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Program Notes for Friday, 3/13/15
"With Beckett, you realize how much you don't understand the simplest word like "thump," remarked Morton Feldman, the composer of
the musical half of Samuel Beckett's radio play Words and Music. Misunderstanding, jealousy and compromise lie at the heart of this singular dramatic work. By presenting "Words" and
"Music" as not just part of the soundscape, but as rival characters, Beckett's play makes explicit the common conflict between music and words within all works of art, and within
dramatic works in particular.
When a movie builds a tense moment through a dramatic surge of sound, or when concertgoers read the program notes to understand a new
musical work – then music and words are working together, one enhancing the other. However, words and music can also undermine each other, each competing for the audience's attention.
In Words and Music, Words (called "Joe" by his master) and Music (called "Bob") begin the play by interrupting and insulting each other. Eventually, they are ordered by Croak, an old
man who thumps a club angrily, to cooperate and "be friends." "Joe" and "Bob" must work together to say something (anything) meaningful about universal themes such as Love and Age.
After its premiere in 1961, Beckett judged the original music for Words and Music to be overly sentimental and unsatisfactory. The play was officially shelved until 1985,
when NPR included it in the first American production of all six of Beckett's radio plays. Director Everett Frost asked Morton Feldman, who had worked with Beckett previously, to
write music that would present "Bob" as a believable and expressive character, without being musically clichéd. Feldman's musical solution was 33 short segments for seven players (two
flutes, string trio, vibraphone and piano), that comprise Bob's speeches and interjections.
Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was an American composer, born in New York City.
In 1973, at the age of 47, Feldman became the Edgar Varese Professor at the Univerity at Buffalo. Feldman also held residences during the mid-1980s at the University of California,
Most of Feldman's music features delicately layered harmonies and dissonances, created by patterns that linger and then fade away, hinting at elegant
evocations of love, beauty, and tragedy while remaining aloof and abstractly suggestive – quite intentionally the opposite of Words' pompous, over-rehearsed generalities and awkward
fumbling for images. Eventually, the actor playing Joe (Words) must follow Music's cues and sing his lines to bring the play to an emotional climax. Music takes Words by the hand (so
to speak) to provide guidance and comfort, and to bridge the gap between abstraction and sentiment. "…[T]he quintessence of it," Feldman told Frost, "…was a situation where two people
were having some problems, you know, as prosaic as that. And music essentially had to bend."
The two pieces by Elliott Carter bookend his long career. The lyrical, predominantly diatonic Elegy is an early work. It was first published in 1943 as an Adagio for Viola
(or Violoncello) and Piano, but in that year Carter chose the cello as the Elegy's main instrument. Figment No. 2, subtitled "Remembering Mr. Ives," is for solo cello.
Written in 2001, it has momentary quotes from Ives's Concord Sonata and Hallowe'en. Ives and Carter are two persistently influential composers for me. Falling for solo piano was
written for Ursula Oppens in 2012. The piece was inspired by the following poem by Brian Philip Katz:
The all too well-known magic of heated hearts, magically heated hearts, calling my name,
like too many people, too many people on the planet citing sources that aren't so worth
my time to consider – heated magic, the source of small and long spells amounting to not
a whole heck of a lot of heated magic hearts falling out of bodies like falling bodies
then I realize in the awkward yellow light that this is all that I need; then in a surprise twist I
find myself the bloated warehouse of manhood checking my pulse casting a voodoo
on myself – a heated voodoo."
Stop Yield was written as a 60th birthday gift for fellow composer and dear friend, Amnon Wolman. Amnon's experimental approach—his
willingness to take chances and challenge the status quo—is incredibly inspiring and admirable and was always on my mind when writing this short piece for cello and piano. I attempted
to shed some of my controlling ways—allowing for more flexible performer interaction and involvement. There is a very conscious fusion of my tendency towards sharp contrasts with
Amnon's preference for slowly evolving ideas. I am perhaps more directly in line with modernist Carter and Amnon with radical Ives.