Category Archives: Aesthetics of Music

Compositional Improvisation in the Western US

CD Review
Glenn Stallcop: Ash Fork Verses: Set #3; Glenn Stallcop, piano. Available at CDBaby, iTunes, and Amazon.com.

Arizona. Land of mesas and pine trees. High elevations give this state the southernmost skiing area in the US; and lovely alpine regions appear as oases in the high desert. That high, dry sensibility suffuses the compositional improvisations of Glenn Stallcop, composer and practitioner of this rare art form.

Compositional improvisation is, strictly speaking, a subset of classical improvisation. The distinction is necessary because, as a general rule, classical improvisation usually involves improvisation in the styles of composers other than the performing pianist/composer. Compositional improvisation is classical improvisation––as distinct from jazz improvisation––in the style of the performing pianist/composer. Many of the great composer/pianists of the past were well-known compositional improvisers (Chopin, Scriabin, Liszt, Brahms, among others). Many of the most important works of these composers were developed out of improvisations. It is almost axiomatic that any living, thriving music has improvisation at its core–witness Jazz and Baroque music.

Glenn’s improvisations were influenced, as were many improvisers, by Keith Jarrett. And, as Keith has followed a path leading further away from jazz in some ways, Glenn, a classical composer by trade, has spent much of his improvising career developing a distinctly classical style of improvisation. Glenn’s improvisations are also inspired by the landscapes surrounding his cabin in Arizona. That mix of pine and dust swirls about in his music; the arid, pungent qualities of advanced tonal harmony augment the dust devil textures. One of the densest tracks, ironically, is simply named “Playing The Harmonica”, and seems more concerned with the overtones the harmonica produces than any discrete melodies. Considering Glenn’s consistently dissonant yet tonal style, it is very much atmosphere rather than tone painting he seems to be aiming for.

An interesting issue with improvisation is that often tends to become a kind of background music. It is by its very nature more rambling than written music––but in a sense more naturalistic as well––and in the hands of a skilled practitioner can become a unique art form which speaks more about the moment to moment operations of the human brain than the carefully worked out patterns of written music.

Our brains are improvisational by their very nature; they go hither and yon often with little or no apparent overall direction. Jazz seems to understand this. It is this satisfying presentness that seems lacking in a lot of written music, and may indeed be one of the core problems that keeps classical music from becoming better appreciated in this day and age. Thanks to pioneering musicians like Glenn Stallcop, that situation may someday be remedied.

Glenn’s CD’s may be found here:

http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/GlennStallcop

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (www.crsnews.org)  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

Radio Mysteria

The composer Alexander Scriabin saw his Mysterium as a place where humanity could transcend itself through the medium of music.  In Emanuel E.Garcia’s essay, “Scriabin’s Mysterium and the Birth of Genius”, Garcia writes: “The Mysterium was a world Scriabin’s genius created to sustain its own evolution. It was simultaneously a refuge, a protectorate, an ever-present inspiration. It solved the problem of atonality and the approaching dead-end of classical music”.

Because Scriabin’s ideals were reaching their apex just before the outbreak of World War I, the world was perhaps not ready to receive his news of transcendence, either universal or personal. After the war art and culture became less about the universal, and more about the specific, and experimentation–not unification–became the rule. It is almost as if that place, that time in history remained frozen, it’s objectives incomplete.

There were other composers who followed Scriabin’s aesthetics, and ultimately ideals. Karol Szymanowski’s Symphony #3, “Song of the Night” is perhaps the best-known work by another composer to incorporate the almost eschatological fervor that Scriabin sought to bring to music. Composers like Nikolai Roslavets also followed in Scriabin’s footsteps, creating miniatures which, like Scriabin’s, were almost templates for the kind of advanced tonal harmony Scriabin was developing for the Mysterium.

Because there is a whole range of this kind of music written not only during Scriabin’s lifetime but in the years after, the idea of creating an internet radio station based on this music seemed a logical step not only in correlating the music, but disseminating it. Thus Radio Mysteria was born.  The station features a wide range of music, both from Scriabin’s time and ours. Recently added tracks include: Szymanowski’s “Mythes” from the album “The Shakespeare Concerts Series, Vol. 4“, and the Messiaen “Vocalise” from the album “Belle Nuit“, both on Navona Records, as well as contemporary classical improviser Glenn Stallcop’s “Around the Dry Tank” from his “Ash Fork Verses: Set #1” .

Ultimately, my goal in creating this radio station is to present music not only influenced by Scriabin’s “Mysterium”, but ultimately the ideals of mystery and transcendence in art that the Mysterium represents.

You can find Radio Mysteria here:

http://www.live365.com/stations/radiomysteria

The Miracle of the Parma Festival

In a world…where classical and popular music make few efforts to get along with one another–and where success in both idioms often lies within lines of least resistance–along comes the Parma Music Festival (held annually in Portsmouth, New Hampshire).

Contemporary music festivals rarely incorporate both classical and popular music.  In order to do so, venues have to be found which are friendly to both musics, as well as to variations on both which defy categorization.  In our neck of the woods–north of Boston–as in many other places, venues tend to segregate themselves along either classical or popular lines, rarely incorporating both; and even more rarely do they host both musics at the same time.   Apart from occasional composer concerts at concert halls, much of the performance that goes on in classical venues is “old-fashioned”, both in terms of the music performed  and with respect to the careers of the performers, most of whom have come up the “competition ladder” playing the old chestnuts.  And in venues known more for popular music–most of which are very noisy and require music performed at the 90+ decibel level–alternative pop acts are often snubbed, not to mention classical performers and composers.

As a “non-pop” (as composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz termed contemporary classical music) improvisational composer/performer who has not followed the traditional route for classical performers, I have noted that concert venues do not really understand my approach; and even quiet progressive places like bookstores and tea rooms usually do not get what I do. This is in stark contrast to online live performing–the venue to which I have largely had to resort to build my career so far–where my audiences have been very supportive in a way they could not be in the “real-world”.  IM’s, live chat, etc. during performances will someday leave real-world venues in the dust in terms of performance flexibility–but for the foreseeable future, musical careers will continue to rise and fall on the variable fortunes of “real-life” venue work.

Enter Bob Lord and Parma Recordings.  Known for his pioneering work not only in purchasing struggling classical labels like Capstone Records but also for bringing seemingly disparate musics together on the same label, Bob and Parma have succeeded now with two Festivals in making the latter paradigm work in the real as well as recorded worlds.

Case in point: my “compositional piano improvisations”, which lie somewhere between background and foreground music, need a venue where conversation during music is OK (and hopefully inspired by it),  but where a dedicated audience may also form if the music requires it.  I found such a venue at the Festival, a wonderful little theatre called the Music Hall Loft, where folks were partaking of breakfast in the other room for the first half, and coming into the theatre to listen for the second half–a natural progression, as it were. Other Festival performers had this opportunity as well: the amazing bass clarinetist Matthias Müller presented his fabulous otherworldly improvisations in Portsmouth’s Riverrun bookstore –another venue which encouraged simultaneous quiet talking and listening.  And following both of our concerts, gifted performers working in the popular vein presented their works.

Ah, for a 365-day-a-year version of the Parma Festival!  A place like the salons of old, where conversations, and performances drawn from both written and improvised music, fuel each other.

Liszt_at_the_Piano(Franz Liszt Fantasizing at the Piano, by Josef Danhauser, a painting of Franz Liszt playing in a Parisian salon. The imagined gathering shows George Sand, Franz Liszt, Niccolò Paganini, Gioachino Rossini, and other artists and musicians of the era).

Copyright 2014 Gregory Hall