Program Notes

Subtraction Program Notes

Kathryn Bacasmot has once again provided us with great program notes. Thursday at the Gardner Museum should be quite an experience! This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in.

John Cage (1912-1992) For all the innovation the world of music has experienced since 1952, nothing has come close to the watershed moment when 4’33” was first performed. The profundity of its statement regarding sound, listening, and the nature of music remain unmatched.

Providing contextual snapshots to the years leading up to 4’33”, the program today features two other works by John Cage, his String Quartet in Four Parts from 1950, and his Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 Radios from 1951. Like light focusing down to a pinpoint, these pieces exhibit a kind of gathering of fuel for Cage’s ideological fire. One can hear a progression from restrained, quietly oscillating melodic lines, to the absence of melody in favor of partially controlled sound, to sound unfettered. With each step, by subtracting an element he added to our understanding—widening our conceptions.

By 1950, Cage had written his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, as well as three (there would ultimately be five) Imaginary Landscape works. Those pieces all dealt with the manipulation of sound, either through inserting objects into the strings of a piano or through some electrical means; in other words, some outside element beyond simply a human performer and acoustic instrument. By contrast, it has been observed that the String Quartet in Four Parts also manipulates sound, but through altering the approach to the instruments themselves. For example, the performers are instructed to employ a light touch and no vibrato. As a result, the sound strikes the ear as both ancient and modern, often shrouded in shade, occasionally stabbed with an angular insertion of volume.

The entire work doesn’t deviate far from certain intervallic spans, and eschews overt tension-resolution/dissonance-consonance relationships. Increasingly interested in Eastern philosophy, Cage integrated into the music the concept of the seasons in Indian culture: creation (Spring), preservation (Summer), destruction (Fall), and quiescence (Winter), which are then reflected in each movement: Quietly Flowing Along (Summer), Slowly Rocking (Autumn), Nearly Stationary (Winter), and Quodlibet (Spring).

Imaginary Landscape No. 4 is the elimination of any formal instruments at all, and the sounds being controlled and manipulated by the performers are not self-generated, but rather ongoing—invisible waves that one simply turns on or turns off, turns up (foreground) or turns down (background), tunes in or tunes out. Each performance will be completely different. Even so, here the sound is still dictated by whatever any given radio wavelength is carrying. But, it is these ideas of tuning in or out of an invisible, ongoing performance that were given a test run here, to be fully realized in 4’33”.

"I responded immediately...not as objects, but as ways of seeing. I've said before that they were airports for shadows and for dust, but you could also say that they were mirrors of the air." This statement by Cage refers to the all white paintings of his friend, Robert Rauschenberg from 1951. The same year he visited Harvard University to stand in an anechoic chamber where he was greeted not by “silence,” but rather “heard two sounds, one high and one low”: his nervous system and his blood flow. These two events solidified in Cage’s mind that absence is just another type of presence, and emboldened him to write the piece that David Tutor premiered in Woodstock, New York, August 29, 1952: 4’33”.

Cage has said, “I love sounds, just as they are. And I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. I don’t want them to be psychological...I just want it to be a sound.” He was interested in the idea of “interpenetration,” that sounds from the environment be accepted just as much as any notes organized on the page the old fashioned way (or, perhaps as Jonathan Kramer has put it, “The situations are the pieces”). There is a bit of old-fashioned organization here, too, as the work is divided into three movements, each given a specified length (the cumulative length is the work’s title).

4’33” effectively breaks down the 4th wall; there is no longer the illusion that the audience is passive whilst the performer is active. One could suggest that this points at another truth, so often forgotten in our entertainment obsessed culture—that we, too, are part of the performance at all times, whether it is Beethoven or Cage. We bring our histories and our emotions into the hall with us, and those are constantly at play, reacting and interacting with the music, whether it is organized on the page or simply mirroring the air.

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) :: Moz-Art à la Haydn A singularly defining feature of Alfred Schnittke’s oeuvre is his emphasis on “quotation of material of very diverse origins,” or, polystylism (polystyle, “many columns”). What makes Schnittke’s use of polystylism so unusual is the unapologetic forcefulness with which the technique is applied. Where another composer may quilt together disparate styles or quotes, Schnittke rips them out, glues them down, and writes on top of them. Sometimes the results are almost nothing short of bone chilling in their dramatic scope. But Schnittke was also a master humorist. Many times you may find yourself smiling out of shock at a sly moment, a coolly delivered, or a razor-sharp, witty turn. Moz-Art à la Haydn is a wink—but of the slightly unhinged variety that only Schnittke could deliver.

The work is based on the surviving bits of Mozart’s lost "pantomime music" K. 446, which was originally composed for the pre-Lenten carnival week of 1783 (though, you will almost certainly recognize a different, well-known, strain of Mozart also inserted). Schnittke also wove in theatrical elements: it begins in darkness, and ends in darkness. The “à la Haydn” is a nod to Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony—the musicians simply begin leaving the stage as the work concludes.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) :: Symphony No. 45, “Farewell” Haydn had a way of making a point. Sometime around 1761, at age 29, he was hired by the Esterházy family as Vice-Kapellmeister to Ober-Kapellmeister Gregor Joseph Werner, who was elderly, and becoming increasingly burdened by the workload. Four years later, Werner wrote to their employer, Nicolaus I, Prince Esterházy, complaining (most likely falsely, perhaps motivated by some residual bitterness about becoming too elderly and unwell to excel in his work) that Haydn was “neglecting the instruments and musical archives and the supervision of the singers.” The Prince responded by scolding Haydn, and threw in an extra twist of the knife by adding more work to Haydn’s already full calendar: “Kapellmeister Haydn is urgently enjoined to apply himself to composition more zealously than heretofore, and especially to compose more pieces that one can play” for the baryton, the string instrument the Prince played—a type of viol. Haydn responded with 126 compositions for baryton.

As part of a summer season, Prince Nicolaus moved Haydn and many of the court musicians to his new castle, far out into the countryside (“reclaimed swampland”). The season, as it turned out, did not end with arrival of autumn. Instead, the Prince remained nearly a year—ten months. The musicians began to complain to Haydn about being stranded so far away from their families, and held in suspension from their personal responsibilities. In response, Haydn wrote his Symphony no. 45. It is called “Farewell” for the theatrical stunt woven into the work: as the piece concludes, the musicians begin to leave the stage one by one; a clever way of urging the Prince to let them return home (he got their drift, and did).

Lover Program Notes

Musicological wonderwoman Kathryn Bacasmot has done it again, providing wonderful program notes for A Far Cry. This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in. The last several lines of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, “I Am Waiting,” state: “I am perpetually waiting for the fleeting lovers on the Grecian Urn to catch each other at last and embrace.” To be a lover is to be coupled with desire and longing.

The composers on the program tonight were all lovers, and as artists they felt the emotion of the wait perhaps more acutely than others, waiting to think clearly enough to compose, to gain acceptance, to pair the culture of their people with the traditions of the Western music canon, to be at home both literally and figuratively. Each one had his metaphorical personal vase with its own metaphorical fleeting lovers striving, reaching, and clawing at the lacquer. In their efforts some were driven to lunacy, some to poetry. But they were all perpetually waiting as through the hourglass the music flowed.

Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) saw his first opera, Belisario by Donizetti, at age eight. It began a life-long love affair with music set for the voice. Wolf would spend hours in his youth creating piano arrangements of operas, attending operas, and eventually, meeting his hero, Richard Wagner.

Someone so obsessed with song writing (around 200 in his compositional oeuvre) is bound to envision a story within even his instrumental works. The Italian Serenade began as a piece for string quartet simply called Serenade in G Major. It was written astoundingly fast between May 2-4, 1887, and was apparently inspired by Joseph Eichendorff’s short story entitled Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (“From the Life of a Ne'er-Do-Well”), in which the protagonist is a young violinist. A scene takes place in the book where an orchestra performs an “Italian serenade.” It is often noted that during this same time period Wolf was working on a set of songs the libretto for which were poems of Eichendorff. A thematic similarity between one of the songs in the Eichendorff Lieder, “Der Soldat I” (“The Soldier I”), and the Italian Serenade has led some to conclude a somewhat sardonic wit is at play poking fun at rampant romantic ideals. Whether or not this was Wolf’s intention is unknown, but the hypothesis has stuck. Often quoted is Robert W. Gutman’s statement: “The essence of the delicious Italian Serenade is its antithesis of romantic sentiment and mocking wit.” A look at the stanzas of the song do seem to add fuel to that argument’s fire:

Although my horse may not look so handsome, he is actually quite clever, and will carry me through the dark to a certain little castle quickly enough.

Although the castle is not very splendid, out of her door and into the garden steps a maiden who, all night, will be friendly to me.

And although this small girl is not the fairest in the world, there is still no other that I like better.

But if she speaks of marriage, I'll leap onto my horse - I'll stay free and she'll stay at the castle.

Wolf orchestrated the string quartet version in 1892 and meant to expand the work into a full suite for strings, but that never happened. Perpetually unstable, he had a complete meltdown (immortalized in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus in the character Adrian Leverkühn) and was institutionalized. By 1899 he could no longer write music and fell silent. Love’s labor’s lost.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) composed his String Quartet No. 2 in 1958. Seven years later in 1965 he produced Concerto per Corde, Op. 33 (“Concerto for Strings”), an adaptation of the quartet for full string orchestra that was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in Caracas, Venezuela, the following year. In revising the work, Ginastera eliminated the original first movement and reversed the order of the remaining movements.

Ginastera was known for his flair for the dramatic, skinning off emotion, showing every tendon, and exposing rawness to the surrounding air. In the first movement, Variazioni Per I Solisti, each principle of the orchestra plays a cadenza bracketed by punctuations from the ensemble that echo the soloist in mournfulness or ferocity. Therefore a micro world of slightly lunatic theme and variations is created. The second movement, Scherzo Fantastico: Presto, is a nervous landscape where dreams wreak havoc on reality. Porcelain scraping on glass. Hysterical. Manic. Breathless. Like push pins on a magnetic pincushion, the sounds splay every which way by force of field and yet allude to controlled chaos. In the Adagio Angoscioso we leave the landscape and walk into a Piranesi-like “prison of the imagination” with the sounds of ancient hinges squeaking slowly and methodically. As the movement intensifies coming unhinged altogether seems like a distinct possibility. The Finale Furioso is breathlessly kinetic interjected with folk idioms, and extremely defined rhythms juxtaposed against constantly changing time signatures where the melodic cells emerge like clear thoughts in a troubled mind. The effect is structured disorientation. Tainted love.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is one of those composers whose musical style brings out the best lyricism strings can produce. The Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70, is certainly one of those works. The St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society had submitted their commission in 1887, but Tchaikovsky did not begin work on the string sextet until 1890 whilst he was in Florence, Italy, where he completed the score of his opera Pique Dame (“The Queen of Spades”) in a little over a month. Even then, it was just the ideas that were wrought there – the Souvenir de Florence became just that, a memory that finally was captured on paper back home in Russia.

The work opens with the Allegro con Spirito in Tchaikovsky’s favorite key signature: anything minor. This stormy opening, however, allows for a brilliant contrast with the major when the rollicking rhythmic undertones move from the shadows into sunshine. As the movement progresses brief soloistic moments punctuate the skyline like doves soaring through. The sublime second movement, Andante Cantabile e con Moto, falls over you as if you have entered a world where sound is the only gravity. The movement has often been referred to as a duet between the high and low strings as they weave their melodic threads together. The contrasting homophonic middle section flits and flutters as a singular unified intrusion that dissipates nearly as quickly as it arrived. The Allegro Moderato and concluding Allegro Vivace bleed Russian as if to remind the listener that it might be a memory of Florence, but a memory within one of the greatest Russian compositional minds. You are what you love.


Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist/musicologist and freelance writer. She received her Masters in Musicology at the New England Conservatory of Music with her thesis on Björk Guðmundsdóttir and aspects of the female experience in her fifth studio album, Medúlla.

Lunatic notes!

Want to head into our Lunatic concert knowing your stuff? Check out our program notes by the awesome young musicologist Kathryn Bacasmot! - - - -

The most terrifying things are those that appear familiar on the outside, but are alien within. For centuries societies blamed strange events or intermittent loss of sanity on the phases of the moon (luna). Lunatics, they called these victims. What was particularly disturbing about the idea of lunatics was their instability, or rather, their changeability. Trapped behind a familiar face was something all together alien that bent and disarmed the mind uncomfortably. On the program today are a series of pieces that that employ standard musical forms that are permutated through a lunatic lens. Like a fun house of mirrors, what you see is not always what you will get. Perception is not reality, or vice versa.

Did you know Battle Music was a legitimate genre? From the 16th century all the way into the 18th it was the rage. During the Baroque in particular, the music was not meant to describe specific battles or events, but was used more for “dramatic or allegorical purposes.” Charles Burney (1726-1814), the intrepid music historian, said of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704): “of all the violin players of the last century Biber seems to have been the best, and his solos are the most difficult and most fanciful of any music I have seen of the same period.” Fanciful elements included his use of scordatura (mistuning), and compositions that included replications of the sounds of birdcalls and bells.

Biber’s Battalia à 10 was written in 1673. Keep that in mind, especially when you hear the second movement, Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor (“The dissolute society of all sorts”), where each instrument is playing a different tune in different keys and time signatures to portray drunken soldiers. And you thought Charles Ives (1874-1954) was original. Biber also applied Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) Stile Concitato (“agitated style”), in which notes were rapidly repeated or trilled to evoke agitation. Watch for other effects throughout, such as the snapping of strings to imitate gunfire.

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This “Lunatic” program could be subtitled “Haunted by the Ghost of Arcangelo Corelli.” He was a Baroque era composer of “unparalleled influence,” over which it seems no one had a drop of anxiety. He appears a couple of times on this program, and in the Concerto Grosso No. 3 in C major of Francesco Saverio Geminiani (1687-1762), he is directly involved. Geminiani, not only a composer, but a renowned violinist, based this work on Corelli’s Violin Sonata Op. 5, No. 3. “Il Furibondo” (“the madman”) was Geminiani’s nickname bestowed upon him because of the expressivity of his compositional rhythms. Expressiveness equates madness? Now, I know you probably don’t equate the Baroque with emotional abandon, but back in the day, the Baroque was intense. It was the era that blossomed from the seconda pratica (“second practice”), the era of free dissonances, of music being liberated from primarily serving the text in a supporting role to taking center stage for the portrayal and evoking of abstract emotions.

As the Concerto Grosso No. 3 is based directly from Corelli’s Op. 5, No. 3, it is structured as a sonata di chiesa (“church sonata,” as opposed to a sonata da camera, or “chamber sonata”). Thus, it is constructed of four movements, alternating in tempo as slow-fast-slow-fast. The rhythmic and melodically dissonant rubs in this piece are delicious, like drops of honey on your fingers, sticky but sweet. If this constitutes madness, let’s all hope for a full moon.

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Christopher Hossfeld is going to tell you about his piece, concerto GROSSO, himself:

“concerto GROSSO can be seen in two ways: it is either a chamber piece for 18 strings, or a concerto for an 18 string orchestra where all players are soloists. In either case, it is 18 minutes long. Attempting to blur the line between chamber and orchestral music at this scale creates a grossness in the music: multiple overlapping layers, thick dissonant chords, a sense of rhythmic disorder and chaos, not to mention the physical challenge of holding the piece together. To balance this complexity the overall structure is simple: 3 movements with familiar forms: solo vs. tutti, fugue, and passacaglia/theme & variations. In one sense the forms are sterile and mathematical, while the music remains terribly personal as well.

All but Death—

The titles of the movements are literary (to a degree). Their sources will remain hidden for now (though a simple google search will reveal much), but their preoccupation is clear: death. These notes will not dwell on the personal motivations and emotions behind them: too detailed a revelation would hinder, not help, the appreciation of the music. concerto GROSSO is dedicated to the memory of a beloved aunt. The audience is invited to contemplate the movements as they are tonight, and perform further investigation if they wish.

The first movement is built on alterations between large tutti and small solo groups. The line between solo and tutti is intentionally vague. The urgent 16th notes of the theme are framed by full orchestral chords at the beginning, middle and end of the movement. As the final sounds fade, a familiar strain may be heard floating from the violas.

...AND ZOMBIES

An 18-voice triple fugue is quite disgusting to behold. Is it as disgusting as the undead, or the obsession with death?

l’enterrement d’une feuille morte

This passacaglia is part Chaconne in d minor, part Dido and Aeneas, and a lot of historical fantasy. The mood is both grave and playful. There are twelve sections in the piece (11 bass-line repetitions plus coda), each section is 12 bars long, and the whole movement is approximately 12 minutes.”

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Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) suffered from a case of classic USSR creative claustrophobia. The soil beneath his feet was his homeland, familiar, and yet those who ruled upon it made it him a stranger in his own land. It has been noted Schnittke’s music inherits the Shostakovich tradition of “alienation expressed through irony.” Schnittke touted a musical style he coined Polystylism, which wove together musical traditions of the past through the lens of a modern eye using quotation, allusion, and adaptation. The Concerto Grosso No. 1 is adapted from the Baroque concerto grosso (“big concert”), a form in which a small group of soloists (concertino) is pitted against the larger ensemble (ripieno). Arcangelo Corelli was a cornerstone composer of these works. He also codified the genre. Taking a look at the stage you might be fooled into thinking you are, in fact, at a Baroque concert, harpsichord and all. However, the familiar quickly becomes the lunatic stranger once the prepared piano emits its ghostly tintinnabular sounds – yet we know not for whom the bell tolls. We discover the genre has been delightfully, yet disturbingly, corrupted. Listen for sudden insertions of Baroque idioms, slitheringly abrasive rapid violin lines that hint at George Crumb’s Black Angels, “Corelli Clash” dissonances between the two violin soloists that seem to have suffered from lead poisoning, and a disarming visit from Tango master Astor Piazzolla (or someone like him). Oh, and be prepared to take a moment to process what you just heard before you applaud. Like a Kafka novel, this music is a self-contained world from which you might need to reacclimatize.

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Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist/musicologist and freelance writer. She received her Masters in Musicology at the New England Conservatory of Music with her thesis on Björk Guðmundsdóttir and aspects of the female experience in her fifth studio album, Medúlla. Check out her blog at http://piecesofmoments.wordpress.com/

Legacy Program Notes

Kathryn Bacasmot authored these highly entertaining and thought-provoking program notes. Enjoy!


This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in.

I know, I know. You’re looking at this and thinking, “these are the program notes? Where is the anecdotal story followed by interesting historical factoids, dates, and a roadmap to the music itself?” Don’t flip the page over. This is it. Welcome to A Far Cry program notes. Let’s talk “Legacy.” If you type the word “Legacy” into the search box on dictionary.com, the fifth definition reads: “of or pertaining to old or outdated computer hardware, software, or data that, while still functional, does not work well with up-to-date systems.” Is it heresy for me, a musicologist, to say I think of “classical” music when I read that description? Musicians inherit a legacy and are handed down history. Now would cease to be now if then or when did not exist. Without composers and performers it is a merely a series of archaic symbols, a cacophony of dots and lines, data that, while still functional, might be dead on a parchment pyre. Musical history is a delicate fabric of encounters easily unraveled. Warp & Weft. Teacher & student. Composer & performer(s). Choreographer & music. The meetings of minds, and in those meetings the inheritance is remixed and renewed. Data, still functional, in a karmic cycle of rebirth.

Isn’t it fascinating that so much invisible beauty is manufactured through such physical labor? The hand of a composer grips a pen that hovers over paper in anticipation of what will come next, or clicks the mouse on composition software. The body of the performer aches through hours of rehearsal, holding, caressing, cajoling, thrilling in exultation or trembling in defeat. Instruments are built and repaired, morph and stay the same, according to the sounds of the times and the materials and technologies available. Music is hardly a dead language. It’s alive in the physicality. Each person you see or hear on stage today is a part of the inheritance. Their fingers are fluent and fluid espousing old and new dialects of the language of sound. You, the audience, play an equally vital role. Your ears and minds are the stereos. If a tree falls in a forest, if a sound wave shoots through an empty hall, does anyone care?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) had quite an ear attached to the side of his head. Legend (who occasionally goes by the name Dr. Charles Burney) tells us the young Mozart was responsible for writing down, and therefore preserving the legacy of, the famous Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), which was traditionally handed down only orally. Mozart was a bridge to the past and an agent for the future. His piano concertos are among the roots of the genre. Today we hear pianist Markus Schirmer put his interpretational brick down on the road that Mozart laid in Vienna, 1782.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Talk about legacy. His aunt Sara Levy studied with W.F. Bach and was a patron of C.P.E. Bach (yes, sons of J.S. Bach). Additionally, one of Felix’s claims to fame was his 1829 “revival” of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. With that ascension to the podium he effectively launched the widespread fame of Bach and an appreciation for regular performances of pieces by long dead composers (more of an oddity on a program in prior days when the new was all the rage). Today’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. 8 in D major composed in 1822 features the next generation of musicians with New England Conservatory Preparatory students Andrew Dezmelyk and Meredith Treaster.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Well, he started with a “neo-classical” phase and then jutted off to a springtime rebirth of the old into a new dialect, didn’t he? His Concerto for Strings in D major from 1946 leads something of a double life. Today you hear it in its usual concert setting, but it moonlights as accompaniment to a dance. Choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) heard it and thought about female insects preying on their male counterparts and called it “The Cage.” Rather Kafkian. King of the Castle? Try Queen.

The “Rite of Spring” was a passage of a different kind - the kind that dared to go places that induced public fist fights (maybe Plato was on to something with that concern about music stirring up hot headedness after all?). Dissemble the data and it still functions. If you break the mirror and put it back together it reflects and refracts in an entirely new way.

Today you will hear something you have never heard before in your whole life. That’s something you can’t claim every Thursday of the week (well, unless you want to go all John Cage on me, but let’s not digress). Reiko Yamada’s New Shadows in the Raw Light of Darkness was inspired by and written for A Far Cry upon repeatedly listening to the ensemble awaken a new soul in old pieces. Like Georgia O’Keefe before her, Yamada was inspired by the stark landscape of the South West – Taos, New Mexico in Yamada’s case – during her 5-week residency at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. Out there the lines of the earth stretch and clash with the lines of the landscape, both natural and manmade. A collection of lines. A collection of individuals and friends. A collection of musicians weaving and sewing together the lines of music, the threads of sound. A fabric paying homage to the past, building upon the legacy, attaching new rungs on the ladder to the future and casting new shadows in the climb.

Data. Functional. Legacy is now and legacy is you.

Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot a pianist/harpsichordist/musicologist and freelance writer. She received her Masters in Musicology at the New England Conservatory of Music with her thesis on Björk Guðmundsdóttir and aspects of the female experience in her fifth studio album, Medúlla. In addition she works for From the Top, a weekly radio and 8-time Daytime Emmy Award nominated television show featuring the nations most talented young classical musicians distributed on NPR and PBS.