NEC New Music Ensemble: Tower, Heiss, Takemitsu, Davis, Crumb

NEC: Jordan Hall | Directions

290 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA
United States

This evening’s concert explores the explosion of styles and ideas during the second half of the twentieth century.  The generation of composers after Stravinsky and Schoenberg moved ambitiously into new territory in the 1960s and beyond.  The dream world of George Crumb, the delicate sensuality of Toru Takemitsu, the muscular virtuosity of Joan Tower, the Balinese gamelan and jazz-influenced groove of Anthony Davis – these broke new ground and in turn influenced the next generation.  And we honor NEC’s own John Heiss, whose dedication to performing new music was an inspiration throughout his decades-long leadership of the Contemporary Music Ensemble.
--Hugh Wolff

View the concert program in light mode & dark mode, recommended for in-person audiences. 

This is an in-person event with a private stream available to the NEC community here

  1. Joan Tower | Black Topaz (1976)

    Program note

    Mary Lou Humphrey writes in the score: 

    Joan Tower’sBlack Topazderives from a drawing she did of color rays emanating from a black, piano-like object.  This single-movement work examines a similar projection of color from its focal point, the solo piano (black) to a six-member supporting ensemble.  Tower selected each ensemble instrument for its ability to magnify and extend the piano’s timbral essence.  The percussion project the piano’s capability for sharp articulation: the temple blocks emphasize staccato attack and the marimba and tom-toms add depth.  Woodwinds, brass and vibraphones augment the piano’s lyrical and harmonic nature.  The title Black Topaz reflects the work’s essence: topaz is a structurally stable, yellowish mineral, which can, under different light, transform into varied colors.”

    • Amelia Libbey, flute
    • Aleksis Martin, bass clarinet
    • Eddy Lanois, trumpet
    • Quinn McGillis, trombone
    • Michael Rogers, Stephanie Nozomi Krichena, percussion
    • Solomon Ge, piano
  2. John Heiss | Eloquy (1978)


    Program note

    The two works of John Heiss on this evening’s program were written over forty years apart.  Eloquy, a woodwind quartet, dates from 1978.  The opening Soliloquy is a study in color as a unison melody passes from one instrument to others.  Several short variations follow: Chorale, Scherzo, March (with a cheeky quotation from Ives’ Three Places in New England – a favorite of Heiss), and Fantasia (where multiphonics make an appearance), before a reprise of the Chorale and the Soliloquy.  The music ends as it began: a single note, C-sharp, passed quietly from one instrument to the next.

    • Yechan Min, flute
    • Gwen Goble, oboe
    • Aleksis Martin, clarinet
    • Miranda Macias, bassoon
  3. Toru Takemitsu | Rain Spell (1982)


    Program note

    Rain Spellis one of many pieces by Toru Takemitsuinspired by the sound of rain and the random flow of water.  Though generally gentle and quiet in character, woodwind multiphonics and quarter-tone tuning of the harp expand the sonic palette, giving the music an exotic and mysterious quality.  The composer writes that Rain Spell “is intended to realize the magical image and the gradation in coloration of the rain in a small-scale ensemble.”

    • Amelia Libbey, flute, alto flute
    • Aleksis Martin, clarinet
    • Danial Kukuk, vibraphone
    • Morgan Mackenzie Short, harp
    • Shu Wen Tay, piano
  4. Anthony Davis | Wayang II (Shadowdance) (1982)


    Program note

    Wayang II is one of five ensemble pieces Anthony Davis wrote in the 1970s and 1980s inspired by Balinese gamelan music.  The composer writes:  “I was interested in creating rhythmic drama, using polyrhythmic structures to articulate expanses of time.  Rhythmic ostinatos, repeating structures of various lengths…delineate time and space, providing a subtext in the music that is both conscious and subliminal, embodying forward motion and giving the music the inevitability of groove.”  A 5/4 vibraphone ostinato is supplemented by 7/4 and 11/4 patterns in marimba and piano.  Cello, violin and flute have solo turns before the trombone and bass take charge.

    • Yechan Min, flute
    • Quinn McGillis, trombone
    • Clay Hancock, violin
    • Isaac Berglind, cello
    • William Swett, double bass
    • Michael Rogers, Stephanie Nozomi Krichena, Danial Kukuk, percussion
    • Shu Wen Tay, piano

  6. John Heiss | Serenade for Flute and Harp (2012)

    In memoriam Arlene Heiss


    Program note

    How does one cope with the loss of one’s beloved life-partner?  We were married for forty-seven years and knew each other for fifty-one.  One mourns (profoundly) but one also treasures the overall experience… Arlene was so original, imaginative, energetic, and buoyant.  Her life-force was animating.  Thinking of her (beyond the sadness) brings cheer, optimism, and hope… as well as deeper devotion to those who still remain.
            These all play into my Serenade.  She often told me that she loved my “lyricism”, my “chords”, my “surprises”, and my sense of humor.  The piece thus evolves through six phases, Aria–Incantation–Runes–Dances–Pulses–Encomium,
    while briefly referencing moments we both liked in my works and others.  The first four phases are probably self-evident; Pulses is a little game based on telephone dial-tones of people frequently called, and Encomium is an homage and tribute to Arlene herself.  I like to think that this piece would bring some smiles to her.        
    – John Heiss

    • Erika Rohrberg, flute
    • Morgan Mackenzie Short, harp
  7. George Crumb | Ancient Voices of Children: A Cycle of Songs on Texts by Federico García Lorca (1970)

    El niño busca su voz (The little boy was looking for his voice)
    --Dances of the Ancient Earth
    Me he perdido muchas veces por el mar (I have lost myself in the sea many times)
    ¿De dondé vienes, amor, mi niño?
    --Dance of the Sacred Life-Cycle
    Todas las tardes en Granada, todas las tardes se meure un niño (Each afternoon in Granada, a child dies each afternoon)
    --Ghost Dance
    Se ha llenado de luces mi corazón de seda (My silk heart has been filled with lights)


    Program note

    [from the cover of the Nonesuch recording]

    Ancient Voices of Children was composed during the summer of 1970 on commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, while I was in residence at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. This work forms part of an extended cycle of vocal compositions based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca which has absorbed much of my compositional energy over the past eight years.  Other works in this cycle include Night Music I (1963) for soprano, keyboard and percussion; four books of Madrigals (1965-69) for soprano and a varying instrumental combination; Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death (1968) for baritone, electric instruments and percussion; and Night of the Four Moons (1969) for also and four instrumentalists.  Ancient Voices of Children was first performed on October 31, 1970, as part of the Coolidge Foundation’s 14th Festival of Chamber Music at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. By the same performers involved in the Nonesuch recording.
            In Ancient Voices of Children, as in my earlier Lorca settings, I have sought musical images that enhance and reinforce the powerful yet strangely haunting imagery of Lorca’s poetry.  I feel that the essential meaning of this poetry is concerned with the most primary things: life, death, love, the smell of the earth, the sounds of the wind and the sea.  These “ur-concepts” are embodied in a language which is primitive and stark but which is capable of infinitely subtle nuance.  In a lecture entitled “Theory and Function of the ‘Duende’”, Lorca has, in fact, identified the essential characteristic of his own poetry.  “Duende” (untranslatable, but roughly: passion, élan, bravura in its deepest, most artistic sense) is for Lorca “all that has dark sounds…This ‘mysterious power that everyone feels but that no philosopher has explained’ is in fact the spirit of the earth…All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned…”
            The texts of Ancient Voices of Children are fragments of longer poems which I have grouped into a sequence that seemed to suggest a “larger rhythm” in terms of musical continuity.  The two purely instrumental movements—Dances of the Ancient Earth and Ghost Dance—are dance-interludes rather than commentaries on the texts.  These two pieces, together with the 3rd song, subtitled Dance of the Sacred Life-Cycle (which contains a rising-falling ostinato bolero rhythm in the drums), can be performed by a solo dancer.
            The vocal style in the cycle ranges from the virtuosic to the intimately lyrical, and in my conception of the work I very much had in mind Jan DeGaetani’s enormous technical and timbral flexibility.  Perhaps the most characteristic vocal effect in Ancient Voices is produced by the mezzo-soprano singing a kind of fantastical vocalise (based on purely phonetic sounds) into an amplified piano, thereby producing a shimmering aura of echoes.  The inclusion of a part for boy soprano seemed the best solution for those passages in the text where Lorca clearly implies a child’s voice.  The boy soprano is heard offstage until the very last page of the work, at which point he joins the mezzo-soprano onstage for the closing vocalise.
            The instruments employed in Ancient Voices were chosen for their particular timbral potentialities.  The pianist also plays toy piano (in the 4th song), the mandolinist musical saw (2nd song) – although a separate player can be used for the saw – and the oboist harmonica (4th song).  Certain special instrumental effects are used to heighten the “expressive intensity” – e.g., “ending” the pitch of the piano by application of a chisel to the strings (2nd song); use of a paper-threaded harp (in Dances of the Ancient Earth); the frequent “pitch-bending” of the oboe, harp and mandolin.  The mandolin has one set of strings tuned a quarter-tone low in order to give a special pungency to its tone.  The three percussionists command a wide range of instruments, including Tibetan prayer stones, Japanese temple bells and tuned tom-toms.  The instrumentalists are frequently called upon to sing, shout and whisper.
            In composing Ancient Voices of Children I was conscious of an urge to fuse various unrelated stylistic elements.  I was intrigued with the idea of juxtaposing the seemingly incongruous: a suggestion of Flamenco with a Baroque quotation (“Bist du bei mir,” from the Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach), or a reminiscence of Maher with a breath of the Orient.  It later occurred to me that both Bach and Mahler drew upon many disparate sources in their own music without sacrificing “stylistic purity.”
            It is sometimes of interest to a composer to recall the original impulse—the “creative germ”— of a compositional project.  In the case of Ancient Voices I felt this impulse to be the climactic final words of the last song: “…and I will go very far…to ask Christ the Lord to give me back my ancient soul of a child.”            
    – George Crumb

    • YeonJae Cho, soprano
    • Chihiro Asano, mezzo-soprano (in the role of the boy soprano)
    • Gwen Goble, oboe
    • Clay Hancock, mandolin
    • Stephanie Nozomi Krichena, Danial Kukuk, Michael Rogers, percussion
    • Morgan Mackenzie Short, harp
    • Hugh Wolff, piano