Voices from the Heartland on Now Is the Time

CrumbHeartlandNew music hears old tunes on Now Is the Time, Saturday, July 26th at 9 pm at wrti.org and WRTI-HD2. George Crumb has a way—like no one else—of investing the simplest gesture with mystery and grandeur. He fills his seventh American Song Book, Voices from the Heartland, with these touches of wonder assembled in these hymns, spirituals, folk songs, and American Indian chants. Soprano Ann Crumb and baritone Patrick Mason are accompanied by Orchestra 2001, conducted by James Freeman.

Beginning the show, there’s just time enough to hear a movement from David Amram’s Violin Concerto. His Celtic Rondo breathes the air of long ago from another place, or maybe he hears the spirits of ancestors from any place. Charles Castleman is the soloist.

from George Crumb: Voices from the Heartland 

PROGRAM:
David Amram: Celtic Rondo, from Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
George Crumb: Voices from the Heartland

Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith brings you Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. Just go to wrti.org and click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM-HD2, or find all the frequencies here, from the Jersey Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Delaware.

Premiere of Gold and Silver in Helena

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 22 July 2014. Reprinted by permission.]

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The president of Carroll College told me that when he arrived in Helena two years ago to begin his new job, they informed him that they’d leave a car for him in the airport parking lot. “But where will the keys be?” he asked. “In the ignition, where else?” was the reply, and so he learned right then and there how special Helena, Montana is.

Allan R. Scott, music director of the Helena Symphony, who commissioned me for Gold and Silver (for program notes, complete score, and MIDI audio, click here), premiered Saturday at Carroll College as part of Symphony Under the Stars, left his car for us at the airport. A connection in our flight from Philadelphia was delayed, he was in a last-minute meeting with funders, the rental car place would be closed by the time we got there, so his assistant met Jackie and me at the airport and handed me the car keys, because, of course, what else would you do?

The next morning we picked up the rental car. Tom the rental guy, who, along with waiters and candy shop owners and everyone else I met was going to Symphony Under the Stars, walked me outside, and started to circumnavigate this Dodge Ram Sport 1500 5.7 Hemi. I don’t know what one Hemi is, let alone five point seven of them, but a friend who knows about these things tells me that this puppy has 16 spark plugs, two for each cylinder.

I looked around for the rental car, like, you know, a car. “It’s all we have right now, trucks,” Tom said, “will that be okay?” Will that be okay, are you kidding? I tooled around in town at precisely 35 or 40 miles per hour, or on the interstates at 75, exactly what the posted speed limit was, because driving the exact speed limit in a huge truck is surprisingly exhilarating. I nodded at the other truck drivers with whom I was now in communion. Of course they didn’t look at me but no matter. I was in Helena, at the first of my official acts as Composer in Residence, driving a Dodge Ram with seven-tenths over five liters of hemi, and the Helena Symphony was playing my piece in front of 18,000 people, will that be okay.

Symphony Under the Stars was in this, its eleventh year, all Disney movie music and one work called Gold and Silver, the piece they requested for the 150th anniversary of the founding of Helena, and the 60th anniversary of the Helena Symphony. So it was Disney, me, and fireworks. In May 2015 they’ll play Gold and Silver again, on a program with Beethoven’s 9th. I’ve now been up against fireworks and popcorn vendors, so sharing the evening with Beethoven doesn’t seem, I’m thinking cavalierly, so daunting now. We’ll see about that, but in the meantime the performance was fantastic.

Children were dancing in front of the outdoor stage at the return of the main theme, the hymn-like tune I set up against the fanfare-y brass opening. If you feel a connection to children dancing unreservedly, by the way, it’s because children dance exactly the way you dance, if you don’t know how to dance. They do the two-styrofoam-cups-of-coffee-thrown-back-over-the-head dance, the elbow-swing-stop-poking-me-in-the-side dance, and of course the crouching-boxer-via-Heisman-trophy dance, just the way you do. But you don’t wear glow-in-the-dark necklaces when you dance, nor do you laugh when you fall down.

The crowd appreciated the significance of the piece, introduced by the Helena mayor, as a celebration of the city and the of state, whose motto Oro y Plata presented me with the title Gold and Silver. They cheered in the middle of it. After careful consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that cheering in the middle of a piece is a good, is a really good, thing.

Allan was, to the last ounce, all about making music. He never calls these pops concerts. He invests in them the same commitment he reserves for Helena’s Mahler cycle or a Jennifer Higdon Concerto for Orchestra. The Disney works are—as many film scores are—incredibly difficult to play well. I looked at the parts, full of turn-on-a-dime tempo changes and sound-effect sparkles, and saw how much work goes into an evening of Pirates and Poppins and Mermaids and Lion Kings and Toy Stories. The well-known tunes and well-settled harmonic sweeps belie the workout this is for the musicians on the stage. The tuba player is a rancher, raises Black Angus cattle, drives 100 miles to play here, has wiry arms and a big smile and a frame that has bent under real work at 15 below or a hundred and five. He sounds good. They all sound good.

As we walked from Carroll College to our truck (it seems to me that I like saying that) parked six blocks away, surrounded by happy Helenans who had just heard a wonderful orchestra playing live under stars and fireworks and that big Montana sky, I thought that I was blessed. Blessed, I thought, to have my music share the stage with these musicians, blessed to share the lawn with these people. I drove nice and slow.

This Floating World on Now Is the Time

ElenaRuehr

Elena Ruehr’s CD, including The Law of Floating Objects

Islands and dances and flutes seem to float on Now Is the Time, Saturday, July 19th at 9 pm at wrti.org and WRTI-HD2. Haiku of Basho inspire Edie Hill’s This Floating World for solo flute; Elena Ruehr’s The Law of Floating Objects is for one flutist multiplied many times. An excerpt from A Floating Island is Matthew Greenbaum’s chamber opera on an episode from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, where some are so lost in thought they don’t see what’s right in front of them.

The Habanera makes us think of Cuba and islands (okay, it’s a stretch), and we find one in 5 Pages from John’s Book of Alleged Dances by John Adams. Robert Ackerman improvises Havana Special, clarinet and bass, and there’s just enough time for an Ackerman encore, Scena.

from Robert Ackerman: Scena 

PROGRAM:
Edie Hill: This Floating World
John Adams: 5 Pages from John’s Book of Alleged Dances
Matthew Greenbaum: from A Floating Island
Robert Ackerman: Havana Special
Elena Ruehr: The Law of Floating Objects
Robert Ackerman: Scena

Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith brings you Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. Just go to wrti.org and click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM-HD2, or find all the frequencies here, from the Jersey Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Delaware.

Are you famous?

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 15 July 2014. Reprinted by permission.]

Matrix

© 1999 Warner Bros. Entertainment

The teacher introduced me to his fourth- and fifth-graders, the Jenks Arts & Music (JAM) Class at the Jenks School in Chestnut Hill. I’m composing something for them to sing with the Crossing next year, on a powerful poem by Philadelphian Ryan Eckes. [I wrote about this here, here, and here.]

Today was get-to-know-the-composer day, so I talked about what a composer does, and about how I sang in choirs, too, when I was their age. I played a short work of mine from a CD, and told them how to hear the music that’s already inside of words. To open them up to this, we improvised music on the text “I’m happy to be in JAM Class.” During this, one of the students pointed, hopefully, to a boxful of maracas. Well, I love a boxful of maracas as much as anyone, so we used those, too.

Things were going well; they were engaged. A hand shot up during question time. Looking at the eager young man, I said, “Sure! Go ahead,” feeling good, ready for anything.

“Are you famous?”

I’ll try to describe the next few milliseconds to you, since they lasted a while. They were like… well, do you know that scene in The Matrix, I don’t know which Matrix, but it was when one of the Matrix guys—by the way, are the Matrix guys the stars, or are the Matrix guys the ones trying to kill the stars?—well, it doesn’t matter, the one in black—okay, they’re all in black; the one in black leather, I don’t know if that helps… wait, it was the girl—that scene when the girl was falling out of the window and dropping backward and looking up and the bad guy, the one in the black suit and tie—okay, they all wear black suits and ties, but one of them—he’s chasing or falling after her and looking down and shooting, they’re both shooting, actually, but the bullets, they look like they’re burrowing through jello or smoke, and, sure, the bullets are going fast enough, but not bullet-fast and so she, the girl, can twist out of the way and avoid the bullets?—only it’s not that part, it’s immediately after that part, in JAM class, standing in front of the fourth- or fifth-grader who asks, “Are you famous?,” it’s after the part when the bullets miss, it’s right at that part when one of the bullets hits.

The milliseconds were like that, is what I’m trying to say.

First, jaundiced realism came to mind: “If you have to ask, then no”; then, diplomacy: “Well, in some circles…”; then, defensiveness: “Even my best-known colleagues you wouldn’t…”; and then, anti-ballistic missile countermeasures, “How famous are you?”

“Well…”

But what I replied—and I remember this exactly—was, “Well,” followed by nothing for a half-second, enough time for the teacher to jump in—by the way, I love teachers—to jump in and say that being famous just means that you’re on TV, and that if you go by TV, then Beethoven and Mozart weren’t famous, and that there are a lot more important things in life than what’s on TV. The student seemed to take his point. I took it, too, and was grateful for the lifeline.

But he hadn’t answered the question. Neither had I, and I mention it because of a nagging point. The point isn’t that Beethoven and Mozart, in fact, were famous. The point isn’t even that only a child would ask “Are you famous?” The point is that although a grown-up doesn’t ask “Are you famous?,” a grown-up always wants to know.

It’s just true. All artists put in their bios and press releases the names of musicians or ensembles or reviewers or awards or magazines they hope you know. The more famous the name, the closer to the top it goes. “This,” we say to the unasked question, “is how famous.”

It’s the same in any field. We scan a bio or press release, looking for names we know. We’re looking, in fact, for fame.

Television may decide it for us, or anything else. On the last day of my janitor job before leaving for college, old George said to me, “So, Professor” (he called me that because I was going to college), “So, Professor, I guess one day you’ll be a famous composer.” “Oh I don’t know,” I quipped, “but if I am, I’ll let you know.”

He looked at me sideways. “If you are, you won’t have to. I read the paper.”

Who decides?

Which lays bare the folly of chasing fame. Nobody defines it for themselves. George and the JAM Class will define my fame however they wish. If they wish. How famous I am is entirely up to them. If I have fame, any at all, they give it to me. Or, as David Bowie sings: “Fame, what you need you have to borrow.”

Better, then, not to need it.

Better to let others ask—and answer—the question for themselves. Someone was putting together a list of American composers and wondered on Facebook if there were any names beginning with X. “If anyone knows, Kile will,” a friend posted. I doubted that, but the friend surmised that from my new-music radio show and from having been at the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music, I must know lots of composer names. And I do.

I went to the list, someone’s matrix of fame, and it was huge: living and dead American composers, names I knew, some I didn’t, friends, acquaintances, professors, lots of professors. I dropped to the end; sure enough, nobody under X. Then, I asked myself the question. I scrolled up to S.

A smile crept across my face as I nodded. Serves me right for asking. My name wasn’t there.

Another composer wrote about me…

MotorbikeI had no idea that this was coming:

…finding Kile’s music is an oasis,

and other too incredibly kind words, and from a composer colleague. He tells one bald-faced lie, however (it has to do with the number of commissions), but I like the enthusiasm!

Thank you, Kurt Knecht.

By the way, that second video in the “Kile Smith” playlist? First of all, I had no idea I had a playlist (again, with the no idea), but second of all, the guy on the motorbike, that’s not me.

But seriously, I’m touched by this. Kind words from a fellow composer are like rain in the desert, someone once told me.

Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn, with the Aestas Consort

HerrChristwEnglishp1My friends from the Chicago-area choir Aestas Consort put up this YouTube montage with the a capella chorus from Vespers, Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn (Lord Christ, the only Son of God). This is the one that splits from four to eight to 16 voices and back.

They sound gorgeous! Maurice Boyer conducts; this was recorded at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest. Thank you, Steven, Levi, Maurice, and everybody!

I’ve gone ahead and made a German/English edition of this, since I had translated it for the program notes. Yes, you could sing this in English if you liked! Click on the page at the left for a look-see, and if you want to see all of it, just let me know!

Symphony Under the Stars, Gold and Silver, announced in Helena

HelenaPosterUnveiling

photo: Eliza Wiley, Independent Record

My new orchestral work Gold and Silver got a shout-out as Helena Symphony music director Allan R. Scott met with Helena mayor Jim Smith and others for the Symphony Under the Stars announcement yesterday. Here’s the complete article in Helena’s Independent Record. The concert is 8:30 p.m. Saturday, July 19, on the grounds of Carroll College.

“Gold and Silver” is Oro y Plata, the Montana state motto. A new poster (pictured, left), symbolizes a fire tower, symbol of Helena. There will be a canned-food drive at this free concert; last year they collected over 15,000 pounds.

The program includes lots of Disney movie scores. They’re expecting upwards of 16,000 people to show up for this free concert. Reserved seats are already sold out. There will be fireworks. They play Gold and Silver right before the fireworks.

No pressure!