Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (2008)

I have written a four-movement Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (Weaving Olden Dances), a consortium commission comprised of:

Westchester Chamber Orchestra (NY), Barry Charles Hoffman, Director
Western Piedmont Symphony (NC), John Gordon Ross, Director
San José Chamber Orchestra (CA), Barbara Day Turner, Director
Appalachian State University (NC), James Allen Anderson, Director

It was premiered May 3, 2008 by Barry Hoffman and the Westchester Chamber Orchestra at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. Here are five excerpts from the four movements taken from a live recording of the premiere:

concertoexcerptscg.mp3     

To view/download a PDF of the score that matches the recorded excerpt, click here.

Instrumentation:
2 Flutes
2 Oboes / 2nd dbls EH
2 Clarinets
2 Bassoons
2 Horns in F
2 Trumpets in Bb
1 Percussionist:
Timpani (5); Tambourine; Cajón (or shakers, if unavailable); Susp Cymbal; Bodhrán (or 3 large, closely tuned toms)
Strings

Total duration: ca. 24′
(Mvt. 1: ca. 4’30”; Mvt. 2: ca. 6’30”; Mvt. 3: ca. 7’30”; Mvt. 4: ca. 5’30”)

Program Notes:
Given that composers have defined the term “Concerto” rather fluidly historically, when Barry Hoffman approached me about composing a new Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, I had to decide what it would mean for me. In the end, I decided on a blend of Baroque and 20th/21st Century conceptions. I have long admired that the Baroque Dance Suite represented an internationalist ideal of artistic and intellectual commerce flowing throughout Europe at that time, whose non-variable core included the Allemand (German), the Courante (French or Italian), the Sarabande (Spanish), and the Gigue (English or Irish). Since one of my major musical preoccupations is with non-Western and folk musics, it struck me that the international nature of the Baroque Suite might make an interesting vehicle for the creation of a suite of pieces that explore elements of world and folk musics.

To that end, the first movement, after a muscular opening featuring a big role for the timpani and aggressive writing for the brass and strings, quickly moves to a hypnotic expansion of the opening ideas that employs (in the winds and strings) some of the rhythmic interlocking characteristic of Indonesian and Balinese music for Gamelan. The second movement is a Pavane, which is a French relative of the Allemande. Traditionally this movement is unsyncopated, and builds from smaller fragments into a larger work. Here, I took a 13th Century anonymous Hymn tune called Novus Miles Sequitur, and similarly build the piece from smaller fragments or phrases. In place of the Sarabande, I based the next movement on the Siguiriya, one of the Flamenco dance forms. A ritornello based on flamenco guitar styles occurs three times in the movement, contrasted by solo sections and flights toward non-flamenco tonalities, though the Andalusian scale dominates the piece at various transpositions. The final movement is where the Gigue would occur in the Suite. This movement is a blend of Irish Sean Nos and traditional Irish and Appalachian fiddle styles.

There are passages that are virtuosic for the orchestra as an instrument a la Bartok, but I also tried to treat orchestral color as a component of this, striving to create a wide variety of colors over the course of the piece. Every individual wind and brass player, and also the timpanist each gets at least one solo at some point. Individual string players are also given solos, and the various sections of strings have prominent solos or duos. One more note on the solos and the question of virtuosity: I think it’s important to point out that musical virtuosity is expressed by performers not exclusively by the ability to master extraordinarily difficult passages, but rather to bring their full musicality to bear on any passage, whether it’s simple or not.

Composer Charles Griffin and Conductor Barry Hoffman Discuss the New Concerto for Chamber Orchestra:

Barry HoffmanWhat makes this a Concerto for Orchestra?

Charles Griffin – When you first approached me about the piece, it was your suggestion that I write a Concerto for Chamber Orchestra. Because the request was not for a solo concerto (traditional association with the term “Concerto” is a Romantic one, evoking soloistic virtuosity and the kind of potential for drama that arises from pitting the soloist against the full orchestra), I was forced to consider other, arguably atypical models. I say arguably, because composers’ conception of the Concerto as a form has in fact gradually evolved over the centuries to allow for something much looser in the 21st Century anyway. Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra of 1943, for example, treats the Orchestra itself as the virtuoso instrument, with each section of instruments featured in a soloistic or virtuosic way. The Concerto as a form originates in the Baroque Era, and at that time, composers more often than not conceived of drama in the Concerto not so much by pitting a soloist against the rest of the orchestra, but rather by contrasting smaller groups of instruments against each other.

In the end, I decided on a blend of Baroque and 20th/21st Century conceptions. There are passages that are virtuosic for the orchestra as an instrument a la Bartok, but I also tried to treat orchestral color as a component of this, striving to create a wide variety of colors over the course of the piece. Every individual wind and brass player, and also the timpanist each gets at least one solo at some point. Individual string players are also given solos, and the various sections of strings have prominent solos or duos. One more note on the solos and the question of virtuosity: I think it’s important to point out that musical virtuosity is expressed by performers not exclusively by the ability to master extraordinarily difficult passages, but rather to bring their full musicality to bear on any passage, whether it’s simple or not.

B.H.Why did you choose the baroque dance suite form?

C.G. – I was on a Bach kick last year. I was listening, reading about and playing through lots of Bach. For me, as with many composers, Bach is a life-long mentor and sustainer, one of the ones to go back to for subconscious composition lessons from time to time. I started every day for about 6 months by playing through some Chorales. During this period I became interested in Bach’s Suites, and the idea of artistic and intellectual commerce flowing throughout Europe at that time. The Baroque Dance Suite by the time of Bach became a semi-standardized multi-movement work whose non-variable core included the Allemand (a stately German dance in 4/4 time), the Courante (a lively French or Italian dance in 3/4), the Sarabande (a slow Spanish dance in 3/4), and the Gigue (a lively English dance in 6/8). There are many variable additions to the Suite, including Overtures, Minuets, Gavottes, etc. While in the traditional suite, all the pieces are related by key, they are not related thematically.

Since one of my major composerly preoccupations is with non-Western and folk musics, it struck me that the international nature of the Baroque Suite might make an interesting vehicle for the creation of a suite of pieces that explore elements of world and folk musics.

B.H.In your program notes, you talk about composing the piece, “with a contemporary eye toward the meaning of internationalism today.” Do you feel you accomplished this? If so, how?

C.G. – The original plan was to write a five movement suite, beginning with an Overture. As I was writing, I realized that the piece was getting long. After I’d completed four movements of the planned five, I realized I’d already had approximately 26 minutes of music. You stopped me (for now) from writing a fifth movement, which will eventually be located in the spot between the current 2nd and 3rd movments.

Movement I – Trance Overture. After a muscular opening featuring a big role for the timpani and aggressive writing for the brass and strings, it quickly moves to a hypnotic expansion of the opening ideas that employs (in the winds and strings) some of the rhythmic interlocking characteristic of Indonesian and Balinese music for Gamelan. Download a perusal copy of Movement I here.

Movement II – Pavane. The Pavane, along with the Tombeau, is a French relative of the Allemande, which was typically the first proper movement of the Suite. An Allemande is typically in 2/4 or 4/4, unsyncopated, and builds from smaller fragments into a larger work. Here, I took a 13th Century anonymous Hymn tune called Novus Miles Sequitur, most likely of British origin and similarly build the piece from smaller fragments or phrases. This is the most traditional sounding movement in the piece, with a harmonic and color palate that is a blending of English and French classical styles. Download a perusal copy of Movement II here.

Movement III – Not yet written, but this is where the Courante would occur in the Baroque Dance Suite. I will eventually write something here based on Eastern European traditions.

Movement IV – Tierra de luz, Cielo de Tierra. This is where the Sarabande, a dance of Spanish origin, would occur in the Suite. I based this movement on the Siguiriya, one of the Flamenco dance forms. A ritornello based on flamenco guitar styles occurs three times in the movement, contrasted by solo sections and flights toward non-flamenco tonalities, though the Andalusian scale dominates the piece at various transpositions. Download a perusal copy of Movement IV (identified as Mvt III in the score) here.

Movement V – Weaving Olden Dances. This is where the Gigue would occur in the Suite. This movement is a blend of Irish traditional music and its American stepchild in Appalachia. Download a perusal copy of Movement V (identified as Mvt IV in the score) here.

Do I feel I accomplished this? Well, it’s an experiment. The Overture movement cannot stand on its own, but the others all can, I believe, which was a secondary or possibly tertiary goal for me. I’ll let others judge how they hang together in sequence. That being said, and to be quite honest, the piece won’t be fully complete for me until that remaining movement is written and placed together with the others. I think the missing movement will help to deepen the sense of stylistic contrast that already exists from movement to movement.

The following reviews are of the San José Chamber Orchestra’s performance of my Weaving Olden Dances: Concerto for Chamber Orchestra that took place at Le Petit Trianon Theater (72 N. 5th Street) in downtown San José, California on Saturday August 29, at 8PM and Sunday August 30, at 7PM.

NEW WORK, OLD DANCES, ELVIRA’S CONCERTO
By Paul Hertelendy
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2009
Vol. 12, No. 5
Read the full review here.

The clever idea of a commissioning consortium enables several groups around the country (and not just one) to present a new work om concert. The San José Chamber Orchestra opened its season with the West Coast premiere of New Yorker Charles Griffin’s “Weaving Olden Dances,” part of a merry-go-round taking the dances to four different venues spanning both coasts. It’s a big 31-minute, four-movement work of modern sounds laid over traditional forms—a well-made piece avoiding the expected clichés.

Griffin, 41, enters skillfully into disparate realms. An agitated timpani opening suggests an action movie, giving way to a perpetual-motion ostinato that the composers says was inspired by the gamelan. The Pavane section that follows is lovely, escapist romanticism soaring skyward. The third movement is the most overtly dance-like, with the orchestra parroting the broad strums of the flamenco guitar running through modes as well as the beat of the zapateado dance—a latino tap dance without the tap shoes. The finale, after Irish models, is a joyous noise rushing to a climax. The format idea is derived from the dance suites so prevalent 300 years ago.

There were various solos within this concerto for orchestra, none more notable nor more praiseworthy than on viola (Eleanor Angel) and cello (Lucinda Breed Lenicheck).

Altogether, “Weaving Olden Dances” is an effective work with definite audience appeal. And Music Director Barbara Day Turner led it with high energy, nuance and consistency.

A MODEL OF DIVERSITY: SAN JOSÉ CHAMBER ORCHESTRA OPENER
By Gary Lemco
The Classical Music Guide Online
Read the full review here.

The musical surprise came in the form of Griffin’s four-movement Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, which might be a distant cousin of pieces like Cowell’s Persian Set. A sort of Baroque dance-suite, the music opened with a Trance Overture, in the manner of the gamelan orchestra of Bali, percussive, chiming, clangorous, brash, and declamatory. Long pedal points punctuated the interlocking rhythmic impulses. Some might have thought this music composed by Villa-Lobos. The second movement, Pavane, sounded like a medieval “chest” or “consort” of instruments, utilizing a concertante violin to intone a 13th-century cantus firmus called Novus Miles Sequitur. The third movement, Tierra de luz, Cielo de Tierra, enjoyed a concertante cello opening. The music became quite syncopated, often touching upon the world of Ginastera‘s Estancia ballet. At its climax, the music became a fugue in flamenco style. The last movement, Weaving Olden Dances, began with a viola that lisped in Irish accents, inviting us to a fierce gigue or reel that incorporates Sean Nos and Appalachian dance elements, allusions to the music for Braveheart and Aaron Copland. Almost every member of the orchestra had a virtuoso, solo run or riff to offer the color of his contribution. Eclectic it was certainly—so even Bartok may have had a hand in it—ending with something like a sea-shanty in Technicolor. But, that it was a successful vehicle for Turner and her SJCO there could be no doubt.

JON NAKAMATSU AND MOZART’S PIANO CONCERTO NO. 21 — A HEAVENLY PAIRING
By Richard Scheinin
San José Mercury News
Read the full review here.

The bulk of the program’s first half was devoted to a new work by Charles B. Griffin, a native New Yorker who lives in Latvia. A nomadic, international sensibility informs his “Weaving Olden Dances: Concerto for Chamber Orchestra,” which draws inspiration from Indonesian, French, flamenco and Irish/Appalachian dance forms.

Commissioned by a consortium of American orchestras (including the San Jose Chamber Orchestra), the work unfolds in four movements.
The first echoes the jig-sawed structure and rhythms of the Balinese gamelan; its highlight is a sinuous and long-lined solo for violin (Cynthia Baehr, here), composed in the manner of Lou Harrison. The second movement, a Pavane, built from a 13th century hymn, is lushly elegiac. The final movements, respectively, draw on flamenco and Celtic melodies — rhythm-charged, but remarkably generic, as if inspired by World Music 101 classes.
Hats off to Day Turner (who has devoted much of her career to performing music of living composers) and the orchestra’s many soloists (i.e. Bruce Foster, such an expressive clarinetist) for giving this piece a shot.

The Griffin Ensemble – The Ultimate in DIY?

Ensemble
After I’d been here in Liepāja for about a year, this sort of strange but organic thing happened, that would never have happened (for me anyway) in New York. Quite a few pieces of mine have been performed here since I moved here, many of which I have blogged about:

• the orchestra piece performed by the Liepāja Symphony (now called Pick it up and run with it);
• the piece that Putni took on tour (The Moon of the Floating World);
• a piano duo (Do Not Go Gentle);
• a duet for alto saxophone and viola (for the straight way was lost);
• a clarinet quartet (Panta Rei);
• a choral piece (Aija Žužu).
• a piano trio (three musicians from the LSO (Cambiando Paisajes));
• and the two pieces I wrote for my friend Olexij: the quartet for trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and bassoon, (Not Waving but Drowning) and the piece for the chamber orchestra at the site of the destroyed bridge (Elegy).

On top of those pieces, I’d also given a few scores away over the course of the year. The cool and organic thing that began to happen is that several musicians took it upon themselves to organize small chamber groups to start working on my music. Dina Puķite and Ginta Alzane, the cellist and violinist who’d played my trio, without my even knowing it at first (happy surprise!), roped in two more colleagues from the LSO and began working on a fairly challenging string quartet of mine, one that uses Arabis scalar and rhythmic modes (Set fire to have light). And a local pianist, Ludmila Irina started working on a duet of mine with her clarinetist husband (Jazz Suite).

It suddenly started to seem like enough local musicians were all concurrently working on enough of my music to perhaps justify a concert, and they all were not only ammenable to the idea but excited by the prospect. I was encouraged to begin thinking about a program. And in a relatively short time it came together. Perhaps an odd combination but a relatively portable one, and one for which I already had or could rearrange a few pieces: clarinet, string quartet, piano four hands and percussion.

The Griffin Ensemble was born. And I say that with uncessary but very real sheepishness. Two of the best known composers of our time started their own ensembles when they were beginning. But there’s a part of me that feels immodest in doing so. Whatever. I’ll get over it.

The next step was to figure out how I could get the musicians, though they all across the board offered to play a concert for nothing. In the end we applied for a grant, in a process that resembles nothing exactly that I’ve experienced or heard of in America. But all the same, we got funding for one performance (hooray!) and are awaiting word for another two. The performance(s) will take place here in May.

I haven’t finished getting the music ready yet, and I am going to compose something new as a finale to the concert, something fun for the entire ensemble to play, either an arrangement of some Irish trad music or something original but inspired by it, so I can give my new bodhrán a spin (so to speak) in public.

Back to our regularly scheduled program…

Wow, it’s been a month since my last post. But I’ve got good reasons, being on the road for most of the time since Christmas. I welcomed in the New Year in Switzerland. We were there for an expensive week of bears, fondue, mountains, markets, churches and art. We went to Lucerne, Bern, Interlaken and Zurich. Beautiful country. Efficient rail system. Friendly people. Did I mention expensive? So expensive, getting the check is like a twice-daily ice-water bath. Brr.

After a two day stop in Riga, I headed for New York for two weeks, where I enjoyed a performance of a song cycle of mine for high voice, clarinet and piano called The Far Field, attended the Chamber Music America Conference in Manhattan, went to a good friend’s wedding, and also managed to squeeze in some business and shopping errands between visits to friends and family.

The Far Field performance was special for me, as it’s one of those pieces of mine that I have always felt especially close to, yet it isn’t performed much. Sort of like that awkward kid with a heart of gold that sits off to the left somewhere in third grade and you know can grow up to be somebody if people just give her a chance. It’s a big piece, about 22 minutes long, a setting of a difficult poem by Theodore Roethke that basically looks death in the face and comes to accept it as a beautiful and necessary thing. You can read the poem here. Soprano Melissa Fogarty, did a really great job with it. The whole occasion was doubly special because Melissa and I were also friends in high school together. We had a mini high school reunion of five after the performance at a local lounge together with the other musicians, Chris Cullen and Laura Barger.

Anyway, one of the errands I ran while in New York will allow me to segue back to my narrative about Latvia. Actually, I’m just going to do the reverse: jump back to Latvia and then tie it back to New York.

One of the friends I’ve made in Liepaja is Oleksiy Demchenko, the third trumpet player in the Liepaja Symphony. Helping our friendship along is the fact that he studied in Holland and thus speaks English fluently. And since he is originally from Kiev, we also share something of the outsider status.

If Oleksiy kind of has ADD. He has a million ideas and lots of energy but little mind for details or organization or follow-through. He manages occasionally to get things done in spite of himself in a place like Liepaja because 1.) Latvians don’t typically take initiative but hey, want to be entertained as much as the next guy, and 2.) They are too shy to tell him to go to hell when they find themselves suddenly doing more work than they anticipated.

Back in July, Oleksiy managed to get a little money for him and three other musicians to form a quartet called Četri Vēji (Four Winds, in this case trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and bassoon), and to pay me a little something to write them a new piece. It was for a festival of music and art with a theme of water, so I wrote an 8 minute piece inspired by the Stevie Smith poem Not Waving But Drowning. I wasn’t there for the performance, but the musicians raved about the piece.

A week or so later, I got a call from Oleksiy. A freighter ship had destroyed the 100 year-old swing bridge that connects Karosta with the rest of the City of Liepaja. BridgeKarosta (Navy harbour) is a northern neighborhood occupying one third of Liepaja city, and by way of analogy sort of plays the same role to Liepaja that Brooklyn plays to New York. And for the residents of Karosta, it was as if the Brooklyn Bridge had just been destroyed. Well, maybe not. The Karosta Channel Bridge was not beautiful and was in awful disrepair, but its destruction cut off one of only two connections to the rest of the city, now forcing every commuter to a newer, longer route. It was big news, and many people were affected by it.

Karosta was the western-most military base of the USSR during the Soviet occupation. Many streets and houses of Karosta are now empty, as the population dropped from roughly 25 -30,000 in 1994, to approximately 7,000 living there today. Its architecture reflects an interaction between tsarist Russian elegance, epitomized by a gorgeous orthodox cathedral visible at a fair distance, and soviet militarism, epitomized by the graceless rows of abandoned concrete housing blocks.

It is a Russian tradition that a memorial service is performed 40 days after a death. And Oleksiy had the idea that he wanted to organize a sort of public art multimedia Requiem for this bridge. Which meant my composing the music, and I’m still not sure why I agreed to it, but I did. I guess it appealed to my occasional campy side. I’m going to tell my campy side to shut up next time. A videographer gathered footage, while I wrote a 13-minute piece for 11 musicians from the Liepaja Symphony to go with it.

Did I mention the A.D.D.? I had a little more than 2 weeks to do it, as not all the musicians were secured right away. I compensated by cannibalizing Monteverdi, as the brass were to be placed originally on the other side of the bridge, and I wanted to get something equivalent to his polychoral stuff while cutting down on the actual amount of music I needed to write. The deadline loomed large and fast, and I suggested putting off the performance, but Oleksiy was determined to pull it off. I told him that he needed to buckle down and get all his organizational ducks in a row, especially given all that work I was doing out of friendship. And he did.

All except get a conductor, which at the last minute fell to me. That shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. Conducting frightens me. I’ve done it a few times anyway, conducting a handful of choral premieres in New York from time to time. But I’ve never felt comfortable with it, partly from lack of experience, but also because the two times I ever studied conducting were lackluster experiences at best.

When I was an undergraduate at Queens College in the late eighties, the professor who taught conducting that semester was, frankly, half blind. Maybe more than half. Seriously. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. He simply had an ailment that was getting past him and he should have retired by then but hadn’t yet. He had enlarged copies of the music and couldn’t see three feet away, best I could tell. Glass lenses as thick as a sponge. I was probably nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t care that I wasn’t learning much. I happily skated through with a completely undeserved A-. I have no idea how he determined my grade.

Fast forward to graduate school in Minnesota. My roommate was also a composer in the program, and he got the idea that we should put together an independent study witht the orchestra conductor called “Conducting for Composers”. Knowing that it was time to take my medicine, I signed up too. There were at least seven of us. Now this guy wasn’t blind. But he did become invisible. Meaning, we all met twice, as far as I can remember. The first session he talked about how he had to practice conducting underwater as a student, how that helped with gesture. Cool. The second session he showed us a picture of himself with Aaron Copland. Cool. Then I think he went out of town and I can’t for the life of me remember another session.

Fast forward again back to Liepaja. Maybe now you understand my trepidation, standing in front of this group of professional musicians. I’m not claiming total stupidity. I’ve been watching conductors for years and can tell a good one when I see one, and have picked up a few things by observing them. I stole my mother’s car when I was 15 and drove it perfectly, never having taken a lesson, never having been behind the wheel. I learned what I needed to know just by watching her drive. I made it through the rehearsals (two) and performance without (I think) coming off as a complete hack, and for one small minute, I’d felt like I’d understood something I hadn’t understood before. There was one passage, where I got a rush, that sense of driving the orchestra, of playing it rather than following it, and I realized something viscerally in that instant why conductors are attracted to the profession.

About 100 or more local residents and a television crew showed up by car, on foot or bicycle for the outdoor, nighttime screening and performance. Conducting

There are many reasons why I came to Liepaja, and one of them was to have a place where I could do a personal and creative reassessment of myself, as a person, a composer and as a musician. A few months ago I surfed to the website of the European American Musical Alliance, which offers amongst its programs a month-long summer conducting workshop in Paris. One of the errands I ran while in New York a few weeks ago was to put in my application for this program. Wish me luck.

Nightsongs (Clarinet Quintet – Clar. & String Quartet)

Clarinet and String Quartet (2007), One Movement, 11’
Premiered by The Griffin Ensemble at Liepāja Symphony Concert Hall, May 2007.

Nightsongs     

Program Note:

This piece was originally a setting for baritone and string quartet of five short poems by the American poet, Langston Hughes, in one continuous movement. The majority of the piece is based on various transformations of a three-note, bluesy figure. I rearranged and also revised the set in late 2006 in preparation for a five-concert tour in Latvia with my ensemble in May and June 2007. Here are the original poems, in the order of their original appearance:

Night: Four Songs
Night of the two moons
And the seventeen stars,
Night of the day before yesterday
And the day after tomorrow,
Night of the four songs unsung:
Sorrow! Sorrow!
Sorrow! Sorrow!

Border Line
I used to wonder
About living and dying –
I think the difference lies
Between tears and crying.

I used to wonder
About here and there –
I think the distance
Is nowhere.

Drum
Bear in mind
That death is a drum
Beating forever
Till the last worms come
To answer its call,
Till the last stars fall,
Until the last atom
Is no atom at all,
Until time is lost
And there is no air
And space itself
Is nothing nowhere,
Death is a drum
A signal drum,
Calling life
To come!
Come!
Come!

Suicide’s Note
The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.

End
There are
No clocks on the wall,
And no time,
No shadows that move
From dawn to dusk
Across the floor.

There is neither light
Nor dark
Outside the door.

There is no door!

A qualified success. Putni and my three-in-one premiere.

Putni

In December 2005 I learned that the Riga-based women’s vocal ensemble, Putni (Birds), was coming to Liepaja to give a performance at the local theater. I had recently written a new a cappella piece for eight women’s voices, a setting of Ihara Saikaku’s (1642-93) haiku:

I have gazed at it now
For two years too long
The moon of the floating world.

I contacted Antra Drege, the director of Putni, via email, prior to their performance, and she agreed to meet me afterwards and to receive my score. They gave a very good performance of works by several living Latvian composers, most of which were written expressly for Putni. Like any good vocal ensemble, they often create thematic programs, and this one, just prior to Christmas (Ziemassvetki), was holiday-tinted in a distinctly Pagan way. Historically, the ancient tribes of Latvia held a set of religious beliefs that were decidedly earth-centered. These nature-worshippers resisted Christianity to such a degree that the Pope sent Germanic crusaders to found the capitol city of Riga in the early 1200’s and to begin the process of conversion in earnest. However, this pagan strand persists to this day, with many holding (what strikes me as superstitious) beliefs in things like rivers capable of healing diseases and forests with magical energies, etc. I know many Latvians who flock to the countryside at every opportunity, and I was once showed a place in the forest that was considered an ancient cathedral. The argument for it being a place suitable for worship was compelling, actually.

Perhaps this pagan strand is what made the text I’d chosen attractive to Antra. In any case, a few months later, she contacted me and said that she wanted to premiere the piece in Riga on May 1, 2006 at Rigas Jaunais Teatris (New Theater of Riga). A few weeks prior to the premiere I traveled to Riga for a rehearsal. There were several problems.

The first problem was with their English diction, something I was taking for granted up ‘til then. Not all composers feel this way, but I always approach a text as if I am in service of it, not the other way around. The text determines everything I do in a setting. Rhythm. Mood. Gesture. Climax. Also, I have sung in choirs on and off for fifteen years, and I became quite a stickler about diction, maybe even finicky about it. Luckily, that choral experience left me with a few strategies for solving diction problems. Now, I didn’t blame them, as some of these sounds simply don’t exist in Latvian, and are therefore difficult for them to perceive or create. I appreciate that difficulty. I mean, just try making one of those African clicks like Miriam Makeba or the Russian word for ‘you’, and you’ll appreciate it too. Latvian does not have the ‘th’ sound of ‘the’, nor does the letter ‘w’ even exist in their alphabet. I remembered my college choral director making us put a little ‘h’ in front of words like ‘world’, as a southerner might pronounce it, to make the start of the word clear, and that helped. I kept pushing them to elide terminal consonants with beginning vowels between words and also helped them pronounce ‘the’ as best as I could. They seemed a little crestfallen after that, probably because they’d felt proud of their English pronunciation before I’d arrived.

They were also having some difficulty with the rhythms in certain passages, which actually leads me back to a discussion of language. It’s no surprise that a nation’s language, its stresses, rhythms and scansion have a profound impact on the music of that nation’s composers, and consequently, on that nation’s musicians. Latvian, almost without exception, is a language that places syllabic stress on the first syllable of a word, no matter how many syllables are present. It’s all trochees and dactyls. And if there’s any weakness I’ve encountered among Latvian musicians, it’s a discomfort with syncopation and complex rhythms. (It was to address these issues that I was later hired by the Emil Melngailis Music Academy and also by Putni to lead them through rhythm and coordination workshops. I have been working on and off on a musicianship textbook that aims to incorporate world music and eurhythmics into to the aural skills / ear-training curriculum for university level music majors, but this is a topic for a later post.)

Now, on to the problems with the piece that were entirely my fault: First, the first soprano had notes to sing for long stretches of time right on her break (for any non-musicians reading this, the break is the small part of your vocal range where your voice transitions from one register to another, as in from chest voice to head voice, and spending long periods singing right in that spot can get very fatiguing). Second, the climax just wasn’t working for me. There were two or three weeks remaining before the premiere, so I figured I’d just sit it out and see if the remaining time would enable them to make something big and climactic out of those passages. I also figured that while it was fatiguing for the first soprano in rehearsal, the piece was still only about five minutes long, and she would be able to deal with it in performance.

The day of the premiere, I traveled once more from Liepaja to Riga, and showed up at the theater for the dress rehearsal a few hours before the concert. Antra had gotten a call from one of her sopranos earlier that day, saying that she was too sick to perform. While it wouldn’t affect all the pieces on the program, all of which were premieres, it did affect mine, as my setting was for divisi into eight parts, and now there were seven singers. We had a vibraphonist play the missing vocalist’s part. I was chagrined to learn that this would also be recorded for Latvian radio. Antra was apologetic, but so was I; I could only imagine how stressful it must have been for her, and I’ve learned to roll with these kinds of punches.

Now I’m getting to the part where I notice a difference between New York and Latvia, one that reflects well on Latvia. By the end of the performance, missing soprano notwithstanding, I had already decided that I was unhappy with the piece. That passage with the climax just wasn’t working, and that fatigued first soprano was causing the whole thing to flatten over time, an issue that all choirs struggle with anyway, but my setting certainly wasn’t helping. So, Antra left resolved to make good on the performance sans soprano, and I left resolved to make changes to the piece.

I dropped the piece down a step and rewrote that passage. Putni performed it a second time, and because of my edits, Antra, with a somewhat playful flair, called it a premiere in the program. The problem with the soprano’s break was solved. But I was still unhappy with that passage, and beginning to feel embarrassed by my inability to make it happen. Antra let me have still another go at it. She eventually called this version ‘the golden version’. Latvians often translate positive descriptions using terms involving light. She ‘premiered’ the piece yet a third time, and indeed this was the golden version.

At the time, I was pleasantly surprised that Antra stuck with me. Not that I’m taking it for granted, but I have also come to see this as a facet of Latvian character. My experience in New York has been that competition forces musicians to have certain characteristics: exemplary sight-reading skills, for example, or the ability to play well with previously unknown colleagues, or to prepare extraordinarily difficult pieces in a short period of time. The downside to this is that they can do it so often that it’s almost thoughtless. Once they have done a piece, they are DONE with it, never to look back. On to the next gig. Maybe an apt comparison is the fable of the tortoise and the hare. My experience with Putni was that they still are willing to take on difficult work. They just manage it slowly and methodically. They had difficulty with rhythm, so they hired me to address the problem. And perhaps the reason they had patience with my multiple attempts at that climax passage is because they don’t expect instant perfection from themselves. They commit to the process as much as to the goal of performance.

Since its three premieres, Putni has performed my piece at least once or twice more in Latvia. They are now coming to do a brief tour of America, and are including my piece on their tour.

Please do support these fine, hardworking musicians if you can.

BOSTON – Sunday, 29. October 13:00
Trimdas Congregation Hall
58 Irving Street, Brookline, MA
(617) 524-2210

WASHINGTON – Saturday, 4. November 19:30
Washington Ev.-Lut. Church Congregation Hall
400 Hurley Avenue, Rockville, MD
(301) 869-3127

CLEVELAND – Friday, 10. November 19:00
United Congregation Hall
1385 Andrews Avenue, Lakewood, OH
(216) 521-1435

MINNEAPOLIS – Sunday, 12. November 16:00
Minneapolis-St.Paul Latvian Ev.-Lut. Congregation Hall
3152 17th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN
(651) 646-1980

STILLWATER – Monday, 13. November 19:00
625 5th Street North, Stillwater, MN
(651) 275-0550

EAU CLAIRE – Tuesday, 14. November 19:00
Davies Center – Davies Theater 
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Eau Claire, WI
(715) 834-1874, 836-4735, 836-4318

MANHATTAN – Friday, 17. November 20:00
St. Joseph’s Church Yorkville
404 E. 87th Street, New York, NY
(212) 289-6030, (914) 234-3339

From the Faraway Nearby (Piano Four-Hands)

Piano Four Hands, Six Movements, (2006) ca. 20’
Premiered by Hugh Sung and Walter Cosand, at Arizona State University, November 2006.

This suite is inspired by paintings by the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Originally written for two guitars, the suite was recorded by the Goldspiel-Provost Classical Guitar Duo. Since I rearranged the suite in 2006, it has been performed by several duos, in Latvia, England and the U.S. The paintings, audio excerpts (recordings take from the premiere by Hugh Sung and Walter Cosand) and the liner notes from the Guitar Duo CD are interspersed below.

Excerpting from an American Record Guide review (May 2002): “The centerpiece of the recital is From the Faraway Nearby, a six-movement work by New York composer Charles Griffin. Much of the work is obsessively repetitive, with constantly shifting ostinatos creating a backdrop that is at once hypnotic and engaging in its play with expectation and meter. The harmonic language is largely diatonic, though not without some provocative clashes between melodic figure and ostinato ground. The work was written for the Goldspiel-Provost Duo and they have clearly lived with it long enough to give it a solid, sensitive reading.”

FROM THE FARAWAY NEARBY
These pieces, as the paintings, share a common simplification of form and clarity of line. Some are literal musical depictions of the paintings while others treat the subject more abstractly. We are offering the following descriptions to provide a better understanding of the relation between the music and painting.

Lawrence Tree

ltree4handsexcerpt     
The Lawrence Tree (1929) depicts an upward view of a towering ponderosa pine found on D. H. Lawrence’s ranch outside Taos, NM. The perspective here is not unlike that of City Night, and while City Night may be seen as a testament to human yearning, The Lawrence Tree may represent a more powerful, more substantial, more natural or universal yearning. The painting shows angular branches supporting the foliage. Griffin uses an oscillating harmonic figure in one part to support the angular, rising line of the other.

City Night

CityNight4hands     

City Night (1926) is a tranquil painting showing two shadowed slightly converging skyscrapers framing a white one. Next to the white skyscraper a full moon is visible. This tranquil setting is achieved musically through the primo playing the accompaniment in high, rolled chords while the secondo plays a plaintive single-line melody that begins in the baritone register and climbs to meet its accompaniment.

Pelvis IV

pelvis4handexcerpt     

Pelvis IV (1944) is from a series of approximately twelve painted between 1943-45. The early pelvis paintings depict the entire bone standing upright in a landscape setting. This painting, on the other hand, focuses on the ovoid opening within the bone through which a blue night sky and full moon are visible. While Oriental Poppies is a celebration of feminine sexual energy, the Pelvis series is largely a poetic statement about feminine sexual power via cycles, birth, and rebirth. In his setting, Griffin uses a variety of techniques to evoke these elements, such as blue notes, percussive effects, rhythmic displacement, and periodicities.

From the Farway Nearby

ffn4hands     
From the Faraway Nearby (1937) contains a large deer’s skull and antlers superimposed over a mountain and sky background. The strikingly ambiguous relationship between the skull and antlers in the foreground, (Nearby) and the mountain and sky landscape, (Faraway) is further emphasized by the absence of a middle ground. Griffin musically captures this painting by using a mournful cowboy-esque melody (Nearby) in one part and a simple, delicate accompaniment played in (Faraway) in the uppermost register. O’Keeffe often closed her letters with “From the Faraway Nearby, Georgia.”

Sky Above Clouds I

SAC4hands     
Sky Above Clouds I (1963) The first of seven paintings on the same theme executed between 1962-65, was inspired while flying to New Mexico. The painting is divided into two registers. The lower one depicts the puffy clouds seen from an airplane and the second register the sky above the clouds. Griffin casts the outer sections of the movement in a lower register and uses frequent asymmetries to create a sense of perpetual motion or flight, while an upper-register ostinato in the middle section is used to delineate the “above clouds” register of the painting. The piece ends with a quiet, coda that in effect “takes off” beyond the frame of the painting.

Oriental Poppies

Oriental4hands     
Oriental Poppies (1928) depicts two red poppies viewed from different perspectives. While on one hand they are identical, the perspective focuses the eye to different details of each flower. Griffin uses an ostinato figure to support a melodic line, and dance-like rhythms to capture the vibrant energy of the painting. The players frequently interchange roles but both are always equal. The listener can choose to listen to either part or the whole as the viewer may choose to focus on one flower or the entire painting.

From the Faraway Nearby

FTFNFrom the Faraway Nearby. That’s how Georgia O’Keeffe sometimes signed her correspondence. It’s also the title of one of her paintings. I took that title for one of my own compositions, a suite of pieces for two guitars that are inspired by her paintings. Now I’m taking it for the title of my blog.

I’m an American composer, born and raised in New York, but I’m in the middle of what is turning out to be a two (or more?) year stint living and working in Eastern Europe, in Liepaja, a small industrial city in the western region of Latvia, right on the Baltic Sea. Liepaja was a sealed Navy port town during the Soviet Occupation, and was closed off from visitors until Independence was regained in 1991. It’s also the only city outside of Riga to maintain a symphony orchestra.

There are many cultural and historical circumstances that make this an interesting time to be here. Not just as a composer, but as an American composer, someone that doesn’t carry the same kind of cultural, historical, or emotional baggage that they do. Of course we Americans have our own baggage. It’s just different. I’d like to use this blog to explore the differences between my experiences in New York and my experiences here.

LiepajaI was first invited to Latvia in 2004 by the Latvian-American composer Dace Aperans to give some lectures and to have some of my music performed at a biennial festival that takes place in Ogre, a small city just outside the capitol. Normunds and Antra Viksne, a husband and wife piano duo, gave a thunderous performance of a piece I’d written back in 1993 as a memorial for my mother. They’re one of the best duos I’ve ever heard, and they are two of the busiest pianists in Latvia, together and separately.

I have heard more Russian music in the past year in Liepaja than I heard in the past decade living and working in New York. Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and to a lesser extent Rachmaninoff comprise the canon here. They play quite a lot of music by Latvian composers too, understandably so, and a peppering of music by composers from nearby countries. Occasionally, there’s a premiere, but that doesn’t seem too important to them, nor does that affect the way they advertise a particular concert. Of the common practice repertoire, I’ve heard a bit of Mozart, some Mendelssohn.

Interestingly, I haven’t heard a single piece by one of the three B’s all year. Nothing by Bach. Not a single Beethoven or Brahms symphony or concerto. The Second Viennese School is entirely ignored. And the only American work played by the Liepaja Symphony last year was by me.

Let me make a distinction here, though. Riga has more things happening, with more large ensembles, several chamber ensembles and its own opera. There are generally more premieres there, mostly by Latvian composers. Indeed, all the Latvian composers I know of are based in or near Riga. There was an Americana program there at one point, featuring Gershwin and Copland and I forget who else. I know there was a chamber ensemble that played Crumb while I was out of town. If Riga is the Latvian analogue to New York, Liepaja is equivalent to Chicago.

In any event, this is a very different milieu from the American scene. Perhaps the best explanation for this is a sort of 50-year blind spot created by the imposition of the Iron Curtain at the end of World War II. One of the issues that plagues music education in Latvia and other post-Soviet countries is that they find themselves looking back on 50 years of contemporary music history all at once. That’s not to say that nothing filtered through. But in the main, what did filter through came with a time lag, and what didn’t come through has little to no context for them when discovered now. Even the most talented Latvian music theorists or historians are overwhelmed by the scope of what passed them by. They don’t really know how to begin to sift through the stunning changes of the past 50 years.

Compounding the problem is that these countries are poor. When I was a graduate student in Minneapolis, for example, I could on occasion go to the record store and splurge on CDs. I could take $200 and buy recordings of my senior contemporaries: Bolcom, Schoenfield, Kernis, Torke, Adams, etc., just so I could familiarize myself with their work. That’s a month’s rent for a Latvian. And they don’t have that simple an outlet anyway. Most Latvians have debit cards, few have credit cards, and cheques are unheard of here.

The Liepaja Symphony Orchestra is state-funded and non-union. And it’s a mixed bag. Some of the musicians are excellent, but not all. Some can afford to be divas because they know they can’t be easily replaced in this relative backwater. Alcoholism runs rampant through the culture, and does not spare any profession. The second conductor has problems with alcohol and disappears from time to time, and some of the players do that too. The majority of them are average professionals, however. They learn their music, show up on time, do what they’re told and complain about the conductors during breaks.

There are also a couple of longstanding annual festivals. One is devoted to national and international organists, as two of the oldest continuously functioning organs in Europe happen to be in this little city, and the other is devoted to national and international pianists.

There is little chamber music in Liepaja outside of the local Music Academy. Sometimes a chamber ensemble will form for some immediate need, but then disband, never having been named. A holdover from the Soviet era, the concept of entrepreneurship is largely absent, and concomitantly, is the idea of working for long-term gain. When muscling your way to the front of the queue for the bus or the breadline means you get what you want or need while others are denied, so be it, and you can see how an unapologetic sense of immediacy can overtake a people. It’s simple pragmatism. I’m not criticizing their work ethic. Quite the opposite. They are willing to work, and hard.

So, I find myself a composer in a city that can support an orchestra where the musicians have never heard of John Corigliano or Bang on a Can. I have gone from being a little fish in maybe the biggest pond there is to being the only fish in the lake. There are talented musicians that are willing to work hard and have some free time on their hands. This is an interesting mix for a foreign composer. In my next entry, I will talk about some of the projects I have already worked on there, projects that led to the formation of my own ensemble.

Visitations

Visitations (2002) ca. 12′
Solo multi-percussion (Marimba, Vibraphone. Crotales, Cymbal, Tam-tam, Bass Drum)
Commissioned through Meet the Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA program
Recorded by Joe Gramley in 2006 (see Discography).

Score and parts available for hard-copy purchase from Steve Weiss Music,
or purchase a PDF of the score and parts via PayPal for $7.50:

Program Note, taken from Gramley’s CD and written by John Beck:

During Gramley’s days with Ethos, the group performed two of CHARLES GRIFFIN’s percussion quartets, one of them a commission (“The Persistence of Past Chemistries”). In 2001, with the aid of a Meet-the-Composer grant from New Music Marimba, Gramley got ready to begin collaborating with Griffin on a solo piece using multi-keyboard composition. Their first brainstorming session, destined to be rescheduled, was set for the morning of September 11 at Gramley’s studio in Manhattan.

Charles Griffin, a native New Yorker whose choral and instrumental works have been performed throughout the U. S. and Europe, remembers how the 9/11 attacks “colored our moods and thoughts” every time he and Gramley met in the months that followed. During an early work session, while improvising with Gramley’s mallets on the marimba, the composer came up with an opening whose “mood reminded [him] a little of Randall Thompson’s choral work Alleluia,” a reverent request for peace written during the Second World War.

Much of what Griffin wrote next would be marked by fragmentation and violence, but he remembers how, around January of 2002, the first snowfall of the season created one of those cityscapes that make New York “beautiful in a way it isn’t at any other time.” Some of the anger about September 11 was beginning to leave him, and the coda to his new composition came back around to the prayerful opening section in a way that may suggest conciliation to a listener.

Visitations would not be fully finished until early 2004, shortly before Gramley recorded it. Griffin explains that when a composer assembles a unique combination of musical instruments for a single percussionist, “it’s as if he’s creating a brand new instrument.” In the complex Visitations, Griffin wrote for three keyboards: concert marimba, vibraphone and crotales—small, chromatic, antique Turkish bells. At the piece’s climax, a bass drum, cymbals and gongs are also heard. Griffin knew he had “this really amazing, just monster, player” in Joe Gramley, but he also knew, during their months of collaboration, that he was pushing the performer toward—and sometimes even beyond—his limits.

Gramley remembers his own approach to the work becoming much more serious and deeply focused in the post-9/11 atmosphere, but he describes the mental and physical challenges with a kind of athletic relish. While pointing out how the keyboards require three different types of mallets (switched by the performer “when either hand has a moment off”), he also catalogs the different sorts of strokes he’s got to keep alternating: “very hard downstroke; quick upstroke; smooth, full downstroke. And don’t forget the pedal in the vibraphone! Visitations is such a balancing act that in order to perform it, I’ve got to take off my shoes. Otherwise I’ll slip off the pedal.” Memorization of Griffin’s music also proved a must: “There is no physical way for me to look at four different performance environments—and sheet music to boot.”

And yet, what pleases Gramley most—the surest indicator of his successful collaboration with Griffin—is how the emotional beauty of the piece never gets lost in the performing tour de force it requires.

Aijā, ŽūŽū (SAB with Soprano solo and piano accompaniment)

SAB with soprano solo and piano accompaniment (2006) ca. 3’30″
Arrangement of two Latvian lullabies.
Premiered July 2006, at the VII International Festival for Young Latvian Musicians, Ogre, Latvia.

Listen to the premiere (put together in two short rehearsals):

01-aija-zuzu.mp3     

Purchase a PDF of the score for $1 per copy via PayPal (Comes with pronunciation guide):















Program note:

This piece interweaves elements from two of the more popular Latvian lullabies, with sparse commentary/doubling in the piano part. The piece was written assuming few male singers. If there are many male voices in your choir, you might want to consider giving the solo line to more than one singer. Use your judgment based on the dynamic balance available of your group.

Text:
Mazi bērni, maza bēda,
Lieli bērni, liela bēda, ā!
Mazi bērni maizi prasa,
Lieli bērni sudrabiņa, ā!
Pasniedz, pelīt, miedziņu caur paceples lodziņu, ā!
Ka kaķītis neredzētu, ka pelīti nenomiegtu, ā!
Aiz kalniņa mēnestiņis, aijā, žūžū, ripu rapu uzripoja, aijā, žūžū.
Mēnestiņis man iedeva, Savu zvaigžņu mētelīti, aijā, žūžū.

Translation:
Little children, little worry,
Big children, great worry, oh!
Little children demand bread,
Big children demand silver, oh!
I can see through a tiny window
The warm little mouse who brings you slumber, oh!
I pray the cat does not see him.
I pray the cat will let him be, oh!
A little moon is rising above the hill, lullaby.
The moon gave me his coat of stars, lullaby.