Central among Lou Harrison’s pioneering East-West fusions, his works for gamelan and Western instruments are frequently cited either as exemplars of the composer’s Californian, postmodern musical sensibility, or as noteworthy instances of cultural hybridity. However, close examination of Main bersama-sama (1978) and Bubaran Robert (1976/1981) shows that these pieces can and should be understood for what they tell us about Harrison’s deep engagement with melody.
Harrison has mistakenly been regarded as a West Coast musical dabbler, writing tuneful pieces that lack the complexity that characterizes the work of his East Coast contemporaries. Yet analysis of the pitch structure of these pieces reveals intricate compositional games similar to the pre-compositional strategies of composers more typically associated with algorithmic compositional methods. Because these intricacies lie beneath the melodic surface of the music they have largely been unheard and unappreciated in Harrison’s work.
The melodic nature of these games challenges the widely accepted depiction of Harrison as a mere tunesmith, showing how he explored the ability of melody—as opposed to large-scale tonal or harmonic schemes—to create form and serve a central generative function in his music.
This according to “Unheard complexities in Lou Harrison’s Main bersama-sama and Bubaran Robert” by Rachel Chacko (Journal of the Society for American Music VII/3 [August 2013] pp. 265–94).
Today is Harrison’s 100th birthday! Below, the two pieces in question.
Heitor Villa-Lobos’s choro no. 10 (Rasga o coração) is a choral-symphonic tour de force that expresses the composer’s ardent nationalism through some of the most progressive compositional techniques of the mid-1920s.
The work’s opening imparts impressions of Brazil’s sonorous natural riches with indigenous melodies and birdsongs, providing an extended prelude to the choral section. The mixed chorus functions at the same level of value and distinction as that of the orchestral architecture, singing vocables meant to evoke aboriginal languages. With the appearance of the Rasga o coração melody, according to the composer, “the Brazilian heart becomes one with the Brazilian land.”
This according to Heitor Villa-Lobos: The search for Brazil’s musical soul by Gerard Béhague (Austin: University of Texas, 1994, pp. 87–96).
Today is Villa-Lobos’s 130th birthday! Above, the composer ca. 1922; below, a performance by Orquestra Sinfônica Municipal de Campinas.
No other Brazilian musician has had as profound an impact on popular music as Antônio Carlos Jobim. He was at the vanguard of the Música Popular Brasileira movement, a cultural and sociological revolution of artists who shared a proclivity for flouting musical convention, and his 1959 Chega de saudade was fundamental in establishing the genre that became known as bossa nova.
While Jobim’s compositions contained elements of traditional Brazilian samba as well as classical and traditional music, his sophisticated harmonic sensibilities, adventurous approach to voice leading, and passion for tinkering with the traditional syntax and imagery of pop lyrics made him one of the most original and innovative musicians of his time.
This according to “Jobim, Antonio Carlos” by Jim Allen (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 489); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today would have been Jobim’s 90th birthday! Below, singing his celebrated Águas de Março with Elis Regina, perhaps his greatest interpreter.
BONUS: Gal Costa sings Jobim’s Chega de saudade, often cited as the first bossa nova song.
Ulysses Kay’s larger works have received world-wide acclaim, but his instrumental works, particularly the compositions for flute, have received far less attention.
Kay conceived of his Prelude for unaccompanied flute (1943) as an etude for developing proper breathing techniques, and its metronome marking 50 beats per minute creates long dramatic phrases that challenge the stamina of young flute players (indeed, most recordings of it are a bit faster).
The work is based in the key of D minor, with modal mixtures disguised by smooth voice leading; it seems to evade a true cadence until the last note. The tonality shifts at organized points in the structure of the music: Each section is marked by a new statement of the theme presented in a different register and a new key.
This according to Music for Flute by Ulysses Kay (1917-1995): A descriptive analysis with performance notes for three selected works by La-Tika Shanee’ Douthit, a dissertation accepted by the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, in 2013.
Today would have been Kay’s 100th birthday! Below, a performance by Kedgrick Pullums, Jr.
Today Oscar Levant is widely remembered for his mordant wit, his virtuoso interpretations of George Gershwin’s piano music, and his cameo appearances in numerous films. Fewer people realize that he was also a highly regarded composer who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg.
Levant’s hero worship of Gershwin stunted his confidence as a songwriter and a classical composer, though one of his pop songs, Blame it on my youth, has become a standard. Colleagues including Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson all considered him an immensely gifted composer.
This according to A talent for genius: The life and times of Oscar Levant by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (New York: Villard, 1994; reprint Los Angeles: Silman-James, 1998).
Today would have been Levant’s 110th birthday! Below, Nat Cole’s classic recording of Blame it on my youth.
BONUS: The 1942 premiere of Levant’s piano concerto.
Virgil Thomson first met Gertrude Stein in the winter of 1925–26. Early in 1927 he asked her to write an opera libretto, and the plans for Four saints in three acts began to take shape; the text was completed in June of that year and the music was finished in July 1928.
The opera concerns two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius of Loyola, who are surrounded by groups of young religious figures. In fact the work has four acts and over 30 saints. A compère and commère introduce the characters and announce the progress of the action. The strangely haunting and at times repetitive poetry of Stein is declaimed by the singers in a musical language derived from many sources, including Gregorian and Anglican chant, children’s songs, and Sunday School hymn singing, with a harmonious accompaniment for small orchestra. Although the setting of the words is deceptively simple and direct, there are considerable subtleties in the music to parallel the implied imagery of the words.
Four saints in three acts was first heard in Hartford, Connecticut, in February 1934, produced by an organization called the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. When the production moved to New York City it created theatrical history with its all-black cast. The opera received over 60 performances within a year, and Thomson’s reputation was made almost overnight.
This according to “Thomson, Virgil Garnett” by Neil Butterworth (Dictionary of American classical composers, 2nd ed. [Abington: Routledge, 2005] pp. 456–59); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Thomson’s 120th birthday! Above, the 1934 New York production; below, the opening of Mark Morris Dance Group’s 2006 production.
BONUS: A brief documentary with archival footage from 1934, including the voice of Gertrude Stein.
A winner of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award, Paul Creston was entirely self-taught as a composer.
Nevertheless, he was the author of three books on composition—Principles of rhythm (1964), Creative harmony (1970), and Rational metrical notation (1979)—and contributed many articles to various musical periodicals; he wrote the first three, on dance, when he was only 17 years old.
This according to “Creston, Paul” by Neil Butterworth (Dictionary of American classical composers, 2nd ed.  pp. 100–101); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Creston’s 110th birthday! Below, the opening of his Concertino for marimba and orchestra (1940).
The invocation of Bach’s Das wohltemperirte Clavier in Dmitri Šostakovič’s 24 preludes and fugues creates an unparalleled opportunity to investigate the latter’s compositional choices and style.
Through composing alternative solutions to fugal problems, Šostakovič’s ironic musical signature is revealed to have several major, previously undefined components. In large part, this signature creates a dialogue between traditional associations and modernist dissociation.
His remarkably consistent compositional choices define techniques that create musical dissociation. Important elements include the use of a rigid, virtually academic fugal format, the invocation and frequent use of traditional counterpoint and harmony, the preparation of musical confirmation and its subsequent absence, and the final achievement of musical affirmation through dissociation.
These techniques, displayed against the background of Bach’s fugal schema, put into relief the effects that traditional and nontraditional materials and approaches have on each other; they also reveal how a powerful sense of irony—the simultaneous recognition of irreconcilable opposites—can be created.
This according to The treasons of image: Bach, irony, and Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues, op. 87 by Evan Bennett, a dissertation accepted by Princeton University in 2004.
Today is Šostakovič’s 110th birthday! Below, Svâtoslav Rihter performs selections from the cycle.
Today, 7 September 2016, RILM music encyclopedias has just completed its regular quarterly update. The ongoing encyclopedia of contemporary composers Komponisten der Gegenwart (KdG)—the only music encyclopedia that offers exhaustively complete chronological works lists—offers revisions of the articles on Pierre Boulez, Helmut Lachenmann, Gilberto Mendes, Friedrich Schenker, and Brunhilde Sonntag, and new entries are added for Bill Dietz, Matthias Kaul, William Schuman, Ying Wang, and Peter Manfred Wolf.
KdG started as one of those rare loose-leaf encyclopedias whose format allowed them to revise and expand. Many of us recall the thick, unwieldy ring binders (above) that new pages were alphabetized into when they arrived in the mail. Users of RILM music encyclopedias no longer have to cope with these bulky volumes, and their updates appear online every three months!
Below, Lachenmann’s Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung).
From colonial times to the present, U.S. composers have lived on the fringes of society and defined themselves in large part as outsiders. This tradition of maverick composers illuminates U.S. tensions between individualism and community.
Three notably unconventional composers—William Billings in the eighteenth century, Anthony Philip Heinrich in the nineteenth, and Charles Ives in the twentieth—all had unusual lives, wrote music that many considered incomprehensible, and are now recognized as key figures in the development of U.S. music. Eccentric individualism proliferates in all types of U.S. music—classical, popular, and jazz—and it has come to dominate the image of diverse creative artists from John Cage to Frank Zappa.
This according to Mavericks and other traditions in American music by Michael Broyles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
Above, a portrait of Heinrich, nowadays the lesser-known of the three composers; below, “Victory of the condor” from The ornithological combat of kings, or, the condor of the Andes (1847), which remained his favorite work throughout his life.