posted by James Reel
This month we've been playing items from Daniel Asia's new choral CD. Since I wrote the liner notes for the release, I ought to share them with you here so you have a better idea of what the music's about:
Although Daniel Asia has written extensively for solo voice throughout his career, choral music has not figured prominently in his catalog. After two 1970s experiments with the timbral possibilities of massed voices (Sound Shapes and Why Jacob?), Asia produced only two choral works during the 1980s: a single movement that would later form the core of The She Set, and the more extensive Celebration for cantor and mixed ensemble (a 1988 work not included on this recording). But in the mid 1990s, between work on two major concertos and during a period otherwise largely devoted to chamber music, Asia renewed his longstanding interest in the poetry of e.e. cummings and set three groups of cummings poems for chorus. After another fallow period—only in terms of choral music; the first decade of this century has found Asia writing an abundance of chamber music—he returned to the choral genre to add material to She especially for this recording.
The two early works aside, Asia’s writing emphasizes clarity of text rather than polyphonic curlicues. The three cummings sets, in particular, are very homophonic. Asia has suggested that his approach would be quite different if he were setting familiar Mass texts, for example. “Everybody knows the components of the Mass by heart, and therefor those texts can be a vehicle for the composer to go off on musical journeys rather than actually portraying the text itself,” he says. “But with cummings, it’s not clear at all what’s being said to you. It’s only in my very early works that I de-particalize the text and use it for its phonemes. In these later works, cummings had already deconstructed his own text, so I wanted to present the material so you could understand the text and also understand the structure of the music.
“Also, with Paul Pines [whose poetry is the basis of The She Set], the poems are so rich with meaning that I want people to hear them very clearly, so they can confront the deeper meaning of the text.”
purer than purest pure
Composed in 1996, this is the first of Asia’s three groups of cummings settings. It falls into seven short movements for SATB chorus (SATB).
Writes the composer, “Cummings’ ideas run from the simple to the complex, from the mundane to the sublime, from the secular to the religious, from the serious to the fanciful. It is this rich gamut of thought, as well as the wondrous use of language, that has always attracted me to his work.
“The texts drawn together in this work are, for the most part, set rather clearly and simply. The music defines the spirit of the text with little attempt at word painting. However, where it seemed appropriate, I have tried to indicate musically cummings’ imaginative punctuation, spacing, and word/syllable manipulation.”
The work was commissioned by the Ithaca College Chorus, Lawrence Doebler, music director.
This work from 1979 was written in response to a commission to celebrate the opening of a new center of the performing arts at the Lakeside School, Seattle, WA (Asia’s high school alma mater; his classmates included Bill Gates and Paul Allen). “Rather than written a bright, upbeat work, I thought it appropriate to remember those who were not there to celebrate,” the composer says. “The title refers to a boyhood friend of mine who moved to Israel in his adolescence. He entered the military at age 18, as almost all Israeli youth do. He was one of the first paratroopers to die in the 1973 war.
“The work is elegiac, somewhat melancholic, and certainly nostalgic. It combines both the harshest of sounds (perhaps a gunshot is even present in the piece), as well as a soft, retiring tune that keeps reappearing. An episodic work, whose edges are blurred, it ends like a music box winding down, the sounds fading into oblivion.”
The piece calls for eight-part choir (SSAATTBB), four speakers, and piano. Choral entrances are directed to imitate the attack and decay characteristics of the piano, an instrument that plays an important solo rather than merely accompanimental role. The text initially seems like vocalise, and occasionally suggests a sort of inverted Hebrew with the vowels rather than the consonants left intact; eventually, the occasional English phrase (“don’t know”) becomes evident. In the central section, the piano plays an elegantly simple, distant-sounding ballad, while the speakers and chorus produce a murmuring babble, intentionally unintelligible; the words include imagery associated with Jacob and with Seattle. After a brief piano interlude, the chorus re-enters with a vocalise chorale.
summer is over
From 1997, this was published as the second of Asia’s cummings sets (although it was actually composed third). Asia proceeded with the second and third cummings groups without a commission, because the first had renewed his enthusiasm for the poet, after decades of resistance. “Using his poetry was ubiquitous for other composers in the 1960s and 1970s,” Asia says, “because the splinters and spatters of print reflected the pointillistic musical practices of the time.” But by the mid 1990s that trend had ended. Furthermore, Asia was looking for an alternative to poet Paul Pines, whose work had been the basis of most of the composer’s song settings. Upon revisiting cummings’ work, Asia was delighted to encounter several poems that were written in traditional stanzaic form, complete with rhymes, and—most importantly—expressing what Asia calls “a deeply transcendent religious experience I had not confronted in his work before.”
Again, this collection falls into seven movements, and, as in the two other cummings collections, there are two settings of the same text, in this case “in spring.” Says the composer, “These are very slight changes on the exact same ecstatic moment, a slightly different take on the same short text. It’s like a haiku, a brief moment where truth is found. I was excited about using it structurally, as something that comes back that listeners can recognize, but without doing a literal repeat.”
The She Set
By far, Asia’s favorite source of song texts has been the American poet Paul Pines. Yet among Asia’s choral works, Pines’ name is connected only to this one work. Asia set the single poem “She” for SATB chorus in 1985, without a commission. “It was the text of Paul’s that brought forth a response from me,” he says. Asia wrote this while he was teaching at Oberlin; later in the decade, during his two-year London period, Asia interested the BBC Singers in performing the piece, which ended up being a part of a recording the group made devoted to American composers. When the present disc was being planned, the initial contents seemed a bit short, so Asia elected to expand this work with several more movements, all setting texts by Pines. Although Asia’s style has evolved over the past 25 years, the difference between “She” and his current approach is not so dramatic as the source material for his Alex Set for solo oboe, in which he used an early piece as the basis of new variations. Here, the original “She” deals in part with a woman’s separation anxiety; the new sections continue that idea, some of the texts inspired by couples from Egyptian and Greek mythology who are torn apart by death that is not necessarily everlasting. River and sea images also flow through many of these texts, which Asia sets with his customary attention to clarity of meaning.
out of more
From 1996, this is listed as the third in Asia’s cummings series, and very much follows the patterns and preoccupations of its two fellow groups. “In choosing the texts,” Asia recalls, “I looked for some kind of balance, and also a very wide panoply of emotional content, so that each set is dealing with something very intimate, something very wondrous, something perhaps ecstatic. It’s not just a collection, but a careful positioning of the movements so there is an emotional curve that is satisfying in each of those three sets.” Out of more is in some respects the most intense of the three, providing the grandest climax if they are heard in succession. Some of the pieces, notably the third and sixth, are among the most metrically restless among Asia’s mature choral works, although these fluctuations are tied more toward reflecting the natural rhythms of the texts than to producing musical complications for their own sake.
Asia initially called this work 19, because he was 19 when he wrote it and admittedly uncreative when it came to devising titles. He’d been studying at Hampshire College and was beginning to explore electroacoustic music, and listening to Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley, and Pauline Oliveros performing their own compositions. He was also impressed by such choral works by Gyorgy Ligeti as his Requiem and Atmospheres. “I was intrigued by densities and incorporating that sound world into a chorus,” Asia says. He was singing in the college chorus at the time, and its director asked Asia to write a piece for the group. “I was a young composer,” Asia admits, “but the piece shows an interesting sense of shape; the sounds are quixotic and excitingly innocent in their usage. There’s even a return of material, so the form is rather clear in each movement, and even though I’m using unorthodox sounds they’re controlled in a way that provides a beginning, middle and end.” Asia was interested in using attractive sounds without regard to their meaning, so a printout of the text would consist of phonemes like ss, ff, th, mm, and vv in the first movement, and in the third, ta-ka, pa-ka, de-ke, te-ke, and so on. Even when the words “solfege et dolce ma” appear in the second movement, they are employed merely because Asia liked their sound, not because they had any particular meaning.
The chorus is split into four groups, each containing an equal number of men and women. Periodically, pitch pipes are deployed left to right to produce some non-vocal color, as are, in the final movement, finger snaps and later a foot stomp and hand clap that bring on a brief crisis.
posted by James Reel
Last week, I attended opening night of Arizona Theatre Company’s very strong production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Always on the lookout for some production error that can make me feel smug in my superiority, I was having trouble finding anything to criticize—aside from one actor’s momentary fumbling while pretending to play the bass—until I saw a sign hanging on the back wall of the set: Paramount Electrical Recordings. Aha! I thought; surely that was a mistake … wasn’t it?
By coincidence, I had just been reading about Paramount, a company completely unrelated to the film studio. It started out as a chair and cabinet manufacturer, then began building cabinets to house record players (this was very early in the 20th century), and slid into the record production business mainly to have material to give away with each purchase of a gramophone cabinet. (It was exactly like the free software you get when you buy a computer today.) The people at the Paramount corporate office didn’t really care about the record business, and did everything on the cheap; they actually used asphalt as a material in their pressings, which made for bad record surfaces to begin with, and they deteriorated very quickly, which is why most reissues of Paramount material today sound even scratchier than was the norm for the 1920s. Paramount, institutionally, also resisted switching from acoustical recording, where musicians played directly into a big horn, to newfangled electrical techniques, which would have meant investing in microphones, cables and many other pieces of equipment. The bosses at Paramount didn’t fully endorse electrical recording until 1929.
So what was a sign touting “electrical recording” doing in a play set in a Paramount recording studio in 1927? Gotcha!
Well, not quite. I had overlooked the fact, which I knew, that Paramount didn’t restrict its recording activity to its Wisconsin home office. Projects were outsoured to Chicago (where the action of Ma Rainey takes place), New York and the South, and it’s thanks to specialists in those areas that the company, almost by accident, made the earliest recordings of some very important figures in jazz and blues (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Alberta Hunter, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson, among others). And no matter how tight-fisted the corporate bosses may have been, the studios to which recording work was outsourced were often more technologically advanced.
A moment’s research confirmed that electrical equipment was, indeed, used for Paramount’s Chicago recordings by 1927, and so that sign on the ATC set was fully appropriate. You can find an interesting article on the subject here.
So, gotcha denied. But what if I had been right, and the sign had been anachronistic? Would it have mattered?
Historically, yes, but in terms of August Wilson’s drama, no. Indeed, it would have to have been a much different play if everybody, including the white studio managers, had to cluster around a single recording horn. It’s extremely important to the characters’ social relations that the white engineers be segregated from the black musicians (significantly, on ATC’s set, they’re in a booth, godlike, high above the studio floor). That would be possible only with the advent of microphones and cables and separate recording consoles. Even if Wilson had been wrong about recording history—and he was not—he would have been right dramatically.
posted by James Reel
Here's an interesting article about ambitious plans spearheaded by four public broadcasting entities elsewhere in the country to spend $100 million on expanding news staffs in their cities to 100 reporters and editors per market, and emphasize getting news out in a more timely, tech-savvy manner rather than suffering the usual broadcasting delays.
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that we're taking baby steps in that direction independently at Arizona Public Media, although we're not planning to spend anywhere near that kind of money, and any reporters or editors we add to the staff over the next three years will be countable on a single hand. Stick around and see how things develop.
One question that goes unasked in the link: What, exactly, counts as a "reporter"? Let's remember that somebody calling in a tip--or merely a rumor--is, at best, a "source," and by no means a reporter, just as somebody who attends a concert and summarizes how enthusiastic the audience was and how the main performers swayed as they played is hardly a critic. I hope the mega-initiative in Minnesota, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles will focus on quality, not crowdsourcing.