il dolce stile nuovo for violin, cello, and piano by Anthony Joseph Lanman.
©2001 Anthony Joseph Lanman
The second time I heard this work was in a car driving up to Crater Lake in Oregon. Already familiar with the piece as the lake came in sight for the first time, the fabulous glacial morning blue color of the lake blended with the sonorous cadences of the main section of il dolce stile nuovo and created for me one of those priceless moments where music and Nature unite.
As a composer, I am jealous of this work. Jealous perhaps in the best sense, in that I admire the technique and spirit that created it. Mr. Lanman states in the score that he was influenced by composers and musicians as diverse as Perotin, Corelli, Bach, Schoenberg, and the band Metallica. However, this diversity of inputs yields a most consistent output. This is not music of collage or pastiche, but a heartfelt and wholly unified work.
The piece revels in seeming contradictions, yet comes out more unified than most works. Pop syncopations of the most sophisticated kind make the piece rock, while the ecstatic refinements of the main A sections put the work in a realm somewhere between the exquisitenesses of Ravel and the ecstasies of Scriabin. Lanman combines the “rock” and “exquisite ecstasies” with complete success, to create a whole I have never experienced before, one which puts me in a unique–and marvelous–place. This is a composer who not only thoroughly understands the musical language he has chosen for the piece, but he also feels that language in a fundamental way that makes this music an intellectual, yet above all thoroughly visceral, experience. The music is also completely idiomatic to his modal language in melody, harmony, and rhythm. It is through his heartfelt instincts, and not random experiments in sound, that Lanman has come up with something genuinely “nuovo” in this work.
In this work, writing for all instruments is fascinating and varied. The improvisatory B section contrasts strongly with the flanking A sections, and allows the violin a carefully controlled chance to sound like a distorting electric guitar by using vibrato from tasto to sul. ponticello positions on the fingerboard. The piano contrasts long-held pedal passages with lengthy toccata-like passages where use of the pedal is minimized. The instrumental writing throughout is genuinely hypnotic, again in the best sense.
Lanman’s contrapuntal sensibilities, especially with regard to harmonic and rhythmic textures, show a sophistication which allows each line to be clearly heard, yet form a whole where each segment of the harmony is completely natural to the piece and not an artificial result of combined counterpoint. Rhythms, while often quite complex are never deliberately so, and only add to the dramatic tension.
Mr. Lanman’s self-published manuscripts are a joy to behold in an era where many major publishers do it “on the cheap”, and a separate small study score and recording accompany his amply sized performance editions.
il dolce stile nuovo was the winner of the 2002 ASCAP/Morton Gould Young Composer Award.
Dona nobis pacem for TTBBB a cappella choir, by Joseph Gregorio.
©2007 E.C. Schirmer Music Co., catalog #6511; SATB divisi version #6575
In an era of publishing house closed-door policies, E.C.Schirmer is still championing young composers and taking risks to promote their music. One such case is Dona nobis pacem. Gregorio was still a student at the San Francisco Conservatory when E.C.Schirmer accepted his score for publication.
Modal writing was sadly neglected in classical music during much of the last century. “Musical logic” often dictated that the inevitable extension of late common-practice harmony was chromaticism, not modal (as opposed to tonal) diatonicism. Thus, music like Dona nobis pacem, so deliberate in its use of modal diatonic harmony, has only recently begun to be taken as seriously as the highly chromatic music which was the norm during the last century.
Gregorio’s piece is elemental–simple, in a Mozartean sense–with nary an accidental to mar the beauty of the texture–but rarely a simple triad, either. This is twenty-first century music in that it is not afraid to be consistently dissonant, and even resolve on dissonances. However, the sensibility is that of the sixteenth century–all compositional choices are made with the utmost care. Gregorio approaches his task with the intelligence and integrity of a pre-twentieth century composer. His is largely instinctual music; while beautifully crafted, it has nothing of the contrived about it. Its consistency in an era of eclecticism is also most admirable.
Although it stands in the tradition of fine small choral works by composers such as Taverner and Pärt, in ways both contrapuntal and harmonic it owes less to the past and more to the twenty-first century, as mentioned before. The choral works of those composers are often quite conservative harmonically, while Gregorio manages limpidity in a welter of modal dissonance that might become opaque in the hands of a less skilled composer. This clarity is even more impressive when you consider that the original version was written for male choir. Because the individual lines are as well-crafted as the whole, the skilled choir that I heard perform on a private recording managed to show the solidity of the linear as well as harmonic writing. His feeling for modal diatonic harmony is completely natural in this piece, and because consonance and dissonance are in many ways unified in this work, Gregorio points us graciously towards new realms of harmonic development.
Dona nobis pacem won Top Honors at the 2002 “Waging Peace Through Singing” project.
Polyphonic Fantasy for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano by Samuel Headrick.
©2000 Samuel Headrick
From the standpoint of popularity, minimalism is perhaps the most significant American compositional style of the last half-century. Previous to that, the most popular style was the “American” style itself, as exemplified by Aaron Copland. Considering the strength of these two styles, it is a joy to find a piece which combines the two in a seamless, effortless fashion. Samuel Headrick’s Polyphonic Fantasy is a nod both to the Copland style (specifically his neo-classical masterpiece the Sextet), and the type of “Bach ‘n’ Roll” contrapuntal minimalism practiced by composers like Michael Torke and Graham Fitkin.
One of the most delightful aspects of the piece is the brimming intelligence—Sextet-like–combined with the motoric polyphony of the four-note ostinato, which is exhaustively (but not excessively) exploited throughout. Copland’s Sextet is perhaps the most successful American interpretation of Stravinsky, specifically Stravinsky’s contrapuntal skills with ostinatos, and this fact is not lost on Headrick. His title is no misnomer, for almost everything in the piece is derived from the four notes of his ostinato. Beautiful modal dissonances alternate with chromatically colored ones, providing a uniquely twentieth/twenty-first century interpretation of musical tension/resolution. The registers of all instruments are explored to their fullest; but never is the musical sacrificed to the merely virtuosic. This is an ensemble piece in the best sense of the word.
All five instruments participate in driving the piece forward by sharing the four-note ostinato. Wonderful idiomatic writing abounds, from gorgeous pastoral work for the winds, brash and wonderful harmonic and rhythmic writing for the piano, and long sustained melodies in the strings; yet each instrument has its chance to “play in” another instrument’s texture at some point. This is bound to be an audience-pleaser and a fabulous encore, in addition to concert staple. Like the Lanman, it is intellectual yet visceral, and despite the influences very much its own piece.
This piece is kept on the sibeliusmusic.com site; contact information for the composer is available there.
Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc. (www.crsnews.org) Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.