By Walter Saul
October 17, 2020
The First Concert – music by Ken Davies and Robert Myers
This concert took place at 2:15 pm Eastern Daylight Time. Amazingly, this concert and the other events were presented via Zoom to an audience in six time zones and six nations. Six CFAMC composers’ works were featured, so we examine in this second of three blogs music by Ken Davies and Robert Myers.
Coastal South Mississippi composer Ken Davies contributed two extraordinary works to the program, the Crystal Kaleidoscope for Horn and Vibraphone and the Twitter Rhapsody for Clarinet and Fixed Audio. The former work is a single movement with five sections: Garnet, Topaz, Emerald, Amethyst, and Crystal Collage. Davies describes each section as built on “musical crystals,” a description I treasure as the concept is one with the subject and the musical depictions. These musical crystals, as Davies further writes, are pitch-class sets, or, as musicologist Jürgen Thym more aptly described them, “interval constellations.” While the composer would just as soon that we simply enjoy the kaleidoscope of sonic designs as music, I believe a brief examination of these interval constellations may help us here, because it can explain how beautifully the architecture of this work depends on these singular, yet interconnected interval constellations. Garnet uses 0257, or translated, C-D-F-G. Many of us would recognize this as a quartal chord (D-G-C-F) or as a sus4 or sus2 chord together, and all those combinations and their three-note subsets (such as C-F-G) are easily discerned both in the melodies and chords used in this section. The same is true in Topaz with its constellation 0159, or C-Db-F-A. This could be described as a major triad or an augmented triad with a half-step added, and all these combinations will be clearly heard in the music. I prefer to think of this constellation as the augmented-major 7th chord or as the minor-major 7th chord, two of my favorite “different” 7th chords that are used frequently here. Emerald uses 0259 or C-D-F-A which we would hear as a minor 7th chord or as a major triad with added 6th, a warm and sensual sound, especially with the soft vibe chords in vibrato. Amethyst uses 0268 or C-D-F#-G# which comes off as part of a whole-tone scale or as a French augmented 6th chord as a basis for an energetic toccata that contrasts well with the previous section and leads us deftly into Crystal Collage, that combines all these musical crystals. And why does this work so well? Because, as distinct as each musical crystal is, there is actually quite a bit of overlap. Garnet’s 0257 is but one pitch different from Emerald’s 0259. This, in turn, differs from Topaz’ 0159 by one pitch. Amethyst’s 0268 differs from Garnet’s 0257 by two pitches, but it’s the last two pitches and both are raised just a half-step. So, there is a lot of interlocking with these musical crystals, which means they can interact in kaleidoscope fashion in the rollicking closing section quite effectively. James Boldin, hornist, and Mel Mobley, vibraphonist, both professors of music at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, were as one in their world première of this work, and are well worth watching at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtzjY9klH9I
It is easy on the first encounter with Davies’ Twitter Rhapsody to dismiss it as a comical commentary on Twitter and elegant wordplay that involves clarinets, birds, the color blue (and the musical reference as well). Perhaps the tongue-in-cheek program notes from the composer might even encourage this, but there is a serious side, as this excerpt from the notes illustrates: “While we busy ourselves twittering on our Androids, computers and iPads, we might recall the painter of ‘The Twittering Machine,’ Paul Klee, who was bothered by science and technology concerning themselves with art.” The Twitter Rhapsody appeared to be an amalgam of quoted texts (read by the MacIntosh computer male and female voices) with a fabric of quoted music, and some members in the audience wondered if we were picking up a radio station because of the background voices! But the quotations from seven authors (including Davies’ wife, Judy Davies, an accomplished poet) are woven together to take us from the shallow artificial chirps of our electronic toys to the more profound beauties and tragedies of birds in nature, music (Charlie “The Bird” Parker) and other associations. The musical tapestry grows out of quotations from seven composers ranging from Parker to Igor Stravinsky, but invoking Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time most prominently and ending peacefully with allusions from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark. Don’t get me wrong; there are some humorous touches, especially the place where the MacIntosh voice suggests that human clarinetists are no longer needed, to be sharply rebuked by Sarunas Jankauskas, the brilliant clarinetist equally at home with Messiaen, Parker, or George Gershwin.
I am tempted to compare this work with the 2013 Pulitzer Prize work for a cappella chamber choir Partita by Caroline Shaw, in which there are many spoken parts that glide in and out of singing. Many of those words are directions from visual artist Sol LeWitt to draftspeople who actually drew his Wall Drawing 305. So, the text does not seem to be as significant and profound as it is in Twitter Rhapsody. If you are like me and did not “get it” the first time, or even if you did, you should listen and watch again at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ED-iAui_Sks
Keller, Texas-area composer Robert Myers and Charles Ives share at least two things in common: both were heavily involved in the business world to make their livings, and both love the early American camp-meeting hymn “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Ives used the same tune throughout his Third Symphony “The Camp Meeting” (which won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize 36 years after it was written), and now Myers has composed the Meditation on CLEANSING FOUNTAIN which, somewhat like Ives, challenges the tune’s very traditional harmonies, but in different ways. Myers makes his intentions known from the start with a four-tone cluster that blossoms into a quartal chord (built on 4ths rather than 3rds) and these propel the meditation into snippets from the tune along with a pandiatonic approach to C Major, in which the tones of this scale become more equal to one another and less subservient to the “tonic,” C. He also steps up the rhythmic energy through vivid asymmetrical meters such as 7/8 and 5/8, much as Béla Bartók would have done. Oh, and did we mention the saxophone quartet? Myers hopes “the listener will experience the fresh and the familiar and find something newly revealed in this exploration of an American treasure,” and, indeed, we do, especially in this fine performance by the SAGA Saxophone Quartet (Andrew Alle, soprano sax, Matt Tracy, alto; Greg Dewhirst, tenor; and Andy Wright, baritone sax), for whom this work was written very recently: https://wheatmyermusic.com/product/meditation-on-cleansing-fountain
Up next: Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, Virtual International Conference, The First Concert – music by Josh Rodriguez and Larry Warkentin.