Monday, April 28, 2008


Libby Larsen is an active composer of works in several genres, including orchestral and solo works. As a female composer, she strongly promotes an increased role for women in music. She has also encouraged composers to have a role outside of academia through her co-founding of the American Composers Forum. In works such as Deep Summer Music, Solo Symphony, and Marimba Concerto: After Hampton, she redefines the role of the musicians as well as that of the listener in addition to specifically exploring the meaning of “soloist.” Her use of lyrical melodies amidst a more modern freedom of tonality along with her compositional philosophy of exploration and redefinition of “solo” certainly warrant a place in the Canon.

Deep Summer Music, written more than ten years before the other pieces on this CD, contains a rather traditional use of the soloist, as the trumpet solo “recalls the presence of the individual amidst the vastness of the landscape” (Program Notes, Libby Larsen). This solo (which is encapsulated neatly in the middle of the piece, evoking a feeling of enclosure) emphasizes the limited scope of a single performer or person when considering the larger ensemble or scene. Larsen’s lyricism is most clearly evident in this piece, opening with a soaring melody in the strings accompanied by varied wind instruments that pop in just to change the color of the melody. One cannot help but imagine the colors of different crops in the landscape as the winds fade in and out. Larsen stays away from a primary tonal center for the most part, letting her melody meander through differing keys unhindered. This programmatic approach to music as well as the “individual in the wilderness” theme is quite reminiscent of the Romantic period, but her free tonal center (formed more by overlapping scalar melodies than triads) and use of scattered color shifts clearly define her work as modern.

Larsen’s exploration of the role of a soloist begins to develop in Marimba Concerto: After Hampton. While the form of the piece takes the standard fast, slow, fast pattern, the use of marimba varies greatly from movement to movement. In the first movement, the marimba and the orchestra to trade increasingly difficult rhythmic motives as they “pass the plate.” The character of the movement is certainly derived from the interaction between the soloist and the orchestra, while the second movement focuses almost entirely on the marimba as a “soloist” by all conventional definitions of the term. The orchestra’s role is consistently muted (as implied by the marking “in muted colors”), leaving the marimba to carry the melody for itself. Larsen restructures the marimba’s role again in the final movement by lessening the pervasive role of the solo marimba, bringing to mind the percussion ensembles that are prevalent in non-Western music. The marimba simply functions within the group of percussionists, playing in unison with other instruments and using tremolos simply as color rather than soloistic ornamentation. As concertos are generally meant to exhibit the talents of a solo performer, her intentions for the movements seem counterintuitive to the listener at times. However, it is this repressing of the conventional definition of “soloist” that Larsen may be after.

This redefinition of “soloist” is particularly evident in Solo Symphony. Larsen specifically points out this definition in her program notes for the premiere: “A solo is a group. The effort of many becomes the effort of one to produce a unified sound, a unified music.” The spirit of this quotation is clearly audible, beginning with the first movement, “Solo solos.” This movement begins with short solos passed among the clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, and trumpet. At any given point the listener can hear the soloists passing the melody, and as the density of the piece builds, it moves among larger sections playing as choirs in unison. This growth shows the extension of the definition of solo from that of the individual to that of the group. The second movement, “One dance, many dancers,” transforms a theme introduced by the trombone into several different styles, ranging from a heavy funk beat established by the low brass to a swinging clarinet solo. While this movement does not so blatantly reflect the role of the soloist, it does reflect that a singular dance may comprised of several dancers (and styles), just as a single solo is comprised of several instruments (paralleling her “group” definition).

Preceded by the brief movement “Once around,” which features the orchestra’s instrumental choirs, “The Cocktail Party Effect” (the fourth movement) requires the listener to pick out the designated “solo instrument” from the chaos of background music. The solos in this movement function not as melodies that rise to the fore, but as hidden tidbits for which one must search. This function takes the spotlight off of the soloist and gives more prominence to the orchestra as the whole being the solo group to which the audience listens. This still is not the end of Larsen’s redefining of “solo;” she sums up her program notes with the words: “In fact, the listener is the true soloist.”

Larsen’s identifying the listener as a soloist depicts a trend in the arts to involve and engage the audience to a greater degree. She writes melodies that retain enough lyricism, even in their lack of tonal center, to be aesthetically pleasing to the average audience. Larsen’s willingness to question standard definitions and conventions in music is similar to that of many modern composers. In stretching the definitions of “musician” and “listener” along with writing lyrical melodies, she produces many appealing works. It is her specific explorations of “soloist” in the pieces on this CD that set her apart from some of the others as she places her solo instruments in varying situations. Larsen executes these explorations excellently in her music, which makes her very deserving of a place in the Canon.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Harry Partch was an American composer perhaps best known for developing and using a temperament other than equal. He even designed new instruments and notational systems in order to use this temperament to invoke passionate emotion in the audience, just as music from ancient societies might have done. The Bewitched, A Dance Satire (1957) exemplifies his idea of “corporeality,” which asserts that the music should be joined with physicality and that separating the two would take away an important aspect of the art. In addition, Partch emphasized that the corporeal nature of his works was related to ancient forms that have since been “mutilated.”[1] In this work, the musicians are freed from the musical pit and released on a stage full of risers where they move and act as well as play Partch’s instruments. Here, the instruments themselves take on physicality as they form the set. This expansion of the role of the performer in addition to Partch’s unique instrumentation makes The Bewitched an intriguing philosophical study. It is quite rhythmically driven, and the vocalizations are all nonsense syllables. While the piece is not an easy listen, perhaps in part because the music in CD form has been ripped from its corporeal aspects, Partch’s innovative ideas regarding music demand study.

The Bewitched opens and closes with a focus on the musicians as they act under the presence of the Witch. An eighteen minute prologue titled ‘The Lost Musicians Mix Magic” accompanies their discovery of the freedom of the stage. Partch himself related in his notes: “If this evening accomplishes nothing else, it will relieve the beautiful (and) rhythmic movements of the musicians from the inhibitory incubus of tight coats and tight shoes.” In putting the musicians in such a prominent position, he was perhaps “cocking a snook”[2] at the specialization of the fine arts. Rather than limiting the musicians to the role of music-makers, he showed that musicians also have bodies that can perform visually. Additionally, by putting them onstage as part of the drama, Partch supports his idea that music is inseparable from the body and cannot be expressed without the physical, which also emphasizes corporeality and ties music and drama to each other quite tightly. As the musicians exit the stage during the Epilogue (after the exit of the Witch), they are seen on a “stairway to infinity” created from their risers as they continue to push boundaries, perhaps even to infinity (Partch).

Partch’s own synopsis of the work describes the action vividly; his text clearly paints the progression of the state of minds of characters from the beginning to end of each scene. The influence of the Witch as well as the “unwitching” of the characters play a huge role in his written synopsis, but much of his vivid language would probably not be done justice on the stage. The fifth scene, ‘Visions Fill the Eyes of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room,’ certainly has an audible change in character from the beginning “groove” in percussion and voice to frenetic piccolo and clarinet accompanied by the Witch. However, without Partch’s words that “the basketball team—now unwitched—has fallen completely under the charming belief that reality contains a compound of both experience and imagination,” it would be impossible for the audience to ascertain that they feel “experience and imagination.” Perhaps this synopsis is therefore another part of the de-specialization of the form and intertwining of its roles, as the text is inseparable from the music and action. Even if the text is satirical,[3] as the title of the work implies, the interaction between the words and music remains undividable.

Although Partch created his own instruments in order to capture a tonal system that would better resonate with listeners, he still included piccolo, clarinet, and bass clarinet in the orchestration. Their scales serve as a remarkable juxtaposition to the scales of Partch’s instruments, such as the cloud chamber bowls and kithara. While these “standard” instruments often work in harmony with Partch’s own instruments, in other cases, they are violently attacked because of the harmonies that they traditionally play. Scene 2, titled “Exercises in Harmony and Counterpoint Are Tried in a Court of Ancient Ritual,” serves as a battle between 18th century harmony and Partch’s more emotionally powerful music. This movement begins with the cello and clarinet playing a melody that sounds harmonically stable (according to old rules of harmony) interrupted by plucked instruments playing in Partch’s tonal system. Later in the scene, the cello and clarinet begin to play a canon only to be interrupted by a new, powerful melody belted out by the Witch. Soon, the 18th century-influenced cello and clarinet are squashed completely and replaced with Partch’s new sound (which, of course, was influenced by his concept of ancient sound).

Partch’s looking back to the past is evident in several movements. Scenes 8 and 10 as well as the prologue contain a contrapuntal melody derived from the Cahuilla Indians (Synopsis, Partch), which is very fitting for Partch since he so respected the ancient traditions of other cultures. He also mentioned in his synopsis that Scene 1 is a parallel to Greek drama: “The bewitched enter, and the analogy with lyric tragedy is complete: the Chorus, the Perceptive Voice, the Actors.” Partch’s revisiting of the musical traditions of cultures that used music and drama to provoke emotion demonstrate his own desire to move people with his work. Indeed, much of his rhythmically driven work is reminiscent of some type of tribal or ritual music, which certainly was meant to invoke strong passions in people listening and participating. However, although Partch freed the musicians from the pit, the audience was not freed from their seating and was left only to watch the drama without taking part.

This work has probably been omitted from the Canon because it is not easily accessible to members of an average audience; it is not a work that people would likely listen to for fun. In fact, the average person probably would not even watch the production for fun. The vocalizations along with the broken melodies (when melodies even exist) create a jarring effect. While this effect certainly fits the title of The Bewitched, it is not a feeling that many people want to experience. Although the catchy beat and vocalization of “Visions Fill the Eyes of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room” seems to have been getting stuck in my head lately, the work as a whole quickly becomes too unsettling for comfort. I was much more interested in Partch’s philosophies than I was in the musical fulfillment of these philosophies, and while his tuning system and revisions to the modern staged work may warrant a place in the Canon, that place is probably not best held by The Bewitched.

[1] “We are reduced to specialties—a theater of dialogue without music, for example—and a concert of music without drama. Basic mutilations of ancient concept! My music is visual—it is corporeal, aural, and visual” (emphasis added, Harry Partch, Liner Notes for The Bewitched 2005:536).

[2]“Cocking a snook” is an old –fashioned British phrase meaning “to show that you do not respect something or someone by doing something that insults them” (Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms).

[3]The text and situations are certainly meant to be satirical. However, many of Partch’s themes (such as the one found in “Visions Fill the Eyes of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room) may give difficulty to audiences trying to clearly recognize the satirical elements, especially amidst the rapid changes in each scene due to the “unwitching.” Likewise, rapid changes in musical dynamics, texture, and tempo further obscure what exactly Parch is satirizing.