Program Notes (Winter 2011)

John Holland

Natural Phenomena Set No. 1 for Digital Piano

Natural Phenomena Set No. 1 is one of four sets of pieces for digital piano based on extramusical ideas exploring various natural phenomena ranging from subjects associated with astronomy and physics, to evolutionary biology, prehistory, and the brain.

The music is intended to provoke the listener to imagine events in the world as a series of discrete patterns, unique and independent, that occur sequentially and continuously in a variety of forms, at different times, and at different orders of magnitude and scale.

Like many familiar processes in nature in which small independent elements become organized into larger entities, the music is intentionally combinatorial. Short musical sequences are generated independently of one another, then spontaneously combined to create larger structures and forms.

The title of the first piece, Sonoluminescence, refers to vibrating air bubbles trapped in a sound field which emit a blinking light as they expand and contract. These particles represent a true interaction of light and sound at an infinitesimal scale. The Dancing Venus of Galgenberg is a small figurine of a woman in an animated pose. This object is one of the first stone sculptures made by early humans. It was crafted 30, 000 years ago at a Paleolithic site near Krems, Austria. Other titles are self-evident.

The music was generated by a computer from a set of microprograms which contain instructions for realizing the music. The instructions combine the simplest elements of musical texture (pitch, dynamics, duration, speed, rhythm, articulation, etc.) with basic structural elements (continuity, repetition, variation, and chord structures which are derived from the melodic flow of the music). Some random variability is introduced in the program to provide structural coherence. The program outputs the musical information in the form of MIDI data which controls the digital piano.

The digital piano is a commercially available Bosendorfer sample which has been modified by the composer to accommodate both aesthetic concerns and MIDI programming challenges. Although one cannot help but make the comparison, the digital piano is not intended to imitate or act as a substitute for a standard concert instrument. Rather it has been designed to function as a true digital instrument, possessing it’s own unique qualities and character.

John Schaefer, host of New Sounds on WNYC Radio in New York cited Holland’s Natural Phenomena as “one of the notable CD’s of 2005.”

J. H.

Richard Strauss

String Sextet Op. 85 from Capriccio

(quotes from a review by Jim Pritchard – at Seen and Heard International the MusicWeb’s Live Opera, Concert, and Recital Reviews)

‘…The Prelude to Capriccio for a sextet of strings is not only the overture to Richard Strauss’s final opera, but also the subject of the opening scene. Capriccio is Strauss’s opera about opera, dealing with the dichotomy of words versus music. The curtain rises and the string sextet is still heard as if coming from another room. On stage Flamand, its composer (who represents music) and the poet Olivier (who obviously represents words) are eager to see the Countess’s reaction to the piece. Richard Strauss called Capriccio a ‘conversation piece for music,’ an unconventional but fairly apt description.

The Munich premiere of Capriccio was in 1942 and the opera deals with an aesthetic question; what is of primary importance in opera, is it the music or the words? The music, which is so typically Strauss in that it is wonderfully elegant and unashamedly romantic, takes up the topic of conversation in a most imaginative way, enabling the piece to serve the drama or to be performed on its own…

…The glory of Capriccio however is the final scene for the Countess, who, as she tries to make up her mind between her suitors, Flamand and Olivier, and answer the problem they have set her, finds the choice painful and almost impossible. It is Strauss who gives us the answer since when she prevaricates we sense immediately that it is music that wins, without a doubt!’

A Footnote

(Strauss, Wagner, and the Nazi issue)

‘…As a former editor of Wagner News, the contrast between the reputations of Strauss and Wagner in terms of anti-Semitism often strikes me as curious: Wagner is still vilified for his anti-Semitic views and his art is often characterised as being a progenitor of National Socialism, despite the fact he died in 1883.

Wagner’s work remains banned in Israel to this day for instance, whilst Strauss’s music (after a shorter period of disfavour) is now almost universally accepted there. What is odd about this, is that from 1933 onwards Richard Strauss was an official of the Third Reich. It is true of course that much controversy remains about his role in Germany after the Nazis came to power: some say that Strauss was consistently apolitical, that he considered most of the powerful Nazis to be philistines, that he never cooperated with the Nazis completely and that it was the fact that his daughter-in-law was Jewish (and his grandchildren part-Jewish) which made him keep his criticisms to himself.

Strauss apparently withdrew from public life after 1935 to his villa at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps. He lived there throughout the war and was spared its physical ravages but was deeply affected by the loss of many friends and the bombing of Vienna, Munich and Dresden. In late 1945, under the threat of being called before the Denazification Board, Strauss moved to Switzerland where he lived for the next four years. He was cleared by the Board in 1948, but chose to stay in Switzerland for medical treatment, returning to Garmisch in May 1949, just four months before his death. During his Swiss sojourn he became increasingly enfeebled, though his mind remained clear and he was able to continue composing…

… Critics however (famously including the British film maker Ken Russell in 1970) have pointed out that Strauss did accept the post of president of the Reichsmusikkammer (the State Music Bureau) and wore its uniform. Although this post was largely ceremonial, some maintain that Strauss should have spoken out against the Nazis and that he naïvely allowed himself to be used by them. In 1935 he was forced to resign the post after refusing to remove the name of its Jewish librettist, his friend Stefan Zweig from the poster for Die schweigsame Frau. He also went on to write Friedenstag, a one-act opera set in a besieged fortress during the Thirty Years War which is usually regarded as a hymn to peace and so a thinly veiled criticism of the Third Reich. Since Friedenstag was staged in 1938 – when Germany was preparing for war – this can be regarded as an extraordinarily brave move. Strauss undoubtedly realised the risk to his family and some have pointed out that this might (reasonably enough) have prevented him speaking out. There are also suggestions that he attempted to use his official position to protect many Jewish friends and colleagues.’

John Holland

Two Cross-cultural Mixups* for Fixed Media

1. iMusic (2011)

(recorded sounds from portable computers and computer devices, computer music – including a few segments from the early Columbia/Princeton recordings, and original electronic sounds)

The sounds of various computers, peripheral devices, and digital phones were mixed with samples of computer music, including several short traces from the Columbia/Princeton early computer music recordings, and a variety of original electronic sounds. There are eight tracks altogether. The sounds on each track were arranged independently of one another and of other tracks, and separated by silences.

2. Humoresque (2011)

(recorded segments from Antonin Dvorak Humoresque Op. 101, No. 7 for Violin and Piano – Zhou Quian, Violin, Edmund Battersby, Piano; Gioachino Rossini The Cat’s Duet – Elizabeth Soderstrom and Kerstin Meyer, sopranos, Jan Eyron, Piano; classic cartoon sound effects, and accompanying electronic sounds)

Two tracks of music were sampled from the standard recital repertory: Dvorak’s familiar Humoresque for violin and piano, and Rossini’s duet for two scratching, pawing (meowing) sopranos. Each of these tracks was separated into short musical segments, naturally bounded by silences. The segments were then recombined independently of one another, and of the other tracks, and separated by varied durations of silence. Another five tracks were devoted to classic cartoon sound effects along with electronic sounds. The structure of the music is designed to provide an animated ‘cartoon’ experience.

* (I employ the term ‘cross-cultural mixup’ to refer to acoustic and/or electronic pieces that combine two or more unlikely, or apparently unrelated, musical elements, styles, or genres.)

Robert Schumann

Nachtstucke Op. 23 for Solo Piano

Like many artists, Robert Schumann had a rich inner life. Especially in his early and late spare piano pieces, do we find a nearly heartbreaking vulnerability in his music.

The early Night Pieces, Opus 23, were, in fact, inspired by the death of his older brother.

The final piece in the set, No. 4 (Rundgesang mit Solostimmen), is one of the most intimate, sublime jewels of 19th century romantic piano music.

George Antheil

Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano

George Antheil and Olga Rudge first performed the Violin Sonata No. 1 in 1923 at the Salle du Conservatoire in Paris. The sonata was commissioned by poet Ezra Pound and it’s performance turned the composer into an instant celebrity.

In Paris, Antheil was friends with most of the famous artists of the time. When presenting recitals, he would carry a loaded pistol onto the stage and place it in plain sight on the piano. The implication was clear. Antheil was soon to be known as “the bad boy of music.”, which would later become the title of his autobiography.

Pound wrote in 1924: “Machines are musical. I doubt if they are even very pictorial or sculptural; they have form, but there distinction is not in form, it is in their movement and energy . . .”

Besides his musical output, Antheil also contributed popular essays to Esquire and published books on subjects ranging from mystery and criminology to military strategy.

He also famously designed and patented a World War II submarine torpedo with Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr.

In 1926, Antheil collaborated with abstract filmmaker Fernand Leger to create his infamous Ballet Mechanique.

J. H.

Hedy Lamarr’s U.S. Patent 2292387, issued an 1942 for a ‘secret communication system’.