August 8, 2007

Dispatch from MU 786.4-A

Remember this? Well, I kept going for a little while there. That was the first score on the shelf – these are the second through eighth. This has been sitting in the hopper for some months now, I guess because I thought I might continue further at some point. Ha! Better that I don’t.

Here’s what there was.

Jean Absil (1893-1974): Feeries pour piano, op. 153 (1971) (age 78)
There’s one more Absil to be had here. This consists of six miniatures: Lutins, Elfes, Korrigans, Néréides, Choéphores, Farfadets. Internet tells me these are, in order, Imps, Elves, Goblins, Nereids (Sea Nymphs), Choephori (The Libation Bearers in Aeschylus??), and Leprechauns. These are as a whole better than – but very, very similar to – Alternances. Very low on melody. Seems to disprove my theories as to the meaning of the title of Alternances, since there’s just as much alternance here. Just a habitual style at this point in his life, I guess. Mildly colorful ideas given unimaginative treatment seems to be his thing; miniatures about elves were an appropriate project. But even these are ultimately pretty bland. Again, something old-mannish seems to have happened to him in estimating performance time – 17 minutes, it tells me, but I get absolutely no more than 14. No commercial recording exists, as far as I can tell.

Joseph Achron (1886-1943): Statuettes, Op. 66 (1930) (age 44)
This is one of the intriguing publications of New Music, Henry Cowell’s score periodical with that lovely front cover design. Statuettes comes to us as the October 1931 issue. Achron was and is best known for “Jewish” works, but this, as far as I can tell, isn’t one. It’s a series of seven miniatures, all based – perhaps a bit too directly – on a the same four-note chord/motive. The idiom is sort of generic “modernist,” with an overall debt to Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives and some of the Scriabin miniatures, but a fair bit less emotive than either of those guys. It’s sort of like something someone’s grandfather wrote, poking at the piano in the den. The writing is somewhat primitive and doesn’t immediately offer signs of life, but on the second try, there turns out to be a modicum of charm and thought here. Statuettes presumably because these are meant to be like little angular totems carved out of hard wood, with mildly forbidding expressions, appropriate for placing on the windowsill over the piano in the den. The two really fast ones are harder than the rest and need practice. There is a commercial recording available of this piece, and from the samples I found online it sounds like the guy did a fine job of making it work.

John Adams (1947-): Phrygian Gates (1977) (age 30)
About as successful and prominent a piano piece as has been written in the past 30 years. Several commercial recordings. Heck, this piece even has its own official web page at the composer’s site. This is 22+ minutes of pretty ripples, arranged so that little insignificant things are constantly happening to hold the attention of, if not the listener, at least the performer. It’s monotonous, but a monotony to which taste has been conscientiously applied. Some parts are more fun to play than others; some parts are more fun to listen to than others. I’m not sure there’s any reason why it has to be this long, except maybe just to assert that “even a ripple piece can be monumental.” I guess I don’t have a problem with that, but it doesn’t in itself mean a lot to me, either, so maybe it should have been half as long. The last section is weaker than the beginning. I’m not sure the whole piece adds up to anything more than the sum – or series – of its parts, but a lot of those parts are pleasant. At least to play, and therefrom to imagine. I’ve heard a couple recordings and nobody seems to get it quite right. I remember playing through this score on high school afternoons for the soothing pleasure of all those rolling waves that had been worked out in advance for me. Also the hypnotic, DDR-like challenge of trying to break and reform all the mildly irregular patterns exactly as instructed, as they each arose in the chain – like performing a very very long magic spell that doesn’t do anything. It’s also a little like watching running water – fascinating and touching but content-less. Anyway: endless rolling landscapes are a legitimate source of imaginative pleasure to me, and I guess a lot of other people, since this piece keeps on going.

Paul Adams (?-?): Folk Rock for the Student Pianist (1966)
This is a funny item, in my opinion mis-catalogued. This should be with the pedagogical piano books in 786.3. It’s the 1966 equivalent of From A Wigwam* except these pieces are meant to trick kids into thinking they’re playing the popular-style music they so enjoy. It’s funny because the pieces are so remarkably bad. Not only are they as bad as most pedagogical pieces, but they’re embarrassingly square attempts to capture things on the piano that were never going to sound good on the piano – 1966 things that were pretty corny even in their competent commercial forms – and because they’re weird in ways that only Paul Adams himself could ever explain. Why does one of them (“You Distant Star”) have the following lyrics, to a bizarre, near-Shaggsian melody?

I see you now
I know you are
You seem so strange
so very far
Oh, come back home
You distant star

Far out. The rest are straight instrumentals. The first one is called “Goin’ Bats” and is a copyright runaround on the “Batman” theme, though Adams still manages to sneak in some wrong notes. Some other titles include “Barrels of Beetles,” “Monkey Business,” “Discotheque A Go Go,” “Space Echo,” and “Rock Bottom.”

To further everyone’s musical education, I here offer the score of “Rough ‘N’ Tough,” with all due apologies to Mills Music and to Mr. Adams, wherever he may be.

Richard Addinsell (1904-1977): Warsaw Concerto (arr. by Henry Geehl) (1941) (age 37)
An imitation of Rachmaninoff, of course, but done with absolutely no taste. As evidenced, for example, by the 14 consecutive C minor chords with which it begins. It’s hard to believe that this is “the popular Warsaw Concerto” about which I’ve heard so much. As a stand-in for classical music in a movie called Suicide Squadron (USA) (new title), it’s fine – potentially even effective. In snippets, maybe. But why would anyone want to listen to this or play it in its arbitrary concert entirety? The whole thing rides on the melodramatic force of a couple big chord changes, but they’re the Max-Steiner-iest sort of hack. The voicing is thick and lazy, like someone demonstrating a tune they’ve just thought up before actually working it out. The themes die out after just barely a phrase and then have nothing to do but repeat immediately, several times. And the business between the themes is just the foggiest sort of impression of the kinds of things that go on in classical music. The whole manages to remind one of the distant, abstract concept of stirring music without being even remotely stirring music. And even given that lowly goal, it could be a lot better.

Richard Addinsell: Theme from the Warsaw Concerto (1941)
This is even worse. You’d think an abbreviated version would work better than the original, but it doesn’t.

Samuel Adler (1928-): Bridges to Span Adversity (1989) (age 61)
For harpsichord. Two short movements. What little I know of Adler’s music seems all the same – shapes and noises from the field guide to 20th-century shapes and noises, bouncing around, but to no end. I can’t tell you why these doodles doodled the way they did and not otherwise and I’m not sure he could either. More importantly, they don’t sound like anything much so one’s hardly motivated to go in search of sense. A few nice touches in the mix are nicely canceled out by a lot of pointless business. This is the sort of thing that looks like it might be fun, when you see the score – a lot of clean but irregular rhythms. But that in itself isn’t music, and here it is indeed in itself. Sort of seems like the biggest compositional choices here are the scoring and titling, and the notes themselves are just a way to make sure the piece includes some notes. That may be unfair but, you know, I think a composer should aim to leave his listener convinced that that’s not the case, and I genuinely wasn’t convinced. Now that it occurs to me that Mr. Adler might, conceivably, see this, I feel like I owe it another look before I post so dismissive an appraisal. But sorry, I already returned it to the library. You can listen to the recording and decide for yourself. It’s the last two sound samples at that link.

* By John Thompson (1889-1963).


  1. LOL’d at Suicide Squadron. You’re standing right here and telling me I don’t understand that that’s just the name of the movie the piece is from, but I do. That’s just a really funny name for a movie.

    Posted by Beth on |
  2. Paul Adams – whoa. Perhaps he owes US an apology.
    Adler – nice description. Comes down to the age-old question of what the purpose of wordless music is. Emotion? Beauty? Communication? Mental exercise? (Short) stories? Art? Showing off? Make sure there are at least some notes?..

    Posted by Adam Adolphe - just missed me on |
  3. One of those.

    Posted by Or Adolphe Adam on |

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