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Krazy Kat, Skyscrapers & Wailing Theremin

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Gil Rose (Kathy Wittman photo)

An aura of consequence radiated from the stage of Jordan Hall at Friday’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert, presented under the sobriquet “The Roaring Twenties.” There was a premiere, to be sure, and a centennial celebration of one of the first electronic instruments, but Artistic Director Gil Rose’s introduction from the podium nailed it: the revival and, one hopes, renaissance, of a major American composer whose quality and historical significance have been too long neglected.

The composer in question is John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951), Chicago born and resident, student of John Knowles Paine but also of Edward Elgar and Bruckner enthusiasts Bernhard Ziehn, and in the early 20th century one of the most prominent “modern” composers. The scare quotes reflect a major historical bounce in the perception of “modern” in American music, as ideas developed in Vienna (expressionism) and Paris (neoclassicism) supplanted the barely sprouting native species. That’s not to say that Carpenter was a parochial naïf—as even his musical enemy Virgil Thomson acknowledged, Carpenter “has been to Paris”—but while his technique embraced both German and French influences, his esthetic preoccupations diverged considerably from those of most composers of his and the following generations. The two ballet scores BMOP performed, one at each end of the evening, were perfect illustrations of this esthetic.

The external circumstances of Carpenter’s life bear, as Rose pointed out, surprising parallels to those of Charles Ives. Both were descendants of old New England families (Carpenter’s given names are a legitimate inheritance). After proper formal training, both men veered away from careers in music and entered business, Ives in insurance and Carpenter in his family’s ship chandlery (the successor to which still exists). More pertinently, both were attracted to the uses of vernacular idioms within the framework of classical music, but while Ives evolved his complex stream-of-consciousness idiom to retrieve memories of a time past, Carpenter pursued a more straightforward investigation into current times. While Ives was mostly unknown as a composer until after he had ceased composing, Carpenter achieved fame, only to fade from view after World War II. While the neglect of Ives has been considerably alleviated, the neglect of Carpenter needs addressing, which, as Rose stated, is part of the mission of BMOP.

One of the fun facts about Carpenter is that he was probably the first American to composer purpose-built ballets (BMInt’s publisher, a New Orleans native, has come up with records that ballet companies existed there from the early 19th century, but no evidence yet that any US composers created music for them), of which he wrote three. The first was a 1918 commission from Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which that company never performed (as choreographed by Diaghilev alumnus Adolph Bolm, it premiered in Chicago in 1919), on Oscar Wilde’s story “The Birthday of the Infanta.” The second was BMOP’s opening work, Krazy Kat, a Jazz Pantomime, written in 1921 and premiered in 1922, based on George Herriman’s wildly popular comic strip (a ballet based on the comics being yet another historic first). The scenario, costumes and scenery were by Herriman himself, and featured the improbable love triangle of the hermaphroditic cat, the mouse (s)he loves but who torments “them,” and Offisa Pup, the police dog who loves the cat and tries to shoo off the mouse. According to Carpenter (and Gershwin) biographer Howard Pollack, “[i]n subtitling Krazy Kat ‘a jazz pantomime,’ Carpenter became the first composer of concert music to use the word jazz in the title of a composition.” Listeners today might be puzzled by this, as there aren’t that many passages in the ballet that would strike current audiences as truly jazz-like, apart from one extended number near the end (a chase scene). But the sophisticated Carpenter did incorporate many rhythmic, melodic and harmonic features of what was then known as “sweet” (as opposed to “hot”) jazz in the fabric of the score. It opens with a pre-curtain bright flourish and, as the curtain rises on the sleeping Krazy, languid sighs. Rose was both meticulous and energetic in pointing up the glint of Carpenter’s vivid orchestration, with particular commendations due to the brasses and to Philipp Stäudlin’s suave saxophone solos. The tempi were never rushed, but Rose kept everything moving nicely.

After Krazy Kat came two pieces geared to the other main focus of the concert, the 100th anniversary of Léon Theremin’s (né Lev Sergeyevich Termen) eponymous instrument. Theremin (1896-1993), trained as a cellist, was a prodigious inventor in acoustical electronics whose services to the Soviet Union included inventing a burglar alarm and, more importantly, a spying device that enabled the NKVD/KGB to eavesdrop on the American ambassador for years. While he spent considerable time in the US promoting his instrument and unsuccessfully courting one of its earliest adopters, the former violinist Clara Rockmore, he was not properly, as the program essay claims, an “émigré,” as his return to the USSR in 1938 was probably not a KGB kidnapping but a hasty retreat after running into financial difficulties. The first composer to write a work for theremin and orchestra was Joseph Moiseyevich Schillinger (1895-1943), a true émigré, and a respected and influential teacher whose students included George Gershwin, Henry Cowell, Earle Brown, Vladimir Dukelsky (Vernon Duke), and Lawrence (Lee) Berk, who incorporated Schillinger’s pedagogy into the founding curriculum of what is now Berklee College of Music. Schillinger’s First Airphonic Suite dates from 1929 and premiered with Theremin as soloist. On Friday that service came at the fascinatingly gesticulating fingers of Carolina Eyck, a German-Sorbian (Lusatian) virtuoso and author of the only complete theremin method.

Schillinger’s short suite is a single movement in four sections, the first of which is a prelude that, but for the theremin, comes across as quite old-school westernized Russian. Eyck impressed as much with dynamic expression (left hand positioning) as with the dexterity of pitch, and in both conveyed the swooning vocalise register that is the instrument’s hallmark. The times crept into the piece in subsequent sections, with the finale a very proto-Hollywoodish swash of jazzy big-band noise. Profound music it isn’t, but in laying the foundation for the instrument’s subsequent development it was a greater success than, say, the Arpeggione sonata.

Dalit Warshaw (Kathy Wittman photo)

The first half ended with the premiere we promised you above, a theremin concerto by New York-based composer Dalit Warshaw,  herself a prominent theremin player (she has performed on it previously with BMOP, though Eyck was the soloist for this premiere) who studied as a teenager with the aforementioned Clara Rockmore, and received early and important mentoring from Rockmore’s sister Nadia Reisenberg. Her concerto, entitled Sirens, is in three movements, the first two of which are essentially tone poems, and the first and third of which code their melodic content to the names of this interlocking cast of characters (plus herself). The first, “Clara’s Violin,” opens ominously low, where the theremin ranges from a bassoony growl through a cello-like singing register, and the melodic nodules emerge. A snarly second section develops these materials and provides a reasonable range for virtuosity and rapid swoops. Once again, Eyck worked wonders with dynamic expression. There is a wonderful passage in this movement with the theremin in its low range against soft violin harmonics. There’s even something of a cadenza, which highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument, the former being in the chameleonic coloration of timbres and scope for portamento, the latter being the flip side of that, the difficulty of clearly articulated note separations.

The second movement, called “Ulysses,” whence comes the overall concerto title, takes off, per the composer’s note, from Kafka’s aperçu that the creepiest thing about the Sirens was the attraction they created when they stopped singing. The orchestra, taking the role of Odysseus’s sailors, groans and begs for more, and pursues the more ardently when the theremin’s Sirens (well, Siren, it being a single-line instrument) let up. After the theremin’s lines get longer, and a climactic passage ends with a swoop to silence, there is a great clamor, and then a gradual fade. In truth, we found the structural elements of this movement (and, indeed, most of the concerto) a bit hard to parse, and consequently seeming rather arbitrary. The final movement is a fugue, and with a fugue you always know where you’re going, right? Well, it being a violation of the Music Coherence Prevention Act of 1965 to do anything straightforwardly, this one is a bit fractured, with its fragmented subject bounced between instruments and choirs, and instead of one countersubject, this one has several (using, as noted earlier, motifs created from people’s names by some algorithm the composer didn’t disclose). Still, it’s a perky affair, with many percussive gewgaws, including, oddly, a slide whistle that seems to be mocking the theremin (how many other concertos can you name that undermine the solo instrument’s dignity?). Speaking of the putative solo instrument, we found it getting lost in the thicket until right near the end, where it emerges, only to fade to black.

The program booklet advised that the performance of both theremin pieces were being recorded for ultimate public release. When that happens one can have a more studied assessment of Warshaw’s concerto (the Schillinger has been recorded, of course, and you can find some on YouTube). It seemed to us less like a true concerto and more like a “theremin symphony.” We have no quibbles with the performance, especially by Eyck, who takes the instrument far beyond its spooky-noise novelty stereotype with all the expressivity you expect from a concert instrument played by a master.

 When one thinks of the sound of the 1920s, especially in Europe, nothing typifies it—defines it, really—better than Kurt Weill. Weill is the sound of Weimar Germany, attested by the loving imitation by Kander and Ebb in Cabaret. From his most iconic product of the period, The Threepenny Opera, his second collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, he extracted in 1929 under the title Kleine Dreigroschenmusik a suite, characteristically for the period set for winds, brass, percussion, piano and several “folk” instruments (guitar, banjo, accordion). In seven (really eight) short movements, it captures all the best tunes and their deliciously and maliciously brittle articulation. The relatively weak performance by BMOP probably testified more to Rose’s preoccupation with the other parts of the program. The ensemble’s sound was often distant and mushy (the admirable clarinetist Gary Gorczyca suffered the dual insult of having his fine solo in “Polly’s Song” covered and of having his name misspelled in the program booklet). There were a few high points, such as Terry Everson’s muted trumpet and Yoko Hagino’s crisp piano; the penultimate movement, “Cannon Song,” was appropriately explosive.

Carolina Eyck plays theremin (Kathy Wittman photo)

The end of this rather long presentation was well worth the wait, though. The high point of Carpenter’s 1920s output is undoubtedly the ballet Skyscrapers (1926). In July 1924 Carpenter met in Paris with Diaghilev, who suggested he write a ballet on an American subject. Needless to say, after a year of back and forth with piano scores and orchestration suggestions, Diaghilev didn’t produce this ballet, either. It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera (Diaghilev disdained having to settle for a European premiere). Vernon Duke thought one other reason was that Diaghilev didn’t like American popular music, and this score had a lot that sounded like it.

While at first something derived from the Boston police strike of 1919 came to him, Carpenter came around to a more general idea of something involving skyscrapers as the totem of American industrial life (and something especially dear to the hearts of Chicagoans, who after all inhabited the city that invented them). He later wrote that the ballet “is simply based on the idea that in this country we work hard and play hard.” This encapsulates also the perception, perhaps unique to Carpenter among composers who have attempted “industrial music,” and perhaps because of his position as a participant in American industry, that the hard facts of organized industrial life had a flip side that nobody else was seeing, the creation of organized leisure for the working stiff. From this fundamental notion he eventually created a scenario that divided into work/play/work. In the end, the six-scene ballet reads like a tone poem, both because it is well integrated motivically, and because it plays out as a kind of rondo, with the “skyscraper” theme recurring periodically as the workers think about and then indulge in amusements in a Coney Island-like setting.

Therefore, as a result of the setting, the idea, and Carpenter’s long fascination with strands of what he called “contemporary popular music” (his 1912 violin sonata and 1917 piano concerto both have movements invoking the blues, and of course Krazy Kat used elements of jazz), Skyscrapers created a modernity of its own, with industrial music (Carpenter joked that it proved really hard to locate a factory whistle in F sharp), folk elements (banjo, quoted or nearly-quoted hymns and folk tunes, e.g. La Cucuracha), popular music (there are two jaw-dropping moments in which Carpenter penned dead-on imitations of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin), and a mix of national styles to attest to the multiplicity of the American urban scene.

Rose and the enormous orchestra (and chorus, which in Carpenter’s scoring was optional—Diaghilev didn’t like it) did themselves proud with their reading of this masterwork. They went full-bore into the sonorities of all the choirs, without compromising their complex polyphony; they dug deep into the Broadway sound of the midway music. There were too many splendid individual contributors to single out (the call-outs were for sections), but to hear this piece live was ear-opening. While Rose has a special fondness for the theremin, BMOP should really be recording these Carpenter pieces, whose historic and musical significance dwarfs that of the other music.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Vance,

    Thanks for the great description of Carpenter’s music. Just FYI we did studio sessions and DID record Krazy Kat and Skyscrapers and will complete the CD down the line with his other Ballet score The Birthday of the Enfanta.

    Comment by Gil Rose — October 6, 2019 at 9:43 am

  2. And if anyone wants to help with making that recording publicly available, there’s a Kickstarter campaign: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bmopsound/sirens-bmops-historic-theremin-recording

    Comment by Janice — October 7, 2019 at 3:43 pm

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