Monthly Archives: September 2013

Minneapolis Guitar Quartet: Thrum

My latest CD review for WRTI; you can hear the podcast with musical examples below. All my CD reviews are here

Minneapolis Guitar Quartet: Thrum (Innova 858)
Daniel Bernard Roumain: Ghetto Strings
David Evan Thomas: Thrum
Van Stiefel: Cinema Castaneda
Gao Hong: Guangxi Impression

Thrum480From the opening moments of its recent CD Thrum, the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet throws its cards on the table. Attitude and refined sound are the driving forces here. Even the first percussive beats that herald the strut through Harlem—the first movement of Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Ghetto Strings—are nuanced, a combination of tap, stroke, and pound. This is delicious playing.

Roumain’s work travels through places he’s lived and visited. The streets of Harlem, Detroit, South Florida’s Liberty City, and Haiti jostle and hum in this pop-influenced, attractive suite. Ghetto Strings is celebratory yet wistful, a yearning matched by the thoughtful performance.

If there is such a thing as a non-specific program, David Evan Thomas suggests one in Thrum. He writes about finding a box of papers in an attic, a stroll in a garden, a philosophy lesson. But behind its three contented movements, Thrum is a welter of magnanimous sonic gifts to the guitars.

Van Stiefel, Associate Professor of Theory at West Chester University and a guitarist, approaches the arms-wide-open Cinema Castaneda from within the instrument. What a hoot this is, but then you catch yourself. He envisions cowboy songs, The Velvet Underground, and Chuck Berry, but the music—even the singing—evolves out of the hope and violence, he says, mixed together on the border of the U.S. and Mexico. This fascinates.

A culture of yet another kind wafts in on the talents of Gao Hong. She is one of the foremost performers on the pipa, the Chinese lute, and Guangxi Impression combines her artistry on that instrument with the guitar quartet. Through Tiaodan Dance, Summer Cicada, and Celebrating the Harvest, the string instrument cousins dip together and whirl.

Throughout Guangxi Impression and the entire CD of Thrum, the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet offers a luscious introduction to these four composers, their affable work, and to balanced and tasteful playing—with attitude.

Sound Moves Blues on Now Is the Time

SoundMovesBlues500We move beyond autumnal blues, should we have them, on Now Is the Time, Sunday, September 29th at 10 pm. Saxophone, clarinet, and piano turn up the heat in Robert Aldridge’s Sound Moves Blues, while Patrick Beckman honors blues tradition on the piano in Blues. Laos, Greece, Bolivia, Bulgaria, and the Tuskegee Institute’s Gospel sound all inform Matthew Davidson’s wide-ranging Etudes for Piano, Book 1.

Lisa Bielawa calls forth text of Jeremiah in her elegiac Lamentations for a city, a muted but compelling work for chorus and English horn. And then Philadelphia’s Paul Epstein works through Isolation, Rapport, and Threnody in Three Sonnets, on words sent to him by a poet who heard his music. How lovely for that to happen, and what warm and tender songs these are, on this cusp of autumn.

from Paul Epstein: Three Sonnets 

Robert Aldridge: Sound Moves Blues
Patrick Beckman: Blues
Matthew Davidson: Etudes for Piano, Book 1
Lisa Bielawa: Lamentations for a city
Paul Epstein: Three Sonnets

Every Sunday night at 10, Kile Smith brings you Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

Review of Mass for Philadelphia

The Luther Seal

I’m very pleased, and touched, by the care shown to my Mass for Philadelphia in the review by the Rev. Paul J. Cain in the LHP Lutheran Book Review. LHP stands for Liturgy, Hymnody & Pulpit; their mission:

Critical reviews (by Lutheran pastors and church musicians) of books and other resources for Christian worship, preaching, and church music from a perspective rooted in Holy Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions and good common sense. LHP Lutheran Book Review asks, “Is it worth the money to buy, the time to read, the shelf space to store, and the effort to teach?”

Along with the review he reposts my description of the Mass, so I won’t repeat it here. I’ll only emphasize that this began as a commission by the Association of Anglican Musicians for their 2012 National Conference in Philadelphia, and since then I’ve added sections that would more normally be sung in Lutheran churches. So as it stands, the Mass, for unison congregation, organ, and optional descants, has these sections: Kyrie, Gloria, Offertory, Sanctus, Christ Our Passover, Agnus Dei, and Nunc Dimittis.

Paul Cain is, among other things, Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Sheridan, Wyoming, and Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School. He has perceptive comments about the Mass and its use, and ends his review this way:

I am keenly interested in more liturgical music from Kile Smith. He understands the purpose and role of both text and music at worship. Smith demonstrates a theological appreciation for the gravity of the textual content (the Word of God) that his melodies and settings support. His “Nunc Dimittis” got me thinking. Kile Smith has already given us a transcendent Vespers. Why not Compline? Or Mass for Wyoming?

Better audio on the website

PlayArrowI’d just finished a piece, and having run out of ways to avoid starting the new one… wait, I’ll mess with my audio clips again. Ah, that’s better. On my home page—above the fold, so to speak—and down the side of every other page are placed the things I think people would want to see, should they want to see anything: what music is about to be performed, how to get in touch, some things to hear, more links to some pieces, and so on. The “and so on” things get pushed down further.

I used to update the radio shows (weekly for Now Is the Time, monthly for Fleisher) in the sidebars. Now, just links to the main pages. I still post about each show, as people seem to like those.

Every Broad Street Review article and WRTI CD suggestion had been listed, but no longer. Because both concerns haven’t found a way to discourage me, there are now too many to sluice down the page, so I link them en masse to one Writings page, where one may discover in one place the deathless jabber.

For the audio, I’d put a “music player” jukebox-type contraption on there. At first I thought it looked edgy but it grew into a big black block assaulting the eye (plus it was hard to update), so I took it down and put back the individual vanilla players. I also winnowed the number of pieces to listen to. There’s audio all over the place, coupled with the landing pages for the works (easiest way to find those is from the Music tab at the top), but I did want to highlight some. I make a big, big deal about Vespers, for instance, but never had one audio excerpt of it in front, which was, if not stupid, then… well, OK it was stupid.

So there it all is. People like pictures, so say people, so I put an image on every post. This is good for my double-duty posts, as they provide another way to link back to WRTI or BSR. The home page is still quite image-challenged, though; don’t yet know what to do about that. The top banner has a rotating assortment of photos of me. There’s no picture of me that I can stand to look at for too long, hence the mixing-up.

Oh, I did stumble upon a trick, after relating the above to a friend of mine who is smarter than I am—I make it a point to hang out with people smarter than I am. (This being, by the way, a great life secret I also stumbled upon; for me, anyway, not so great for them.) I felt beleaguered, on these posts, in email, and on Facebook, with incessant spell-checking. Why does everyone have spell-checking nowadays?, I asked my friend. It’s not that I think I know better than a computer, although I’m actually obsessive about such things. It’s that so often I use musical or foreign terms and names, and it keeps wanting to bully me into something else.

I disable it in Microsoft Word, but I haven’t been able to… “It’s not the programs,” said Smart Friend, “it’s your browser.” You mean, I can change the Preferences and get rid of that? “Yep,” he said.

Waitress, take care of this fellow across the table here, would you? His glass is running low.

So I unchecked spell-check in the browser, I’m no longer being bothered by the incessant prodding to a word I don’t want, and am now as hoppy as can be.

A Wind of Fall on Now Is the Time

WindFallIt’s a piquant greeting to autumn on Now Is the Time, Sunday, September 22nd at 10 pm. Adolphus Hailstork’s Romance No. 2, “Amoroso” from his CD As Falling Leaves features viola, while Colors Fall by James DeMars is a juicy work for flute and saxophone. Stephen Yip’s orchestral Raining in Autumn elicits longing cadenzas from the solo violin.

The song cycle A Wind of Fall is a setting of the poetry of Léonie Adams (Poet Laureate 1948–49) with warm and lucid music by Joel Mandelbaum. Finally, Russell Platt’s Autumn Music for violin and piano carries summer into fall with writing that is both luscious and bright.

from James DeMars: Colors Fall 

Adolphus Hailstork: Romance No. 2
James DeMars: Colors Fall
Stephen Yip: Raining in Autumn
Joel Mandelbaum: A Wind of Fall
Russell Platt: Autumn Music

Every Sunday night at 10, Kile Smith brings you Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

Some Jazz at the End of Summer on Now Is the Time

BeachSunset480It’s good-bye to summer with a little—and more than a little—jazz on Now Is the Time, Sunday, September 15th at 10 pm. Quartet San Francisco starts off the program with Jeremy Cohen’s summery Tango Toscana. Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa honors his heritage and also the victims of 9/11 in Are There Clouds in India? Bassist John Patitucci works grooves into Scenes for Viola and Percussion, and Linda Robbins Coleman spins out a piano rag in Bill’s Song.

Trumpeter Laura Kahle and trombonist Howard Prince bring hard-driving jazz influences to Daize and Pipe Dream, respectively. William Bolcom’s Second Sonata, for Violin and Piano wraps up our program by remembering Summer Dreams in the first movement, and in the last, the great jazz violinist Joe Venuti.

from William Bolcom: Second Sonata, for Violin and Piano 

Jeremy Cohen: Tango Toscana
Rudresh Mahanthappa: Are There Clouds in India?
John Patitucci: Scenes for Viola and Percussion
Linda Robbins Coleman: Bill’s Song
Laura Kahle: Daize
Howard Prince: Pipe Dream
William Bolcom: Second Sonata, for Violin and Piano

Every Sunday night at 10, Kile Smith brings you Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

Making a piano reduction for Plain Truths

[Broad Street Review published an edited version of this 9 Sep 2013 as Composer’s challenge: From quartet to piano.]

PianoKeys480The double bar of the song cycle Plain Truths for baritone and string quartet having been slid into head-first, all that remained in the week before the deadline was to dust myself off with piano reductions of the two new songs. I had added them to the five from 2011, and also created a requested choral part. The veil over this new version will be lifted November 16th by baritone Randall Scarlata, the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival String Quartet, and The Candlelight Chorale.

The deadline was September 1st. I forget now if that was my deadline or theirs. I remember the phrase “the choir would like it in September,” but I could be wrong, and rather than looking through all the emails, from the start I treated Sunday, September 1st as my drop-dead.

I sent in the full score and piano reduction August 31st, and the individual string parts on the 1st. Along with the written music was a computer-generated recording. These digital audio approximations welter my ever-lissome vocal lines into one long “Arrr, ar, arrrrr…, ar, ar, ar, arrrr…,” the chorus, seeming to enter a tunnel with “Arrrarr…,” and the strings into metal wheels on rails, but they serve the purpose of a quick introduction. The musicians can also hear, beyond seeing Andantes or Quicklys or metronome markings on the score, what I think the tempos ought to be.

Making the piano reduction, I confess, is a task I have looked upon as drudgery. Too harsh a word, perhaps, but in any case as work that is not composing.

In the post-compositional glow, having beheld the glorious wave of creation washing over the numinous sands of human existence and all that, rendering pristine and pinkish the wide beached expanse of glistening scalloped shells peeking from the… well, from that expanse, there is really nothing more to do, one concludes—or if one feels important, one says that one is driven to conclude—nothing more, I say, than to seek new vistas, conquer new territories, step over the odd husk of a horseshoe crab—didn’t see that there—and after polishing off a Fudgesicle to otherwise get on with it.

In other words, one wants to write a new piece.

How dreary it is to rewrite for piano what one has just written for strings. But it must be done. The choir’s pianist jolly well likes to have a piano part, for starters. And if the song cycle is ever to have a chance for more performances, it’s easier to tempt one pianist than four string players.

But after weeks and months spent, off and on, sculpting the two violins, viola, and cello, shaving, nudging, and coaxing the stringed instruments into a blossoming garden of counterpoint, you reach for the hatchet, the eight-pound sledge hammer, the pry bar, and the splitting maul with a sigh and start whacking.

You’ve written, for instance, a high, repeated bit for the first violin, chirping an octave or two above everything else. Below that, the second violin plays a longer, languid phrase overlapping the first’s. On the bottom, the cello hops high, then very low, well under the viola, who has pride of place with a tune ranging up over the second violin at times, at other times meeting with the cello in surreptitious parallel thirds.

Leaving aside the challenge of translating the character of four distinct lines played by four distinct voices onto the keyboard, some of the notes are simply impossible to play simultaneously by two human hands wielded by one person. They are too far apart, the notes are, that is. So what to do?

In this world one does what one must, and chooses, moment by moment, which event is most important. You sacrifice a high or low note, eliminating it if it’s repeated nearby, or moving it an octave if the insertion isn’t jarring. Or you keep it because the effect is too good, and trash something else because that’s now out of reach. Or you delete a filligree in the middle to embolden a harmony or to make a tune sing better on the keys.

You revoice. This is a gentle way of saying you grab a note by the collar and heave it. I mean, a note that is minding its own business leaning against the kitchen doorway chatting with the neighbor who just moved here from upstate, you fling into an armchair in the living room, next to your cousin who’s idly looking at a crossword puzzle on the coffee table you forgot to replace with Victorian Architecture before company arrived.

And after all the inserting and deleting and collaring and flinging, you revoice again because now it’s just herky-jerky. The notes fit under the hands, sort of, but now they’re just that, a spreading agglomeration of stagnant pitches. The line vanished somewhere along the way. Now you have to make it smooth, make it pianistic.

So you rework it again, but now you ignore the original and put your head down, bearing in, redrawing phrasings, picturing a right thumb tolling this note, the left pinky catching that one at the start of an arpeggio that used to be a cello’s double stop but now, for the piano, is…

Music. Look at that. You’re writing music.

So this is what it feels like. Of course, you were doing this just yesterday, weren’t you? I used to look on the piano reduction as… well that was my problem, wasn’t it. I called it “making a piano reduction,” as if I had to go on a diet or crawl into the middle of an old azalea with pruning shears and get scratched because you can never really prune an old azalea properly without getting scratched. But no, it’s not like that.

It’s called composing; look at that, as I said.