Carter, Sessions, Eckardt to be released on this website in January (release by Urlicht AudioVisual March 3)

I am glad to be able to share with you soon my latest recording. I hope you will find it enjoyable, mind- and ear-opening, rewarding listening.  Following are my liner notes:

(December 3, 2013 by M.C.)

This CD presents three major works by American composers: Elliott Carter’s Duo (1973), Roger Sessions’ Sonata for Violin (1953) and Jason Eckardt’s Strömkarl (2012). The Carter and Sessions are landmark works in the violin repertoire and in American classical music, and I am truly delighted to bring them together on this recording. Sessions’ Sonata, the composer’s first piece using dodecaphonic technique, is a large-scale work for the violin on the scale of the Bartók Solo Sonata, its equal in terms of expressive substance and depth, compositional craft and technical challenges. Its long-breathed phrases, rich use of the full registral expanse, hearty rhythmic vitality and variety of moods – from melancholy to boisterous good cheer – have stirred me since the great Viennese violinist Felix Galimir urged me to learn the piece some years ago. Carter’s Duo – with its exhilarating, soaring lines, successive metric modulations and constant flux, and textures brimming with surprise and tension – is another brilliantly crafted work, considered by its composer one of his best pieces. It thrilled me when I was introduced to it by my teacher, Robert Mann, himself a longtime Carter advocate.  

These two pieces were catalytic in the course of my work from then onward, both in terms of my increased involvement in new music in general and my interest in American music. While today’s classical-music culture embraces a plethora of styles, that I have avidly explored, I have formed a specific, keen interest in the modernist music of America’s composers, from Charles Ives and Wallingford Riegger to Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen. This stream of composition intrigued me with its frank confrontation with European ideas and heritage, and its very American championing of nuts-and-bolts, intricate construction and multi-layered complexity. After learning and performing the Sessions and Carter pieces, I went on to perform and record other remarkable violin music by Ralph Shapey, Ross Lee Finney and Donald Martino. I am gratified now to bring that exploration back to the pieces that first ignited my excitement. 

To complete this disk, I commissioned a new piece from a younger American composer whose music I feel relates organically to these Carter and Sessions works. Jason Eckardt is an artist whose music impresses with its combination of intellectual thoroughness, vigorous physicality and spontaneous volatility. His enthusiasm for complexities and his sincere assimilation of a variety of musical genres have given his music an individual and distinctly American cast. Collaborating with him and with Blair McMillen on his piece Strömkarl  was a memorable experience, and I am delighted to add it to this strong chain, linking works of the past few decades to those of the present. 

Following are further notes on the pieces:

Hailed as a pathbreaker especially in the areas of tempo relationships and texture, Elliott Carter (1908-2012) was a late bloomer who found his distinctive style in 1951 with his daringly complex First String Quartet. In that work, he introduced the idea of metric modulation to create the sense of motion between different, independent layers of music. He soon followed this with his Second String Quartet, in which the four parts set up a paradigm of heterogeneous interaction, and many more works in which he further developed his revolutionary ideas of eliminating a uniform rhythmic framework. 

Carter wrote about his violin/piano Duo from 1973: 

There is no repetition, but a constant invention of new things – some closely related to each other, others remotely. There is a stratification of sound so that much of the time the listener can hear two different kinds of music, not always of equal prominence occurring simultaneously. This kind of form and texture could be said to reflect the experience we often have of seeing something in different frames of reference at the same time.

 Carter positions the two instruments in obvious opposition to each other, making this the premise of the composition. The violin engages mainly in legato passages, held tones and long lines, moving in irregular streams of rubato and transitioning with sometimes surprising suddenness from one character to another. The piano part emphasizes the percussive nature of the instrument and often adheres to very steady pulses (though at a variety of rates). It also exploits possibilities of pedaling to blur and reveal specific sounds. As Carter wrote, ”the long opening section for the piano forms a quiet, almost icy background to the varied and dramatic violin, which seems to fight passionately against the piano… [Toward the end] as the piano reaches a point of extreme slowness, the violin is heard increasingly alone, isolating for a few measures at a time the various elements of its part, with the quiet and more lyrical aspects given more prominence than previously.” 

Roger Sessions (1896-1985) was a major figure in 20th-century American musical life, a contemporary of Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson and Roy Harris. At a time when nationalistic expression was embraced by many American artists, composers such as Copland, Harris and others made use of American folk idioms as significant ingredients of their works. Sessions took an opposing view, insisting that music need not integrate folk or popular elements in order to be authentically American. Though his work did not receive numerous performances, his commandingly crafted, contrapuntal and substantial music was widely admired and praised. He was very influential over many years as a teacher of composition at The Juilliard School and Princeton University. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for his Concerto for Orchestra. 

Sessions wrote about his Sonata:

My Sonata for Violin was written during March and April, 1953, in Berkeley, California, where I was living and working at that time. Robert Gross, an old friend and a very fine violinist, had written me suggesting that I write such a work…However, I am a bad correspondent, and did not answer Mr. Gross immediately; and to my surprise I found myself quite idly toying mentally with fragments of violin music, which one day took real shape in the series of seven rising tones [G, G#, C#, A, F, Eb, E natural] with which the Sonata opens. At that point I realized that I was about to write the piece after all…

It was only after I had composed the first five or six measures of the Sonata that I realized that my music was proceeding naturally along “twelve-tone” lines, and realized that this was an inevitable consequence of the fact that the opening idea, consisting of a group of seven tones, followed by a complementary group of five, had set up a pattern which made its treatment as a tone-row the most natural course to follow…

The twelve-tone treatment is used only episodically in each of the three movements which follow the first. I have never felt that my use of it at that time was what is called a “big deal.” I would add my conviction that no one who has not used it in his own work can fully understand its nature. As my own music continued developing after the Violin Sonata, I found myself using it at first very sparingly and with entire freedom, as one of many compositional resources which, however, revealed themselves to me more and more richly as my work progressed. I have never regarded it as either a slogan or a cause – least of all, a crutch, for which it is quite ill-fitted.

The Sonata is in four movements. The first, “Tempo moderato, con ampiezza, e liberamente”, is fluid and improvisatory in character, with the violin entwined in polyphonic twists and turns. It is in three episodes, each beginning with a version of the opening phrase of seven notes. The second movement, “Molto vivo”, is a virtuosic scherzo in ABA form, with dancing lilt in the brilliant “A” sections, and a pensive rubato in the middle part. In the third movement, “Adagio e dolcemente”, there are four statements of sighing, long-lined, double-stopped melody, alternating with declamatory passages, and building from an introspective sadness to a more anguished climax. The brisk march finale, “Alla Marcia vivace,” reasserts the healthy vigor of the earlier movements. 

Jason Eckardt (born 1971) is a leading composer of his generation, co-founder of acclaimed Ensemble 21 and Associate Professor of Composition at City University of New York. As a young man, he played guitar in metal and jazz bands, but upon hearing the music of Anton Webern, decided to pursue classical composition. His classical-music influences range from the rigorous, multi-layered textures of Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter to the highly dense, detailed, microtonally-tinged music of “New Complexity” by composers such as Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy. Eckardt notes his own “interests in perceptual complexity, the physicality of performance, and self-organizing processes in the natural world”. While we were rehearsing his piece Strömkarl, he revealed to Blair and myself a brief passage in a song by progressive rock band King Crimson, which, he said, had inspired material for the piece.

Jason Eckardt writes:

When I was first approached by Miranda for a new work to be recorded alongside Elliott Carter’s Duo (a formidable piece I’ve long prized for its austerity) and Roger Sessions’ Sonata (a work that I became familiar with upon this occasion), I immediately began to think about how a new composition could compliment those by my respected predecessors: Sessions’ robust yet sophisticated music and Carter’s multivalent temporal and contrapuntal designs fused with humanity and wit. I turned to a fragment of music dating from 2007, seventeen measures that were written as a gift for my dear friends Per and Karin von Zelowitz, a Swedish-American couple who were celebrating their wedding. This occasional piece, a short violin solo, now reimagined as the beginning of a larger work, with its eight-part rotational pitch canon, seemed to speak to Carter’s penchant for stratification. The newly-composed piano part attempted to embody the muscularity and melodic inventiveness found in Sessions’ piece. The title is taken from the Swedish folk tradition and may be traced to Norse mythology. Strömkarl — also known as Näcken and immortalized in the E.J. Stagnelius poem of the same title — is a solitary creature that lives in a stream or waterfall and plays the violin either to delight or tempt any humans who encounter him. While accounts vary with regard to his malevolence, all agree that his instrumental skill is such that even inanimate objects begin to dance upon hearing him play.

Strömkarl is, paradoxically, both spare and dense in texture: though each instrument plays essentially a single-line part, both are highly charged with activity and physical choreography, with frequent nimble leaps across registers, and constant, fast switches between sounds (arco, pizzicato, legato, spiky, tremolos, battuto with the bow, microtones, glissandos). The evolving interaction of the two instrumental lines gives the piece its strong transformational arc. The work begins with the violin alone. The piano enters laconically, then builds into a busy polyphonic dialogue with the violin, which suddenly peters out into an extended silence, into which the violin emits a few explosive burbles. The piece sets forth again, but now with the instruments responding to each other in brief spurts, instead of playing simultaneously. The texture is delicate and sparkling, jumping across registers but mostly quite high and bright. Soon, however, the violin and piano veer toward the extreme limits of their ranges, the violin scurrying very high, the piano pummeling very low, bringing the piece to a starkly ominous conclusion.