What’s It All About?

What’s It All About?


The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.’

Aaron Copland

And what if I asked, “Then can you really express the meaning of words or pictures in so many notes?”

Mr. Copland starts to answer and then pauses looking bedazzled, not because he doesn’t know but because I don’t know and he is after all a figment of my imagination. Perhaps these are the moments that necessitate alternate forms of communication…

Trying to pinpoint the purpose of music has caused many feuds. A resolution seems impossible and, at times, irrelevant. Music is written in order to transcend the visual and verbal boundaries of rhetoric, but how this is achieved is a point of contention for many composers, musicians and scholars. This becomes evident when looking at the conflict between so-called absolute music and programme music. Sir Edward Elgar goes as far as to say that “[programme music] is a lower form of art than absolute music.” Ironic, considering his Enigma Variations were simply a compilation of character sketches. Richard Strauss, on the other hand, contends through the transitive property that “There is no such thing as abstract music; there is good music and bad music. If it is good then it means something; then it is Programme Music”. Ah! So all music that isn’t programme music is bad? Wait, does that logic work? If X then Y and if Y then…

It’s no wonder I was having visions of Aaron Copland dancing in my head! This topic is enough to drive anyone crazy! In any case, with 30 of the 35 discs appearing in this month’s issue being programmatic in nature and many others containing at least one programmatic element, it is evident that American composers have embraced programmes with little pretension, deriving ideas from personal stories, literature, philosophy, dance, political events and images, as well as from the sonority itself.

Narratives & Personal Experiences

The stories that composers tell through their music range from introspective autobiographies to humorous adventures to highly philosophical flights of imagination (and every combination of these characteristics). Pianist and composer Caren Levine recounts delicate memories of lost love and images from a kaleidoscope, as well as the title story on Flowers from a Secret Admirer. Assuming the role of a baby (long before Look Who’s Talking), John Alden Carpenter goes out for a walk with his nurse in “Adventures in a Perambulator,” opening with intervals reminiscent of Copland, which invoke the hugeness of the world as perceived by an infant.

Eric Funk is our tour guide on another kind of journey, this one more of interest to Carl Sagan fans than Anne Geddes admirers, in Symphony No. 5, Op. 77, “Dante Ascending.” The piece traces a comet as it hurtles through space, describing the end of this dimension, marked by seven arches of energy and aural illusions (Scriabin’s “Mystic Chord”) and eventually lands in the elusive “Paradiso.” Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and baritone Thomas Hampson also meet “In Paradisum” at the end of Richard Danielpour’s Elegies, which create a dialogue between Frederica and her father who was killed during World War II right before her birth. The text is based on the letters that Lieutenant von Stade wrote home to his wife, Sara, during the war. The story of another family touched by tragedy inspired a piece by Joelle Wallach entitled Shadow, Sighs And Songs of Longing. This piece attempts to reconstruct the memories and feelings of Kristina Trask, matron of the ill-fated Trask family that acquired Yaddo in the late 1800’s, who lost all four of her children and her husband during their stay at the now famed arts retreat.

Apart from stories that unfold in a traditional temporal fashion, some composers attempt to capture an emotion that accompanied a particular life experience. For example, the fourth movement in Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which was written for the Boston Symphony while he was living in the United States, makes thematic references to a Hungarian song that translates to “You are lovely, you are so beautiful, Hungary.” Through this movement, Bartók sought to express his homesickness for his native land. Nostalgia also acts as the inspirational building blocks for Lior Navok’s Meditations Over Shore, this time for “family and friends on the other side of the ocean.” Here, Navok journeys over the seascape he creates with buoy bells and the reverberation of distant voices. M. William Karlins describes the tide rather than the emotionality associated with it in his concerto for amplified double bass, solo wind ensemble, piano and percussion entitled “Reflux.”

Literature, Philosophy & Myths, oh my!

Literature and folklore have provided ample inspiration for composers who are looking to tell a story or showcase a particular philosophy. Continuing with the sea theme, Harold Blumenfeld explores the sea images, representative of the pushing and contriving of the universe upon the poet Hart Crane in “Voyages after Hart Crane” for baritone and chamber ensemble. “Drink to me only with thine eyes” written by Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson, catalyzed Jove’s Nectar, a song cycle depicting a range of characters from composer Edwin London. William Bolcom’s opera, A View From the Bridge, derives its libretto from the play of the same name by Arthur Miller. Through the music, Bolcom aims to harness and extend the raw emotions contained within the text. Finally, Robert Xavier Rodríguez seeks out the “secret truth” in his cantata Forbidden Fire, which finds its masculine muse in the works of Aeschylus, Lucretius, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Blake, Schiller, Beethoven, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Edna St. Vincent Millay, writings from Egyptian Temple, the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible. David Chesky asserts his belief in the human ability of self-transcendence in The Agnostic, a work for orchestra and chorus with libretto dedicated to a laundry list of primarily existential philosophers, writers and politicians such as Sartre, Kafka and Beckett.

Dance, magic, dance

Until recently, dance was rather dependent upon music. Although this changed when modern choreographers such as Jerome Robbins and Trisha Brown decided to extract the music from dance in order to make the audience focus on the movements of the dancers, many composers still conceptualize their music by visualizing how people would move to it. In his “Waltz,” Alan Stout sketches a mad-hatter waltz that evokes images of people enjoying both the music and the bar! Even the Rumba Club’s name indicates their close relationship to dance music, and their song “Fire in the Belly” mixes Latin and African rhythms with a free jazz form that virtually forces your hips to wiggle. Commissioned by choreographer Nancy Allison, Judith Sainte Croix wrote Renewal with the intention of depicting three stages of the artist’s life through movement and music. Therefore, her work resulted from her ability to imagine how it would proceed on stage.


The haunted pages of history books are truly fascinating. Identity is found through history and identity is found through music, so often music and history merge to tell one story. For example, William Roper’s album, Juneteenth, was named for June 19, 1865, the day General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and told the slaves that they were free, (though the Emancipation Proclamation had state January 1, 1863 as the date that should have occurred). On this album, Roper explores his own heritage as well as the theme of finding liberty within the context of structure. Exploring a darker date in history, Peter Boyer goes back to the night of April 14-15, 1912 to tell the story of the Titanic sans Leonardo DiCaprio in his tone poem that leads listeners through the historic sinking of the ship. Looking at how modern political events are shaped by and in turn shape history, David Chesky dedicates his “Psalms” to victims of modern holocausts, reminding us that history does indeed repeat itself, stating “Just as we have failed in the past, we have failed in the present, and we will continue to fail in the future as long as we don’t look inside and ask why this indifference exists.”

Suggestive Titles

I once read that programme music alludes to any piece of music that attempts to describe an extra-musical quality and that simply a suggestive title could be a programme. This gives the listener and the players more freedom to interpret the music as they see fit, but still sets somewhat of an agenda. Especially relevant to jazz, we have a quintet of jazz tracks nestled into this subcategory. Teddy Wilson’s cut of the Creamer and Layton standard “After You’ve Gone,” makes you picture a man clicking his heels as he celebrates the departure, rather than the melancholy mood associated with the title. “Rainbow Mist” played by Coleman Hawkins and his orchestra is known more for being one of the first-ever recorded bop tracks than for its accurate depiction of a rainbow or mist. Furthermore, the “Impetus” for the Gordon Brisker Quintet album My Son John is probably more purely musical than descriptive of any programme, despite the colorful names of the tracks. Perhaps the definition of programme music isn’t perfect. (Please detect sarcasm). More consistencies arise between the title and the music on the Peck Allmond Group’s new disc, aptly titled Short Stories and featuring talented trumpeter and saxophonist, Peck Allmond. Guitarist and composer Gerald Veasley says a mellow goodbye to his hero Grover Washington on “Good Night Moon.”

The title “Abandon the Ink” seems to indicate the desertion of notation in the production of the music and the music produced by Rob Blakeslee, Brad Dutz, William Roper and Michael Vlatkovich sounds largely improvised. Many of the other pieces really do paint the pictures of their titles, such as “Lamentations and Dirge of the Huskies.” Also riding the experimental wave, Ernesto Diaz-Infante and Chris Forsyth have created a series of pieces employing different ways of playing their instruments, for instance, banging the guitar like a drum and using new objects as percussion instruments, such as the sound board of a piano. These tracks are of interest because many of them have two titles, both a programmatic one (i.e. “cut and dried“) and a non-evocative title (i.e. “acoustic/electric #2”).

John Morton’s new music box turned drum machine turned orchestra presents itself on an album entitled Outlier. According to Webster, an outlier is “one whose domicile lies at an appreciable distance from his or her place of business.” Hmm. I suppose the album itself attempts to describe the experience of the new music box, working in a much different place than it’s traditional position as a household item. Exploring the sound of early music with Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices, Ingram Marshall’s “Hymnodic Delays,” presents the songs of early New England composers with descriptive titles such as “Broad Road” and “Swept Away.” Going back to an even older text, settings of the Lux Aeterna (God grant us eternal light) section of the Mass have a tradition of brilliance and openness. Phillip Schroeder’s shimmering version certainly lives up to such expectations. Although having a suggestive title, “Contemplations” by Ronald Foster, the qualifier “for Solo Clarinet”, makes one wonder whether or not the term “contemplations” is referring to non-musical material or is simply referring to the sound of the clarinet itself.

Absolute Music?

This ambiguity forms the perfect segue into the pieces that have no visible programmatic agenda. These pieces are called “absolute music” by some, though the positive connotation of the word absolute often implies that its opposite, programme music, is negative. Let’s not make this mistake and just call it “music without referent.” Harry Bulow deepens the expressive nature of the solo saxophone in “Syntax II” by integrating microtones and multiphonics into the texture. The rich textures and timbre in Patrick Hardish’s Duo make it seem more like a whole symphony is playing rather than just a pianist and a percussionist. Striking a completely different sonority, in Six Miniatures for Bassoon and Piano by Haskell Small the bassoon and piano engage in a critical dialogue of the piece itself. Adding more instruments to the mix, we arrive at early American music by David Michael Moritz, which was rediscovered in the music collections of former Moravian settlements in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. His lightly scored Parthien for woodwinds follows classical instrumentation, structure and tonality. Finally, the Scott Fields Ensemble leads us on three hour-long modular journeys through a crowd of instruments each telling their own improvised story on the recording 96 Gestures. The titles of the pieces are simply Performance 2, Performance 4 and Performance 5. Perhaps there is a programme to all of this, but it is securely hidden in the mind of the composer and musicians and the majority of the liner notes have been blacked out. Perhaps it is better not to know what was trying to be said…

The new compact discs that have been released this month indicate that American composers have an inclination towards programme music, suggesting that music based on extra-musical subjects has survived the academic beating it has taken in the past. But the question now becomes: Will music with abstract subjects be able to survive our highly visual, Fantasia culture? Is absolute music truly absolute or did the composer just fail to write sufficient liner notes? And do you have to know the programme of a programmatic piece to appreciate it? Please share your thoughts with us through our “In the Second Person feature,” and until next month I leave you with a quote from Ingram Marshall:

“Music doesn’t just exist on it’s own. There are always explanations and there’s always some hidden meanings and there are some legitimate things that you can say about music that are extra-musical. But what does that mean anyhow? Extra-musical. I hate that word! If it’s about the music, it’s about the music.”

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