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American Kaleidoscope – A Program of American Music

Michael Arnowitt, pianist

This was a program that was performed at the FlynnSpace, Burlington, Vermont on December 3, 2002, and subsequently taken on tour in concerts in Belgium and the Netherlands. Short excerpts from the European performances were included as part of the 2004 documentary film about Michael Arnowitt, “Beyond 88 Keys.”

Michael Arnowitt was asked by the Rode Pomp music center in Ghent, Belgium to prepare a special program with a first half of music by American composers, and a second half filled with music by composers from the state of Vermont, as a prelude to attract attention towards a subsequent three-day festival of music from Vermont they hosted as a cultural exchange across the Atlantic.

For a representative collection of great American music of the last thirty years, Michael Arnowitt selected a colorful variety of music ranging from some of George Crumb’s “Makrokosmos” pieces based on the 12 signs of the zodiac, to Robert Helps’ impressionistic “Hommage à Ravel,” David Rakowski’s “Nocturnal E-Machines,” Frank Zappa’s quicksilver “The Girl in the Magnesium Dress,” originally composed for the Synclavier, and Frederic Rzewski’s virtuosic “Winnsboro cotton mill blues,” based on a Southern millworkers’ tune from the 1930’s, which intriguingly mixes jazz, classical, and folk music elements.

A highlight of the first half will be Eve Beglarian’s “Fireside,” a powerful and moving composition that was her first after September 11th. For piano and spoken text, the piece is based on a poem written by the American composer Ruth Crawford (Seeger) when she was only thirteen years old.

Eight different Vermont composers will be represented on the second half of Michael Arnowitt’s program, including Stanley Charkey of Brattleboro, Allen Shawn of Bennington, and David Gunn of Northfield. Brand-new compositions from 2002 will be heard by composers Dennis Bathory-Kitsz of Northfield Falls and Eric Lyon, who lives just across the Vermont border in Hanover, New Hampshire. The music is influenced by sources as varied as Bach, Russian Cubo-Futurist poetry, minimalist pulse music, medieval rounds, lullabies, and even boogie-woogie.


1st half – American composers

William Mayer – Fantasia, 1st movement of Piano Sonata (1960)
George Crumb – Dream Images (Gemini) and Spiral Galaxy (Aquarius),
      pieces no. 11 & 12 from Makrokosmos, Volume I (1972)
David Rakowski – Nocturnal E-Machines (1988)
Robert Helps – Hommage à Ravel (1972)
John Cage – 49 Waltzes for the 5 Boroughs (1977), version with
      field recordings from Vermont addresses arranged by M. Arnowitt
Frank Zappa – The Girl in the Magnesium Dress (1983)
Eve Beglarian – Fireside, for piano and spoken text (2001),
      based on a poem written by Ruth Crawford at age 13
Frederic Rzewski – Winnsboro cotton mill blues, from
      Four North American Ballads (1979)

2nd half – Vermont composers*

James Grant – Toccata (1984)
David Fuqua – Once again, once again / I am for you / A star (1989/1996)
      (with references to J.S. Bach’s English Suite no. 2 in A minor;
      title from a poem by Velimir Khlebnikov)
Stanley Charkey – Three Short Inventions (1986)
David Gunn – FogWalls (1996)
Larry Polansky – Four-Voice Mensuration Canon no. 13 DIY (1976-2001),
      “Eroica Canon,” realized by M. Arnowitt
Dennis Bathory-Kitsz – premiere of a new composition: selections no. 11, 19, 24,
      20, 3, 14, and 25 from Tirkiinistra: 25 Landscape Preludes for Piano (2002)
Allen Shawn – Prelude no. 1, impetuous, from Five Preludes (1994)
      and Reverie no. 3, solemn, from Three Reveries (1992)
Eric Lyon – Sandoz and Purification Ritual from Six European Lullabies (2002)
Allen Shawn – Boogie Woogie (1983/1999)

*includes some composers who live just across the border into New Hampshire

Program notes on some of the pieces

(notes by the composers if in quotation marks; otherwise by M. Arnowitt)

William Mayer: Fantasia
For a program exploring American and Vermont music of the last forty years, the noted composer William Mayer, born in 1925, is the perfect starting point, as Mayer lives part of the year in the urban atmosphere of New York City and part of the year in the small town environment of Springfield, Vermont. His Fantasia, part of his 1960 Piano Sonata often performed as a separate work, is one of Mayer’s rare compositions using 12-tone writing; the opening 12-tone row, however, is formed of rich, open, and sonorous intervals more reminiscent of Copland than Schoenberg. The composer describes the Fantasia as “somewhat akin in visual experience to early morning mist clearing from a lake, only to return at dusk,” a scene he more likely saw in Vermont than in New York City.
      Mayer has commented: “the initial twelve-tone row acts as a frame of reference and as a generating principle, never as a closed system. This is another way of saying that I was immediately unfaithful to the row whenever an alien impulse stirred. I have a deep conviction, however, that random ideas that occur to a composer while a work is in progress are only seemingly unrelated – the unconscious often brings to a work a subtle and deep organizing power that a conscious manipulation of materials could not hope to match.”

George Crumb: Dream Images & Spiral Galaxy
The world of the unconscious is also touched by Crumb’s “Dream Images,” where fragments of the lyrical theme of Chopin’s “Fantaisie-impromptu” drift in and out of consciousness; at the piece’s conclusion, perhaps the dreamer is abruptly woken up. Crumb is fascinated with the way music appears visually; his scores are always beautifully published on extra-large paper. In his collections of Makrokosmos pieces (sets of 12 pieces, each devoted to one sign of the zodiac), some are written in the shapes of a cross, a circle, and a spiral.

John Cage: 49 Waltzes for the 5 Boroughs
This piece collages together fragments of famous waltzes, Cageian snippets of short sounds, and field recordings collected from street addresses grouped in threes. In the original composition, Cage specified various addresses in the five boroughs of New York City, but Michael Arnowitt’s realization features tape recordings made at addresses chosen in and around the pianist’s town of Montpelier, Vermont. Many thanks to Dennis Bathory-Kitsz for making the field recordings.

Eve Beglarian: Fireside
“Fireside was commissioned by pianist Sarah Cahill in celebration of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s centennial. The piece sets a poem Ruth Crawford wrote when she was thirteen years old. The harmony is a response to her fifth prelude. Fireside is dedicated to women composers of the future, who will undoubtedly be making devil’s bargains of their own.” – Eve Beglarian

Text of Fireside Fancies, poem by Ruth Crawford, age 13

When I sit by the side of the blazing fire
On a cold December night,
And gaze at the leaping and rollicking flames
As they cast their flickering light

I see what I would be in future years,
If my wishes and hopes came true,
And the flames form pictures of things that I dream,
Of the deeds that I hope to do.

One tall yellow flame darts above all the rest,
And I see myself famed and renowned,
A poetess I, and a novelist too,
Who is honored the whole world around.

That flame then grows dim, which to me seems to say,
That my first hope must soon die away,
Then another one darts on a great opera stage,
The most exquisite music I play.

And then, after many flames rise, and die down,
The first burns even and slow,
And I see myself singing to children my own,
On the porch of a small bungalow.

Oh, I dream, and I dream, until slowly the fire
Burns lower, grows smaller, less bright,
Till the last tiny spark has completely gone out,
And my dreams are wrapt up in the night.

David Fuqua: “Once again, once again / I am for you / A star”
This intriguing work, composed in sections based on the various movements of Bach’s famous “English Suite no. 2 in A minor,” features the pianist improvising gradual transitions between composed, written-out material. These transitions are to be fashioned in the style of Steve Reich’s “process music” of the 1970’s, but the improvisational element creates a more exciting and less mechanical performance atmosphere.
      Another important influence for the composer was the early twentieth century development of collage in the visual arts. Fuqua writes of the collage becoming one of the “most radical techniques of the visual arts … in the collages of this period various textures are juxtaposed one against the other in unexpected combinations. Each individual element finds itself in a foreign context that alters its significance and forces a new identity upon it. The unexpected visual shifts of a collage violate the nineteenth century formal conceptions of art as representation of a single object or scene.” The title of the piece is from a poem written in this same pre-World War I era by the Russian futurist, Velimir Khlebnikov. Fuqua has radically shifted his own scene, having in recent years taken up residence at a monastery in rural Nepal!

Stanley Charkey: Three Short Inventions
“Three Short Inventions for Piano are a modest homage to Bach’s two-part inventions, which have been a source of pleasure and enlightenment for me. I have always found a two- part contrapuntal texture to be an especially challenging medium to work within, because it requires concise, clear thought and gesture. The first and third inventions are rapid, and explore the same basic gesture, while the second is more lyrical. Three Short Inventions can be heard on pianist Michael Arnowitt’s recording Alive and Well.” – Stanley Charkey

David Gunn: FogWalls
“FogWalls was originally composed for an August 1996 multimedia production in Montpelier, Vermont called Circular Screaming that featured electroacoustic music, a couple of computers, numerous blocks of ice, and select aromas that were broadcast throughout the performance space. It was written using Cakewalk sequencing software and conceived to be played by an electronic keyboard, being much much too difficult for normal humans – even those with prehensile third arms expressed frustration over the impossible intricacies of measure 79.
      Under pressure from clamoring keyboardists plus his parole officer, the composer reworked the piece so that it could be performed by pianists with regulation-size hands … The resulting piece was almost but not quite playable. Even measure 79 spots the pianist a sporting chance to escape with fingers intact. Because the tune was originally called Fogwaltz, more than a few waltzlike phrases may from time to time be discerned. A tonal center has yet to be appointed.” – David Gunn

Larry Polansky: Four Voice Mensuration Canon no. 13 (DIY)
The DIY in the title stands for “do it yourself.” In the Cage tradition, this piece consists of what Polansky calls “recipes” (open-ended realization instructions) by which the performer becomes a performer-composer. Inspired by late medieval canons, the basic idea is that of a round wherein the different parts enter at different moments and proceed independently at different speeds calibrated so all parts end together on the last note. Four-element groups undergo permutations according to comprehensive tables provided by the composer. An element in these groups of fours does not have to be an individual pitch: these groups can be composed of four rhythms, four tone colors, instruments, or any element of music you wish to choose: here each individual element is a melody from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony no. 3.

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz: Tirkiinistra, Landscape Preludes for Piano
“Tďrkíinistrá is a set of 25 one-minute préludes based on photographs taken on my land in Northfield, Vermont, in the autumn of 2002. Each miniature was created by recomposing the raw material extracted from the design and color information in each photograph, as well as the frequency of changes and densities.
      The raw material was extracted many times until it reflected the content of the photograph to the composer’s satisfaction, and then roughly worked through 24 modes and scales as reflected through the structure of a folk song. The rough piece was refined and polished so that listening to all 25 préludes exposes the feel of a Vermont autumn. The photograph for each piece is presented in the upper right of each page of the score, and in the upper left is a dynamic map. This map replaces dynamics in the score itself, and leaves it to the performer to sculpt its shape in sound.” – Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

Allen Shawn: Prelude no. 1, Reverie no. 3, and Boogie Woogie
Allen Shawn offers an impetuous Prokofiev-like prelude, a beautiful, sonorous reverie which takes Copland’s harmonic ideas a step further, and an exciting modern boogie-woogie jazz piece (think of boogie-woogie as the American version of the romantics’ moto perpetuo pieces or the classical period’s left-hand Alberti basses).

Eric Lyon: Sandoz and Purification Ritual
“My lullabies are intended as gentle meditations on the transition from the 20th to the 21st century. The collection is a note of thanks to Europe for the cultural history that led to my becoming an American composer. While these compositions do not ignore the present, they are focused on the past.” – Eric Lyon