Monday, May 22, 2017

Other Minds Remasters Major Columbia Tapes by Composer-Critics

This past Friday Other Minds Records released its latest album, entitled Composer-Critics of the New York Herald Tribune:

courtesy of Other Minds

This is an essential audio document for anyone interested in the more adventurous side of composition in the United States during the middle decades of the twentieth century. To be fair, however, the backstory of the title is probably as interesting as the music on the album.

The recording comes with a magisterial 60-page booklet edited by Charles Amirkhanian, co-founder of the Other Minds Music Festival, who is also responsible for much of the writing in the booklet. However, I should probably steal a bit of the thunder from this booklet with a quick summary of that backstory. Between 1940 and 1954 Virgil Thomson served as chief music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, which was probably the major (and, where arts reporting was concerned, probably more adventurous) alternative to The New York Times. Thomson had been a highly productive composer in Paris between 1925 and 1940. The Herald Tribune made a shrewd decision in recruiting an “insider;” but, while Thomson had no shortage of strong opinions, he also recognized that his primary obligation to newspaper readers was to provide explanation rather than opinion. (None of this is covered on Thomson’s Wikipedia page, making it my first encounter with a Wikipedia source that is unforgivably inadequate.)

As might be imagined, Thomson was a passionate champion of new music; and he knew enough to avoid directing his efforts strictly to his own compositions. As a result he became connected to many of the rising talents trying to bring their works to public attention while, at the same time, coming up with enough money to get by in New York. Thomson was able to assist by recruiting several of them to take on reviewing jobs, since those were the days when a newspaper still covered more than a single concert in any given issue. Four of the composers he recruited were John Cage, Paul Bowles, Lou Harrison, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks, all of whom had writing skills that measured up to their composing skills.

At that same time Thomson was also approached by Columbia Records to curate a series that would be called Modern American Music. It was no surprise that Thomson would turn to the same composers who were writing for him at the Herald Tribune; and works by all four of Thomson’s subordinates, as well as Thomson himself, would be released on Columbia albums between 1953 and 1955. The new Other Minds album collects from those albums one piece by each of these five composers. In “order of appearance” these pieces are:
  1. Music for a Farce by Bowles
  2. A suite for cello and harp by Harrison
  3. “Capital Capitals,” Thomson’s setting of a text by Gertrude Stein of the same name
  4. A sonata for piano and percussion by Glanville-Hicks
  5. “String Quartet in Four Parts” by Cage
All of these are compositions that have received almost no attention recently, undeservedly so.

Fortunately, those living in my home town of San Francisco were able to enjoy one notable exception to that lack of attention. Because this year marks the centennial of Harrison’s birth, his music is enjoying more exposure than usual; and just this past Saturday his suite was performed as part of a two-concert event entitled Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison, which happened to be this year’s Other Minds Music Festival! Nevertheless, it would be more than regrettable if any of these composers’ works are only performed on such “significant anniversary” occasions.

The fact is that Other Minds definitely needs to be both recognized and thanked for bringing to light five highly engaging (not to mention strikingly diverse) approaches to composition at a time when the deeply-rooted tree of nineteenth-century traditions was getting a good shaking in any number of different directions. Harrison’s suite, for example, comes across as being both retrospective and prospective at the same time. Three of the movements were originally composed for a film about the Lascaux Cave paintings; and there is a “bare bones” quality to the sonority that almost seems to evoke the earliest efforts at making music. On the other hand, picking up on an observation that Thomson himself made about this piece, the “Air” movement almost sounds as if Harrison took “Le cygne” (the swan) from Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals and gave it a good swift kick of twentieth-century rhetoric.

The one piece on this album that I had previously encountered on an album is the Cage quartet, which the Concord String Quartet had recorded for the old vinyl Vox Box American String Quartets of 1950–1970. This was the earliest composition in that collection, since Cage had completed it in 1950; and it predates Cage’s use of chance techniques. It has a subdued and haunting quality that contrasts sharply with both the composer’s pioneering attention to percussion (including his invention of the prepared piano) and the often opaque abstractions that would arise from processes that first identify component materials and then organize them by chance techniques.

“Capital Capitals” may be the piece on this album of major historical interest. It is one of a series of Thomson’s settings of Stein texts, which all seemed to involve their own approaches to synthesizing word-play and sound-play. It was composed in 1927 and is probably the last of those settings that predates Thomson’s first joint project with Stein, which resulted in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The text is not included in the booklet, but there is a reproduction of the first page of the published score. One thus quickly sees that the music consists almost entirely of incantation by solo voices; and the words are never in any way distorted by the diction of the four vocalists, tenors Joseph Crawford and Clyde S. Turner, baritone Joseph James, and bass William C. Smith.

Glanville-Hicks is the one composer on the album with a percussion-centric offering. By the time she completed this sonata in 1952, those attending “modern music” concerts would have become used to according soloist status to percussionists. It is therefore more than a little disappointing that the album credits cited only the “NY Percussion Group” (which was probably a pickup group assembled for the recording session), conducted by Carlos Surinach with Carlo Bussotti taking the piano part. Most important is that, for those following how the percussion repertoire had developed since the days of Edgard Varèse’s “Ionisation,” Glanville-Hicks had definitely found a voice uniquely her own for this sonata.

Finally, Music for a Farce is a suite of short pieces that Bowles had written as incidental music for one of Orson Welles’ theatre projects. Like many Welles efforts, this one never came to fruition. Thus, there is no narrative to orient the listener to the eight movements of this suite. Four of them have “social” connotations (tarantella, quickstep, waltz, march). However, the music is best approached as an almost rapid-fire barrage of witticisms, complete with “sound effects” from sources such as a glass milk bottle (which will make this piece a serious challenge for the “original instruments” set).

From a personal point of view, it is difficult for me to listen to this album without serious pangs of nostalgia. Cage is the only composer included whom I got to know for any length of time. (My interaction with Thomson himself probably lasted less than a minute.) At the same time, my nostalgia is assuaged by a rhetoric of fun that pervades the entire album, even when “fun” may not have been what the composer had in mind. I suspect that this particular impression derives from the fact that all five of these composers had a joyous disposition in their respective approaches to modernism, even when the subject matter itself may have been more serious. Furthermore, because we have now become a society that revels in our ignorance of history, this album may be of great service to some of the would-be future composers, who may be in the process of reinventing the wheel without knowing it!

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