Three Pieces for Piano (1994-95), West Coast premiere
The Work of Sun
Sharon Lee Kim, piano
Soliloquy (2009) for viola solo
Emily Onderdonk, viola
November Gold (2017), song cycle on poems of Robert Francis, world premiere
The Great Wind
Three Darks Come Down Together
Come Out Into the Sun
Allen Shearer, baritone
Jeffrey Sykes, piano
Baudelaire’s Uncle (1980)
Claudia Stevens, piano
Dream Spaces & Recurring Nightmares (2017). world premiere
Kate Campbell, piano
Peter Josheff, spoken voice
Ann Callaway, Three Pieces for Piano
When I began writing the first of these pieces, I had no idea what it was or where it was going. An arpeggiated figure serves as the basis for continuation of….something, but whatever it was, “it” determined what it was going to do next. (Of course, “it” was me all along—my musical training and every other aspect of my personal history.) I wrote out the score in a kind of musical dictation, as the first chord unfolded, paused, started again, and gathered momentum before morphing into new shapes of the original idea. A photo of the turquoise-hued spiral galaxy labelled NGC2997 in my pocket guide to astronomy furnished a title for the finished piece, as it invoked in me a serene wonder in both the universe of the mind and the universe of time and space. The next piece, “Saturn,” consists mainly of stark, block-like chords in a minor key, contrasting in every way with its predecessor. Again, it was only after finishing that I was reminded of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia, where a winged figure sits brooding amid huge geometrical forms and implements for calculating the construction of something which can only be imagined by the artist himself. This seems to echo my own state of mind at certain points in the composing process. After the first delightful plunge into a new work comes a halt for analysis, planning, and sometimes even moodiness, as I take stock of my composing materials. In astrology, which I was also studying back then, Saturn can refer to mortification, fixed form, and the grave. In a sense, the life-giving joy of creation must seek a way to revive its generating energy after the stasis needed for cogitation before it can reach its fulfillment. The third piece, “The Work of Sun,” is a term used in the alchemical tradition. Again, metaphor is the main thing. Instead of transforming “base matter” into actual gold, some scholars say that the alchemical writings should be studied as the artfully disguised path to enlightened consciousness. In the slow unfolding of the third piece, I imagined the germination of a seed as the leaves unfold to the sun’s rays and to the universe at large, at the same time its roots ground it to the physical world, to planet Earth. –A.C.
Allen Shearer, Soliloquy
Writing for solo instruments is a pleasant sort of work. The medium is more pliable than an ensemble because there are fewer decisions to be made. The sound palette of Soliloquy comprises melodic material played with the bow and only briefly pizzicato, double stops, harmonics, and sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge)—that’s all. And I confess to having a weakness for the viola. In an ensemble it is easily overshadowed; it is the hardest instrument to pick out of a string quartet. But when isolated its unique resonance blooms.
Soliloquy is in a single movement lasting seven minutes. –A.S.
Allen Shearer, November Gold
This is a cycle of seven songs on poems of Robert Francis, whom Robert Frost called “the best neglected poet.” Robert Francis led a quiet, frugal life in the small house he built for himself near Amherst, Massachusetts, producing several books of finely crafted, concise lyrics. The poems in November Gold range from the exuberant embrace of life shown in the first and last songs to the bitter irony of “Light Casualties.” —A.S.
Francis Schwartz, Baudelaire’s Uncle
This composition for pianist-vocalist is part of a series of works by Francis Schwartz involving the active participation of the audience. Created in 1980 for the L’Arc concert series at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, Baudelaire’s Uncle balances dramatic and humorous elements and contains subtle references to Wagner, Debussy, and Webern. The performer is instructed to use body percussion and piercing tongue-produced vocal sounds violently directed at the audience for visual as well as aural effect. Sound and sight are equally important in this rarefied, surrealistic world.
In 1980. Schwartz researched the tortured life of poet Charles Baudelaire and found a possible connection to Heinrich von Grossbauch, an infamous German serial killer with cannibalistic tendencies. Grossbauch was rumored to be a descendant of the 15h-century serial killer Gilles de Rais, who inspired the legend of Blubeard.
Baudelaire’s Uncle is dedicated to the distinguished Argentinean composer Eduardo Kusnir, who premiered the work in Paris in 1980. Since then it has traveled the world from Juilliard’s Piano Century Festival to the Roaring Hooves of Ulan Bator, to the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, and the Bonk Festival of Tampa.
Peter Josheff, Dream Spaces & Recurring Nightmares
Dream Spaces & Recurring Nightmares is a spoken-word piece that I wrote to perform myself.
For many years I have been interested in spoken voice in chamber music. Exploring the possibilities of precisely-notated vocal rhythm while trying to maintain the feel of conversational speech. Not so easy. I am always curious to see how close I can get to my ideal of precise diction and naturalistic speech.
After looking around for texts I decided just to write something myself. I wrote very quickly maybe an hour of text on the subject of flying dreams, as well as different kinds of motion in dream spaces (dream versions of waking-life places). In order to trim it down to roughly thirty minutes, I abandoned the flying dreams and honed in on three different dream spaces and a couple of recurring nightmares.
Having recently completed a large work for tenor and spoken voice with chamber orchestra (The Dream Mechanic, 2016), I was eager to scale back the instrumental forces. Writing for piano (a direct and intimate compositional tool) gave me the opportunity to write something for Kate Campbell, whom I’ve enjoyed working with over the past several years with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. I am very happy that Kate has agreed to be part of this project. –P.J.