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Monday, July 16, 2012

The Obscure Composer: Everything So Far

The past two years, starting in the Summer of 2010, have been very productive. In the genre of art songs alone I've written over a hundred new pieces. So it seemed like an update of my works list was long overdue.

It was an interesting exercise. For instance, I've written three song cycles this year with "bells" in the title; I guess that's what happens when Japanese poets and Zen poets provide a lot of my texts. And now everything's in nice folders, organized by genre; as part of that effort, I discovered that one of the songs in my Japanese Dedications cycle isn't filed where it should be, so tomorrow I'll be rummaging around looking for it.

Here it is, the list of all my completed pieces (not counting mere school assignments).

Instrumental works

Satori: Trio for piano, cello or bassoon, violin or flute [1982-83/1985-87]
1. The Bell
2. Haiku
3. Tanka
4. Koan
5. Sugar or Salt?
6. The Orderly Garden
7. Prelude and Fugue
8. WWHH²
9. mu
10. Mud Under a Brick
11. Tanka
12. Haiku
13. When the Pebble Hits the Stick
14. Satori

Bystander soundtrack [2006]
1. Opening
2. Eichmann
3. Head Wound
4. My Lai
5. Rwanda
6. End

Enigmatic Preludes [2010]

Pastorale for solo piano [2011]

Seasons: Haiku for solo piano [2011]
1. Summer grass/Where warriors dream (Basho/trans. Rexroth)
2. Against far off snow mountains/Two crows are flying. (Murakami Kijo/trans. Rexroth)
3. Frozen in the ice/A maple leaf. Masaoka Shiki/trans. Rexroth)
4. A blind child/Guided by his mother,/Admires the cherry blossoms (Kikaku/trans. Rexroth)

Snowy Morning [2012]
1. Snow on wooden fence
2. Falling lace
3. Grey and white morning

Reflections – Duo for B-flat clarinet and cello [2012]

Gymnopedie #4 for solo piano [2012]

Choral – SATB except as specified

Chorale: The Pink Church (William Carlos Williams) [1983] – SSAA

The Revelation Concerning Babylon [1984]
1. The Declaration of the Angel (Revelation 18:2-8)
2. The Lamentation of Kings and Merchants (Revelation 18:10-20)
3a. The Judgment of the Angel (Revelation 18:21-24)
3b. The Approval of the Multitude in Heaven (Revelation 19:1-3)

O magnum mysterium (liturgical) [1985]

Mass (liturgical) [1985] – text is the same as in Bach's B minor Mass, and thus in some minor points does not match the current text of the Roman Catholic Mass

Three Favors (Holtje) [1986]
1. Clouds of cold will
2. Slowly, warily
3. Particles of camphor

David's Lamentation (II Samuel I:19-27, English version) – countertenor, SATB, oboe, 3 trombones [1986]
David's Lamentation (Hebrew version)

Song cycles - soprano and piano except as indicated

Poems (Steve Holtje)
1. Permanence [1982]
2. Song for Grace [1983]
3. Turn of Events [1983]
4. We Know [1984]
5. Teleological Universe [1984]

Eight Poems of William Carlos Williams
1. To a Solitary Disciple [1983]
2. Quietness [1983/2011]
3. Two Plums (This Is Just to Say/To a Poor Old Woman) [1983]
4. The Locust Tree in Flower [1983]
5. Between Walls [2012]
6. To Be Recited to Flossie on Her Birthday [1983]
7. The Descent [2011]
[discarded: At the Ballgame (one verse recycled for Quietness)]
[in progress, though may be separate: Asphodel, That Greeny Flower]

Orpheus Sonnets (Rainer Maria Rilke, in German)
Book I
1. Da steig ein Baum [1984/2011]
2. Un fast ein Mädchen wars [1984/2011]
3. Ein Gott vermags [1985]
4. O ihr Zärtlichen, tretet zuweilen [1984]
5. Errichtet keinen Denkstein [1985]
6. Ist er ein Hiesiger
7. Rühmen, das ists
8. Nur im Raum der Rühmung [1984-5]
9. Nur wer die Leier schon hob [1984]
10. Euch, die ihr nie mein Gefühl verliesst [2001/2010-11]
11. Sieh den Himmel [1984]
12. Heil dem Geist [1984]
13. Voller Apfel, Birne und Banane [2001/2011]
14. Wir gehen um mit Blume [2001/2011]
15. Wartet…, das schmeckt [2001/2011]
16. Du, mein Freund [2001/2011]
17. Zu unterst der Alte [1984]
18. Hörst du das Neue [1984]
19. Wandelt sich rasch auch die Welt [1985]
20. Dir aber, Herr [2001/2011]
21. Frühling is wiedergekommen [1984]
22. Wir sind die Treibenden [1984]
23. Oerst dann [1985]
24. Sollen wir unsere uralte Freundschaft
25. Dich aber will ich nun [1984]
26. Du aber, Göttlicher

Book II (in progress)
1. Atmen du unsichtbares Gedicht [1996/2011]
2. So wie dem Meister [1982/2010]
3. Spiegel noch nie hat man wissend beschrieben [1982/2010-11]
4. O dieses is das Tier [1982/2010]
5. Blumenmuskel [2010-11]
9. Rühmt euch, ihr Richtenden [2010]
27. Gibt es wirklich die zeit [1996/2011]
28. O komm und geh [1996 or 2001/2010]
29. Stiller Freund der vielen Fernen [1996 or 2001/2010-11]

from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
1. The world is everything that is the case
2. Whereof one cannot speak

Japanese Dedications [2010-11]
1. I should not have waited (Lady Akazome Emon/trans. Kenneth Rexroth)
2. Do not smile to yourself (Sakanoe/trans. Rexroth)
3. Amidst the notes (Yosano Akiko/trans. Rexroth)
4. Left on the beach (Yosano Akiko/trans. Rexroth)
5. Like tiny golden (Yosano Akiko/trans. Rexroth)
6. Once, far over the breakers (Yosano Akiko/trans. Rexroth)
7. To love somebody (Lady Kasa Yakamochi/trans. Rexroth)
8. When spring escapes (Princess Nukada/trans. Kenneth Rexroth & Ikuko Atsumi)
9. The stars pass (Empress Jito/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
10. This life of yours would not cause you sorrow (Murasaki Shikibu/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
11. From the North send a message (Murasaki Shikibu/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
12. The troubled waters & The memories of long love (Murasaki Shikibu/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
13. I can no longer tell dream from reality (Lady Akazome Emon/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
14. The leaves of the bush clover rustle (Kenrei Mon-in Ukyo no Daibu/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
15. Grasshoppers (Kawai Chigetsu-Ni/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
16. Cats making love in the temple (Kawai Chigetsu-Ni/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
17. Be careful! (Ome Shushiki/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
18. The fireflies' light (Chine-Jo/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
19. Everyone is asleep (Enomoto Seifu-Jo/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
20. How beautiful the Buddhist statues (Imaizumi Sogetsu-Ni/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
21. There is nothing like the cool (Tagami Kikusha-Ni/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
22. A bird comes (Yosano Akiko/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
23. I have the delusion (Yosano Akiko/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
24. Is it because you always hope (Yosano Akiko/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
25. My heart is like the sun (Yosano Akiko/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
26. Sweet and sad (Yosano Akiko/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
27. All day long having (Okamoto Kanoko/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
28. Scattered petals gather on the road (Hatsui Shizue/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
29. Silently / time passes. (Hatsui Shizue/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
30. In the autumn when words sound (Baba Akiko/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
31. O brightness (Hoshino Tatsuko/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
32. You and me - Anonymous geisha song/trans. Rexroth & Atsumi)
33. Tokiwa Mountain's/pine trees.... (Ono no Komachi/trans. Jane Hirshfeld w/Mariko Aratani)
34. Seeing the moonlight (Ono no Komachi/trans. Hirshfeld w/Aratani)
35. If, in an autumn field (Ono no Komachi/trans. Hirshfeld w/Aratani)
36. See! The gleam (Fukuda Chiyo-ni/trans. Hirshfeld w/Aratani)
37. I think I will not go out again (Izumi Shikibu/trans. Hirshfeld w/Aratani)
38. I cannot say (Izumi Shikibu/trans. Hirshfeld w/Aratani)
39. Come quickly (Izumi Shikibu/trans. Hirshfeld w/Aratani)
40. As I dig for wild orchids (Izumi Shikibu/trans. Hirshfeld w/Aratani)
41. Although I try (Izumi Shikibu/trans. Hirshfeld w/Aratani)
42. Listen, listen (Izumi Shikibu/trans. Hirshfeld w/Aratani)
43. Beloved Buddha (Yosano Akiko/trans. Sanford Goldstein & Seishi Shinoda)
44. Lovely,/the tiny feet of a child (Yosano Akiko/trans. Goldstein & Shinoda)
45. Yet I remember once (Yosano Akiko/trans. Goldstein & Shinoda)
46. Spring is short! (Yosano Akiko/trans. Goldstein & Shinoda)
47. To punish (Yosano Akiko/trans. Goldstein & Shinoda)
48. Hide and Seek Piece (Yoko Ono)
49. Actor (Yuko Otomo)
50. Sheep (Kazuko Shiraishi)

5 Pomes Penyeach (James Joyce) [2011] baritone or mezzo with cello
1. Alone
2. She Weeps over Rahoon
3. Nightpiece
4. Watching the Needleboats at San Saba
5. Bahnhofstrasse

Songs of Death (Fumiko Nakajo, in Japanese) [2011]
1. shi ni chikaki
2. yo no kaze ni
3. no wo kesh'te

Songs of Mortality (Fumiko Nakajo, trans. Hatsue Kawamura & Jane Reichhold) [2011]
1. a lighthouse
2. ice patterns on the sea
3. unseen things
4. shining scissors
5. after death
6. as I tried to touch
7. without comfort
8. a day of budding
9. Live as long as you can
10. close to death
11. lost under the cover of the night wind
12. with the light off
(10-12 are translations/adaptations of Songs of Death)

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (Wallace Stevens) [2012]

Of the Surface of Things (Wallace Stevens) [2012]
1. In my room
2. From my balcony
3. The gold tree is blue

For Jeff & Brooke (Anon. Japanese/trans. Rexroth) [2012]
1. Like the tides' flood
2. We are, you and me

Bells [2012]
1. As I approach (Noin/trans. Rexroth]
2. Clear full moon (Anon. Japanese/trans. Rexroth)
3. Does the bell ring? (Anon. Japanese/trans. Rexroth)

A Shimmering Bell: Poems of Gary Snyder [2012]
1. Issa's Haiku
2. An autumn morning in Shokoku-ji/December at Yase
3. Lying in Bed on a Late Morning
4. from Little Songs for Gaia
5. from Regarding Wave

The Sound of a Bell: Six Poems of Yuko Otomo [2012]
1. Cornell Box #5: Celestial Navigation by Birds
2. Shoes
3. A Rose Is a Rose #4
4. Wind and clouds
5. Moonlit night
6. Coming full circle

Individual songs – soprano and piano except as indicated

You (Holtje) [1987-89]
Later (Holtje) – solo vocal
From the Book of Ice (Steve Dalachinsky) - soprano and double bass [2006]
Naga Uta "Utsusemito omoishi" (Hitomaro) baritone & piano [2010]
Eternity (William Blake) [2011]
Elegy for Eiji (wordless) [2011]
from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (T.S. Eliot) [2012]

Yes, I know that anyone who sets passages of Wittgenstein to music is probably not right in the head.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau 1925-2012

The headline on this interview for was "Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Living Legend." As of today, sad to say, that is no longer true. The baritone who did more to promote art song than any other recording artist passed away ten days before what would have been his 87th birthday. This article was written in conjunction with the celebrations and reissues the year of his 75th birthday.
Date Ran: July 28, 2000

The importance of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to the world of singing, and to music as a whole, is symbolized by the fact that Deutsche Grammophon's 21-disc Fischer-Dieskau Edition, wonderful as it is, represents only a small fraction of his many estimable recordings. Though he modestly demures when it is suggested that he has done more to popularize the art of lieder singing outside Germany than any other singer, certainly it's beyond debate that nobody else has committed so much lieder repertoire to record -- much of it known only to cognoscenti before he took up its cause. He had an equally distinguished opera career, most notably in Mozart, Wagner, and Berg, but as in all aspects of his career more wide-ranging than often is realized. Having retired from singing in 1992, he has continued to conduct, and also paints.

The Fischer-Dieskau Edition covers, of course, the expected lieder territory, with four discs of Schubert (including a previously unreleased 1968 recording of Die schöne Müllerin with Jörg Demus), two of Schumann, and one each devoted to Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler, Liszt, Wolf, and Richard Strauss. There are also two discs of opera arias, another two of sacred music, and one of folk-song settings. But there are also surprises. The disc Songs by Great Artist-Composers, for instance, includes two striking songs by Enrico Mainardi, written for Fischer-Dieskau in the '60s, four songs of Wilhelm Kempff on which the composer is also the pianist, and compositions by Adolf Busch and Bruno Walter, among others. A disc is devoted to songs by Debussy, Ravel, and Ives. The lieder of Othmar Schoeck, who without Fischer-Dieskau's persuasive advocacy would be unjustly forgotten, fill a 78-minute CD, while Reger and Pfitzner split another disc. This box is a true cornucopia of expressive, finely pointed singing.

Fischer-Dieskau spoke with me by phone from his home in Berlin about the box set and more general matters.

How involved were you in choosing the material for Deutsche Grammophon's Fischer-Dieskau Edition?

I was not. I had sent them once a list of the published LPs, and so they had a list from me, but they have chosen different choices and left out some things, like my Meyerbeer songs, which I would have liked to have in the collection. And others too. There are still things not published on CD.

The Edition contains two discs of sacred music. Does singing Bach require a different psychological approach than lieder or opera?

Why should it? No, I wouldn't say so. For me it's first music, and also for the composer the first thing is the music, and then of course you have religious feelings, something independent of that, in a way. It's the same thing as, you sing Don Giovanni, but you don't have to be Don Giovanni to sing it on stage.

Your first professional performance was Brahms's German Requiem, and you recorded it with Kempe, Karajan, Klemperer, and Barenboim.

Yes, professional performance; it depends on what you call that. I had sung Der Winterreise in '42 for the first time in front of a little audience, about 300 people in a suburb of Berlin. Even earlier than that. Also I conducted the Brahms, with my wife and Thomas Hampson, not long ago in Hamburg with the Singakademie and the State Orchestra.

Does it have special significance for you?

Oh yes, of course. That is a typical product of a man who was not a dogmatic Christian. I think he never went to church, in spite of the fact that he ended his life by composing an incredible organ chorale. And the texts he chose are far away from a usual requiem. It was an ingenious way of choosing texts and the sequence there. It's also fascinating how he combines his own creativity with the experiences he had with the music of Mendelssohn. -- above all, this music owes to Mendelssohn very much -- and of course Bach. These two are important in the German Requiem.

Did establishing yourself as a conductor make it easier for you to retire from singing?

No, I don't think so. But working, of course, is necessary for me. To retire from singing is a natural process, but it is always hard for a singer to stop, even if he has sung almost 50 years, but still. My conducting is not the same, it's quite a different musical occupation, I would say [chuckles].

Your most recent CD as a conductor is a Richard Strauss disc with your wife, Julia Varady. What is it like to find yourself with the tables turned, so to speak, accompanying a singer?

I think if you can't accompany then you are not a musician. Furtwängler always said that. I am the conductor and I want the people the sing as I would like to have them, but if you are not able to accompany then you have to stop making music at all.

On the Strauss disc you conduct, you sing, and you paint. It is a pleasant surprise that you sing again, in the brief role of the Haushofmeister. Did the philosophical point of Capriccio, which of course lies at the heart of singing, make it special to you and influence your decision to sing on it?

No. The decision to sing on it was simply to make things easier, because we didn't have to engage another baritone for that. And I just did it during conducting; it was not synchronized afterwards, I sang it during the direction. This piece, of course, is the unanswered question, will always be: whether the music or text or words are of the first importance. Very difficult. Sometimes it is on the side of the word -- think of Hugo Wolf, who is often declamating and making music with the declamation -- or think of Schubert, where you have first melody and then everything else.

In a way the fact that Strauss never answers the question --

Nobody could, I think. It's not possible to have a decision like that.

It's as though he's saying that there isn't a dichotomy and they're combined to complete something different that can't be separated.

Yes, separate they are not. But of course, the results are so different from each other whether the composer is theatrical first of all and then makes music with that, or whether he is a musician first and then tries to give justice to the word.

Why do you think some critics insist on calling your singing intellectual, as though intellect is all there is to it?

[Sighs] There's so much prejudice and so much misunderstanding in that, that I couldn't speak about it. Because it's not true. For me music is always the first. And intellectual, what does that mean? I'm no intellectual at all, you see it in my English [laughs]. Also I have no ambition whatsoever to be an intellectual. I'm just maybe not quite stupid, but that's a pre-condition. Or else you could stand as a tenor at a ramp and shout your notes, but I think that's not singing, that's not a fulfilling action.

It does seem as if there can be something of a paradox in lieder and some operas. Think of Wozzeck, where there's the composer -- who was obviously a genius -- and then a conductor and the singer all have to be so very aware of the nuances while they're singing about a character who's unaware. It is a paradox, isn't it?

It's not a paradox, it's just the ability of the creative person to insinuate somehow such a person, and to put himself into it, as a good actor does. I mean, no actor of the Wozzeck of Büchner is of the character of Wozzeck. On stage he must be, but otherwise he is not. He may be very intelligent or [not], but not a murderer anyway.

Aside from staging, obviously, what do you think are the differences between lieder and singing opera?

I wouldn't make much difference, because there are in lied so many dramatic elements, very often further than opera, even in Schubert, but also if you start with Zelter or Reichardt. And Schumann, take the ballads after Heine or Chamisso. There are so many highly dramatic moments where you have to have all abilities of the operatic voice in yourself. And on the other side, in the opera, there is so much lyrical stuff. Think of "O du, mein holder Abendstern" in Tannhäuser. It is very lyrical and soft, you have to be very flexible and able to reflect all movements, all inner feelings, like this.

What characteristics especially distinguish some of the pianists you've worked with?

I think as exponents of different styles I would name first Gerald Moore, who is the softest and most legato-playing pianist I have ever met. And then on the other hand you have Sviatoslav Richter, who was able to be a wild lion in tone. There has just come out a record of a concert we gave together in Munich with only Hugo Wolf Goethe songs. There you see his special qualities, a wonderful, archaic way, I would call it, to stick to one sound plane, some prescripted piano, pianissimo, triple piano, or on the other hand fortes up to four fortes, he holds them through as nobody else has. Alfred Brendel is very flexible on the rhythm side very often. And there are so many other things one could say; difficult to do it in short.

Sony just reissued the studio disc you made with Leonard Bernstein on piano. What was it like working with him as a pianist?

He was very choosy at the piano, we had six grand pianos in the studio around in a circle, because he never was happy; each song, new piano. He was never happy with the tone or with the intonation, with the machinery, so. But he was like a volcano, something like an explosion sometimes, and was fitting wonderfully into the Mahler expression. That exactly is called for there.

Deutsche Grammophon is reissuing Reimann's Lear, which is a work you suggested to him. It must be very satisfying to see that reappear.

Yes, that was a piece of work for me, because I worked very hard that it came out. Already when the LP was coming out, there were financial problems and the opera house was against it; it was very difficult to get it on record. But then, we managed it somehow. Everybody sacrificed a little bit of his money, so it came out. But it was also difficult because all the record firms are in difficult situations nowadays, so they didn't want to make a big fuss about a piece which is purely modern, so it was hard to bring them to that.

Many classical music listeners might be surprised at how much 20th-century music you have sung.

Quite a lot, yes. I think an artist is somehow indebted to this, because we don't have to be guardians of the museum of the past only, we want to give some of our own time too. It's a wonderful way of adventure and surprise. You never know whether a piece is arriving well for the audience or not, whether it's a flop or a success. And I am a rather curious person and I enjoy this very much, all the time. Of course you have to find composers who really promise to give something, to have something to say. Aribert Reimann is one of the few composers who are able to write for a certain voice in a certain style. He had my voice in his head during writing. So somehow these are very, very well done for me.

Classic Fischer-Dieskau Recordings:
Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin; Die Winterreise; Schwanengesang
w/Gerald Moore: Schubert: Lieder, vol. 1
w/Gerald Moore: Schubert: Lieder, vol. 2
w/Murray Dickie/Philharmonia Orchestra/Paul Kletzki: Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
w/Leonard Bernstein: Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; 4 Rückertlieder; 11 songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
w/Berlin Philharmonic/Karl Forster: J.S. Bach: Cantatas BWV 158, 203; excerpts from Cantatas BWV 13, 157, 159, 73, 8, 123
w/Sviatoslav Richter: Hugo Wolf: Goethe Lieder & Ballads
w/Helga Dernesch, Julia Varady, etc./Bavarian State Orchestra/Gerd Albrecht: Aribert Reimann: Lear
w/Julia Varady/Bamberg Symphony Orchestra: Richard Strauss: excerpts from Salome, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Liebe der Danae, Capricco

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Obscure Composer, Part 1: 5 Pomes Penyeach recording is finished!

It's amazing how much work it can be to turn the visual lines and dots into a permanent sonic record. The gestation period for these five short songs, totalling less than six minutes, was over eleven months.

They were written quickly in late-night sessions, four of them in a five-day period (April 29 through May 2), then one more a couple of weeks later (5/14 [and revised a month after that]). I started rehearsing them soon after that with my good friend Kate Leahy, a soprano I know from my days in New Amsterdam Singers. I played the cello part on piano, and that's how it was performed at its premiere during a salon on July 9.

On August 15, Marc McCarron recorded Suzanne Mueller playing the cello parts in their home studio on Long Island. Kate overdubbed her vocal parts on January 5 at Kevin Keller's home studio in Inwood. And this past Monday (4/2) I returned to Kevin's place, where over the course of a challenging five-and-a-half hour session he edited, mixed, and mastered the tracks.

And now you can listen to them on my Soundcloud!

There's more to come: a new electronica artist, Black Crystal Fuck Wolf, is creating remixes of these songs.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More About Songs of Death and Fumiko Nakajo

Jane Reichhold, whose book Breasts of Snow - Fumiko Nakajo: Her tanka and her life taught me everything I know about Nakajo and provided the poems that I set in my new mini-cycle Songs of Death, has very generously given me permission to use the transliteration that she and coauthor Hatsue Kawamura (who, alas, has been in a coma for seven years) produced for the book, and also to quote them here in their entireties.

And, in very good news for anyone interested in reading these soul-shaking poems, Ms. Reichhold confirms what I saw in a 2004 review I found online: the book can be bought from her directly. She can be emailed at jane(at)ahapoetry(dot)com.

Here are the poems I set to music for Songs of Death, along with their translations:

shi ni chikaki
ware ni fuhen no
ai chikau
chinkon ka wa
hayakumo hibikeri

close to death
for me an everlasting
vow of love
in a requiem song
has begun to ring

yo no kaze ni
magire kitarite
waga nodo wo
yakusu sono te ga
tareka wa shireri

lost under the cover
of the night wind
my throat
is grabbed by a hand
and I know whose it is

hi wo keshite
shinobiyakani tonari ni
kuro nomo wo
keraku no gotoku ni
ima wa narashitsu

with the light off
stealthily something
moves to me
I have tamed it now
as if it were a pleasure

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Obscure Composer, Part 2: Songs of Death

The music I'm about to write about is in the post below this one. Sorry it's kind of fuzzy.

A brief mention of Japanese poet Fumiko Nakajo (I wish I could remember where) and her tragic life story sent me to, where I found a copy of Breasts of Snow - Fumiko Nakajo: Her tanka and her life, by Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold (The Japan Times), which I highly recommend if you can track it down (there were two listed: one for $20, and one for $350; I of course bought the $20 one). Nakajo (1922-54) wrote about being divorced before that was common in Japan, and then, when she had breast cancer, wrote about that as well, all the way through two mastectomies and practically to the moment of her death. Her first collection of poetry was published days before she died.

Initially I had picked out 30 of her poems that I might want to set to music. Then I went through and made a different selection of 21 specifically having to do with her battle with breast cancer, later narrowed to 15 and then 7. The first three I set were specifically about facing death, and didn't reference breast cancer, and ultimately I decided that they were enough, partly because that focus is more universal, partly because more would be too much of such an intense subject, partly because I just spent the afternoon revising those three to what I think is their final form, and frankly it was so draining that it left me nearly paralyzed for over an hour and I don't want to do any more of that. Yes, these poems are that powerful.

My previous song cycle drawing on the work of female Japanese poets is in English (see The Obscure Composer, Part 1), but for this one I somehow felt like daring to set the original Japanese. I did that once before with a long poem by Hitomaro and it was very difficult, but because these are shorter and modern, it wasn't quite as challenging from the technical point of view, and of course my Japanese wife was very helpful. It's weird how transliterations of Japanese don't always reflect the actual pronunciation; occasionally some syllables get elided. For instance, what's written as "narashitsu" Chie pronounces as "narash'tsu."

Back on October 22 I had written a one-page solo piano piece that was inspired by my love for a piano work by a much more famous composer. I'd mostly written it just for the fun of doing so and had no plans to deliver it to the world. Ha! I should know myself better than that; having it there practically waiting to be cannibalized made it irresistible to me when, on November 6, I finally got to work on setting Nakajo's poems. The piano piece's mood fit the mood I wanted for setting these poems: bittersweet without being too bitter. I also thought that since the three poems were linked thematically, it would be appropriate to have them linked musically as well by putting them into this existing framework as a triptych.

As far as length alone the fit was practically perfect, and after a couple evenings of work, they fit together well enough in terms of words onto melodies (only a little rejiggering required). As a set, however, they didn't work like that. They were too homogenous, and the poem in the middle was sufficiently different in mood that I felt the music didn't work with those words. I tried speeding up that section, but harmonically and melodically the homogeneity remained troubling. After fiddling with the harmony for a while without success, I came up with a drastic solution: I ditched all the harmony in that section, replacing it with the repeating minor second you can see in Song #2 in the post under this one. That fit the mood much better, while the retention of the melody kept the connecting link to the other two songs.

Can anyone tell from what remains after all that revision just what the original musical inspiration was? In other words, what was the piece by another composer that inspired the original piano piece I wrote? A small piece of its melody remains, quite significantly albeit with altered rhythmic emphasis.

Songs of Death

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Hilary Hahn Interview 2001

Having just recently enjoyed violinist Hilary Hahn's concert at The Stone, and her CD of Charles Ives's four sonatas, I was reminded of this interview from almost exactly a decade ago.

Ran: 11/20/01 on
Head: The Provocative Pairings of Hilary Hahn

There have been such marketing abuses in recent years of the prodigy phenomenon that the prospect of hearing another young, female violinist might have connoisseurs blanching. Hilary Hahn, who released a CD of Bach at age 17, was the antidote to that. And it's not just that Sony hasn't plopped her into the ocean wearing a gauzy white shift for any album covers. Hahn is one of the finest violinists around, regardless of age; she's self-assured without the least hint of arrogance; she's constantly putting together intriguing discs pairing warhorses of the concerto repertoire with more modern works; and she's articulate and thoughtful.

The Baltimore native began playing violin at age three in the Suzuki program of the Peabody Conservatory, and from the age of five taught by Klara Berkovich. Upon entering the Curtis Institute, at age 10, Hahn was taken under the tutelage of the late Jascha Brodsky, an Ysaÿe pupil, and continued studying with him until his death; later teachers included Jamie Laredo and, for chamber music, the late Felix Galimir and Gary Graffman. Sony signed Hahn to an exclusive contract that has so far yielded four CDs: the aforementioned Bach disc; a pairing of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Leonard Bernstein's Serenade; the Violin Concertos of Samuel Barber and -- commissioned for and premiered by Hahn -- Edgar Meyer; and now the Concertos of Brahms and Stravinsky. All have been not only much praised, but successful on the classical sales charts as well.

Now 21 years old, Hahn is perhaps past the prodigy stage, but her playing continues to thrill and please.

CDNOW: Once again, you've made a concerto disc with an unusual pairing. How do you decide what to record?

Hilary Hahn: Sometimes I propose an idea to Sony and sometimes they propose an idea to me, and we work out something that works for everyone. The Brahms/Stravinsky was actually my idea, because I've wanted to record [the] Brahms for a long time. It's such a great piece, and the chance to work closely on such a masterpiece like that in the recording experience is really something that brings the piece a lot closer to you and you clarify a lot of things about it in your mind, at least for me. So I wanted to record the Brahms, and I was trying to think what would go well with it. It's a little tricky with a piece like the Brahms, because it's such a full-scale work, it stands completely on its own. I was looking for something that could hold its own next to the Brahms but not take anything away from the Brahms, and vice versa. I wanted to have something in which both pieces would reflect the strengths of the other.

One thing I find that's fascinating about the Brahms and Stravinsky combination is, both composers worked very closely with violinists, Brahms with [Joseph] Joachim and Stravinsky with Samuel Dushkin, in the course of writing the pieces, and you can hear that the composers themselves were not violinists, because there are some ideas that seem to come from other instruments, or the familiarity with playing another instrument, certain sequences or patterns or whatever. But they still work for violin, because they worked with violinists on it and got the ideas to come across well for the players too.

So I liked that aspect of it. I love both pieces, and I had wanted to record the Stravinsky as well. I thought about putting them together and it seemed to work very well. The Brahms, as I said, is very full-scale. The Brahms has three substantial movements, plus the cadenza. The Stravinsky has four shorter movements that add together into a very memorable concerto, for me. I've never played any piece besides the Stravinsky that starts with the same chord in all movements and diverts from there into its own individual movement. So I thought the Stravinsky was a fascinating piece, and I like the unusual structure of it and the form. I had some ideas that I want to bring across in it, and same with the Brahms. I feel lucky we were able to work it out.

Was one of the ideas in the Stravinsky that it's very similar to chamber music?

That it is; it certainly is very much like chamber music. The Brahms in its own way is as well. Brahms wrote so much chamber music, I've played some of it. The Stravinsky has a lot of things going on at once and at different times. The Brahms is a more -- I don't want to say it's more unified, because the Stravinsky is unified too -- but the Brahms, it's more consistent throughout the piece. There's sort of a long line from the very first note to the end of the third movement, to the last chord in the whole concerto. Stravinsky is more segmented, yet when you put all the segments together, it makes for a very complete picture. So the pieces feel very different to me playing them. The Stravinsky is very much like chamber music in that there are a lot of instruments that have their own individual parts, and there are a lot of different things that happen. Stravinsky is a great orchestrator, and the Brahms is the Romantic masterwork.

I'm sure Stravinsky would play his own music very differently than I play it. But for me, I love the concerto 'cause it has so many different things within it. It has a huge range of emotion. There are parts that are very dry, parts that are very witty, other sections that are extremely lyrical, and some melismatic lines in the third movement especially, some things that are very driven rhythmically and others that are quite free. One thing I like about the Stravinsky is, I can hear where he bases certain sections on Bach. There's a part that reminds me of one of the Orchestral Suites, and then he used part of the Bach Double [Concerto] as inspiration for part of the fourth movement of the concerto, you can hear where that all comes into play. And Brahms, as well, admired Bach, so that's another connecting factor between the two.

Your Brahms is not slow, bucking the trend of the past couple of decades epitomized by Perlman and Mutter. To a degree, your recording recalls Heifetz and Milstein.

Those are the recordings I've heard the most, as well, and maybe just having that in my ear, and also, Jascha Brodsky, my teacher, was 83 and good friends with, or at least very well acquainted with, those musicians, so I feel a real connection to the past, and that's the group of players that I grew up on and grew up listening to and feeling a connection to through my teacher.

So you do listen to recordings of other players.

They're mostly dead, actually.

Do you take them into account when you're forming your interpretations?

I try not to copy anything, but often there's a lot to be learned from any recording, because the person who's recording it has played it a lot and is very familiar with the piece and has developed their own ideas over time. Everyone develops separate ideas. There are certain basic traditions in some pieces that some people follow, some people break. But in the end, everyone comes up with their own take on something. With something like the Brahms, there's so many recordings. I don't know what-all I've listened to; I've listened to a lot. But as far as using recordings, I tend to listen to a lot of recordings when I'm first learning a piece, to get the feel of the whole piece, hear how it all fits together and get different ideas of where to start from, and then once I've figured out what I want to do with it, I just go from there, and I don't tend to listen to tons of recordings after a certain point. And I always try to learn the orchestral part to every concerto that I play. I get the conductor's score and I get a recording that has a clear orchestra texture to it. So then I listen to the recording and play along with it, just playing the orchestral part, so I know what-all is going on.

Have you decided what you're going to record next?

I'm going to be recording Mendelssohn [E-minor Concerto] and Shostakovich 1 in Oslo with the Oslo Philharmonic and Marek Janowski. Another combination! We're going to be recording that this coming Spring and releasing it in the Fall.

How many concertos do you have in your repertoire at this point?

Forty-something, I think 42 or 43. I try to add on about three or four concerti every year, or two to four. It depends. This year it's four, some years it's two. I play Beethoven and Brahms every year, and try to cycle through the other stuff as much as possible.