Category Archives: WRTI

Charles Ives and Independence

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection July 1, 5–6 pm:
Charles Ives (1874–1954). Variations on “America” (1891), arr. William Schumann
Ives. Symphony No. 2 (1901)

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection starts the Independence Day weekend with that most independent of American composers, Charles Ives. His music is wild, grand, humorous, poignant, and, at times, ornery. Most of all, though, it is shot through with that very American streak of independence. It isn’t a non-musical independence, like a personal or a political statement would be, but goes deep into the grain of music. The independence of Charles Ives is that stubborn willfulness to grab a moment—any moment, no matter how exuberant or plain—and shake it until all artifice drops off and all that’s left of the moment is, well, its momentousness.

His Second Symphony is a perfect example. Composed when Ives was in his 20s, it’s his breakout symphony. The First is well done, but even with sharp corners here and there, it’s a little too schooled, too European.

With the Second, you hear “Turkey in the Straw,” “Camptown Races,” “America the Beautiful,” “Long, Long Ago,” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” They rub shoulders with, almost riot with, strains of Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’s First, Bach, and Wagner. And then Ives tosses in hymns, spirituals, reels, and more: enough to expand it into a five-movement symphony.

Like many Ives pieces, the Symphony No. 2 wasn’t premiered until years after its creation; 50 years, to be exact. Leonard Bernstein conducted the premiere with the New York Philharmonic in 1951. Ives, in ill health for much of his life, listened to the broadcast at home with his wife Harmony, on their cook’s radio. He was surprised by how much the audience clapped at the end.

Some of Ives’s earlier organ music made its way into this work. He was an accomplished organist, playing in churches from age 14, and one such work came to light because the organist E. Power Biggs asked him, in 1949, if he had anything Biggs might play. They uncovered Variations on “America.” Biggs then edited, published, and performed it. The composer William Schuman orchestrated it in 1963, and again the New York Philharmonic stepped up for the premiere, in 1964, with André Kostelanetz conducting.

It is a mistake to think of these Variations as satire. Ives never satirizes. It’s closer to the mark to listen to these as a young boy might, a boy who grew up with fervent bands of amateurs playing music as if their honor—or the honor of their country—depended on it. Ives’s father directed such bands. Young Charlie played in them. He is in love with this tune, and that is one secret to the strange pull and influence of Ives on American music.

The other thing to remember, and which gives context to these Variations, is that when Ives wrote it, as organist in a Brewster, N.Y., Methodist church, and played it at the July 4th celebration (after trying it out first in February—can you imagine what the congregation thought of that?), he wasn’t that far removed from the boy at the parade. Charles Ives composed Variations on “America” when he was 16.

The Dance of Ravel and Satie

Satie, Moulin de la Galette (“The Bohemian”), Ramon Casas, 1891

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday June 6th, 5 to 6 pm… In the last Discoveries we took a snapshot of Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Poulenc from 100 years ago. Each was from a different world of French music. Camille Saint-Saëns was old: older than the old guard, older than the director of the Paris Conservatory Gabriel Fauré (his student and Ravel’s teacher), and older, even, than Fauré’s predecessor Théodore Dubois.

Ravel was a great and rising success in 1917 in a rapidly changing mainstream. Debussy (d. 1918) had long since upset traditional tonality and conservatory-approved fugue and forms. Rather than lining up easily charted chords, he composed washes of incalculable harmonies pinwheeling as colors.

Ravel traveled in that same landscape, if not along the same musical road. Even though he gathered many admirers for his lustrous yet precise scores as the years wore on, many still held him at arm’s length. And he still smarted over having been turned down for the Paris Conservatory’s Prix de Rome, not once or twice, but five times. Dubois lost his job as director after the last time and an outcry over l’affaire Ravel broke—all the finalists turned out to be students of Dubois—but the hurt remained.

Francis Poulenc would lead in the next generation. Around 1917 the iconoclast Erik Satie called him and five other composers the Nouveaux Jeunes. Later, a critic coined Les Six. Satie would fall out and in with them, but he, even though older than Ravel, was in many ways their spark. They wanted to be new, not like Wagner, not like Debussy, and not like Ravel.

Maurice Ravel

But what they and Satie and Ravel had in common was dance. Large orchestral works became much more difficult to mount during and well after the Great War. The likes of Ravel’s mammoth 1912 Daphnis and Chloe would not be feasible for a long time. But impresarios like Diaghilev were making a good business of ballet. Artists like Picasso and Cocteau ripped up boundaries and reimagined spaces and angles. Dancers and choreographers created theater (and word-of-mouth) like never before. And composers made music from beat-up pianos, drums, and whatever instruments were at hand.

Exotic stories and myths were popular, as in Daphnis and Satie’s Mercury, but so was nonsense and non sequitur. Each minute-long section of Jack in the Box is in C major. Satie wrote it for piano, then lost it (on a bus, he thought). He died and it was found in his cluttered apartment, behind a piano. One of Les Six, Darius Milhaud, orchestrated it. Dance, and the worlds of French music, lived on.

PROGRAM:
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937): Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 1 (1912)
Erik Satie (1866–1925): Mercury (1924)
Satie: Jack in the Box (1926), orch. Darius Milhaud
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2 (1913)1999

How Do You Compose?

[First published in the Broad Street Review 8 May 2017 as How to Write a Theme Song]

Illustration for Broad Street Review by Hannah Kaplan

By throwing everything out, that’s how. Anyway, that’s the answer I don’t give when I’m asked how I compose. Though it’s true, it sounds facetious, so here’s a recent example, if only to defend myself against the charge of flippancy.

First attempt

I’d never written a theme song, but was kicking around an idea for a new top-of-the-hour 30-second station I.D. at WRTI, the radio station where I work. It had previously been the spoken text alone, the wonderful voice of Dave Conant. We were thinking of bringing in different voices—women’s, other men’s, non-prime-time announcers—and rotating them with the existing one.

When we started Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection (scroll to movement 3 at the link) 15 years ago, I took music from my one symphony and made it the theme. Nine years ago, I did the same with a four-guitar piece when Now Is the Time hit the air. But I’d never composed a theme song from scratch.

Since we’re a dual-format station of classical music and jazz, I thought I’d meld the two into one theme. A piano would serve both, as it’s natural in both. But something else made me choose piano as the foundation for this. I couldn’t ask the station to pay for my experiment by hiring an orchestra, so I’d generate all the music from my computer. The sounds are pretty good, sampled from live instruments, but not as good as the real thing. And of all the samples, the piano, to my ears, sounds more natural than most.

So, I could have a pianistic flourish, peppy to get your attention, but not jarring. Over jazz chords I’d bring in a saxophone—no, a clarinet, also at home in both worlds—for a languorous denouement. A soft background string orchestra would be the combining agent. A little offbeat, with plucked strings for rhythmic punch, a little sweet, and in 30 seconds wrapped up. Here’s what it sounds like.

Second attempt

Not bad, I thought, but after a day or two I hated it. It sounded like a ’70s sitcom, one where the kids fight over who threw the football into the tree, and the car blows a tire on the way to the campground, but everything ends up just fine. It was cute and nothing more. I got to the point where nothing I tried worked. I never got to any interesting chords, the punctuating piano was jarring, and the clarinet never did do anything. It was a boring mess.

So, I threw everything out. Taking out the garbage is one of composing’s most important tactics, although it never feels like a tactic when you’re doing it. It feels awful. Much of the time, awful is what writing music feels like.

Our production manager, a radio guy from way back, got me on track. I played it for him, he listened, and shook his head. “Don’t do a theme. Do a signature.”

“Like N–B–C?” I sang it.

“Yep. A theme gets in the way. We have to play it 24 times a day, remember.”

He was right. I went back and the only thing I kept was the key of D. I made a halo of strings: a D-major chord. My first thought for this signature was to spell out the chord from top to bottom: A-F#-D, but I figured the triad was merely a placeholder. I had that high string halo and the piano picking out the chord. As soon as that ended I landed on a G-major chord, that old standby, the subdominant of D. Now I had drama. I intensified it by keeping the strings resolutely on D major and repeating the signature triad.

From there, I just nudged the bass line along. Following my ear, I moved the G to B. Each bass move was preceded by a ta-dum (I added a soft bass drum and plucked double bass notes). B went to C#, grinding low against the D major, every bass move coupled with corresponding notes thrown into the halo.

The tension increased. The bass C# hopped over the D to E, then hopped again up to G, an octave above where it started. I didn’t think about chords, let alone jazz chords, at all. I just increased the pressure. After 21 seconds, it was time to resolve, so the bass finally settled from G to D, under a slow repeat of the signature.

Funny thing is, I never did change the triad, never made it “more interesting.” I ended with a soft bloom of brass: three trombones and a tuba. The piano rolled out a final D major, and I snuck a lone B into the violins. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s an add-6 chord.

Third time’s the charm

There was one more addition, which you may have heard. When I overlaid it with the voice, I felt it needed more sparkle, so I picked out details with a harp. I also had it click the beat softly throughout, and had the piano hit the offbeat kicks a little harder. I adjusted volumes for inner voices. The final, with Dave’s fantastic voice, sounds like this.

It’s mixed differently for airtime and for different voices, and we deleted the “also available in HD,” which is old news. It was a fairly ridiculous idea to meld (whatever that means) classical (whatever that means) and jazz (ditto). Get people’s attention, don’t annoy them, work the music, don’t get in the way of the voice, create tension and release, and work, work, work the music. That’s how I compose.

And when I don’t, every once in a while, I throw everything out.

Bubbling Up on Now Is the Time

from the CD cover, Juri Seo: Mostly Piano

It’s the spirit of jazz on Now Is the Time, Saturday, May 6th at 9 pm on WRTI.org and WRTI-HD2. We wanted to call #three “Pound Three” but our (increasingly numerous, as the years go by) younger colleagues said, “Hashtag. Duh.” Unperturbed, we contacted the composer Juri Seo (younger than some of our young colleagues), who assured us that saying “Three” was just fine. So there, colleagues. Tune in to see if we pronounced it correctly, but in any case, #three is a rollicking bit of jazz-lick-inspired fun, with riffs tumbling awry among the piano, bass, and percussion.

Allen Shawn performs his own Four Jazz Preludes, which are at the same time lyrical, entertaining, and dearly felt. Philip Thompson brings a big-band feel to a small ensemble in the propulsive yet haunting Separate Self, inspired by fabric sculptures. “Ragtime is in my blood,” says Judith Zaimont, and her Bubble-Up Rag—here, arranged for flute and piano—is a juicy example of her concert rag repertoire. All fun, thoughtful, and brilliant pieces on Now Is the Time!

PROGRAM:
Juri Seo: #three
Allen Shawn: Four Jazz Preludes
Philip Thompson: Separate Self
Judith Lang Zaimont: Bubble-Up Rag

Well, what would you call a piece for wah-wah tubes? Wah by Juri Seo:

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at wrti.org and on HD-2. At wrti.org click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Poulenc Couldn’t Believe What Ravel Said about Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday 5–6 pm on WRTI-FM… One hundred years ago, 18-year-old Francis Poulenc was looking for a composition teacher, and being recommended by the pianist Ricardo Viñes to Maurice Ravel, went to meet him, scores in hand. Ravel was already well-known, having composed much of the music for which he is famous today.

He was also part of the new breezes blowing through French music at the time of the First World War. Generations were traveling in new directions with Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Ravel, and others, away from the German symphonic tradition and away from the 19th century. Viñes and Ravel were part of a group, in fact, that met regularly to play for each other and to discuss these very issues. “The Apaches” they called themselves, the name not only of the Native American nation, but also a French word meaning “The Hooligans.” How apt for the young Poulenc, just starting, to learn from Ravel, a master in this new world.

The young man played some of Ravel’s music at the piano, but Ravel quickly stopped him to look at Poulenc’s own music. Criticizing it, he suggested he ought to consider the music of someone who was a genius: Camille Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns?! That old man, was he even still alive? Yes, he lived to 86, dying in 1921. Saint-Saëns, that curmudgeon who detested everything new, who called Debussy’s music noise, who after The Rite of Spring called Stravinsky insane? Saint-Saëns, who churned out music without effort and without depth and without soul by the truckload? And worst of all, in 1917: Saint-Saëns, that most German of French composers? Ravel recommended Saint-Saëns?

What is it about Saint-Saëns? We hardly know what to make of him. Some of the best-loved music is his: the “Organ” Symphony, Danse macabre, Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Carnival of the Animals, and piano, violin, and cello concertos. But there are hundreds of works, and he may be the composer who never had an off day (Dvořák is another). His music has an ease that can be mistaken for lack of angst, a refusal to meet emotion head-on. Hector Berlioz (while recognizing his talent) famously said about Saint-Saëns, “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.”

But go past the famous Saint-Saëns and appreciate what might be his real genius. His First Cello Concerto is ubiquitous, but some consider the Second to be even grander. The Organ Symphony, his Third, is justly revered, but the early Second is a deft handling of contrasts and balances. Symphonies and concertos were forms as German as any, and they kept many French composers at arms-length from Saint-Saëns, but we can appreciate the elegance, the clarity, the control of forces. He isn’t baring his soul as much as he is letting us cultivate ours.

We can do that, if we allow ourselves to hear his voice, to open our hearts to Saint-Saëns. “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” is the gorgeous mezzo-soprano aria from the opera Samson and Delilah, and it can remind us that while Poulenc left Ravel disappointed, we might do well to take his advice.

PROGRAM:
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921). Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix, from Samson and Delilah (1877)
Saint-Saëns. Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 119 (1902)
Saint-Saëns. Symphony No. 2 (1859)

Lounge Lizards on Now Is the Time

from the CD

All varieties of vernacular show up this week on Now Is the Time, Saturday, April 29th at 9 pm on WRTI.org and WRTI-HD2. With movements like Sip ’N Stir (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) and Ramada Inn (Exit 1, New Jersey Turnpike), it sure sounds like Michael Daugherty, and those are two of the movements from his Lounge Lizards for two pianos and two percussion. Jeremy Haladyna dips into Mayan myth for Only Armadillos They Danced, and accompanies a string quartet with scratch turntable. In her Mosquito for piano, Jing Jin Luo follows the insect closely, ending with quite a kerfuffle.

Nickitas Demos brings together clarinets and saxophones, but only two players, in Citizens of Nowhere, and David Rakowski has one player perform on both piano and toy piano—sometimes simultaneously—in his 88th Etude for piano, subtitled Toyed Together. Kamran Ince’s Two-Step Passion is an elemental romp in this arrangement for chamber orchestra, and the always entertaining Eric Moe somehow suggests a mackerel, a catfish, and Catch and Release as Three Ways to Relieve Tension.

PROGRAM:
Michael Daugherty: Lounge Lizards
Jeremy Haladyna: Only Armadillos They Danced
Jing Jing Luo: Mosquito
Nickitas Demos: Citizens of Nowhere
David Rakowski: Etude No. 88, Toyed Together
Kamran Ince: Two-Step Passion
Eric Moe: Three Ways to Relieve Tension

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at wrti.org and on HD-2. At wrti.org click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Easter Weekend on Now Is the Time

Gravestone detail from Evan Chambers CD, The Old Burying Ground

Life awaits its birth this Saturday before Easter on Now Is the Time, Saturday, April 15th at 9 pm on WRTI.org and WRTI-HD2. Evan Chambers walks through a graveyard and is inspired by inscriptions and poetry in the Introduction to The Old Burying Ground and its last section, Paths of Peace. Then, an empty building in a Memphis night wonders if the sun will ever return, in Abandoned, a monodrama by Kamran Ince.

“Will There Really Be a Morning?” is the first of Four Dickinson Songs by Lori Laitman, and Bora Yoon goes to the chant of Hildegard of Bingen for the Hymn to the Virgin O viridissima virga, “O branch of freshest green.” Justin Rubin turns to Native American flute, modern flute, viola, and cello for Breath of Life. Its three sections are The Yellow Light of Dawn, Beautiful Clouds Arising, and Incantation.

PROGRAM:
Evan Chambers: The Old Burying Ground, excerpts
Kamran Ince: Abandoned
Lori Laitman: Four Dickinson Songs
Bora Yoon: O viridissima virga
Justin Rubin: Breath of Life

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at wrti.org and on HD-2. At wrti.org click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI!