IN: Reviews

Composing for 37 Years at MIT

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In the intimate but acoustically reassuring Killian Hall, with the cooperation of Collage New Music, the Institute’s Music Department hosted an evening of Peter Child’s recent works. A thoroughly Americanized native of East Anglia, he will be retiring this year after 37 years of teaching at MIT.  Many of his fellow composers from around the Boston area turned out to honor him in the cheerfully packed hall.

The celebratory Turning Point (2022) opened with a tintinnabulatory splash of sound — I had discussed this bright work HERE April 11th 2022, mentioning the piano and brake drum. A cycle of major proportions followed: A Golden Apple: Six Songs of Intimacy and Loss, completed last year, for soprano and piano. The texts, by six different women poets, sounded as varied as the different settings, ranging from ancient to modern Beat generation: “Laughing Together” with jazzy fourth-chords and Berg-like sequences; a jerky boom-chick “Changing the Tire”; bells and arpeggios in “Untouchable,” with a long, thoughtful ending as in Schumann’s Dichterliebe; “The Beat Goes On,” translated from Sappho, with a waltz accompaniment; “At the Edge of Being” with furious triplet ostinati; and a big conclusion in modern nursery-rhyme style, “Left-Wife Goose,” from gavotte to a dotted-rhythm style in “Pop goes the weasel,” with a text that Harry Partch might have used, beginning “Hoddley, Poddley, Puddles and Fogs, / Cats are to Marry the Poodle Dogs.” A fine, heartening, polyeclectic style revealed itself in these songs, but regular listeners to Peter Child’s oeuvre, which Collage has presented  several time, already know his sense of humor. Tony Arnold, soprano with a wide expressive range, brought all these styles to the fore with total conviction.

The Year of the Rat, four songs for unaccompanied voice (2020; texts by Fiona Sze-Lorrain), sung by Tony Arnold; and Stella celi (2021) for unaccompanied cello, sometimes with vielle-like open-string drones, played by Jan Müller-Szeraws came to us as a paring. Each artist mirrored the other’s expressions, noting that “The year begins with a piece not to be sung twice,” but nothing remained inscrutable to these veterans.

Six Dances of Death (2020), which took inspiration from Hans Holbein the Younger woodcuts (seven of which appeared in the handout), were “rooted in Renaissance sources.” These adopted the spirit of ballate by Gastoldi or Praetorius, writ large in postwar sarcastic styles (post-World War II rather than Thirty Years’ War, but with some of the earlier sense of macabre). The tonal range included jazz left-hand harmony, pentatonic D-minor gestures, impressionist arpeggios, rapidly fingered piano octaves, and ostinati in thoroughly tonal A minor. The full Collage ensemble held forth, with a second percussionist (representing “Death,” gently stroking a Chinese brass bowl for a pure sine-wave pedal point, mouthing a kazoo, and stamping with a furious tambourine): Catherine French, violin; Steven O. Laraia, viola (doubling toy piano?); Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello; Rachel Braude, flute and piccolo; Alexis Lanz, clarinet and bass clarinet; Christopher Oldfather, piano; Craig McNutt and Michael Weinfield-Zell, percussion.

All of these very different kinds of music demonstrated the protean spirit of Peter Child, showing him as one of the most interesting and heartily youthful composers anywhere in America today. I have been listening to his work for more than three decades, and it continues to feel fresh.

Music-director designate Erich Nathan was on hand to enjoy the essential work of the irreplaceable David Hoose, who retires after Collage’s season-closing concert on April 21st.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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