SymphWinds presents “Fragmented Memories”
The Symphonic Winds, directed by Steven Dennis Bodner, will present a concert entitled “Fragmented Memories” on Saturday, November 11, 2006, in Chapin Hall. The program will feature works by three of the most significant living American composers—John Adams (Grand Pianola Music, Jospeph Shippee ‘07 and Scott Smedinghoff ‘09, piano soloists), John Corigliano (Gazebo Dances), and Lukas Foss (Renaissance Concerto, Jeffrey Wessler ‘07, flute soloist)—as well as a transcription for wind ensemble of Charles Ives’s The Alcotts (from his Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”) and a premiere of Dana Wilson’s When I am gone away.
At 7:15 in Chapin Hall, Stephen Spinelli ‘07, Sean Barker ‘09, McKenna Knych ‘09, Brian Simalchik ‘10, and Scott Smedinghoff ‘09—students of Doris Stevenson, Elizabeth Wright, and Edwin Lawrence—will present a piano recital in Chapin Hall featuring two works—Charles Ives’s The Alcotts and John Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances—that will be performed in wind ensemble versions during the 8:00 Symphonic Winds concert.
As musicologist Jonathan Dunsby has written: “It is impossible to escape from the fact that, without the practice and use of memory, music is literally unthinkable.” The five American composers whose works constitute the program, though, have extended this notion even further: in provocative and divergent ways, each composer has directly confronted ways that music can reveal postmodern concepts of temporality (present utterances juxtaposed with and consciously informed by the memories of past musics, creating music that is simultaneously both “old” and “new”)—or in a word, music can be about memory. As Adams has written about his Grand Pianola Music: “To this day, it has remained a weapon of choice among detractors who wish to hold up my work as exemplary of the evils of Postmodernism—or even more drastic—the pernicious influences of American consumerism on high art. In truth I had very much enjoyed composing the piece, doing so in a kind of trance of automatic recall, where almost any and every artifact from my musical subconscious was allowed to float to the surface and encouraged to bloom. The piece could only have been conceived by someone who had grown up surrounded by the detritus of mid-twentieth century recorded music. Beethoven and Rachmaninoff soak in the same warm bath with Liberace, Wagner, the Supremes, Charles Ives, and John Philip Sousa.”
“Fragmented Memories,” then, juxtaposes numerous works which are themselves musical juxtapositions. The first half of the program will feature John Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances, a late twentieth-century reinterpretation of the musics one may have heard in small-town band concert. (One thinks, perhaps, of Vincent Persichetti’s remarks about the associations of this traditional bandstand musical experience: “I know that composers are often frightened away by the sound of the word ‘band,’ because of certain qualities long associated with this medium—rusty trumpets, consumptive flutes, wheezy oboes, disintegrated clarinets, fumbling yet amiable baton wavers, and gum-coated park benches! If you couple these conditions with transfigurations and disfigurations of works originally conceived for orchestra, you create a sound experience that’s as nearly excruciating as a sick string quartet playing a dilettante’s arrangement of a nineteenth-century piano sonata.”) The Dances, though, will be presented in “fragmented” fashion: rather than performing the work in its entirety, the Symphonic Winds will perform each movement separately, with the works of Dana Wilson, Charles Ives, and Lukas Foss interpolated.
While the works on the first half of the concert are concerned with specific memories (or at least memories of certain past musics), in his massive, iconoclastic Grand Pianola Music, John Adams sets his sights much more ambitiously: he is dealing with his memories of the entire tonal Western music tradition. Adams has written about the piece:
But Grand Pianola Music genuinely upset people, doubtless due to the bombastic finale, “On the Dominant Divide,” with its flag-waving, gaudy tune rocking back and forth between the pianos amid ever-increasing cascades of B-flat major arpeggios. I meant it neither as a joke nor a nose-thumbing at the tradition of earnest, serious contemporary music nor as an intended provocation of any kind. It was rather, in its loudest and most hyperventilated moments, a kind of Whitmanesque yawp, an exhilaration of good humor, certainly a parody and therefore ironic. But it was never intended, as has since been intimated, as a “political” statement about the state of “new music.” Nevertheless, I was alarmed by the severity of its reception, and for years I found myself apologizing for it (“I’ve got to take that piece down behind the barn and shoot it”). Now, though, I’m impressed by its boldness.
As with Harmonielehre, which began with a dream of a huge oil tanker rising like a Saturn rocket out of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Grand Pianola Music also started with a dream image in which, while driving down Interstate Route 5, I was approached from behind by two long, gleaming, black stretch limousines. As the vehicles drew up beside me they transformed into the world’s longest Steinway pianos…twenty, maybe even thirty feet long. Screaming down the highway at 90 m.p.h., they gave off volleys of Bb and Eb major arpeggios. I was reminded of walking down the hallways of the San Francisco Conservatory, where I used to teach, hearing the sonic blur of twenty or more pianos playing Chopin, the Emporer Concerto, Hanon, Rachmaninoff, the Maple Leaf Rag and much more.
Despite the image that inspired it, and despite the heft of its instrumentation, Grand Pianola Music is, for the most part, a surprisingly delicate piece. The woodwinds putter along in a most unthreatening fashion while waves of rippling piano arpeggios roll in and out like slow tides. Three female voices (the sirens) sing wordless harmony, sometimes floating above the band in long sostenuto triads while at other times imitating the crisp staccato of the winds and brass.
Grand Pianola Music is in two parts, the first being in fact two movements joined together without pause. Of these the second is a slow serene pasture with grazing tuba. The finale, “On the Dominant Divide”, was an experiment in applying my Minimalist techniques to the barest of all possible chord progressions, I-V-I. I had noticed that most “classical” Minimalist pieces always progressed by motion of thirds in the bass and that in all cases they strictly avoided tonic-dominant relations, relations which are too fraught with a pressing need for resolution. What resulted was a swaying, rocking oscillation of phrases that gave birth to a melody. This tune, in the hero key of Eb major, is repeated a number of times, and with each iteration it gains in gaudiness and Lisztian panache until it finally goes over the top to emerge in the gurgling C major of the lowest registers of the pianos. From here it is a gradually accelerating race to the finish, with the tonalities flipping back and forth from major to minor, urging those gleaming black vehicles on to their final ecstasy.