Category Archives: Composer Profiles

Compositional Improvisation in the Western US

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

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:

Gregory Hall

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

Pacific Ridge: Orchestral Works and Concertos of Emma Lou Diemer

CD Review

Pacific Ridge: Orchestral Works and Concertos of Emma Lou Diemer.

NV5898 (Navona Records)

The Santa Barbara Overture is an orchestral work which contains a richly varied history of American music. Often, though, it is American music as seen through the eyes of Europeans, and–in some cases–transmuted back to the American. Gershwin’s American in Paris is such a work. An American tribute to the City of Light–echoing the work of Les Six among others–it is European until the music evoked is jazz, whereupon it becomes “American” again–still seen through European eyes–yet ultimately realized by an American composer.

Santa Barbara is a place that parallels this sort of musical evolution–a city like Tangier, Morocco. Exotic, temperate, visited by Europeans and Americans (notably Paul Bowles) who took both exotic and European aspects of Tangier and translated them into American prose and music. The fact that Diemer has lived in Santa Barbara for many years helps make this music convincing. Having spent eight years there myself, the music evokes for me my best memories of the eclecticism of that special city.

Concerto In One Movement For Marimba hews into somewhat different territory. The marimba in contemporary classical music has to some extent (at least for this listener) become associated with Steve Reich’s music–as such, it has come to have a supporting role which is almost structural in nature. In this concerto the instrument breaks free, partaking at once of the kind of repeated minimalistic rhythmic “riffs” which it does so well; yet, as the composer states, “the spirit of the work is related to Vivaldi in its use of slow-moving harmonies evolved through figuration”. Although Reich’s work also uses slow-moving harmonies, the marimba role there is largely harmonic. In Diemer’s work, it becomes largely melodic, including complex figurations. At the end of the cadenza, a very Ravelian oboe subject introduces a particularly satisfying contrapuntal section–a Ravel “Chaconne/Passacaglia”. This subject–melodically realized descending major and minor seventh chords–is the kind of “implied harmony in melody” of which Ravel was so fond, and Diemer uses the subject with great contrapuntal skill.

The Concerto In One Movement For Piano reminds me of my early passion for the piano concertos of Prokofiev. It makes me feel that Emma Lou must have had similar youthful reactions to that music, for this work is nothing less than a heartfelt tribute to that music. Diemer adds playing inside the piano to the equation–something that might have appealed to Prokofiev–and had he lived longer and written more concertos such an effect might have emerged in his music, enlarging the already motoric sensibility. In the middle section, the aching displacement of the Russian composer is evoked wonderfully . Pianist Betty Oberacker is well-matched to this music–a pianist of exceptional solidity, especially evident in ostinati, which are almost ferocious but always, always in control.

The fact that Emma Lou is an experienced organist shines through in the orchestral writing in all these pieces. Her instrumental choices are not only coloristically fascinating, but often achieve what Ravel did in his Bolero: casting instruments to play at certain intervals to evoke the partials used in the more overtone-rich stops on the organ.

Gregory Hall

CD Review–Tango Nuevo: Works of Astor Piazzolla

I love a fugue. I especially love a fugue that has a lot of dissonance; even contemporary composers sometimes resort to older-fashioned harmonies when “fuguing”. Not so much Astor Piazzolla. The opening piece La Muerte Del Angel on Tango Nuevo gives us a lovely opening dose of polyphonic dissonance, then proceeds to further disarm with a non-sentimental swoon of “Tango Romantique” so characteristic of the composer. The opening flourish by violinist Tomas Cotik is superbly idiomatic.
The four movement Histoire Du Tango continues the contrasting moods seamlessly. Movement one, Bordel 1900 is early tango, heavily influenced by late-nineteenth century European cafe music. More dramatic than the sum of its influences, the piece has ample opportunities for virtuosic expression, which Cotik and the pianist Tao Lin continually exploit.
Cafe 1930 brings to mind Brahms seen through the eyes of Debussy. Particularly memorable is the center trio section, whose mysterious layers are both clarified and intentionally left untouched by the deft playing of the performers.
Nightclub 1960 enters a more nationalistic world, with local influences such as Brazilian bossa nova evident in the slower passages. The lingering melodies more than the characteristic bossa nova harmonies are here—I suppose I would have liked to see a few more of the latter from this composer–but the piece as a whole is congruent and brilliantly performed.
Concert D’aujourd’hui finds the tango come full-on into the 20th century. The martellato textures of Bartok and swiftly changing meters of Stravinsky highlight this serenade to the breakup of traditional musical parameters in that century. Cotik and Lin show their abundant knowledge of the music of that time in their playing.
The title of Melodia In A Minor was changed later by Piazzolla to The Mandrake, a plant of poisonous alkaloids. The pale whiteness of A minor heard in keyboard and violin timbres seems to echo that kind of bleached bareness.
By contrast, the Tango in the same key is anything but pale. A very sensual violin, full of slippery glissandi played to full effect by Mr. Cotik, makes this piece the most characteristic Piazzolla work so far. The mood of The Mandrake returns briefly in the middle, but the piece goes out on a dissonant flourish.
Milonga Sin Palabras was originally written for the bandoneon, as were several of the other works on this recording. The “rough accordion” sound of the instrument is irreplaceable, but Cotik knows how use the aforementioned glissandi and an apparently liberal use of the G string to not only evoke the bandoneon, but add aspects not available on that instrument.
Fuga Y Misterio from Piazzolla’s opera Maria de Buenos Aires, the first of a Mariatrilogy of pieces on this CD,is yet another fugue, this time very different, in the more tonal style of a strict fugue. The piece soon logically opens up into contrapuntal-style melodies resembling those of Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras.
Originally for oboe and piano and written for the 1984 film Enrico IV,Tanti Anni Prima (also entitled Ave Maria) is a simple melody realized in a lovely pale performance, a contrast in mood and instrumentation to the unbridled bandoneon music which throughout the film represents Enrico’s madness.
Yo soy Maria, also from Maria de Buenos Aires, is a third reflection on the theme of Maria, this time melancholic. Here Maria is a prostitute, and is now herself a figure of madness and downfall.
Oblivion, also from Enrico IV, is a justly famous work, an apotheosis of the minor mode tango which incorporates much already heard in this album—thus its appropriate placement here near the end of the CD. Again, Cotik’s controlled but emotional glissandi mix with Tao Lin’s understated playing to make this a catharsis for all that has come before.
Air de la zamba nina reminds again of Villa-Lobos, particularly the Prole Do Bebe suites for the piano. The innocence of the melody coupled with gentle diatonic dissonance makes this a palate cleanser before the last two works on the CD.
In many ways the most serious work on the CD, Le Grand Tango reminds one that Piazzolla was a composer of serious concert music. Full of varying gestures and textures, a piece like this affirms that Piazzolla in many ways did for his country what Villa-Lobos did for Brazil—brought the traditional and indigenous musics of their respective countries into a classical mainstream that yet remained nationalistic. The playing here is in so many ways exemplary—I particularly love the players’ realization of the Ravelian music in the middle section.
However, the CD goes out on the energy of popular music with Libertango. As with many of the arrangements on this CD it is illustrative to listen to the original version, performed by Conjunto 9. That original is 70’s progressive jazz-rock. Cotik and Lin take a faster tempo, seemingly to convey the same energy–but a closer listening reveals some of the intrinsic differences between popular and classical music. The original relied to a great extent on the built-in rhythms of the ensemble, but this transcription gets its rhythmic energy from the classically-born marcatos, spiccatos, and overall accented playing of these gifted performers. Both versions are wonderful, yet each is entirely idiomatic.

Gregory Hall

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