. The New Zealand born composer Clare Maclean has set the words of the first aboriginal poet published in Australia, Oodgeroo Nunuccal. The subject of the poem is the struggle between competing cultures or peoples. The line “we the foreigners in this our land” need not apply to Australia alone, and therein lies one of art’s many gifts of transcendence. Though written for a specific time and place (Nunuccal’s efforts were instrumental in the recognition of Aborigines as Australian citizens), this poem moves beyond its specificity to speak across history and geography. Maclean’s setting, using minimalist techniques, brilliantly carves up the poem into fragments. Each individual voice part depends on the others to complete not only the musical phrase, but the poetic idea. It is an engaging example of interdependence. The conductor Daniel Barenboim writes about the importance of the ability to listen to multiple voices at once. He applies this auditory process as much to politics as he does to music.

Come, come, whoever you are is another text in perfect harmony with the Chorale’s 26th Season, Lift Every Voice, where old and the new are juxtaposed in the hopes of hearing the freshness in both. Previously attributed to the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi, the 800-year-old poem is just as relevant today. I first encountered the world of Rumi 15 years ago at a poetry festival. Rumi’s translator, Coleman Barks, read aphoristic quatrains while the Paul Winter consort improvised chamber music around the poems. I attended that event with my friend and poetry-loving colleague, Giselle Wyers. This inviting and lilting work is both a fitting introduction to the second half of our program and the engaging, affirming style of its composer.

Eleanor Daley’s a cappella Requiem joins a line of settings that is distinguished as it is varied (we will perform two other examples from this genre in our next program, Perpetual Light). From the 14th century Requiem mass of Johannes Ockeghem to the 20th century offerings of composers like Herbert Howells, the text has inspired composers from every period. Howells is Daley’s model in this beautiful and reflective work of consolation. Like Howells, Daley juxtaposes the Latin Requiem text with English poems, Psalm settings, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The work unfolds in eight brief movements. Daley frames the work with a rocking chorale on the Requiem aeternam text which serves as the accompaniment for a plaintive soprano solo on a poem by Carolyn Smart. The second movement is built on a chant-like melody indebted to the modally inflected harmonic language of Howells and the English cathedral tradition. From “the deep” of Psalm 130 the work’s color lightens as a treble quartet sings a serene chorale. The verses from the book of Revelation are juxtaposed with the Latin text Lux aeterna (eternal light). This juxtaposition then becomes a bridge to the closing affirmation from the Anglican Burial Service. The centerpiece of Daley’s gentle work is another chorale, a radiant and tender setting of the Anonymous poem, In Remembrance (“Do not stand at my grave and weep”). Two more brief settings from the Anglican Burial Service follow, affirming the work’s moving balance between the soulfulness of mourning and the affirmation of hope. The Requiem heard at the opening returns to frame the entire work. The solo soprano sings another verse of Carolyn Smart, before floating the serene descant line Dona eis sempiternam requiem (“grant them rest forevermore”). That descant is also the transition into the closing movement, a dialogue between the chant-like In Paradisum (from the Requiem proper), and the rich-hued chorale prayer of the Russian Benediction (“Go forth upon thy journey”).

As mentioned above, I have been friends with the conductor and composer Giselle Wyers since we attended graduate school at Westminster Choir College. Knowing of my abiding love of poetry and my amateur efforts at it, she asked for some original poems to consider for this Chorale commission. The poem she chose was one I wrote in response to the untimely death of one of my cousins. It was also a response to James Wright’s poem that opens “Once,/I was afraid of dying.” Her choice of this very personal poem of mine, and the timing of this premiere entitled Goodbye—a work of mourning and of letting go—are too serendipitous to say. About her choice, Wyers writes:

“When I read his poem, "(Un)afraid of dying", it reminded me of fragments of a Louise Bogan poem I had begun setting to music last summer. Williamson's poem begins with a description of a mourner standing at the grave of a friend, seeking to find meaning. I was especially struck by the words "and Earth's stories fill old shells" and "entombed secrets resurface." It got me thinking of how the Bogan poem, which begins, "Goodbye! There was so much to love, I could not love it all" becomes the statement of the person who has passed into the afterlife…”

The newest entry into the Chorale’s ongoing American Legacy Series could not appear at a more fitting time for us. The hauntingly beautiful, impressionist setting of these poems affirms our commitment to the creation of new American music by some of the most gifted composers we have. We are grateful for the opportunities that result from so significant a trust.

Our program closes with works from two of the first names of American women in music since the second half of the 20th century. Emma Lou Diemer’s affirming setting of Dickinson’s beloved poem will be followed by a rousing finale (featuring all of the ensembles together). Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal should open wide the ears with its infectious rhythmic vitality and exuberance, closing what we hope has been a program of engaging, rewarding, and new music.