Our first concert of the year will take place on Tuesday, January 8th, at 10pm at the Stone. We’re performing a program called “American Idyll,” including works by Eric Nathan, Stefan Wolpe, Elliott Carter, Christian Wolff, and John Cage. Read more to see the program notes, and we hope to see you Tuesday at 10pm!
About the Program: Idol/Idyll
Tonight’s program reflects the meaning of both these words. Idols: Stefan Wolpe, Elliott Carter, John Cage – three American masters who continue to influence future generations of composers. These three also shared a deep admiration for one another; Wolpe worked with Cage at Black Mountain College and was responsible for introducing the music of Cage, Carter, and Christian Wolff to an international audience at Darmstadt. Wolff, in turn, cites Cage as his most important mentor.
In the spirit of Idyll, we begin our journey with a blazing sunset, pass through Wolpe and Carter en route to Christian Wolff’s compelling dialectic between working-class America and Abstract Expressionism, and bring the evening to a close with John Gurrin’s contemplative imagery to John Cage’s musical reflection on time, nature, and the nature of time.
The Momenta Quartet met composer Eric Nathan at Cornell University in 2011, where he was completing his doctorate. A winner of the ASCAP Rudolf Nissim Prize and Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Eric is rapidly becoming one of the leading composers of his generation. His compositions have been performed internationally at the Aldeburgh Music Festival (UK), Tanglewood, Aspen and Ravinia Festivals. In addition to his recent Jerome Foundation commission for the Momenta Quartet, he has received commissions from the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic (Russia), Le Train Bleu, and the Youth Orchestras of Prince William, for premiere in Carnegie Hall in March 2013.
About his first string quartet, Eric Nathan writes: Four to One (2011) is inspired by the blazing colors and raw intensity of an autumnal sunset in upstate New York. The opening texture of the work reflects this image of the setting sun – an intense, fiery core illuminated by a halo of light. At the outset of the work, the cello sounds a central, expressive line around which the other strings play, creating an aura of sound around the cello line. This texture develops over the course of the piece, the expressive line running throughout the work, passing between the different instruments, and moving in and out of focus from areas of density to those of clarity and unity. The work also explores various permutations of setting the four string voices in dialogue: four voices functioning as one larger voice, three voices competing in conflict against one, two voices against two, and solo voices emerging from four. Four to One is dedicated to the Momenta Quartet.
Still relatively unknown in his adopted country, Stefan Wolpe (1902 – 1972) is among the most gifted musical artists of the 20th century. Born in Berlin, he was denounced by the Nazi Regime as a “degenerate artist” and fled Germany in 1933, first for Vienna, and then to Bucharest, Jerusalem and, in 1938, to New York City. His compositional career spanned more than 50 years and his music reflects the spirit of Dada, the Bauhaus, improvisational jazz and Abstract Expressionism.
In 1950, Wolpe became friends with the Abstract Expressionist artists through meetings at the Eighth Street Club, and began applying their ideas to music through numerous short studies. Among these were his Twelve Pieces for String Quartet. Although small in scope, each of the Twelve Pieces for String Quartet reveals a great imagination at work on rhythmic, harmonic and contrapuntal permutations of distinctly chiseled gestures. With a great economy of material, he travels through a wide variety of emotional states through these twelve miniatures, which amount to only six minutes of music. These delightful studies affirm Elliott Carter’s praise of Wolpe’s music for its “Comet-like radiance, conviction, fervent intensity, penetrating through on many levels of seriousness and humor, combined with breathtaking adventurousness and originality…”
Elliott Carter composed his Figment for solo cello in 1994 for Thomas Demenga after being urged to write a solo piece by many cellists previously. Demenga premiered the work on May 8, 1995 at Merkin Hall in New York on a concert sponsored by the Naumberg Foundation. About the piece, Carter writes, “Figment, for solo cello, presents a variety of contrasting, dramatic moments, using materical derived from one musical idea.” In this short work, Carter juxtaposes many fiery outbursts with more melodic and expressive lines, often returning to the large intervals of a 10th, as heard in the opening gesture, and a 12th. Later in the work the music repeatedly leaps upward by 12ths, finally even requiring the cellist to sustain both notes of this large interval towards the end of the piece, something very rarely found in the cello repertoire.
Christian Wolff was born in France to German parents in 1934, who shortly thereafter fled the rise of fascism and moved to the United States, where they helped to found Pantheon Books. It was Wolff who gave their english translation of the I Ching to John Cage, on whom it was to have a profound influence. Wolff began a close personal and musical friendship with Cage in 1950, but eventually struck out on his own, studying and teaching classics at Harvard and Dartmouth and exploring political elements in his later compositions. Bread and Roses is a setting of a protest hymn, written in 1915 by Caroline Kohlsaat to James Oppenheim’s poem capturing the voices of the women in an infamous textile mill strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Bread and Roses
As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!
As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.
As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
–James Oppenheim (Dec. 1911; The American Magazine)
John Cage was a radical thinker whose embrace of the artistic process and “chance” elements exercised a lasting influence on musical composition as well as visual art, writing, theater and dance. String Quartet in Four Parts (1950) is one of his last non-aleatoric works, and through it Cage intended to praise silence without actually using it. Inspired by Satie and Webern, Cage had the revelation that musical structure could be based on duration rather than harmony. He divided his string quartet into 22 sections of 22 measures each, in a continuous tempo. The numbers represent the proportions of smaller phrases within each section and the distribution of sections within each movement. To circumvent any structural importance of pitch, Cage applied his “gamut” technique in which aggregates of pitches and sonorities are scored for each player in an unchanging way. These gamuts formed melodies where each pitch had a fixed harmonic background. The result was harmony with no purpose, in keeping with Cage’s philosophy: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (Cage: Silence 119).
Indeed since moving to NYC in the 1940s, Cage developed a strong interest in Eastern philosophy, attending lectures on Zen Buddhism by Daisetz T. Suzuki at Columbia University and studying the writings of the art historian and critic Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. The String Quartet in Four Parts is imbued with the symbolism of the four seasons in East Indian thought. The first movement represents Summer/Preservation; the second Autumn/Destruction; the third Winter/Quiescence; and the fourth Spring/Creation. Cage was also inspired by the nine “permanent emotions” in Indian art, the first eight of which all tend towards Tranquility, which is the general affect of this quartet. Quoting Coomaraswamy, Cage claimed there were only two reasons for making music: “the imitation of nature in her manner of operation, or the sobering and quieting of the mind making it susceptible to divine influence.”