Category Archives: Maximalism

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.

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:

CD Review–Music from Prague

CD Review

Music from Prague: Works by Weber, Milhaud, Krenek, Schlenck, Reiprich

CRS CD 1192

Weber’s status as a sort of lesser Beethoven is to some extent confirmed by his Clarinet Concerto No. 1, as it seems a rambling mix of both Mozart and Beethoven. However, John Russo’s singing tone manages to bring out the Mozart in Weber. Russo seems to realize that Mozart “invented” the clarinet concerto, and the rollicking good humor evident right from the start of the piece culminates in a first cadenza which is a showplace for the varied tessituras of the instrument. Russo understands and revels in those coloristic contrasts throughout the work. As the piece moves into the second theme, his seamless connection of tessituras within the long scalar runs shows his ability to link the different registers without a hitch.

The cantabile second movement again becomes Mozartean in Russo’s hands. The noble theme for horn and clarinet (which allows the piece to become, temporarily, a wind quintet of sorts) is resolved into the repeat of the cantabile. Russo brings the main theme back with great sensitivity, which significantly ennobles this performance of the work.

Rollicking. A Russo specialty; and almost never more apparent than at the beginning of the Allegretto. This movement is perhaps better realized than the others, both in terms of clarinet and surrounding writing, and Russo makes the most of it.

An endless stream. Many of Darius Milhaud’s works begin as if he had picked up where he left off finishing his last work, and the Anime of his Clarinet Concerto is no exception. That said it is a delightful movement, one which partakes of the best qualities of a composer to whom music came as naturally as breathing. Composed in 1946, this movement is replete with echoes of French music from the first half of the twentieth century in its ramblings–from Ravel to Messiaen–but never as serious. Russo understands these ruminations, and heartily follows Milhaud’s wanderings.

The Décide second movement has echoes of the music hall “Les Six”; and like the music of Milhaud and his fellows in the 1920’s has passages by turns bawdy and exquisite. This one, however, is mostly Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, and Russo plays it for all its cafe orchestra worth.

The Lent is the exotic Poulenc of Honoloulou (from his Rapsodie nègre); softly repetitive, it also reminds me of the “dream of Madagascar” atmosphere of Poulenc’s song Paul et Virginie. Russo’s clarinet bridges the gentle gaps within the dream, from distant drums to muted brass, always coloring the moods reflectively and accurately. This is not a movement I wanted to end.

Milhaud was a chronicler of the illustrious period in French music from 1900 to 1950, both as active participant and later as remembrant, and the final Anime returns to the music hall. Here are also echoes of his own “busy” music, the sort of texture Gershwin would borrow for the beginning of American in Paris. Russo’s ruminations have enough “jazz” in them to bring the piece even more to life.

I was fortunate enough to meet Ernst Krenek in the early 1980’s; this last “relic” not only of the early days of twentieth century composition but of the type of severe, formal training that essentially passed away soon after the advent of mid-century Modernism was a formidable figure even in his eighties. The severity and seriousness of his craft is well documented in the Monologue for solo clarinet. In musical movements freely atonal yet written in a dodecaphonic spirit Krenek uses intervallic counterpoint to liberate himself from the sense of underlying harmony, yet simultaneously manages to imply a very strong harmonic structure: no mean feat, and verification of his excellent old-world training. Colors again abound in Russo’s interpretation, one I wish Krenek could have heard.

Schlenck’s Concerto initially reminded me of certain works by Alan Hovhaness. Hovhaness was one of the first Western composers to compose in a truly scalar manner—a trait of Eastern musics in general—and this piece—based on Indian Ragas–does so very deliberately, partaking of the linearity inherent in contemporary set theory. About midway through the movement the linear textures are augmented by chordal blocks reminiscent of Roy Harris—a nice and surprisingly appropriate juxtaposition. The rest of the movement skillfully plays out these opposing textures.

The Allegro is more deliberately polyphonic–and Western—despite the presence of an Indian tala (meter). Near the end, a very Roy Harris style chord progression appears again–obviously Harris is a strong influence on this composer.

The beginning of Bruce Reiprich’s Swans for chamber orchestra brings back some of the exquisite French feel of the Milhaud. Episodic, Takemitsu-like textures follow in a deliberately non-linear manner, reminding me of some of the atmospheric short works of Ives (The Pond). This is nature music, a kind of “maximal minimalism”, in which there is little musical development but much atmosphere—certainly not an inappropriate approach considering that the piece is something of an elegy to the composer’s father. A work worthy of repeated listenings, to best catch nuances missed the first time.

Gregory Hall

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