MEA-NJ General Meeting (via Zoom) May 20, 2021 Ursula Oppens presents Playing the Music of Our Time Ursula was introduced to us by MEA’s Beatrice Long, Ursula's longtime friend and colleague at Brooklyn College and CUNY. Tying into MEA's next season Piano Competition theme “Discovering Women Composers,” Beatrice mentioned that Ursula, a distinguished professor with five Grammy nominations, has been discovering both male and female composers for decades. No other living artist has commissioned and premiered more new works for the piano that have entered the permanent repertoire. Over the years, Ms. Oppens has premiered works by such leading composers as: John Adams, Luciano Berio, William Balcom, Elliot Carter, John Corigliano, Julius Hemphill, David Hertzberg, Laura Kaminsky, Gyorgy Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski and Joan Tower, just to name a few. The list of orchestras and quartets with which Ms. Oppens has performed is long. In addition to Brooklyn College, she teaches at Mannes School of Music. She received an honorary doctorate from the New England Conservatory. For more, visit here.
Ursula began by mentioning that she wants to encourage friendships between composers and performers, of which there were many in history. She has asked her friends to compose music that she can perform for others. For us she is concentrating on compositions for high school-aged students. Be aware that there are composers who are in high school or are recent graduates. “I wish this collaboration will start as soon as is possible, and even in the same person.” Mannes has recently initiated a masters degree program for the performer-composer. Today Ursula is performing 5 pieces: “Lament” by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, “Two Diversions” by Elliot Carter, “Changing Faces” by Alvin Singleton, “Parchment” by Julius Hemphill and “Friendship” by Frederic Rzewski.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is one of the most prominent American composers and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. (When she met William Schumann at a party she asked him what she had been asked many times: What was it like to be the first MAN to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music?) In 1999, with the millennium approaching, Ellen was hired by Judith Aaron, the Artistic Head of Carnegie Hall, as the first composer-in- residence. So many of the most important American composers had written fabulous pieces, but Ellen was worried that neither amateurs nor even music majors in college were daring to play them. So she decided on a commissioning program to ask composers to write pieces suitable for students at Brooklyn College. This resulted in The Carnegie Hall Millennium Piano Book from which Ursula played two pieces. The first piece was Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's “Lament” in honor of Judith Aaron. (Ellen is now writing a concerto for Jeffrey Biegel, a Brooklyn College colleague, to play with the Dallas Symphony.) In Ursula's opinion, this piece is not too difficult.
The next piece, Elliot Carter's “Two Diversions,” is more complicated. He liked to play games. In the first “Diversion,” Elliot begins with a slow ostinato at 40 beats to the minute, then doubles or quadruples the speed, then goes back to a slower tempo. In the second “Diversion,” one hand has music that goes faster and faster, the other hand has music that goes slower and slower. Years ago Carter said, “Normally people pay attention to the faster-moving melody.” He requested that we pay more attention to the music which goes slower, which is usually in the left hand, and hear it as a melody. This is one of Carter's most successful pieces because it is a bit simpler. Carter said: “It takes a long time to learn to write simply.”
Ursula noted: “It was one of the lodestones of my life that I was able to work with Elliot Carter from age 22 until he died in 2012.” One of the important questions he posed was “What does a composer mean when he or she writes something down?” Charles Wuorinen replied that he loves the indeterminacy of it; that it is not a recording, it is not electronic. Composers write notation, but expect different interpretations.
In the 1970's leading up to 1980, several pianists who had worked closely with Elliot Carter asked him to write a piano piece. He had written a sonata in 1945 and nothing for piano after that. The pianists sensed that his avoidance of writing a new piece was that he, a kind man, didn't want to write for one person and not for another. So four pianists had the idea of asking him jointly; they were Charles Rosen, Gilbert Kalish, Paul Jacobs and Ursula. The piece was “Night Fantasies,” not a piece she would recommend for high school students or even college students. “It is a huge, long, wonderful piece.” What was interesting was that Carter was pleased with each of the performances, but they sounded not at all alike. Ursula said: “That was my lesson in old music, because if Elliot Carter was pleased with eventually ten different performances, how could there be one right way to play Beethoven? This was an epiphany for me; there isn't one right way to play Beethoven. I feel that there are many ways to play every kind of music. This has really opened up my love of music, because I was very scared of not playing Beethoven the “right” way. Somehow, this experience with Elliot Carter opened my ears, opened my mind, opened my whole personality to the idea that you do make sense out of what is notated in front of you, but the sense [made] out of it might be different for each person.”
Today Ursula is playing shorter pieces that piano students may be able to play and teachers might like to introduce to their students, mainly because they are not 20 minutes long. Alvin Singleton's “Changing Faces,” is available in a collection (also called Changing Faces) of shorter pieces by major American composers. This piece is more or less minimalist; the same figure repeats quite often and then changes. She found it difficult to learn, because when she gets to the tenth or eleventh repetition of the figure, she begins falling apart. Although she loves this short but difficult piece, she finds it a psychological test of playing. Alvin Singleton, a good friend, did write a concerto for Ursula called “Blues Concert” which she recorded with the Detroit Symphony. He's written longer piano pieces, “so he is someone we should pay attention to.” Ursula said, “Of course, all these composers are my age or older. I hope that you and your students will be looking at their friends, because these are my friends.”
There's also music by John Adams, who has written several pieces for piano, a long one called “Phrygian Gates” and a short one called “China Gates” that may interest our students. This again is minimalism, where a figure is reiterated for a while and changes slowly. A student once said to her, “You can have a similar harmonic progression as you have in 19thcentury music, but if the time scale is really different [protracted], it's quite different.” Ursula found that statement quite a revelation, that “China Gates” is not highly atonal, but it is very different from, say, a piece by Schumann.
Ursula introduced the next two pieces, which were written for her by friends. Julius Hemphill was known primarily as a great jazz musician and a founder of the World Saxophone Quartet. He was also a founder of the Black Artists Group in St. Louis, which included poets and visual artists and was one of the great creative forces of the late 20th century. At Ursula's request in the early 1990's, Hemphill wrote “Parchment,” a blues piece that has just been published by Subito Music. The length is good for someone who does not want to try a twenty minute piece yet. She was asked by a critic, “How come this jazz composer started writing classical music?” Her answer was “there's no difference in the music, except that classical musicians aren't very good improvisers.” So there's no requirement to improvise in this piece. It is sort of atonal, sort of not atonal. “My impression of the harmonies of avant-garde jazz and the harmonies of Ravel are very similar.” There are chords with more and more blues tones added.
Ursula's last piece is “Friendship” by Frederic Rzewski. In 1974 he wrote a fantastic piece that has entered the repertoire: “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” It is a set of 36 variations on a Chilean song. Fast forward to 2020. Ursula explained, “In March everything stopped, and we were all put into isolation.” She was enjoying playing Chopin Nocturnes, which she had not played since she was a student. “I think we all found what was comforting to us and what was nourishing. It was a very strange period, and for me it was Chopin Nocturnes and new music.” She thought, “What can one do? Well, a composer can write a piece and a musician can learn it.” So she asked Rzewski to compose a piece six to ten minutes long: “Friendship.” This piece is unpublished.
Ursula hopes “Friendship” will be published within six months. Proofreading is so important. There were many emails between Frederic and Ursula, with her asking questions such as, “Is this note an “E” or is it an “F?” She held up the score to the screen. It is really hard to read the notes. When the semester ends, Ursula will work with someone who is willing to copy the score. (“If I couldn't tell what a note is, why should this person? So I'll have to go into all my emails.) But I love the piece and I'm playing it for you just for fun. It is only the second time I have played it because it is new and concerts are just beginning.” Rzewski self-publishes and his music is available on IMSLP. She thinks many of us know his often- played settings of “Down By the Riverside” or the “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” “Friendship,” in three short untitled movements, is not quite as tonal as “Down by the Riverside.” Ursula loves it. But “the overall title, “Friendship,” is what I think the pandemic has taught us is the most important thing in our lives.”
Questions and Answers
Ursula: What pieces of the last one hundred years are you urging your students to learn?
Ruth Kotik: I am very curious about modern music but I have a hard time understanding it. What I have been teaching is the same - Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc, Shostakovich, Prokofieff, Scriabin. That's where I get stuck. The last piece made more sense to me. It had some appeal of human voice patterns which go through it, and made it easier for me to listen to and try to understand. Carter's Diversions I don't understand. What are those long rests and blurts to right and left. What do they mean?
Ursula: For me Elliot Carter is playing an ostinato and what I hear in it is there's always one note that stays the same. In the other hand there is an alternation of characters - one is like a bassoon and one is like a person saying, “Oh, did you really mean this?” Even if they are not tonal, these are different characters speaking. I try to project their personalities. Carter's music often sounds to me like a dinner party with six people. There are three conversations going on at once, and they are not really listening to each other. But you can tell that these are different personalities. That's how I understand it.
Beatrice Long: Thank you for such a clear explanation or introduction of the background of the piece and your own personal view of it. I think I understand Ruth's comments and struggles. When I went to school at Curtis, we never went beyond Bartok. It's a huge learning curve. There's so much wonderful music out there. The same argument Ruth made can be said about Bach: What does he mean? It is the concept of the composer that's so invigorating. I hear from you all different visions of each of these different composers. They all have their own ideas, concepts. About Carter's “Diversions” notation: Is it clear -- with bar lines and time signatures?
Ursula: Yes. I fact, In another piece of Elliot Carter, when the pandemic started, I thought I'd try to memorize his pieces - no success. But I came to the last part of the piece called “90+” and I thought, the rhythm here is so complicated, how can I memorize it. Then I noticed that at every seventh sixteenth note there was an event. It was at a steady tempo and Carter notates it conventionally with bar lines and metrics. But because he often has two different tempi going on at one time, it looks more complicated than it is. If one could just say: Here there should be six notes every minute, and here there should be eleven notes every minute, in fact, the idea behind it might be simple.
I realized how important it is to try to memorize the music for a performance, because we study it in a way that we might not when we are using the musical score. We aren't required in our society to play atonal music by memory, but to try to memorize something, you really have to learn it better. You need to learn what's different in the recapitulation from the exposition; what Mozart does all the time, these false recapitulations in the wrong key, (and Mozart says, “Oh, just playing a joke on you!”). But if you don't try to memorize it, you might not notice that joke. I became more convinced of it a year ago when this rhythm I thought was too difficult to learn was a simple ostinato and I hadn't realized that. One of the exciting things of music, from Scriabin and Fauré on, is the tension between tonality and atonality. Something that might seem atonal wants to be tonal and it's just pushing the boundaries and seeing how far can one go away from tonality and still feel its pull. I think it's something you notice in the Rzewski. The perfect example of it is the Berg Sonata, which is still tonal but is pushing the boundaries everywhere. So are the composers of the early twentieth century, because somehow, the more you could push the boundaries and still feel the tonality, the more exciting it is. The first piece I played, the Zwilich “Lament,” is quite tonal.
Beatrice: This is a good inspiration for teachers to find pieces suitable for their students and yet open their ears and eyes to a different style of writing. I want to know more about pieces like that to inspire them. While listening to that music, I thought it is like looking at modern art. Tonality is like representational art, that you could say “Oh, that's that figure.” Atonality is like abstract art. How much do you think it matters for a general audience or a student to know something about the historical background? I feel regarding modern art that one can appreciate it more if you know something about the history or the concept of the artist.
Ursula: It can go both ways. If you leave your mind totally blank, and experience what you are experiencing, that's also interesting. (For a certain foundation, Ursula once listened to works of 71 composers.) She was trying to leave herself completely open to see whether the texture itself or the story itself was something she could understand. For instance, when you are looking at abstract art, you might think of color field painting, like Rothko. You aren't looking for an object, but you are looking to immerse yourself in something you don't expect. We do now try to talk about things, but also there's a sense of leaving your mind open. Do not try to think, “How does this relate to something I already know?” Go on an adventure. The adventure could be, “I hate this!” Or the adventure could be “Huh, what a beautiful shade of blue turning purple!” In a way, you want to be both conscious and not conscious. For students, there are different forms of introduction. If you say, “In this piece you can find the same music in different keys,” this statement will give students something to listen for. With the Carter, I tried to tell you what games he was playing. I understand his rhythms. His harmonies change very slowly, but I don't know the underlying structure of them. I can't find them. Carter uses certain chords frequently. I can hear them as they change, but I can't analyze them.
Ruth: It was easy to listen and follow your thoughts - very helpful. When a contemporary piece appears on a program, it is helpful to have a few sentences about the piece, for example, what the composer was thinking about and how he wrote, how to listen.
Ursula: At Brooklyn College we are trying to get all students to say a few words about the piece they are about to play. They are getting better. We feel this is a really important skill for them, learning to be a performer, a teacher. We are trying to teach them to be less shy.
Bertha Mandel: some of the music sounds in a way capricious. I'm used to hearing motifs and repetition, phrases and steady pulse. It's difficult for me to have a sense of the shape of a whole composition and a feeling of a drive to a resolution of the musical ideas in these contemporary works. How do you feel comfortable with these works that sound to me very disjointed.
Ursula: I always do look for the meaning in the music. As with Carter, I think of it as different people, different characters. They do not need to have harmonic resolution. With the Alvin Singleton, I was interested in the harmonies. Eventually I came to the same resolution that I do with John Adams, that when one moves from one harmony to another, one should indulge in the change, expressively slow down. I do find a curiosity in making sense out of something that initially made no sense to me. I'm more interested in pieces that I see more in each time I hear them or study them. It interests me, like going to a new restaurant or a new movie. When something doesn't make sense, the second, third and fourth time it makes a little more sense. It's a fun exploration.
Yudit Terry: This has been so enlightening, interesting and inspiring. These composers, do they put in a lot of detail in their compositions?
Ursula: More than in Mozart. In Carter, some pieces have practically no dynamics and some have a lot. When John Cage says he doesn't like the emotions of Beethoven, we know he is familiar with the music of the past. Some composers want to break with the past. A teacher once said to me “there are many wrong ways to play a piece, but only one right way to play a piece.” I think she was wrong. “There are many wonderful ways of playing a piece.”
Yudit: Do you think when Carter said: It takes a long time to write simply, he meant it takes a long time to develop the confidence to write simply?
Ursula: Yes, I think he meant confidence. In his late years Carter wrote Caténaires, a four minute etude with no rhythmic complexity whatsoever. But some years before that he had asked me if I thought some virtuosic passage was sort of vulgar, and I said “No, we love to show off our virtuosity.”
Bertha: I loved the range of your dynamics and articulation throughout your presentation. It was just marvelous.
Ursula: We all try to be expressive, and if the expression of the moment might be to not be expressive for a while, that is also a form of expression.
Yudit: Ursula, it was wonderful to meet you. Thank you for inspiring us to open our minds to something new.
Beverly Shea, writer, layout