Silk Road Notes


Born in 1963 in Iran, Kayhan is of Kurdish descent. He began studying music at the age of seven, and is considered a master of the kamancheh, a bowed Persian spike fiddle. Gallop of a Thousand Horses is based on the folk melodies of the Turkmen people, who live in northeastern Iran, Turkmenistan, and parts of several other nations. The nomadic Turkmen are deeply connected to their horses, and this piece suggests the wild freedom of a large herd crossing the plains. The rhythms of the tombak (Persian drum) are complemented by the sense of motion provided by the kamancheh and other strings. Gallop of a Thousand Horses was recorded by the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma on Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon (Sony Classical 2005). 

ZHAO JIPING (b. 1945)

Born in Xi’an, China, Zhao Jiping is perhaps best known for his award-winning film scores to Farewell My Concubine, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern. His work Sacred Cloud Music is built around one of the earliest extant pieces of Chinese music, Qingyun Yue (“Auspicious Cloud Music”), dating to 640AD. Originally written for guqin, a seven-stringed Chinese zither, Qinyun Yue was transnotated from two later manuscripts by ethnomusicologist Rembrandt Wolpert and interpreted for pipa (Chinese lute) by Wu Man.

KINAN AZMEH (b. 1976)

Ibn Arabi Postlude was adapted for the Silk Road Ensemble by Syrian composer and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and comes from his orchestral work The Ibn Arabi Suite (commissioned by the Osnabrück Symphony Orchestra). The work was inspired by the writings of Ibn Arabi, an Arab Muslim mystic and Su philosopher who traveled from Andalusia to Damascus in the 13th century seeking knowledge. Kinan was struck by Ibn Arabi’s philosophy that love and free thinking are as sacred as any religious beliefs. About the music, which is in a 15/8 meter, he says, “The piece blurs the lines between the composed and the improvised and can be described as an obsessive ritualistic dance in the maqam, or melodic form, known as Kurd.”

BELA BARTOK (1881-1945)
ROMANIAN FOLK DANCES (arr. Arthur Willner)

One of the greatest contributions Bartók made to the music world, besides his own array of works, was the magnitude of field recordings of traditional folk music he gathered, collected, and organized over the course of his life. His discovery of their tonal world also was reflected in the scope of his output: “the outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work because it freed me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys. The greater part of the collected treasure, and the more valuable part, was in the old ecclesiastical or old Greek modes, or based on more primitive (pentatonic) scales, and the melodies were full of the freest and most varied rhythmic phrases and changes of tempi. It became clear to me that the old modes, which had been forgotten in our music, had lost nothing of their vigor. Their new employment made new rhythmic combinations possible.”

Realizing that much of the folk music that had found its way into the Romantic music of Liszt, for example, had little to do with the original songs, Bartók set out to write simple accompaniments, altering the original tunes as little as possible. Thus, rather than dismantling them and repurposing the parts, he simply provided frames in which to showcase the content.


What seems most central to this piece is that it follows a process of accumulation and subsequent reversal. The opening descending dyads, followed by a repeating bass line over which the melody eventually enters, all feed into an electronically sustained accumulation of sound. Then, a pivot. The process reverses in a slightly different context, each new note subtracting itself from the amassed sonic material until none remains. Alongside working on this piece I was reading Charles Seife's wonderful Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea in which embracing zero as its own entity and an equal partner to infinity, among many other attributes, was an attractive thought to reflect upon. This work was commissioned by and written for Joseph Gramley. (Kojiro Umezaki)

VIJAY IYER (b. 1971)

The two-millennium-old Central Asian interzone that appears to us in and around the town of Dunhuang sheds light on our current moment as much as it tells us about the past. A splendid assemblage of painted murals found in several hundred hand-carved cave temples nearby – the so-called Mogao (“Peerless”) Grottoes, built up over nine centuries – reveal to us a deliriously hybrid Buddhism informed by Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, early Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, and Manichaeism. In these caves we see evidence of an organic globalism emerging in Dunhuang from the movements and interactions of Chinese, Indian, Central Asian, North African, and Middle Eastern peoples along the Silk Road. Dunhuang itself was known in earlier eras as Shazhou, from the Arabo-Persian Saju, which means “City of Sand.”

Theater director Peter Sellars brought this improvised cultural aggregate to my attention, through his project on the Vimalakirti Sutra, a Mahayana scripture that is depicted in some of the murals in Cave 17. In this text, the titular protagonist, a layman, performs miracles for a gathering audience of bodhisattvas, monks, and disciples, and offers insights on a number of central Buddhist tenets, most famously the “voidness” of all worldly phenomena, which he expresses in a “lion’s roar” of silence.

The experiences we associate with the Silk Road -- migration, discovery, encounter, interaction -- all depend on improvisation: our capacity to sense, decide, and act in relation to each other. Composing this piece was a puzzle for me at first; it was not immediately obvious how to merge different musical sensibilities and sonic languages. Eventually, through speculating about Dunhuang’s deep past, I realized that just as in these caves, and just as in culture as a whole, individual and collective improvisation would help us make the most of our shared presence. I thank the wonderful performers of A Far Cry and Silk Road Ensemble for rising to this occasion. (Vijay Iyer)

SANDEEP DAS (b. 1971)

Tarang is based on the exchange of improvised and extemporaneous solos between non-Western percussion instruments and Western strings. As Sandeep explains: “I imagined that the merchants or early travelers of the Silk Road may have interacted at first very simply – for example, through rhythm. When I composed this piece, I wanted to bring common elements of rhythm from the Silk Road countries such as a six-beat cycle (Dadra) and 16-beat cycle (Teen Taal).” The strings provide a drone and melodic lines to support these rhythmic weavings.


In the heart of Finland, in the region of Central Ostrobothnia, is the small county of Kaustinen, a municipality that has become known as the nation’s fiddling capital. It is home not only to the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, the largest in Scandinavia, but also to the Finnish fiddling group Järvelän Pikkupelimannit, more commonly known as JPP. In English this name translates to “Little Fiddlers of Järvelä,” Järvelä being both a village in Kaustinen and a family from that village that employs a fiddling tradition dating back to the 19th century. Founded in 1982, JPP is comprised of fiddlers Arto Järvelä, Mauno Järvelä, Matti Mäkelä, and Tommi Pyykönen, bassist Antti Järvelä, and harmonium player Timo Alakotila. (Karl Doty) 


I came across the Swedish fiddling duo of Mia and Mikael Marin in the summer of 2013 on the recommendation of a friend who had just attended one of Mia’s fiddling workshops. I was instantly taken with their music, both their original compositions as well as wonderful arrangements of traditional Swedish Polskas, a whirling dance with a combination of light (short) and heavy (long) steps. Their album Skuggspel quickly became one of my favorites and I started to imagine these tunes on a larger scale for string orchestra. My deepest gratitude goes out to Mia Marin for her graciousness and enthusiasm for these new arrangements. (Erik Higgins)


Throughout musical history, the transcription of folk melodies has been an abundant source of compositional material. Turceasca, the signature piece of the Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks (the Band of Brigands), is based on a traditional Turkish song and reflects the richness and complexity of a truly international collaborative work. In 1991, Taraf de Haïdouks, Roma musicians from a small village in southwest Bucharest, performed outside their country for the first time. Their music drew such interest that filmmaker Tony Gatlif featured them in his documentary film about the music of the Roma, Latcho Drom. Composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose broad, eclectic musical training (including Western classical, Jewish liturgical, klezmer and Argentinian tango) made him an ideal translator, worked with the band to arrange Turceasca for the Kronos Quartet as well as subsequent arrangements for the Silk Road Ensemble and A Far Cry.

Program notes written by Kathryn Bacasmot, Nicholas Cords, Karl Doty, Erik Higgins, Isabelle Hunter, Vijay Iyer, and Kojiro Umezaki.

Dawn to Dusk notes

Enjoy the program notes for our upcoming "Dawn to Dusk" concert! 

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Symphony No. 6, “le matin,” Symphony No. 7, “le midi,” and Symphony No. 8, “le soir”

Within Haydn’s three early symphonies, Nos. 6 (Morning), 7 (Noon), and 8 (Evening), audiences can observe a fascinating concatenation of factors: homage through symbolism to a new aristocratic employer, the utilization of talented musicians via extensive solo sections, and a celebration of Enlightenment era astronomical discovery.  

In 1761 Haydn entered employment in the aristocratic Esterházy family household—a stroke of fortune and opportunity. Up until then he had made a living as a freelancer, and then briefly as Kapellmeister in another court. Most of Haydn’s musical education had come from years of training in a Vienna choir school (until his voice broke, apparently embarrassingly in front of Empress Maria Theresa, herself), then self-instruction through books, and some formal training. But here, in one of the wealthiest environments, the young composer had the chance to explore his ideas, and the ability to hire some of the best musicians to execute them.

Paul Anton Esterházy had snatched up Haydn when the composer’s previous employer had to dissolve his court orchestra due to diminishing finances. There was one small glitch, however: he already had a Kapellmeister, an elderly man named Gregor Werner whom his mother had hired many years prior (in 1728), and whose compositional style was perhaps a little less fashionable and cosmopolitan than Paul Anton desired. In order to keep Werner, but hire Haydn, Esterházy created the position of Vice-Kapellmeister, and divided up the musical responsibilities: Werner to largely church music, and Haydn to “theater” music (general entertainments). After Werner’s death in 1766, Haydn was elevated to full Kappellmeister.

How, then, to impress your new employer? Write your first three symphonies for him in quick succession, and fill them with hat-tips to his favorite things. Columbia University professor Elaine Sisman notes in her excellent article, “Haydn: The Tageszeiten Symphonies,” that the Prince happened to own the music (by Joseph Starzer) to four ballets titled Le matin, Le midi, Le soir, and La nuit. The family palace was also decorated with ceiling murals depicting those stages of the day, accented with the appropriate mythological figures. Additionally, the main theme of Symphony No. 6 is played by the flute—which, just happened to be the instrument that Paul Anton played, himself—and in its opening solo melodically resembles a hunting horn call (one of the Prince’s favorite pastimes). Furthermore, structurally, each symphony features sections of highlighted solos or smaller ensemble sections. It happens that the Prince’s library held a vast collection of Vivaldi, and while Haydn’s symphonies are not in any way concerti grossi, they do utilize the “concertino” features of that previous era in a kind of homage. There might have been a secondary reason for the scattering of beautiful solo sections: to endear himself to his new orchestra through a little harmless flattery of his musicians (besides the fact this was one of the best bands in town, so he could afford to exploit them for an audience).

What about the overall theme between the symphonies of the sun in its various positions? Again, Sisman notes two insightful details: the language of honor that was bestowed on nobility, minor nobility, and aristocrats, and the simple fact of Haydn’s daily schedule, as outlined in his contract. The former harkens back to the idea of the sun as symbolism (think Louis the XIV, the “Sun King”):

“That Prince, by virtue of his rank, could be perceived as a kind of light-form. Princes of the realm were generally addressed with the title ‘Durchlaucht,’ which the dictionary will say means ‘Your Serene Highness,’ but is actually closer to what the Oxford English Dictionary charmingly refers to as its ‘burlesque’ form, ‘Your Transparency.’ The verb durchleuchten, to shine through, also means ‘to fill or flood (something) with light, light up, illuminate,’ suggests that ‘Durchlaucht’ might best be translated ‘Your Luminance.’ Court musicians were often reminded of the light emanating from their prince by the presence of ceiling painting showing Apollo with his sun-like attributes.”

Regarding the latter, Haydn was expected to present himself to Paul Anton before noon, and afternoon, to inquire about any musical needs or desires for the day for which he would need to prepare a performance with the palace orchestra. While this was likely not a direct influence or factor into the music, Haydn’s own life moved in direct tandem with the household and its activities dependent on the position of the sun in the sky (the time of day) and the son’s (Paul Anton’s) requirements.

Furthermore, the three Tageszeiten symphonies beautifully capture the 18th century Enlightenment zeitgeist. Music and astronomy have been grouped together since ancient times, from Plato to Boethius and on. There has been the “quadrivium” of studies including arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, as well as the idea of “Musica universalis” or the “music of the spheres,” relating the proportional dimensions of the universe to the proportions of the harmonic series of a scale. Music is, after all, a science—the physics and properties of sound. Largely forgotten today is the fact that William Herschel, himself, the great astronomer and discoverer of Uranus, began his life as a musician, composing symphonies as a contemporary of Haydn before devoting himself full time to science (and they are delightful—give them a listen). It was a time of great general fervor for all things scientific. A few decades later, toward the end of Haydn’s life, London’s first one-way street would be created as a necessity due to the sheer volume of people trying to get to events and presentations at the Royal Institution. As Sisman points out, the year the symphonies 6, 7, and 8 premiered saw the highly anticipated Transit of Venus, where the planet could be visually followed passing between the earth and the sun, allowing for the measurement of the distance from the earth. Just before, society stood in awe as the comet Edmond Halley predicted would return, did. The Esterházy household joined in the general excitement at these events.

As his tenure with the Esterházys began to wind down, Haydn’s celebrity grew, and he became particularly beloved in London. Often called the “Father of the Symphony,” it was his time (annoying as it was to him on occasion) with the Esterházys that allowed him to work and experiment in what was essentially a luxurious laboratory. Greisinger’s biography of the composer, published directly after his death in 1810, contains the following quotation of Haydn:

“My sovereign was pleased with all of my works and honored me with his approval. As master of an orchestra I was free to experiment. I could observe how a desired effect was created, and what weakened it; I was able to improve, add, cut, even take risks. I was entirely removed from the outside world; no one close to me could make me doubt myself; no one could harass me. I therefore had to become original.”

We often hear the final part of that quote, and it is sometimes framed as a statement more about potential artistic loneliness and lack of creative community, than anything else. However, in its fuller context we can see the positive aspect to his situation: he was free to experiment, without harassment—and with a cracker-jack collection of instrumentalists, to boot. From our perspective we see how crucial those years were to the story of musical development over the centuries, and it started as the “dawn” of No. 6 broke.

Program Notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot. Kathryn is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.

Crying with Teeth

The official version of this post is on the website of the Boston Musical Intelligencer and can be read here. Complete text follows. Enjoy!

Getting ready for our Celebrity Series concert tomorrow at Sanders, I’m standing with a violist and a singer to my left, a cellist to my right, and another singer just behind us. Across the stage, the 18 musicians of A Far Cry and the 8 singers of Roomful of Teeth have interspersed themselves into a single space. We’re about 10 seconds into our first pass at Caroline Shaw’s arrangement of Josquin des Prez’s lament Nymphes des Bois, and frankly, we haven’t found our way quite yet. Our individual polyphonic strands are trying to match up with the others, and to be in sync across the stage. Waves of sound and intention collide, unintentional dissonances form and subside, glances shoot up from the score as we try to right ourselves. It seems like we’ll need to stop and try a new strategy when suddenly, the feeling of shared pulse just clicks into rightness, and like that, we’re good.  Instrumental lines and vocal lines merge into a single intention, harmonies bloom, and we move forwards through the piece, suddenly dancing together in what T. S. Eliot would call “a formal pattern.”

Moments like that one reveal a lot about music. When everything is working, we take it for granted. But when we run a little bit off the rails, we see everything in a new way. Who doesn’t remember their fist time driving in slippery conditions? Everything swims into focus—the weight and momentum of the car, the feeling of the road, the friction of the tires. You learn so much, so quickly.

As I watched our musical vehicle swerve and right itself (the whole thing took maybe 10 seconds, but, as it does when you’re in a car, it felt longer) I was suddenly totally aware of what was happening physically in the rehearsal. Bowed string instruments were trying to match up the cadences of their arm movements with voices powered by breath and unlocked by words. Bodies moving to their own rhythm were trying to find a way to come into sync with each other. And—of course —there was no central figure waving a stick. Twenty-six musicians had to learn how to find a common groove, simply by feeling it and making micro-adjustments to each other. We had no choice but to embody the music with everything we had.

I’ve been thinking a lot about embodying music, in the context of this upcoming concert at Celebrity Series, the last stop on an extended tour with A Far Cry and Roomful of Teeth. Traveling and working with this insanely tight group of singers has made me aware, as an instrumentalist, of how much we share under the surface. So different at first glimpse, our two groups are both immensely physically involved in what we do—and the differences are ultimately minor.

Adding in one more twist, our program features works by Caroline Shaw and Ted Hearne, both of whom will be singing in the concert on Thursday. Composers and musicians, perhaps, are also not quite as far apart as we initially think, and there’s something great about watching the traditional line between creator and performer blur and change into something different.

A Far Cry has been playing Ted’s music for years. His “Law of Mosaics,” which we’ll be performing excerpts from on Thursday, is fiendishly tactile. Bows interact with strings in a way that never lets you forget that you are scraping sticky taut horsehair across a piece of metal-wound sheep gut. They skid, they drag, they slide, the instrument squeaks and crackles, new sounds come bubbling up and bursting out. Meanwhile, your arm muscles pump and your center of gravity shifts, and yes, you will probably be sweating by the end of the page. In a movement like his “Beats,” an electronic track emerges from an all-acoustic set up by sheer force of will. Meanwhile, in “Palindrome for Andrew Norman” the record needle skips (in a formal pattern) across centuries—so that one second, we’re in the relaxed and bright “Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3” setting and in the next, we’ve instantaneously shifted to “Mahler,” “Ligeti,” “Barber’s Adagio for Strings” or Andrew Norman. Each one of these shifts demands total physical involvement; I think of it as similar to the form of intense exercise that’s in vogue these days, where you push yourself to the limit in short intervals. 45 seconds ofPalindrome is probably equal to 10 minutes of regular practice.

When Ted talks about Law of Mosaics he describes what we’re doing in the piece as “activating the subconscious” of the entire history of string literature. We’re bringing these intense, iconic moments into the foreground and then making them come alive in a new body and talk to each other. In a session with schoolchildren, Ted beautifully described his compositional craft by saying “Being a composer is great because you get to pick all of your favorite sounds and put them in a piece.” Whether those sounds are Mahlerian swells, electronic crunches or brand-new tunes is beside the point.

“Embodying” the music means something quite different when we move to Caroline Shaw’s piece Music in Common Time—written jointly for Roomful of Teeth and A Far Cry. The piece is so suffused with resonance that it was honestly quite difficult for us to rehearse at first—the acoustic curves were so supple that they distracted us from our usual rhythmic pattern, and we had to come up with a new way of feeling the collective pulse that honored all the “cosmic” sounds we were hearing.

Moments in the work snap in and out of focus as the sound flows from strings to voices, and from one kind of harmonic profile to another.  A sweet chord takes on a different quality when the high, bright, overtones of a Tuvan throat singing technique are added. Divided parts on the lower strings bring aspects of a chord into the foreground, and then the background, elegantly and naturally. In an extended passage in the center of the work, we collectively participate in a sound-illusion; a chord progression that seems to slide upward and forward forever, much like a Shepard tone (here). Playing this piece, it’s easy to feel as though we’re in dialogue with pure sound.

Talking to Caroline about Music in Common Time reminds me of something aquatic that she said in our most recent concert; describing an unconducted ensemble as a “school of fish.” She talks about the voices in Roomful of Teeth “swimming” on top of, and in the midst of. the string sound. In many places in the piece, she’s left syllables out entirely to give the singers the maximum ability to “amplify the resonance” that’s already present in the air (or the water!)

But in the middle of our acoustic deep dive, words appear.

“Years ago / I forget / Years to come / Just let them.”

Suddenly, we’ve moved from a world of pure, shared, sound, to a human place that holds action, emotion, and history. It’s jarring and thrilling, every time.

The first time that A Far Cry presented Caroline’s piece, in 2014 (one year after Law of Mosaics!) I remember wondering what those words, pointed towards the future, would sound like at some later point. They’re like a time capsule, – or, as Caroline puts it, a “letter to myself years from now.”

Paradoxically, hearing them again doesn’t draw me to assess the current moment; it only makes me more curious about what they will sound like further in the future. Like the Shepard tone, they roll forward without ceasing, giving us the gift of a present which is constantly in motion.

Perhaps the final stop on the journey of “embodying the music” is simply that we all are able to embody the present moment as it continues on. But I’m inclined to think that there are also further stages, more left to discover in this elegant dance between composers, performers, and listeners, singers, and instrumentalists. Let’s see what happens next.

Law of Mosaics notes

The composers' own notes for A Far Cry's program Law of Mosaics, Thursday, April 6, at 7pm, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum



During my year as a fellow at the American Academy in Rome I made it my goal to visit every church in the city. Though I did not come even close to achieving this goal, I did discover many unique spaces that I came to know well over the course of the year. This piece is a series of portraits of some of my favorite Roman churches. The music is, at different times and in different ways, informed by the proportions of the buildings, the qualities of their surfaces, the patterns in their floors, the artwork on their walls, and the lives and legends of the saints whose names they bear. The more I worked on these miniatures, the less they had to do with actual buildings and the more they became character studies of imaginary people, my companions for my year abroad. (AN)

TED HEARNE (b. 1982)

"Thomas Jefferson went through the New Testament and removed all the miracles, leaving only the teachings."

"Meaning is a matter of adjacent data."

"The law of mosaics: how to deal with parts in the absence of wholes."

These passages, along with many others, are appropriated from a variety of sources and arranged by David Shields into his 2010 book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. It is a patchwork treatise on art and digital culture, and is an inspiration for Law of Mosaics, a 30­-minute piece for A Far Cry.

The musical material from the first movement, “Excerpts from the middle of something,” is lush and climactic­ but it is also a fish out of water, removed from surrounding music that might help it be better contextualized. It could follow a tense build­-up, or precede a climax and resolution, but instead we hear it repeated and revised. As the material circles in on itself, it begins to make sense on its own, but never really "goes" anywhere.

The second movement, “Palindrome for Andrew Norman,” is constructed entirely of samples lifted from other pieces of music. Each plays an important or climactic role in the piece from which it is lifted, but is used here as a single building block in the construction of a symmetrical (and rather arbitrary) formal structure: the palindrome. Each sample is altered from its original composition in some way: it may appear backwards, or re-voiced, or as a canon with itself, but an element of its essential character is always preserved.

Andrew Norman is a contemporary composer from New York whose 2010 string trio The Companion Guide to Rome is heard among the many snippets of source material in this movement.

In some way, the rich history of works written for the string orchestra informs and influences every performance by every individual string orchestra active today, whether they choose to perform those works or not. “Climactic moments from ‘Adagio for Strings’ and ‘The Four Seasons,’ slowed down and layered on top of one another” explores what can happen when two "staples" of the repertoire (likely to be found on a Best Classical Hits CD) are stretched out and mashed up.

The fourth movement, “Beats,” is driven by noise, punk and electronic music more than classical music influences. A simple and clear form is filled with music that plays with the space between pitch and non-­pitched sound.

“Climactic moments from movement three, three times as slow as before” is simply a reframing of music you have already heard.

“The warp and woof” refers to the lengthwise (warp) and crosswise (woof) threads that together create the texture and foundation of a woven fabric. It is a fitting end for a piece that imagines the framing of musical content to be as integral to the structure of a work as the way that content is framed. (TH)

Image of San Pietro in Montorio, depicted in "Pietro" from Andrew Norman's The Companion Guide to Rome.  Photo by Peter1936F - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In Conversation with Andrew Norman and Ted Hearne

In advance of A Far Cry's performance this Thursday, April 6, of its 2014 album, The Law of Mosaics, featuring The Companion Guide to Rome by Andrew Norman, and The Law of Mosaics by Ted Hearne, we're reprinting this interview from the original liner notes, in which the composers talk about their own music and each others'.


An Email Trialog with Ted Hearne, Andrew Norman and Ryan Dohoney
Ryan Dohoney (RD): Andrew, you talk about the Companion Guide as a set of translations from physical, visual, and architectural space into musical sounds—Would you talk about how the process worked for you in the com­position of Companion Guide and the ways in which certain architectural and acoustic analogies became apparent to you?
Andrew Norman (AN): The process of trans­lating architectural spaces into sound worked itself out differently in each movement of the Companion Guide. Some of the movements began with a very intuitive reaction to a particular space, as in “how does this building make me feel, and how can I write music that explores that feeling?,” and some of the movements began with a more objective act of transference, with taking hard architectural numbers and plugging them into various musical parameters just to see what they might sound like.
Pietro is probably the most literal example of taking architectural proportions and transferring them, one-­to-­one, into musical proportions. It’s inspired by Bra­mante’s Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio, a tiny little jewel box that is one of the first and most important examples of Renaissance architecture in Rome. The Tempietto was built at a time when people were rediscovering the classical idea of using simple, beautiful whole number ratios to determine the proportions of their buildings, and thus it has everything to do with Pythagoras and his explorations of simple, beautiful whole number ratios as expressed in the relationship of harmonic nodes on string instruments (hence my little piece being made entirely of open strings and natural harmonics). Pietro is also a mini isorhythmic motet, a nod to a particularly mathematical and abstruse form of liturgical composition that was in vogue at the time the Tempietto was built. I really like the idea that music can contain layer upon layer of refer­ence, and that those references can add up to a potentially rich experience that goes beyond the notes and rhythms on the page. I think this is something I share in common with Ted, though I’m not using direct quotation and sampling to create that web of reference in the way that he does.
RD Also, you then seem to translate this acoustic composition back into spatialized sound with the staging and arrangement of the piece in performance. Do the two architectural situations have anything to do with each other in your mind, or is the point the difference?
AN The staging instructions in Companion Guide are only there to heighten the sense of multiplicity—of voices, materials, points of view, physical locations—within the piece. I wanted each movement to be a distinct world unto itself, and so performing them in different locations on stage is meant to emphasize this. I suppose the stage then becomes a metaphor for the city of Rome.
RD Ted, Law seems not to work through translation as much as it does extraction and magnification. I’m referring in particular to your references to “extracts,’’ “climactic moments,’’ etc. in movement titles. Your music amplifies and explodes musical frag­ments. How to you go about choosing what to extract/magnify and how to go about transforming it?
Ted Hearne (TH): I’m fascinated with quotation in music (and all other ways of referencing pre­existing works and styles), because it is an aggressive action on the part of the composer to weave a dialogue with the past into the surface layer of the music. It’s the act of stealing a fully ­formed work, along with all the associations and meanings it has earned over time on its own merits, and co­opting all of that history into your own story that is being written in the present. The choices of what to do with those histories (how to order and layer them, how to chop them up or otherwise distort them beyond recognition) speak volumes about who we are and where we are coming from, and they’re often more important to me than choices about what notes and rhythms to use.
Look at the production of almost any nonclas­sical recording artist and you’ll see that these choices define their sonic identity. The musi­cians I love the most combine their influences in ways that both respect and engage those sources’ histories.

To answer your question more directly, my “extract­magnify’’ choices were inspired by the ingenious way some of the hip-hop art­ists I love use sampling. Kanye West is a great example of an artist who understands the power of accessing history through a sample, and the endless gradations of dialogue that can come with that.
With Law of Mosaics, I wanted to play with sampling’s ability to access our shared histories in different ways. The second move­ment does this by extracting from a variety of pieces of music—some in a way that com­municates very obviously to listeners familiar with classical music (a la Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves’’), and some in a way that are not at all easy to pick up on, even for one who is familiar with the source material. And by giving the movement an arbitrary formal restraint (“Palindrome’’), I hoped to create a space where the listener could hear each sample in a new context while still interacting with their historical ramifications.
I wanted to use a lot of classical­ music sources for manipulation. I loved the idea of a war­horse like Barber’s Adagio for Strings being morphed completely beyond recogni­tion, because that process made me try to identify the precise line over which a piece of music has to cross before it could no longer be considered that piece of music. It made me examine the relationship between the actual sounds I was hearing and the contextual meaning I had ascribed to the music. In terms of what music I chose to extract, it was always first and foremost a sound I liked, and always from a source I like or at least one I have a deep relationship with.
RD Both of you speak to the possibility of using your music to explore a moment (be that a moment of music, a moment of feeling) through multiplicity and association. This, for me, is one of the most exciting things about your work. What kinds of feeling are you both particularly interested to explore? What sorts of emotions (from a space or another musical piece) grab you? And from a point of view of technique, how do you construct analogies between one kind of feeling and another—be that comparing types of musical feelings in say Barber or Vivaldi, or types of spatial feel­ings of Roman Churches into sound?
AN Feelings are so hard to talk about! But I suppose it’s only fair that you ask, as the Companion Guide is a piece filled with my own very  personal feelings. In thinking back on the spaces that inspired the Guide, I keep returning to one feeling in particular which, for lack of a better word, I might call “won­der.’’ Wonder comes in so many shapes and sizes, and I’m not even sure I can accurately define what it is (part surprise? part mystery? part vulnerability and losing oneself in some­thing else?), but I think it is in many ways is trying to capture—or perhaps portray or recreate—a moment of wonder from my time in Rome. As far as the technique of constructing relationships between the various feelings/moments/movements in the piece, I think those relationships happened very much on the fly during the writing process. I definitely wanted each movement to exist in its own self­-contained world, but as the piece progressed it became clear that those worlds were in dialogue with each other in ways I hadn’t anticipated. 
TH Andrew is touching on an idea that is important to both of our pieces, and I think to our music in general—namely that move­ments (or statements, feelings, or moments) exist as self­-contained elements in a constel­lation, and that a big part of experiencing the piece as a whole comes from trying to fill in connections between them. It’s a question of how each explored moment—whether a disembodied shard or an intricate and polished crystal—relates to the larger web of associations. To me, this is directly related to our experience with the food of nonstop information in our lives. We all live in the same world with the same information, but there are infinite combinations of ways to curate, sort, filter, absorb, digest and process it. An individual perspective, then, comes from a particular collection of ingredients in a particular order.
I love the way Andrew explores this principle in Companion Guide. The piece is an omnivorous collection of sound-­worlds and intricately constructed forms, many of which wouldn’t belong together anywhere else other than in the head of Andrew. It’s both rigorous and seemingly unencumbered by a need to be “unified” into a single coherent statement, yet I am completely convinced by each move­ment’s relationship to the larger whole. And I found myself asking: What is that magnetism that binds them together? Companion Guide inspired me to poke at whatever that mysteri­ous thing was/is, and Law of Mosaics is the end product of that poking. (And this is the most important reason I think these pieces go well together on an album.)
Regarding the construction of analogies, one thing I learned from Andrew’s music was how convincing and provocative it could be to lay disparate artifacts next to each other without over-­explaining them. Sometimes a preoccupation with creating totally rock-­solid analogies can cause a composer to overdo it on transitional or “unifying” material. 
I’m more interested in letting a loose or ambiguous relationship emerge by virtue of coexistence, and if all the connections don’t always make a solid equation at the end it doesn’t really matter to me as long as they’re authentic. (Real life is messy, I like it when music is too.)

RD I’m feeling much sympathy with and interest in how you both are talking about these ideas, though you both are basically giving me a sort of “well, isn’t that an interest­ing question” kind of dodge. What I’m trying to get at is something specific and techni­cal about your musical languages, how you guys go on fabricating a feeling using your particular compositional practices to convey something of what “wonder” or “my complex relationship with Samuel Barber” feels like. Can you be baldly technical about it? Know­ing that your way of fabricating a feeling in music may resonate completely differently with someone else, how do you go about constructing it in sound?
AN I can’t predict how anyone else is going to feel during my music, but I do have a sense of how music makes me feel—how certain ges­tures, timbres, harmonic shifts and rhythmic grooves move and excite me as a listener—and I draw on that experience all the time when writing. I find deep pleasure and satisfaction when I hear a piece of music break out of the frame it has set up for itself, be that a modu­lation from one key to another, or a change in rhythm, or texture, or range, or whatever. I plan these “break out” moments a lot in my own music because I know I will find them satisfying, and I hope my listeners will too.
The last movement of the Guide, for instance, spends nine minutes in strictly diatonic G Major. In its last three phrases the piece abruptly moves to an entirely different key, and this for me is a classic ’’break out’’ moment. Granted, this kind of modulation is like the oldest trick in the book, but it is one that I still find effective so I use it all the time. I think each movement of the Companion Guide might have a moment like this (not all having to do with pitch and key centers, of course). I haven’t stopped to think about it in quite these terms before, but I can see that this technique of the frame and the “break out” is something I often employ to recreate a bit of the wonder that initially inspired these pieces.
TH In Law of Mosaics, I wasn’t as motivated by setting up rules and finding poignant ways to break them as I was by finding the perfect way to juxtapose or overlay elements that didn’t “belong” together, then using them to create a compelling enough sound that listeners would be tricked into being comfort­able (or at least continuously curious) in an uncomfortable context. So, achieving that was largely a matter of planning to find the perfect sound-worlds—ones that compelled me on a purely sonic level (as much as that’s possible). For instance, before I wrote the third movement I used Ableton Live to slow down recordings of the Barber and Vivaldi in a million different ways, found a few versions that I could bliss out on for a while, then finally picked the spots I would most want to immerse in sonically. After that, I experi­mented with different ways to layer them, ultimately settling on a scheme that would sort of pit them against each other tonally and timbrally (I chose some very senza vibrato ­clean cut Baroque arpeggios to clash with those climactic rising Romantic chords in the Barber). I wanted to scrawl on the source material enough that the original would only peek through once in awhile, so that was a big consideration when placing everything and figuring out which excerpts to use. And it wasn’t till all of that was done that I figured out how to write it down for an actual orches­tra to play.
RD By way of conclusion, would each of you briefly reflect on the other’s music?
AN Ted’s music is fearless. I love the fact that I can always hear him pushing on something, be it me and my assumptions and desires as a listener, the players and the boundaries of their technique, or himself and his composi­tional safety zone. No one gets an easy pass in a Hearne musical experience, and I like that.

I also like that Ted’s music asks questions he doesn’t already know the answers to. It seems to me that his creative intent is not so much to show us something as to get us to think, to inquire, to probe a web of issues along with him in musical real time. That his work resists big conclusions and cathartic summations is proof—to my ears anyway—that he values the journey more than any one of its many destinations.
TH Andrew’s music is very expressive, very well crafted, and full of brilliant (but entirely non-academic) ideas, and the degree to which all these qualities are fused is mind-­boggling to me. One never seems to be in service of the others. His extremely high level of skill often hides the fact that he is constantly asking his musicians to perform high­-wire acts; I love that he tricks my ear like that. Even when his music sounds free and luxurious, he never gives his musicians room to zone out. I respect that immensely.
Sometimes I wonder how this music can feel so perfectly suited to the moment in which I’m listening to it (and thus con­temporary), but also be steeped in such an unabashed love of classical music. Part of it may be that Andrew’s music often deals with the real relationship between a musician and their actual instrument, and you can hear a struggle and concord between them being worked out in live time. Finally, I really admire how naturally Andrew translates the ideas in his head to real sound in a real space. His connection to acoustics and the realities of classical instruments is so good that it can seem like a superpower, but he always applies it so simply and effectively that once you hear his music, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world. The definition of gifted.
Interview conducted throughout Spring 2014, then condensed and edited. 

The American Experiment

Tonight's program features a new arrangement of Dvorak's "American" Quartet by Sarah Darling, who writes a bit about it here. Enjoy! 

I remember clearly the first time I heard the phrase "The American Experiment." I was overseas at the time, living in the Netherlands. It was eye-opening to think of my country in that way, as a thought that was slowly coming to life, something hugely idealistic and bold and new that still (after two centuries!) seemed to the older countries as if it was taking its very first breaths. An experiment is dynamic, not static; something that you participated in. America's something that you do. 

Tonight, A Far Cry is playing a concert of music inspired by that idea, and by the vast landscapes of the West. A central part of that program is Dvorak's incredibly well-known and universally beloved "American" Quartet - which has, for better or worse, been arranged for string orchestra by yours truly. Talk about an experiment! Take a piece that everyone can sing, and that everyone played when they were 14, and that everyone has strong ideas about - and see if there's even more to be found in there! It would be ridiculously audacious to even try, except that hey, that's the point. 

In making an arrangement, figuring out when to use big forces and when to use small forces is part of the game. When to let a single voice carry the group, and when to support the thought with the lush sound of an entire section - and how to transition between the two. Some of my wilder ideas, like adding one player in after another in a certain spot, got nixed by the group at large. Heck, that's democracy at work (another aspect of our fine country) and 'twas probably for the best. Once we started workshopping the arrangement together, all sorts of extra ideas started blossoming, and some of them were fantastic. 

The trickiest thing to "experiment" with is adding a bass part into the whole mixture. Adding a lower octave where one was never originally there is sort of like giving the work a high-functioning exoskeleton. It's a little different from building the skeleton in from scratch (as you'd do if you were writing an orchestra piece) and yet, functionally, every piece of music has an implied bass part, whether visible or invisible. 

(Paradoxically, the piece on the program that comes right before the Dvorak, William Grant Still's "Mother and Child" also has a nearly invisible - yet incredibly powerful - bass presence. To make it come to life, we have to really dream the harmony into being together. If Still's not known to you, you can say hello here - he was one of the very first African-American composers, prolific and profound, and his gorgeous music should be much, much better known!) 

Returning to Dvorak, though - his "American" story is an amazing one. The A Far Cry program notes cover it beautifully, so I won't go into much detail, but the simple fact that a Czech dude came to this country with the intention of discovering what music made it "tick" is one that I still find extraordinary. One the one hand, who would dare? Maybe only an outsider. Dvorak in America, listening to spirituals, listening to native songs, listening to birdsongs(!), taking in the rich tapestry of shared experiences that already defined the country at that time. A lonely man reaching out to an entire country in friendship, while missing and longing for his own.

Still, he kept at it, and made something exquisite. In a way, there's nothing quite like those few but magnificent compositions that he wrote in dialogue with America, like the New World Symphony. A perfect storm of different musical impulses and traditions, coming together in a charged moment to create works that are incredibly unique. 

Maybe the question "What is American music?" is American music - who knows? For sure, that question challenges and inspires us to keep experimenting. Let's see what happens next. 

All my best, 


A Chat with David Shifrin

We were thrilled when David Shifrin agreed to come play the Copland Clarinet Concerto with A Far Cry. His extensive personal experience with the piece is something that we've been enjoying all week long. We sat down for a few minutes to discuss some aspects of it with him - and now you can enter the conversation too! 

You've been playing the concerto for a long time, right? 

I've been playing this piece for decades!

Has it changed for you over that time? 

Of course, it changes every time, and it's always great. I think the big question about this piece is always: since it was written for Benny Goodman, should it be played like jazz? Or should it be played very strictly? Fortunately, we have two recordings of Goodman playing the concerto with Copland conducting, and you hear that it was written for Benny, and that there are certainly some jazz-inflected things. But he takes the score quite literally and plays elegantly.

The first movement has this broad, lyric, quality and this mesmerizing, Satie Gymnopedie feeling. (Satie and Copland were in Paris at the same time!) In the cadenza and in the second movement, the question is always how much liberty to take, and of course there are many different opinions on that - and many are valid! I try to play it in as lively in a fashion as possible but still to play in the fashion that I think was intended by Copland. I never played this piece with Copland, although I played other things with him, and I worked with other clarinetists who did the piece with him. I have a sense that you want that jazz inflection but that you don't want to start adding notes and improvising in the cadenza… although on the other hand, why not? But then it becomes a whole other piece. 

What's the takeaway from working with Copland? Any special memories? 

He was always very kind, and I knew him as a student in two different places. We spent a week in Interlochen doing Appalachian Spring and some other pieces. He was very exacting and demanding of the students. At the same time, he was thoughtful, and very generous with his time, eating lunch with everyone and hanging out. Then I got to work with him again at the Blossom center, and again... you know, I think he might have even lived in the dorm with the students! I remember him coming to meals, and being available. And he had really clear ideas about what he wanted. This is what I wrote; this is what I want you to play. 

Is this the first time you've played the piece without a conductor? 

This is the second time. We did it with a group from Yale, to celebrate Benny Goodman's hundredth birthday, we did a concert of all the concert music that he had commissioned or premiered, at Zankel at Carnegie Hall, in 2009. Ida Kavafian led a conductorless orchestra - and Liesl was a student in the orchestra at that time! 

Is there anything in particular audience members should listen for? Anything special they'll enjoy? 

Well, it's really three distinct pieces within this one work, played without pause. The opening is just etherial - just let it flow - and then the cadenza - you can root for me, because it's really a piece unto itself! A really extended clarinet cadenza is quite unusual. Then the most Latin American jazz, and swing influences, are in the last part of the piece, and I think it's fine if people want to tap their feet - i don't know what the rules are for dancing in the aisles at Jordan Hall! 

West of the Pecos notes

DAVID DIAMOND (1915-2005)

In 1944 America was in the grips of World War II. Dimitri Mitropolous, the renowned conductor, wrote to David Diamond, “These are distressing times. Most of the difficult music I play is distressing. Make me happy.” Diamond’s response was Rounds.

Diamond was born in Rochester, New York, and went on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Eastman School of Music, and in Paris with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. He, in turn would teach as a member of the composition faculty of the Juilliard School. For a time, his music was performed frequently, championed by Leonard Bernstein, amongst others, including Virgil Thomson who wrote in The New York Herald Tribune, “Composers, like pearls, are of three chief sorts, real, artificial and cultured. David Diamond is unquestionably of the first sort; his talent and his sincerity have never been doubted by his hearers, his critics, or by his composer colleagues.”

The title is re effective of the style, a round where the violins open and the low strings echo in return, and the music accomplishes its charge with aplomb: it is unabashedly exuberant throughout. Rounds became Diamond’s most well known work, and for good reason: we could all use a little happiness from time to time.

AARON COPLAND (1900-1990)

Benjamin, “Benny,” Goodman was born into poverty in a working class immigrant neighborhood of Chicago about which Jane Addams lamented, “The streets are inexpressibly dirty, the number of schools inadequate, sanitary legislation unenforced, the street lighting bad, the paving miserable and altogether lacking in the alleys and smaller streets...Hundreds of houses are unconnected with the street sewer.” Nonetheless, his father prioritized music, and enrolled Benny in clarinet lessons affordably offered at their local synagogue. The rest, as they say, is history. After becoming the “King of Swing,” in the jazz world, and taking that art form to its first concert outing in Carnegie Hall, he decided to return to his classical training. In April of 1938 he released a recording of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A major with the Budapest Quartet and embarked on taking formal lessons again at the age of forty—a true testament to his thirst for learning and expansion of musical vocabulary. He also began commissioning classical composers for music to perform: Béla Bartók, Malcolm Arnold, Morton Gould, Francis Poulenc, and Aaron Copland.

It was 1947 when Goodman approached Copland, who had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Appalachian Spring just two years prior, to write a clarinet concerto for him. A year later it was delivered to Goodman, who was uncertain about his ability to pull off the difficult technical passages of the work. Copland made some changes, but it still took until 1950 for Goodman to perform it—and even then, he did it on radio with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fritz Reiner. The public premiere took place a few weeks later with clarinetist Ralph McClane and the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Eugene Ormandy.


During his tenure at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, Dvorák’s students included a large number of talented African American musicians and composers whom he encouraged unreservedly, believing that they were the heart of the “American” sound. One of them, Maurice Arnold Strothotte gained Dvorák’s utmost respect as “the most promising and gifted” of his pupils. Other students included Will Marion Cook and Henry Thacker Burleigh. These young composers all blended the sounds of spirituals and plantation songs with the great European classical traditions, and while they experienced certain levels of success for the art they produced, they also met with resistance.

William Grant Still was born in Woodville Mississippi in 1895— the year Dvorák departed from New York to return to Europe. An early tragedy robbed him of his father when he was only three months old, but when his mother re-married, it was to a good man who treated Still like his own son, taking him to performances, purchasing records, and generally encouraging his musical interests. He would go on to enroll at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music after receiving a Bachelor of Science degree at Wilberforce University (pacifying his mother’s wishes for medical school), and eventually studied composition with George Whitfield Chadwick (who, incidentally, would be appointed Director of the New England Conservatory in 1897), and Edgard Varèse.

After collaborating with some of the biggest stars of the blossoming jazz scene in New York City, including Fletcher Henderson’s band, Still commenced on a set of “firsts”: the first African American to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the first African American to have his opera performed by the New York City Opera, the first African American to conduct the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra. His sizeable musical output includes five symphonies, eight operas, and musical arrangements for films including Pennies from Heaven (starring Bing Crosby), and The Lost Horizon.

Mother and Child was originally a movement from Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano, composed for the husband and wife violin and piano duo of Louis and Annette Kaufman. All three movements of the suite were inspired by the visual arts of African American sculptors and painters. Mother and Child drew from the work of Sargent Claude Johnson (1888-1967). It was premiered in Jordan Hall on March 14, 1944.

ANTONÍN DVORÁK (1841-1904)

Dvorák’s time in the United States from 1892 to 1895 was musically fruitful, with a new symphony, string quartet, string quintet, and cello concerto added to his oeuvre, but not always easy or pleasant. He adapted, but was never at ease in the urban hustle and bustle of New York City. Furthermore, it was a financially troubled visit. After renewing his contract as Artistic Director and Professor of Composition at the National Conservatory of Music, his sponsor, Jeannette Thurber (president of the Conservatory) found she was unable to pay his salary due to economic difficulties. There was, however, one “ideal spot” (the composer’s description) during his tenure Stateside: a small town in Iowa with a large Czech community called Spillville, where he spent one summer. It was there that he wrote one of the chamber pieces that would become a favorite of many: the String Quartet in F major op. 96 (“American”). Inspiration came quickly for Dvorák, having completed the full sketch of the quartet in only three days, and completing it in two weeks.

The subtitle “American” that became attached to the quartet has something of a double meaning; it not only identifies the land of its conception, but also an assignment. Dvorák had been invited to the National Conservatory for a specific reason: to decipher the answer to the question, “What is ‘American’ Music?” After all, the bedrock of concert music was Europe, and to be considered “serious,” a young artist had to spend time studying abroad with the great masters, absorbing the great tradition. Mrs. Thurber, seeing Dvorák as a composer who successfully fused his native Czech sonorities with the broader European concert music tradition, concluded he would be ideal for explaining how one finds a “national” sound profile, and how one could teach that method in the conservatory classrooms of the United States (not only forming a musical “identity,” but keeping talent at home, so to speak).

The following scenario documents that when Dvorák arrived, searching for “possible basic material for a characteristic style,” he “asked Henry Thacker Burleigh, a black student at the National Conservatory, to sing him spirituals and plantation songs from the South and he asked the music critic Henry Krehbiel for transcriptions of Amerindian melodies...In many newspaper articles and interviews he expressed his belief that a national American style could be based on such traditional elements, among which he included pentatonism in the melodic line, a flattened leading note, plagal cadences, drone accompaniment, rhythmic ostinato and strongly syncopated rhythms.”

People groups tend to maintain their culture through food and music, wherever they are, under almost any circumstances. For Dvorák, infusing his music with Czech idioms was partially a political statement of maintaining and encouraging Czech culture as the people struggled for independence from Empire (for that reason, his music was sometimes avoided and not performed in Vienna). It may strike the reader that what Dvorák sought out in America was the music of individuals who had suffered forced displacement and slavery. Additionally, what he describes are the building blocks of what we think of as America’s great art form: jazz, a style of music that was born out of African musical traditions grafted into a new world. Jazz, that relies on the strength of the individual expressing the fullness of self, supported by group toward a larger goal, each, in time, taking a turn to speak and sing and add to the art of musical conversation.

It’s not the elements of music alone that can have any nationalistic fervor, but that those elements are found in the folk music of the inhabitants of the land, and are imbued with deep sentiments, memory, and love of place. It is that feeling that makes the music of a people. Is there anything more American than a Czech man campaigning for his own freedoms coming to a country across the ocean to meet with people from various walks of life—including the grandson of a freed slave and son of a German immigrant?

Program Notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot. Kathryn is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.

Photo By Dschwen - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Metaphorically Misty

As the cobbler-together of this program, let me be the first to admit: “Misty” was probably not the best choice of name, if only because the opening words, to be sung by our soloist, Dashon Burton, will be:

     The sea is calm tonight, 
     The tide is full, the moon lies fair
     Upon the straits […]

… in other words, not a cloud in sight. I’m pretty sure I assumed that, because “Dover Beach” is set in England, it must be foggy. I was not paying close attention.

And no better for the song cycle that closes the concert, Hanns Eisler’s Ernste Gesänge, which I only knew from the fabulous recording made by Ensemble Resonanz (a release that includes none other than our very own Erik Higgins, back in his formative European days). Having purchased the album online, I was deprived of the essential liner notes and translations that I might know what exactly was being sung about; all I knew was that it was downright lovely music.

Intuitively, though, I think I had a sense that the two pieces might have something in common, and there I may have lucked into some truth. First that the texts of both works deal with despairing at the state of the world. In the Barber:

     Sophocles long ago
     Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
     Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
     Of human misery; we
     Find also in the sound a thought,
     Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

Then in the Eisler:

     There is nothing that would be worthy of your efforts,
     And the earth does not deserve a sigh.
     Pain and boredom are our lot
     And the world is filth, nothing else. Be calm.

At the same time the texts are hopeful at their core, believing that humankind can do better, and that there is happiness to found in this world. Dover Beach’s final stanza begins:

     Ah, love, let us be true
     To one another! for the world […] seems
      To lie before us like a land of dreams, 
     So various, so beautiful, so new,

And the Eisler songs include this stanza, in the final poem:

     To him too the image of brighter times is announced,
     And what was long a glorious promise
     Wafts through the silence
     And makes it beautiful.

The musical settings employed by Barber and Eisler, drawing on these similar outlooks, make for an interesting contrast. Both treatments are notable for their restraint, only going full heart-on-sleeve in a few moments. Where they differ might stem from a factor outside the music, namely age: that Barber wrote his piece as a young man, as a student, whereas Eisler’s Ernste Gesänge were completed in the year of his death, his last complete work. Based on that, one senses Barber looking ahead to a life in this imperfect world, filled with a sense of trepidation and anxiety. Eisler, on the other hand, inhabits more of a philosophical and ruminative place, perhaps becoming more bitter at times, but ultimately ends truly hopeful and at peace.

Going back to the idea of “Misty,” then, the concept might be best thought of as a kind of metaphorical fog of melancholy thoughts. In assembling the program, then, I began to think about what might come out of, or result from, that place. Sometimes a walk in the fog can be invigorating, leading to youthful excitement (Dag Wiren’s Serenade) verging on ecstasy (Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa); at others, a misty day can lead us down a more introverted path, to a zen-like state (Toru Takemitsu’s The Dorian Horizon), or the opposite, to feelings of sadness and anguish (Josef Suk’s Meditation).

In that sense, the program is meant to be a miniature drama in two acts, with a bit of a Citizen Kane-like arc; beginning and ending in the mists, emerging from the first cloud drawing on Barber’s youthful energy, then returning, drawing back towards Eisler’s acceptance and wistfulness. 

To what degree this narrative will come across is anyone’s guess; lucky then that all six works are phenomenal in their own right, and not performed nearly often enough!

- Michael Unterman

Listen to recordings of Dover Beach and Ernste Gesänge

Misty notes

Notes for our "Misty" program, written by Kathryn Bacasmot. Enjoy! 

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) ::  Dover Beach, Op. 3

Occasionally, a composer comes along who seems largely untouched by the usual struggle for work and recognition. Samuel Barber was one of them. The son of a prominent physician, and nephew to an opera singer and composer, he was only seven years old when he started writing music. At nine he knew he wanted to compose professionally (famously proclaiming in a letter to his mother, “I was meant to be a composer...Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football”). His first operetta was written at age ten (libretto provided by the family cook). By age twelve he was a church organist (a job he quickly lost for refusing to hold the fermatas). He eventually went on to study conducting with Fritz Reiner and George Szell, and after his graduation, received many commissions from a wide variety of people (including Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, who commissioned his Piano Sonata).

Barber’s sound is a unique blend of late 19th century lyricism and tonality mixed with the rhythms, dissonances, and angularities of modernist styles. His is a lean, muscular, romanticism where even beautiful and tender melodies always seem underpinned by a singular, focused intensity (listen to his most famous piece, the Adagio for Strings, and you will hear that fundamental sonic interaction). This singular quality of sound he brought to his compositions was evident early on—including Dover Beach, which was written in 1931, during Barber’s time studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In addition to studying piano and composition, his baritone voice gained recognition, and it was Barber who sang at the premiere.

There is something about standing on a shoreline that seems to immediately speak to us of uncertainty, change, possibility and loss all at once. Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem, Dover Beach, expresses those sentiments set against the dramatic shoreline of towering white cliffs at the narrowest part of the English Channel. Throughout Barber’s work the shape of the musical phrasings compliments the text: pulsing, ebbing, flowing, swelling, and ceasing. When the famous British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams heard Barber’s setting one year later, he exclaimed “I tried several times to set Dover Beach, but you really got it!”

Dag Wirén (1905-1986) :: Serenade for Strings, Op. 11

Dag Wirén’s Serenade for strings rushes in like a warm summer breeze. Enveloping the listener in light, gorgeous melodies, it harkens back to classical and romantic works that share the title of serenade (by Mozart, Dvořák, or Tchaikovsky, for example). Having studied in Paris for three years from 1931-1934 on a state stipend from his native Sweden, Wirén had the opportunity to meet none other than Igor Stravinsky. He also became familiar with the music of the loosely associated group of French composers known as Les Six (The Six): Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre. This collective tended toward creating music with a lighter, almost neo-classical spirit in contrast with the more modernist trends that were popular amongst many artists of the time. Written only three years after his Parisian adventure, this Serenade from 1937 exudes an energy seemingly derived from Les Six’s compositional style, who perhaps influenced Wirén’s penchant for writing in this more traditional manner.  

Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013) :: Orawa

Polish composer Wojciech Kilar carved out an illustrious career as a film composer writing the original soundtracks for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola), The Pianist (Roman Polanski), The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion), and many, many more. Before delving into the world of film, Kilar was on the rise as a composer of concert music, having trained with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and coming into prominence on the world stage with fellow Polish composers Henryk Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki.

Orawa is part of a larger group of works (not meant to be performed as a set) centering on a theme of the Tatra Mountain range that define the “natural” border between northern Slovakia and southern Poland. Having grown up in Katowice in southwestern Poland, Kilar retained a special memory of the Tatras, as do many individuals from that region, recalling the beautiful majesty of the mountains, and holidays spent in Zakopane, at the base. The other two works are Kościelec (a specific mountain peak in the range) and Grey Mist.

Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996) :: The Dorian Horizon

In 1889, at age 27, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) attended the Exposition Universelle in Paris and encountered, for the first time, music of the Asian continent: gamelan music from Java. The non-Western tonal system forever influenced his compositional modality. Some sixty years later a teenager in Japan, Tōru Takemitsu, discovered Western music when a military officer played a recording for him of a French chanson, and he continued to delve into learning about Western music on an American military base where he was employed after World War II. What he heard drove him to pen and paper, and he began to teach himself how to compose receiving only occasional lessons.

Debussy was very influential on the young Takemitsu, as was another French composer, Olivier Messiaen. In another twist, it was the music and writings of John Cage, whose philosophy of music and sound was informed by Asian traditions that, in turn, led Takemitsu to re-discover elements of Japanese music. As a result of these inspirations, Takemitsu’s music expresses a unique blend of chromatics, tonalities, and space (both in the use of register—high and low tones at the extremes—and silence).

String music is typically reliant upon the technique of vibrato to provide warmth of sound—akin to a human voice singing. But here, no vibrato exists. The sound is profoundly pure, and piercing, The Dorian Horizon has a sonic landscape that evokes sheets of glacial ice shifting against one another, or perhaps endless grains of sand: it has been noted that it takes its cue from the Takemitsu’s soundtrack for Woman in the Dunes, a 1964 Japanese new wave film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara about a man who finds himself trapped in mysterious circumstances in a sand quarry.

Josef Suk (1874-1935) :: Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn, “St. Wenceslas,” Op. 35a

One of Suk's most famous teachers was Antonín Dvořák, who was not just a source of musical instruction and inspiration for the young composer, but the man who would eventually become his father-in-law.

Bedřich Smetana and Dvořák were two composers responsible for grafting in, and emphasizing, Czech folk idioms or programmatic elements into their compositions, and featuring them in concerts of largely German programming. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire strained under the pressure of ethnic groups grasping for more independence, this was not simply an aesthetic choice, but also a political statement via cultural assertion. Their students would follow suit, though it has been observed that Suk's compositions eventually used fewer and fewer Czech idioms, perhaps in an effort to stop comparisons between his music and Dvořák’s.

The hymn (or chorale) “St. Wenceslas” dates from at least the 12th century, with text petitioning St. Wenceslas—the patron saint of Bohemia—for protection and salvation. As 1914 dawned, the world stage was set for war on an astonishing scale. That summer, World War I loomed, and Suk observed his fortieth birthday. His countrymen prepared for battle, and he wrote this work.

Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) :: Ernste Gesänge (Serious Songs)

Eisler is one of the most intriguing characters in the world of “classical” music, though he is hardly ever mentioned. He was not without controversy, which has likely contributed to the silence with which he is most often greeted in conversations about 20th century composers.

With little funding, but lots of ambition, he became a student of Arnold Schoenberg from 1919-1923. Through the encouragement and support of his teacher, he was able to secure publication and performances. The relationship would grow bitter, however, with Schoenberg considering him “disloyal,” and a traitor to music, after Eisler embraced Marxism and became a member of the German Communist party. As a result of his politics, his views on the avant-garde music of his peers—and even his own previous works—changed drastically. Reflecting on his new outlook, Eisler wrote, “in our new music, one would search in vain for bombast, sentimentality and mysticism, but find instead freshness, intelligence, strength and elegance,” and, “modern music bores me, it doesn’t interest me, some of it I even hate and despise...Also I understand nothing (except superficialities) of twelve-note technique and twelve-note music”—a clear dismissal of his former mentor. For Eisler, music should not frivolously stir the emotions, but rather be functional, applicable, non-elitist, and “used for the theater, cinema, cabaret, television, public events, etc.” David Blake notes Eisler’s scores “abound with such cautionary directives as ‘without sentimentality,’ ‘simply,’ ‘friendly,’ and even ‘politely.’”

During World War II, and the years leading up to it, Eisler traveled Europe before coming to New York City to teach composition. The Mexico conservatory gave Eisler a grant to study the “function of film music,” and through his work there, he wrote the book Composing for the Films with Theodor Adorno. Returning to the United States, Eisler found work at the University of Southern California and contributed to film scores. It all came to a screeching halt when his politics landed him a meeting with The House Committee on Un-American Activities, and he was subsequently “expelled.” In many ways it was likely the best outcome for Eisler. His return after years abroad to a new Germany—East Germany—allowed him to practice the political ideology he had been preaching.

Ernste Gesänge would be Eisler’s last work. He died shortly after its completion. The texts are taken from the works of Friedrich Hölderlin, Giacomo Leopardi, and Stephan Hermlin. Eisler remarked about the songs: “It is reflection—deliberation—depression—recovery—and reflection again...It just must be done that way, otherwise it is not good. One cannot always write optimistic must describe the up and down of the actual situations, sing about it and comment on it.”