Program Notes for CD Release: "Territory of the Heart"

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Songs of Time, of Love, of Wonder
1. When out walking (Latvian Daina)
2. On Being Given Time (May Sarton)
3. The Love a Life can show Below (Emily Dickenson)
4. The Light Years (May Sarton)
5. In Time Like Air (May Sarton)

This song cycle was commissioned by contralto Elizabeth Anker, and the set of poems selected by Aina Allen. The music and the poems together explore the territory of the heart and the spirit. These poems tell us that we are at once bounded and unbounded — by time, by our capacity to love, and by our ability to perceive the universe with an ever-renewable sense of wonder.
The music approaches the text in two ways. It realizes the word images in sonic imagery, with an attentive concern for the subtle differences in the poets’ voices and for the declamatory character of each poem. The terse reticence of the Latvian Daina text is mirrored in the spare setting, with flashes of sunlight. Ms. Sarton's poems abound with rich references to the natural world, and the music exploits the registral and timbral variety of both voice and piano. The Dickenson poem contains such a stark contrast in delivery, moving from a hymn-like metricality to the breathless abandon of the closing section; the music begins in church, as it were, and ends in the skies, with the last sonority flung over the whole range of the piano. The topmost portion of that huge chord is the music of the starry night at the opening of the fourth song, the expressive heart of the cycle. The images of salt — first as crystal, then dissolved in water — furnish the musical metaphors as well, with the piano colors informing the simple vocal lines of the fifth and final song.
This music will always remind the three of us of a particularly cold January day, when we had the great privilege of presenting the score and a recording of the premiere of these songs to the poet May Sarton in person, in the year before she passed away. That first performance of these songs was at the 1994 SeptemberFest, at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since then, these songs have traveled the country with Ms. Anker, and have been warmly received in recitals at Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Trinity College, and the Composers, Inc. series, San Francisco, among others.

Elizabeth Anker, contralto; Leslie Amper, piano
Recorded September 24, 2001; Sonic Temple, Roslyndale, MA
Joel Gordon, Engineer

 

 

il terzodecimo canto
Ralph Kenneth Johnson (1914-1963) in memoriam

The idea to compose a piece on the thirteenth canto of Dante’s Inferno, the canto of the suicides, came to me during a reading and lecture on the canto given by Professor Michael Campo early in 1990, part of the series “Lecturae Dantis,” which stretched over many years. I was immediately struck by all the sound-images in the text, and by the peculiar uses of certain figures of speech involving internal repetition and mirroring. That evening I was also very mindful of being myself the son of a man who took his own life, and how that personal encounter with the subject matter of the canto had shaped my emotional and aesthetic response. I kept the project in my mind, returning to the canto to read it and reread it for several years. In the fall of 1995, when I began to compose the piece, I set out to make a memorial to my father, whose death so early in my life had never received a specific artistic response. Because of the sensitive nature of the subject and the introspection it evoked, the composition took three years to complete.
The choice of medium — the string quartet — for such an utterance as this arises from my own experience as a violinist and violist, having literally grown up playing chamber music. The string quartet is capable of the widest possible variety of textural, dynamic, and expressive range, and has served as the instrument for some of the most profound thoughts of the greatest composers.
My first goal was to make a musical realization of the canto, a kind of translation into another medium of the imagery–so rich in sonic reference–as well as the structural techniques of the great poet’s text. In the process I realized that I was also making a musical commentary on the work, joining hundreds of others over the centuries who sought to unravel some of the dense and rich tangle of meanings and references in it. Thus there are certain aspects of the composition that are directly applicable to the narrative element of the canto, and other aspects that flow from my analysis of Dante’s phonemic, syntactic, and rhetorical technique.

Below is a basic guide to the narrative correspondences between canto and quartet. An overview of the large-scale formal correspondence can be expanded into a more detailed list.
Canto ................Section ...............................................measures in score .....timing on CD
line 1-30 .............Introduction .........................................mm. 1-67 ..............00:00
line 31-78 ............encounter with Pier della Vigna ..................mm. 68-130 ...........03:38
line 79-108 ..........his explanation of the fate of the suicides ........mm. 131-164 .........08:57
line 109-129 .........interruption: the spendthrifts and their fate ......mm. 165-193 .........11:53
line 130-151 .........encounter with the “anonymous suicide” ........mm. 193-end .........12:40

Gregory Vitale, Christine Vitale, violins; Jennifer Stirling, viola; Emmanuel Feldman, violoncello
Recorded October 8 & 9, 2001; Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, MA
Joel Gordon, Engineer

 

 

...at evening, in the shadow of the volcano, they are dancing...

This piece was written for the pianist Anthony de Bedts, an American-born, Austrian musician, resident for many years in Vienna, who befriended me when we were both students there in the early 1970’s. Given its first performance in March 1993 in the Schubertsaal im Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria, the piece was enthusiastically received by the listeners, who accorded it a five-minute ovation.
In this composition, I work out an idea that came to me first as a picture — a piece of music that begins with a furious “climactic” section, and then gradually simmers down to a peaceful end.
The composition is related to Franz Liszt’s great B-minor Sonata, as well as the later sonatas of Alexander Skriabin. It unfolds as a multi-movement structure, played without the customary pauses between the sections, and exploits the vast range of tone colors and performance techniques associated with the virtuoso pianist’s expressive faculties.
…at evening… explores a variety of moods and emotions. The aggressive energy of the opening music is leavened by the demonic playfulness of the odd-meter scherzo section, and at last attenuated to wisps of sound in the closing adagio. It makes use of the harmonic and melodic resources of twelve-tone compositional techniques pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg and further developed by Alban Berg at the opening of the 20th Century.
The title, a small homage to the writings of Italo Calvino, invites the listener to set the imagination free and to construct a narrative — each one can have their own version of the “story” that the piece seems to tell.

Anthony de Bedts, piano
Recorded July 9 & 10, 2001; Sonic Temple, Roslyndale, MA
Joel Gordon, Engineer

 

 

Two Essays for String Quartet
1. Winter Landscape
2. Parade in the Rain


These pieces were composed in Padua, in the Veneto region of Northern Italy in the winter and spring of 1993, while I was on academic leave. Perhaps all composers feel a need to compose the seasons in the Veneto, after Vivaldi’s wonderful example!
These two pieces are musical pictures: the first is of winter’s ice and of the contrast between the cold outside and the warmth of welcoming interiors. Ice forms on windows and drips gently down, warmed by the sun or by a fire inside, until the light of a short day is spent, and the cold creeps back into everything. The music is made out of the cell of intervals and durations heard in the opening measures, developed into a three-part Adagio form.
The picture evoked in the second piece is of a stormy day in spring, with a parade that goes on in spite of the weather. Spring came gently and tentatively that year, and the sight of colorful parade costumes, and the sounds of the zampogna and wind bands around Easter time gave me a double thrill — visual and aural. The music of the scherzo is a devilish dance of constricted intervals and sudden register shifts, contrasted with a comically lush trio section full of romantic melodic and harmonic gestures.

Gregory Vitale, Christine Vitale, violins; Jennifer Stirling, viola; Rafael Popper-Keizer, violoncello
Recorded May 25, 2002; Sonic Temple, Roslyndale, MA
Joel Gordon, Engineer