25 February 2010

Idealized, Totemic Love: Godfrey Winham and Bethany Beardslee before the Age of AutoTune

 Godfrey Winham and Bethany Beardslee, 1955

L    et me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not Love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh, no!

It is an ever fixèd Mark
That looks on tempests, never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring barque,
Whose worth’s unknown though His height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within His bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with His brief hours and weeks,
Love bears it out to the edge of Doom.

If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ nor no man [or woman] ever lov’d.”
  —  William Shakespeare, Sonnet CXVI.
L isten to this excerpt:

    [50-sec clip, Bethany Beardslee & Robert Helps, Godfrey Winham, ‘To Prove My Love’, III, 1974, 1.6MB MP3]

O ver the past month I have been reading Leslie Blasius’s 1997 monograph on Godfrey Winham (link below), especially passages about Winham’s composition for soprano and string quartet, ‘Habit of Perfection’.

D uring this month I have also been listening and re-listening to the CRI disc, ‘Tribute to Bethany Beardslee’, who was Godfrey’s wife. The disc contains a recording of Bethany singing Winham’s composition, ‘To Prove My Love’, accompanied by Robert Helps on piano.

T he piece is published by Boelke-Bomart Inc in Hillsdale, New York, but the score for it was originally published in memoriam, in volume 13 (1975) of the journal, Perspectives of New Music, immediately after Winham’s death.

T he phrasing and perfection of the intervals that Beardslee sings are amazing. The voice-leading that Winham wrote for her is tight-rope like—no, more like virtuosic, risky ballet “choreography” for the voice.

L ove bears it out to the edge of Doom, as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 has it.

W hat were these three sonnets—to Godfrey; to Bethany? The piece was composed during the first several years of their marriage, but on this recording it is performed when they had been married 19 years, still in their 40s, near the end of Godfrey’s long illness, youthful but within a few months of his dying and aged way beyond their years...

T here is a maturity and expressive clarity of Beardslee’s and Helps’s performance that poignantly manifests the vulnerability of the soprano wife gazing into the abyss of her husband’s fast-approaching terminal phase. It simultaneously bears the marks of bravery and devotion, defiant strength and tragic fragility. Frailty with advancing illness. Glenn Gould’s last recordings of the Goldberg Variations in 1981, compared to the ones from 1955? Well, no.

O r Johnny Cash’s last recordings? No, but still.

W    hen we first went back and listened to the recordings after he had passed, it really just felt like this voice, coming back from another ‘place’. It had all this weight and gravity to it. Scary. You can hear good days and bad days in the voice. Sometimes, it’s weak—as if Cash were struggling for breath. Other times it’s stronger.”
  —  Rick Rubin, interview with David Bauder on new Cash CD.
W inham’s frailty and inner strength, projected vicariously through the piano part that Robert Helps executes beautifully. We suspect that ‘bearing it out to the edge of Doom’ meant something a bit different in June, 1974, when the piece was recorded than it meant in 1956 when the piece was composed. In 1974, Doom was plainly visible.

A  lapse in sense happens between the twelfth and thirteenth lines of the sonnet. Most of the words are monosyllables; only three contain more syllables than two. Poetic diction is ruptured. The language is now concrete, not abstract or metaphysical. There are run-on lines and the pair of double-endings. There is, as Brooke put it, “a happy blending of open and closed vowels, and of liquids, nasals, and stops.” No Antares AutoTune® or vocoder processing. Only human pitch-shifting and formant correction that defies the impermanence of the flesh. The res-o-lute, fixèd accents in the quatrains give way finally to progressively more vulnerable, unrelieved iambic feet—ones that accept the reality of the soul stuck in the unreliable flesh. The thing converges on silence and ends. The ending is a meditative silence, a ‘hanging’ sonic [non-]event. Runic, millennial, catastrophic.

W    hat is needed is a definition of ‘hanging’ which makes use of the notion of ‘effective context’, with the result that a tone is not ‘hanging’ before it occurs. An event x may be said to be ‘effective’ at the time of an event y if and only if x belongs to the effective context of y. An event x may be said to be ‘closed-off’ from y if it is subordinate to another sonic event z which occurs between x and y in time. An event x is ‘hanging’ at the time of an event y if it belongs to the effective context of y and is not closed-off from y, although there is a superior stage at which it is closed-off from y.”
  —  Godfrey Winham writings, Container VIII, page *26d.
L istening to the piece over and over, I sense a sort of adult willfulness that is out-of-sync with an inner childlike sense of reality. The complex personality who wrote such complex, chaotic music theory, all stored in 6.7 linear feet in the Princeton University Library in 16 archival boxes of cross-indexed papers and notebooks... still had this child inside, who was true and who hoped for everything. Who loved these sonnets, not as worthy artistic vehicles for creating prestigious, commendable academic compositions, but as totems erected to honor a love that defined him. Standing stones.

“Will Bethany be able to do this? Will I be able to do this?”

C hords with more upper structure notes, sounding more active compared to ones with more basic chord tones, which become points of resolution. Idiomatic and fluent writing; the beginning of each movement asks a question and so drives our interest; natural flow to focal points and climaxes; appropriate and sensitive realization of the text; effective and resourceful use of texture, with many imaginative challenges. This is the composer who in the 1960s imagined elegant computer-synthesized soprano voice, long before the technology could fulfill the fantasy. This is the soprano who could sing whatever notes are on the page, the fantasy who inspired the composer’s imagination.

M ost people don’t think of Winham as a contrapuntist, and it is true that one does not find much in the way of imitative counterpoint in his music. He never composed any fugues, and there are not many canons by Winham. However it can, and should, be said that Winham’s counterpoint is exquisite.

L eslie David Blasius is currently Professor of Music Theory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His book includes a set of complete excerpts of materials and an index for the entire Winham archive, which is housed at Princeton University. The book also contains a series of photographs, of Godfrey and Bethany and friends (including the one above).

T o read Blasius’s book and to listen to this CD is to wish to have known these wonderful human beings. I will plan to visit the 6.7 linear feet of Winham boxes the next time I am in Princeton...

H    ow can you make a new revolution when your last statement already said that anything goes?”
  —  Charles Wuorinen.

20 February 2010

Marc-André Hamelin: Alkan Unlocked

W    hat is left is a very simple, straight-forward and honest voice, a voice that is at the heart of the music and that listeners seem able to respond to instantly. When it comes down to it, what makes Alkan’s music so attractive to listeners is not the virtuosity of the piano writing, though that can be exciting, nor the cleverness of the construction, though that might be impressive. No, what grips listeners is the sheer passion of Alkan’s music and the strength of his musical personality.”
  —  Jack Gibbons, 2002.
I    ’m becoming daily more and more misanthropic and misogynous: nothing worthwhile, good or useful to do; no one to devote myself to. My situation makes me horridly sad and wretched. Even musical production has lost its attraction for me for I can’t see any point or goal.”
  —  Charles-Valentin Alkan, letter to Ferdinand Hiller, 1861.
 Marc-André Hamelin, (c) Fran Kaufman

T he performance by Marc-André Hamelin in Kansas City last night as part of the Harriman-Jewell Series was animated and inspiring throughout. I particularly admired the Alkan ‘12 Études dans tous les tons mineurs Op. 39, Nos. 4-7’.

I n making sense of this challenging piece, I find it helpful to read Stephanie McCallum, Senior Lecturer in Keyboard at Sydney Conservatorium, University of Sydney, who gave a paper at the 2007 Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference, entitled ‘Alkan: Enigma or Schizophrenia?’

A lkan withdrew from public life at age 24, and, according to McCallum, Alkan’s subsequent correspondence (200+ letters) provides clear indications of the onset of severe mental illness. McCallum considers evidence for schizophrenia, for Asperger Syndrome, and for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—with considerable support for the latter... compulsive washing, ritualized avoidance of touching surfaces, refusal to go out of his house, fear of contaminated food, etc.

D espite his private agonies, Alkan in his reclusive years was highly creative. He produced some of the most fantastical, large-scale and virtuosic music of all piano literature. He often displays a preference for long passages of rhythmic and textural patterns, including sequences which set up clashing dissonances. Although these things are frequent in music generally, Alkan takes them to extremes and often to unnerving [melo-]dramatic effect.

E xamples include extended passages of tremolando-like rapidly repeated notes in the left hand and wave-like rolling patterns where the pianist’s hands are like animals roaming the keyboard and the fingers are like animals’ legs—given to primal reflexive impulsions and unspeakable predatory aims.

H amelin captures the erratic, reiterative, relentless, bombastic qualities of these Etudes perfectly—reanimating the unusual personality who composed them. As an encore, Hamelin performed a jewel-like Nocturne of his own composition—a piece that itself embodies ambiguities and moment-to-moment alteration of mood, dissonances, and impromptu trajectory, not unlike the Alkan etudes.

    [50-sec clip, Marc-André Hamelin, C-V Alkan, 12 Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op. 39, No. 9, Adagio, 1.6MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, Marc-André Hamelin, C-V Alkan, 12 Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op. 39, No. 10, Allegretto, 1.6MB MP3]

T hese are miniature worlds full of drama, excitement, color and terror!

C uriously, Alkan’s death involved a bookcase in his home, toppling over and crushing him as he was reaching for a book on a high shelf. Bad things happen, as it turns out, even to people who are delusional or paranoid.

 Alkan in top hat, standing, superstitiously refusing to look at photographer