29 November 2007

Chasalow’s Piano Trios: Exploring Torts in Ensembles

Chasalow, photo by Barbara Cassidy

W  hile my studio technique derives from Davidovsky, the musical character is quite different. My instrumental writing is often at an energy level drawn from my experience with improvised jazz. My recent electronic music reflects this as well. By adding layers of manipulated recordings of spoken or sung text, the sound of the human voice often emerges in surprising ways.”
  —  Eric Chasalow.

Chamber musical dialogue usually lacks textual reference to tangible things, but it abounds in internal references: expressions by each ensemble member directed toward the other members; associations among individual segments, lines, and instruments.

Look at the musical dialogue among ensemble members through the lens of musical segmentation and voice-leading. The approach to any given passage can be characterized by our answers to four questions:
  1. Do individual segments form mostly within one instrument’s part or across two or more?
  2. Are the strongest associations between segments mostly individual and ‘longitudinal’—within each part over the course of the composition—or sectional and ‘transverse’—between instruments on a shorter timescale?
  3. How many distinct streams of association are active simultaneously? and
  4. How do the answers to (1), (2), and (3) change over time?
Chasalow’s piano trio ‘Yes, I Really Did’ (1998) is a great case for studying this—in part because it totally violates our conventional expectations for normal narrative and dialogue among the ensemble members. Characterized by the composer himself as a dialogue that develops among three instrumental personae, this trio at times seems a collection of individual voices—inadvertent, unwitting or unwilling acquaintances who are distinguished by characteristic rhythms, articulations, and intervals. At other times, it’s an ensemble whose members acknowledge the fact of their mutual situation and the impossibility of turning back the clock to undo the reality that has materialized, the predicament in which they find themselves together—and in which significant harmonic and motivic features emerge in the totality of the parts’ interactions.

Much has been written about the dialogical nature of string quartets and other chamber music genres, yet the dialogue itself is seldom subjected to a detailed analysis. Chasalow’s own comments on pitch structure in the trio give us clues as to what an analysis of dialogue of this piece ought to include or directions that such an analysis might ought to take. Subtle changes in the structure of voice-leading, cadences, and segmentation manifest cumulatively as changing modes of interaction among the parts and produce a series of shifts from instrumental individualism to integrated ensemble—and from contrapuntal to sculptural, texture-oriented writing. This is not your grand-daddy’s piano trio.

Note too that these aspects are not merely matters of form and compositional technique. They hint at Chasalow’s deep views on the nature of interpersonal dignity and respect, and at his philosophy regarding what it means to pick up an instrument and behave like a decent human being. These aspects are also consistent with the ‘moral’ qualities that arise in other of his compositions. Eric Chasalow compositions from the early 80s through 1992 are on his CD, ‘Over the Edge’, with Speculum Musicae String Quartet; Fred Sherry, cello; Patricia Spencer, flute; Christine Schadeberg, soprano; Bruno Schneider; horn; Amy Knoles, Arthur Jarvinen, percussion. Each piece is in the style of a character piece. For example, The Furies, consists of four pieces for soprano and electronica that set texts from Anne Sexton’s ‘The Death Notebooks’. It may require a bit more imagination on the listener’s part to ascertain the moral content of these musical essays, compared to apprehending the moral implications of Chasalow’s piano trio ‘Yes, I Really Did’. But the moral thread that runs through much of Chasalow’s writing is there if you look for it.

Chasalow: Left to His Own Devices
Chasalow’s ‘Yes, I Really Did’ (composed in 1998; performed by Christopher Oldfather, piano; Andrea Schultz, violin; Michael Finckel, cello) takes Beethoven’s techniques for orchestrating and voice-leading in Piano Trios (Op. 1, Nos. 1-3 (1792-4); Op. 38 (1802-3); Op. 44 (1792); Op. 63 (1796); Op. 70, Nos. 1-2 (1808); Op. 97 (1810-15); Op. 121 (1803-16) ) as a point of departure. There are ‘avoided cadences’ and other deceptions, sleights, and feints—standard stuff in composition and analysis textbooks. But here they are employed to call into question what the nature of dialogue among ensemble members is really about. This piano trio questions whether any member of the ensemble has any moral duty to the other members, what the limits of that duty might be, whether breaches of duty cause pain or injury, and what the value and remedies of these might be. Torts!

Musical drama like this naturally intrigues us. The drama arises from tonal relations that elicit our expectations, and proceed to subtly manipulate and subsequently fulfill or frustrate them. This happens regardless whether we’re Schenkerians or not. But contextual processes may elicit expectations of their own, producing allusive effects that contribute to the work’s fascination. Formed from ordered sequences of evocative events existing within Chasalow’s tonal fabric, these successions of distinct-but-similar moments are unique and present a narrative that complements the unfolding of the piece. These processes gradually reveal their goals as they unfold—they’re dynamic, progressive systems of organization.

M  usical ideas are … combinations of tones, rhythms, and harmonies that require a treatment like the main theses of a philosophical subject. [The musical idea] raises a question, puts up a problem, which in the course of the piece has to be answered, resolved, carried through. It has to be carried through many contradictory situations, it has to be developed by drawing consequences from what it postulates, it has to be checked in many cases and all this might lead to a conclusion, a ‘pronunciamento’… The furtherance of the musical idea... may ensue only if the unrest—the problem—[that is] present in the Grundgestalt or in the motive (and formulated by the theme or not, if none has been stated) is shown in all its consequences… Every succession of tones produces unrest, conflict, problems... Every musical form can be considered as an attempt to treat this unrest either by halting or limiting it, or by solving the problem.”
  —  Arnold Schoenberg, The Musical Idea, and the Logic, Art and Technique of its Presentation.

Schoenberg once suggested that a musical idea, by nature, embodies some sort of conflict. Such an idea—which Schoenberg regarded generally as a unified combination of tones, durations, and harmonies, and sometimes also referred to as a Grundgestalt, or basic shape—expresses a musical ‘problem’ that demands a contextually coherent ‘solution’. For Schoenberg, a musical idea is a discrete entity that can be recognized and agreed upon by a majority of listeners, often as a component of a theme. The ‘problem’ that corresponds to a musical idea, in turn, entails/requires a motivic ‘force’—one that, if it is sufficiently effective at pushing or pulling us, stimulates meaningful collateral response(s) within the unfolding music, within the performers, and within the listeners.

Ensemble balance is a fundamental feature of ‘conventional’ trios, quartets, quintets, etc.—and Chasalow’s work does not dispute this. But traditional chamber musical texts seldom create situations where the composer deliberately intends that one or more players should exchange the honorable role of respectful discussants for that of virtuoso-narcissist, bully, or other deviant character. In ‘Yes, I Really Did’ we do not have banal theatrics. Instead, we get an 8-minute dialogue that suggests that ‘established’ Truth must be continually open to honest dissent, self-doubt, and Schoenbergian inter-voice drama and conflict. Chasalow’s composition asserts that such openness and healthy tension are fundamental to a civil society in which the dignity of the individual, the dignity of the group, and the dignity and moral standing of the environment (or other species) are all respected.

Chasalow and Striped Bass, Conomo Point, Essex/Gloucester, Massachusetts, 2004.
In the liner notes for the ‘Left to His Own Devices’ CD, Chasalow says that ‘Yes, I Really Did’ is about “misdirection ... [and] withholding [by ensemble members, from each other].” Listening to this wonderful piano trio, we cannot doubt the authenticity of this remark. In a genre that routinely and implicitly exalts the virtues and satisfactions of mutual ‘words’ and ‘deeds’ between ensemble members or pits a righteous ensemble in solidarity against external conflict and politics, here is a deeply meaningful piece that explores the nature of discord, admissions of wrongdoing, breaches between the ensemble members, redress, and forgiveness. The work achieves a remarkable textual plausibility that is a credit to Chasalow’s writing and to the skill and empathy of Oldfather’s, Schultz’s, and Finckel’s playing. We trust that they are all still friends and that no real torts were involved in the creation of this fascinating trio.

O’Dea, Ethics of Musical Performance

22 November 2007

Chadwick: An Ideology-Free U.S. Thanksgiving

Peter Kairoff - Chadwick
During a career that spanned over 50 years, George Whitefield Chadwick was prominent among American composers from the 1880s until the 1930s. He composed in nearly every genre, including operas (7), orchestral music (17 works), songs (100+), and many choral and chamber works. During his life, Chadwick’s reputation was secured by frequent performances of his music—particularly by the Boston Symphony Orchestra—but his music is now seldom performed. His obscurity in the past 60 years is likely due to the modesty of scale of much of his work as much as to the nostalgic imagery, which seems out-of-sync with contemporary sensibilities.

Chadwick’s piano works and string quartets, for example, are on a small scale like Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words or Grieg’s Lyric Pieces—they are nineteenth century romantic minatures. Chadwick’s chamber music is written in the style of the ‘Character Piece.’ Each is a brief sketch of one particular mood or image. We have representational essays, like The Frogs, In the Canoe, and The Rill. This may not be important music, but it’s characteristic americana. And, on a nostalgic day of celebration like Thanksgiving in the U.S., these pieces are suitable—nostalgic in a way, but expressing a sort of nostalgia and romanticism that still has its eyes wide open.

This brand of romanticism resembles Edward MacDowell’s—and others in the generation before Charles Ives. Chadwick’s writing has been associated with the Realist movement in painting and the graphic arts, characterized by a down-to-earth portrayal of ordinary occurrences in people’s lives. To me, his miniatures hark back to a time when the American scene was not overrun with hubris. These modest pieces evoke romantic images, yes, but images undistorted by rose-colored glasses. They propound specific ideas but without insisting upon a particular ideology or a desultory rhetorical stance—something for which we can be thankful and to which we can still reasonably aspire.

[Chadwick began at the New England Conservatory in Boston as a ‘special’ student in 1872. ‘Special’ meant he could study with NEC faculty members—Carlyle Petersilea (piano) and Stephen Emery (music theory and composition)—without meeting Concervatory entrance requirements and without committing to completing a degree. In 1876, Chadwick was appointed to a faculty position within the music program at Olivet College. While on faculty at Olivet, Chadwick was affiliated with the Music Teachers National Association, founded by Theodore Presser and more than 60 other men and women who met in Delaware, Ohio, on December 26, 1876. Later, Chadwick studied in Leipzig at the Royal Conservatory of Music under Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) and Salomon Jadassohn (1830-1902). Two of his string quartets were written during his years in Germany. In 1897, Chadwick returned to Boston and became Director of the New England Conservatory of Music.]

20 November 2007

La Catrina Quartet and Àlvarez: Collage Against Nationalism

La Catrina String Quartet

J avier Àlvarez reveals influences of popular cultures that go beyond the borders of our own time and the place.”
[beyond the Borders of
  and place;
     of anyone’s time
        and place — beyond
our ‘own’ ]
  —  John Adams.

Javier Álvarez combines conventional instrumental idioms with the acuteness of technology, elaborating an eclectic vision that originates as much from various non-musical disciplines as from music collected from other parts of the world.

At present Álvarez lives and works in Mérida, Yucatan. Born in Mexico City in 1956, he studied composition with Mario Lavista before coming to the United States in 1980 where he studied with John Downey at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Subsequently Álvarez moved to the U.K. where he continued his studies at the Royal College of Music with John Lambert. His first electroacoustic works were composed then—for example, Temazcal (1984). Mannam (1992) uses cítara, mixing rhythmic elements of traditional Korean music with materials and techniques of Mexican harp—this won second place in the Prix Ars Electronica in Austria in 1993. Most of his works incorporate sonic elements of other music, such as mambo (Mambo a la Braque, 1991). Papalotl (1987) combines piano and electroacoustic sounds.

This is not novelty for novelty’s sake. Álvarez’s textures are not ‘merely’ interesting or seductive: Their appeal for our attention is not strident. They have a point. He creates collages of vernacular music that emulate a folklore—a Borges-like abcediary of imaginary creatures—a factitious folklore so fantastical that it calls into question our notion of folklore itself. Álvarez’s transgressive textures work to undermine the very notion of cultural identity and ownership. In the process, he demolishes the exclusionary and disenfranchising politics of nationalism and tribal culture—affiliation and disaffiliation.

Metro Chabacano (1991), performed by La Catrina in Albuquerque on Sunday, is a case in point. Derived from Álvarez’s 1986 piece for string orchestra, Canción de Tierra y Esperanza, the composition was created to accompany sculptor Marcos Limenez’s kinetic installation art, to be displayed in Mexico City’s biggest and busiest subway station, Metro Chabacano. The piece was subsequently performed on tape there for a period of three months during 1991. Metro Chabacano has a continuous eighth-note ground from which short lyrical passages appear in each of the parts. The repeated notes confer a deceptive minimalistic simplicity, out of which the organic, unstoppable, inevitable individuality of each voice in the quartet flourishes. The effect is, on balance, an optimistic world view—albeit an elemental, fatalistic or ‘vegetal’ one, on a par with the experience of watching a garden grow or watching children grow up. La Catrina Quartet’s account of Metro Chabacano was simultaneously inspiring and poignant, in precisely that elemental way.

Because of La Catrina Quartet’s profile, they are well-positioned to facilitate Latino and minority students’ progress—students who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the educational system. It also is consistent with their devotion more towards ‘nurture’ rather than ‘nature’ in their teaching. As a Latino string quartet, they strive to offer young minority audiences positive role models in opposition to gangs and negative stereotyping, corrosive influences in youth culture.

I n a country where the ‘melting pot’ phenomenon is all but unavoidable, it is essential to show the younger generations of today that immigration can be a positive force, one that enriches our culture rather than impoverishes our society.”

  —  La Catrina Quartet.

As to the Quartet’s name, according to Mexican Folklore, ‘La Catrina’ is a name for Death. La Catrina can show herself in many different ways. Sometimes she is dressed in a elaborate, festive clothes. Sometimes she appears as just a skeleton, to take us away when we least expect it. Generally, though, in Mexico death is thought of as a natural guest on certain occasions, such as the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Fieles Difuntos. The memory of one’s “fieles difuntos” (‘faithful departed’) is the source of familial and cultural identity. La Catrina, with her mischievous smile, exhorts the living to seize the moment and, through music, to find life’s meaning.

Founded in 2001, the La Catrina String Quartet frequently performs new music by living composers and promotes and performs Mexican and Latin American art music in Mexico as well as in the United States and abroad. This summer La Catrina was string quartet in residence in San Miguel de Allende, México, where they collaborated with the Brentano Quartet for a performance of the Mendelssohn octet and the Brahms sextet Op. 36. Their residency duties included giving private instruction to string students from Mexico and the United States and teaching chamber music and strings masterclasses, as well as their collaboration with the Brentanos.

In the current season, the Catrinas will be featured in concert series in the United States and México. Currently, the quartet is working on developing an exchange program between the Conservatorio de Las Rosas, where they will be the Quartet-in-Residence beginning in Summer 2008, and Kent State University. This Fall the quartet relocated to Hickory, NC, where they continue developing their repertoire as well as commissioning new works and continuing with their commitment to bringing the string quartet out of the concert hall and into alternative venues.

[Daniel Vega-Albela was born in Mexico City and earned his Master of Music degree in violin performance from Western Michigan University, where he studied with violinist Renata Artman Knific. He holds a Master of Music degree in chamber music performance from Kent State University. From 1994 to 1997, he was instructor of violin at the Academia Yuriko Kuronuma in Mexico City, and in 1997, he joined the Conservatorio de las Rosas to teach violin performance and to play with the new music ensemble, the Ensamble de las Rosas.

New York native George Anthony Figueroa earned his Bachelor Degree from the University of Florida at the New World School of the Arts in Miami and currently holds a Master’s degree in violin performance from the University of Oklahoma. Figueroa has studied with Cathy Meng-Robinson, Ivan Chan, Yair Kless, Diane Pascal, Lucie Robert and Felicia Moye. He has participated in master classes with Monica Hughes, Charlie Castelman, Yuval Waldman, Fredell Lack and Lucie Robert. Mr. Figueroa holds a Master of Music degree in chamber music performance from Kent State University.

Born in Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico, Jorge Martínez studied viola at the Conservatorio de las Rosas where he graduated with honors, under the tutelage of professor Gela Dubrova. In 2003, he completed his Master of Music degree in Viola Performance at Western Michigan University. Mr. Martínez has been a faculty member of the Conservatorio de las Rosas in Mexico, as well as instructor of violin and viola at Crescendo Academy of Music in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Martínez holds a Master of Music degree in chamber music and vocal performance from Kent State University.

Born in Mexico City, Alan Daowz started the cello with José Luis Gálvez at the Escuela Nacional de Música and the Conservatorio de las Rosas in Morelia, Michoacán, where he obtained his Bachelor degree in cello performance. He received his Master of Music degree in cello performance from Western Michigan University, where he studied with Professor Bruce Uchimura. Mr. Daowz holds a Master of Music degree in chamber music performance from Kent State University. ]

La Catrina, José Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913)