Program notes for Living Toys, November 12, 2014

John Adams (b. 1947): Son of Chamber Symphony (2007)

Son of Chamber Symphony, composed in 2007, bears an unmistakable family resemblance to its predecessor, the 1992 Chamber Symphony. Both are written for an ensemble of solo instruments (roughly fifteen instruments); both are cast in a three-movement fast-slow-fast form; and both share a highly animated, in-your-face kind of cheeky buoyancy. This might strike one as surprising, given the lineage of the “chamber symphony” as a musical form, the begetter of which was Arnold Schoenberg, considered by some the most fearsomely serious party pooper of all time.

What is a “chamber symphony,” anyway? Judging from the two that Schoenberg composed, it is a piece of symphonic scale written for a large group of virtuoso soloists. As ensemble in live performance the “chamber symphony” provides all sorts of challenges, not only to the performer, but also to the listener. Balances are always in danger of going seriously out of whack. Individual string instruments can easily be buried by an overly loud clarinet or, in my case, an enthusiastic drummer. But when acoustical issues have been sorted out, the sound of a dozen or more skilled soloists can afford a musical experience that combines the intimacy of chamber music with the breadth and scale of a full orchestra.

What drew me to the Austrian composer’s eponymous Op. 9 Chamber Symphony of 1906 were its explosive energy and the staggering, acrobatic virtuosity of its instrumental writing. Schoenberg’s bounding, fast-moving themes weren’t so much “stated” as they were launched like some daredevil circus performer shot out of a canon. The hyper-lyricism of its melodies sounded as if all of Tristan had been compressed into a tiny plutonium sphere, just one neutron short of going super-critical. Well, OK, perhaps my metaphors need to be reeled in, but there is no mistaking the attraction of this format to a composer like me who normally operates on the large canvas of orchestral and operatic forms.

The first movement begins with a dropping octave “dactyl” rhythm (long-short-short), a musical idea so basic that it ought not to be “owned,” but alasis — by the composer of the Ninth Symphony. Other instruments join in, confounding the perception of pulse until the activity reaches a cadential moment that leads into the first tutti, a boisterous unison melody for high instruments accompanied by jabs and pecks from brass and percussion. From here the music thins out, passing through a sequence of sudden stops and starts.

The second movement contrasts this hectic virtuosity with a long, lyrical cantilena for flute and clarinet sung over a quietly strumming continuum in celesta and pizzicato strings. This long “endless” melody is followed by a different but equally lyrical one played by the solo violin and cello, voiced three octaves apart, accompanied by a gently modulated tapestry of trills and shakes in the winds and percussion. The opening cantilena melody returns, but this time it appears in a parody version, with staccato barbs interrupting and mocking it. This interrupting material finally takes center stage, highlighted by an absurd dotted figure (in prosody a “trochee”) that manically hops and skips while the opening melody struggles to make do, as if coping with a rude, uninvited dancing partner.

I toyed with calling the finale Can-can, but at the last moment my better judgment took hold. Wikipedia, the unimpeachable source of all my higher learning, describes the can-can as a “high-energy and physically demanding music hall dance, traditionally performed by a chorus line of female dancers” featuring “high kicking and suggestive, provocative body movements.” But I decided against using the title because I could not accurately distinguish this from the description of a “gallop,” to which, so suggests Wikipedia, the can-can is related but in a degraded, decidedly downscale version.

— John Adams

Julia Wolfe (b. 1958): The Vermeer Room (1989)

It was not so much what is seen in Jan Vermeer’s 1657 painting A Girl Sleeping — which depicts a young girl sleeping at a table — that inspired composer Julia Wolfe to write her 1989 orchestral work The Vermeer Room, but rather what is not seen. X-ray studies have shown that, behind the blithely smiling subject of the painting, who rests her dozing head in her hand, there was once a figure standing in the doorway. Vermeer painted over the figure to leave an illuminated doorway into an empty, adjacent room. 

In her words, Wolfe’s intention in this work was “to capture an image, but not portray it.” With bold chords and velvety sonorities engaging in a heated dialogue, the opening of The Vermeer Room shivers with sinister daydreams. Building and retreating in increments, Wolfe’s treatment of light and space resembles Vermeer’s, with lingering resonance punctuating dense textures. Eventually, the work accumulates to what Wolfe calls, “a rolling sea of sound. I thought about the girl’s sleep and how sleep could be drenched in sound.” The poignant last section of the piece introduces the first moment of regular pulse in the piece (in the vibraphone and piano), but still does not make use of melody, instead focusing on an impressionistic interplay of colors.

 Well-known as co-founder and co-artistic director of the ubiquitous, New York-based new music organization, Bang on a Can, Wolfe is one of today’s most important and celebrated composers. Her music, as Wolfe puts it, is “not meant to be ‘clever’ or ‘well-written,’ but rather entered into by the listener.” In A Sleeping Girl, Vermeer’s willingness to sacrifice narrative clarity in favor of a more poetic image demonstrates his interest in allowing the viewer greater latitude in interpreting the scene. The Vermeer Room echoes this deeply humanistic goal.

— David Bloom

Yotam Haber (b. 1977): We were all (2011)

The title of my piece comes from a poem called "cherries" by my friend Andrea Cohen. The full poem reads:


In the minute it took to fetch the blue bowl
from the kitchen to pick the just-ripe
cherries, the blackbirds had come. They picked
the branches clean, ascending into their own blue bowl.
Lacking wings, I look for meaning.
We were all hungry. We were all fed.

Andrea and I met at the incredibly special artists residency called MacDowell Colony, in New Hampshire. She had then recently lost her mother with whom she was very close. I was drawn to this poem of hers, because of it so beautifully and succinctly evokes a special, quiet emotional response to loss. When I asked Andrea if this poem is about grieving for the death of her mother, she emphatically said, “no, I think it's about appetite and desire and changing one's expectation. Rather than being bitter about one’s loss, the speaker searches for meaning and decides that the blackbirds got their fill and that by accepting that, or appreciating it, by finding meaning in not getting what one had hoped for, well, that's a kind of nourishment. Though I wasn’t thinking about grieving, it is about an acceptance of some loss--which is also a kind of accomplishment.” With this in mind, I wrote a work about grieving, but that accepts grief with tenderness, strength and stoicism.

— Yotam Haber

Thomas Adès (b. 1971): Living Toys, Op. 9 (1993)

I. Angels
II. Aurochs
III. Militiamen
IV. H.A.L.’s Death
V. Playing Funerals

“When the men asked him what he wanted to be, the child did not name any of their own occupations, as they had all hoped he would, but replied: ‘I am going to be a hero, and dance with angels and bulls, and fight with bulls and soldiers, and die a hero in outer space, and be buried a hero’. Seeing him standing there, the man felt small, understanding that they were not heroes, and that their lives were less substantial than the dreams which surrounded the child like toys.”

anon. (from the Spanish)

The child/hero’s dream-adventures form the five ‘figurative’ sections, offset by three more volatile, dynamic paragraphs: painting versus film, perhaps.

First Angels, a long horn solo haloed with gongs and little trumpets. Then, with a change in tempo and the first bass note (a B), into the ring charges an Aurochs (the extinct European bison). He is whipped and goaded by the brutal, elegant matodor-kid until his bellows of defeat (horn again) metamorphose into the first appearance of a ‘hero’s theme’. This rolling, square tune, makes three appearances, immediately preceding each of the three unnumbered sections (BALETT etc.). In these, there is a reordering of shared material (hence anagrammatical titles): three-voice descending chords, each voice restricted to a single interval. Recurring in BATTLE and dominating TABLET, this material is evolved in BALETT from a fragment of the bullfight out of which it flies: descending E-D-C (horn, inversion of the start of the hero’s theme), combined with the angelic horn solo (trombone, this time).

The BALETT cadences abruptly on a menacing octave ‘B’ where the hero has a bad dream — a grotesque army, led by a pair of virtuosi (one is a maniacal drummer, the other has a nightmarish talking bugle), advances on him to the point when – it being forbidden to dream one’s own death — he switches dreams. He is in a film, in deepest space, dismantling a great computer, whose vast intelligence dwindles to a wilting Vicwardian music-hall waltz (contrabasson and double-bass). It is the gentlest of executions, and the little astronaut whistles his tune like the sweet fifing of a tiny recorder.

There follows an unstoppable, suffocating BATTLE, in which the monstrous militiamen reappear and (E minor climax) finish their fell work. Our hero dreams himself a full military funeral, with muffled drums and tear-blurred mass humming of his tune; a TABLET is erected, and there is a three-gun salute, or three cheers, or three rockets, or three big puffs of dust as the story book is slammed shut and he drifts off to join his first adversaries.

— Thomas Adès