Reviews of BETH ANDERSON: SWALES AND ANGELS on NEW WORLD RECORDS 80610-2
Anderson's "Swales" are fresh and open,
reminiscent of a rural landscape, a nice cold
drink of water, or a small pond with some
cattails and Queen Anne's lace growing around it.
Formally the music unfolds in a manner rather like
the way things unfold in nature, along an unpredictable path,
but with familiar elements on the way. (Swales and Angels) is
easily the most satisfying recording of contemporary music issued
so far this year (2004) and should not be kept a secret.
Anderson's work represents a new wrinkle in the fabric of
current-day music which will please many listeners who
may have given up in despair on the "new music" composed late in the last century.
--from All Media Guide
This disc is a treat. All of these works are pretty:
they are also captivating, which is another matter entirely…
Anderson's music is characterful, delightful, and original.
It deserves a place in your collection. 10/10.
This music blends form, content and feeling, just as
classical music should. It also manages to make the
listener feel like a cherished member of the family at a
warm, seasonal gathering. The communicative rewards
are out of all proportion to the modest scale and ambitions
of the seven brief works recorded here.
--from Fanfare Magazine
If you don’t listen closely many of the pieces sound like they could be 19th century works,
but there is a sophistication apparent among closer examination.
The Piano Concerto is the highlight of the collection.
For only six players plus soloist it achieves an amazing emotional
impact in its brief single movement. It’s like no other piano concerto
you have ever heard - full of terrific tunes and communicating a freeing sense of great joy.
--from Audiophile Audition
Beth Anderson's unabashedly romantic swales are as pure as a
Kentucky mountain spring, frisky as a new-born colt rolling in
bluegrass, and infectious as a third-grade measles outbreak.
They are light, without being lightweight, and conquer the ear
by their deceptively easygoing charm.
Schubertian music which surprises by its fidelity to the
Olympian style and then startles with its modernistic divagations.
Anderson writes music that sounds unmistakably American.
How New York composer Anderson, ensconced across from the Brooklyn Museum,
manages to capture the hometown, country air of the Kentucky swales (a meadow or marsh
in which a lot of plants grow together) of her youth underscores the inexplicable miracle of
composing genius. March Swale could easily be a holiday tune, its gentle,
comforting nature beautifully conveyed by Belgium's Rubio String Quartet.
Contemporary music specialist Joseph Kubera and the Quartet perform Anderson's
Piano Concerto, with others joining in to perform repertoire heard on her much
lauded all-Anderson Weill Recital Hall concert. Anderson's simple, unpretentious
music, timeless in its warmth and decidedly understated modernity, is as perfectly
suited for Christmas as for the first buds of spring or the colorful burst of a fall landscape.
--by Jason Serinus in Performance 5 Sonics 3.5
much appealing no doubt to the traditionally-orientated concert-going public...
very well-written, melodious, tonal and repetitive...characterized by the co-existence
of Romantic and (neo)Classical elements...should obviously be able to enter the so-called
standard repertoire. In a hundred years, or so, this music will be miraculously 'discovered'.
Unfortunately, it will no longer concern Anderson.
--from Flanders Festival/Joint Venture by Grella-Mozejko, Piotr, The Alberta New Music & Arts Review, Vol. III/IV, No 4-5, pp. 93-94.
"Is there such a thing as "too pretty" music? Future historians will certainly think we thought so. Our late 20th century critical rhetoric extols composers who are "tough" with the audience. "Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in the easy chair," wrote Charles Ives, little guessing how rare musical easy chairs would someday become. We now associate prettiness with New Age music, mindless tripe to be played in the background by yuppies with no taste. And prettiness is further linked with effeminacy, dissonance with masculinity and strength. "Stand up and use your ears like a man!", Ives once shouted. In an age which disdains most sexual stereotypes, "dissonance = masculinity = good" and "prettiness = effeminacy = bad" still survive in professional music circles.
Beth Anderson writes pretty music - the prettiest music I know of, after Schubert, Faure, Debussy, and a few long-dead white males. Her prettiness is not an intellectual deficiency, but a political stance. "To make something beautiful," Anderson likes to say, "is revolutionary." Her web page (http://users.rcn.com/beand/) lists her as a "neo-romantic, avant-garde composer," and she may be the only composer in the world who could justify both contradictory labels. Her music has the simplicity of that of Erik Satie or, even more, Virgil Thomson. It is listenable, melodic, fun to play. Such qualities often bring her into conflict with other composers. On one 12-tone-heavy musical festival, she says, after her lullaby was performed "everyone quit speaking to me." And yet her music is no throwback to an easy past, but radical on its own terms.
Radical because the content of a musical work has more to do with its form than its materials. Anderson's forms are not conventional, and the prettiness is a result of her formal ideas. She is, after all, a tonal composer out of a John Cage tradition, and her music preserves something of Cage's nonlinearity. Many of her instrumental works are called "Swales," a form she invented herself. A swale is a term for a meadow or marsh in which a lot of plants grow together, and Anderson's Swales are collages. But they are not the collages of John Zorn or Karlheinz Stockhausen, in which musical fragments are juxtaposed for their jarring incongruency. Andseron's Swales modulate in texture and mood every few measures, but with the same artlessness with which you'll see Queen Anne's lace and milkwood growing next to each other in a meadow.
Her *Pennyroyal Swale*, for example, has been played by New York's intrepid Flux String Quartet. It opens with a jaunty C-major melody for alternating violins, then switches to another melody marked "Country Fiddle," to indicate the correct style of playing. Over 12 measures this winds down to a key change and a calm passage mostly in whole notes marked "Pastoral." A fughetto arises, then a section of arpeggio textures, moving to a rousing folksy passage in minor key with fast violin pizzicati. None of these changes is abrupt, many pieces of the mosaic are linked by tonality, motive, or rhythm (3 + 3 + 2 is common), and ideas return as generously as wildflowers in an unattended field. In its collage-like nonlinearity and freedom from development, this is radical music. But while its form may challenge musical sensibilities, its idiomatic textures and melodies are delightful for the quartet players and audience alike. Anderson achieves her subversive ends through seduction, not confrontation.
One would never guess that such music had its origins in Cage's iconoclastic philosophy. Though trained to write dutiful 12-tone pieces in her native Kentucky, Anderson studied in California in the '70s, and was freed by contact with Cage, Terry Riley, and Robert Ashley to write the text-sound and minimalist pieces that she found more congenial. Like just about everyone in that era, she relied at first on mechanical methods: a favorite was converting the letters of a chosen text into pitches (in this way she wrote on opera based on the trial of Joan of Arc). But she soon found herself limiting her resources, so that ultimately an otherwise chance-written piece might contain only three or four pitches. She also embarked on a series of highly rhythmic solo-voice pieces that, to this day, she continues to perform with an entertaining theatrical vigor.
And so she evolved a style in which the materials are freely chosen and intuitively shaped, yet the overall rhetoric is free from any Romantic notion of cumulative emotional buildup and climax. Like Cage's music, it is nonhierarchical; there are no structurally accented points of arrival. But the texture is like folk music, especially the Irish variety, diffracted into a whimsical kaleidoscope of textures and themes. She's written, "I hear most things in my head for orchestra and would orchestrate my entire output if I had the energy/time/money and interest from orchestras." Since she doesn't, she's written loads of chamber music.
The Flux Quartet has also played Anderson's *Rosemary Swale* and *January Swale*, while violinist Mary Rowell has championed her *Tales* for violin and piano; these latter are modal with an Asian flavor, almost devoid of accidentals but allowing loads of expressive interpretation for the violinist. The only other living composer it might remind you of is Lou Harrison, who in recent years has gotten belated recognition for his lyric simplicity. *New Mexico Swale* for flute, percussion, and string trio, has strings accompany percussive solos on guiro and bull roarer, and the viola and cello share a long dialogue on just a few pitches. My favorite Anderson work so far, though, is the 12-minute Concerto for piano and six instruments that pianist Joseph Kubera premiered a few years ago, whose rollicking, modal tunes do crescendo into a rare Anderson apotheosis.
It's charming, accessible music, striking and sturdy. Why have you never heard it before? Because the distribution of new music is mostly controlled by composers, who (this is one of the profession's dirty secrets) are loathe to program composers whose music is more audience-friendly than their own. As a result, Anderson is underrepresented on discs, though you will find her *Minnesota Swale* for orchestra on Opus One with the Slovak Radio Symphony, and her lovely *Trio: dream in D* on North South Recordings. As Schoenberg said, there's a lot of great music left to be written in C major. Following that advice - or rather, not needing it - Anderson has demonstrated that originality, simplicity, and beauty are still more compatible elements than many composers want you to believe."
Swales and Angels: An Evening of the Music of Beth Anderson took place November 19th at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in New York. It was a major concert of this American composer. The spectacular Belgian Rubio String Quartet performed a series of Ms. Anderson’s beautiful single movement string quartets. They were joined by seven musicians to create a quintet and two septets.
The New York based composer, originally from Kentucky, has written about her use of the title Swale in so many of her works, “A swale is a meadow or a marsh where there is nourishment and moisture and therefore, a rich diversity of plant life. My work, since 1984, has been made from swatches (of newly composed music, rather than found music) that are reminiscent of this diversity. When a horse named Swale won the Kentucky derby in 1984, I discovered the word and have used it extensively: ‘Minnesota Swale’ for orchestra, ‘May Swale’ for viola solo, ‘April Swale’ for viola and harpsichord, ‘August Swale’ for woodwind quintet, ‘September Swale’ for guitar and mandolin duet, ‘Brass Swale’ and ‘Saturday/Sunday Swale’ for brass quintet, ‘Cleveland Swale’ for two string bass and piano, ‘Toledo Swale’ for two violins and soprano saxophone, ‘Rhode Island Swale’ for harpsichord, and the most recent, ‘Three Swales’ (Kentucky, Bluebell, and March), ‘June and July Swales’, and ‘Mourning Dove Swale’ all for string orchestra.”
The Rubio opened the concert with “Pennyroyal Swale” which was composed in 1985 and dedicated to Mr. James Roy, past head of the concert division of B.M.I., in gratitude for his dedication to assisting women composers, a cause close to Ms. Anderson’s heart. The composer described it as combining folk-related vernacular music with ‘classically’ developed techniques in an open, somewhat repetitive form. There was such a feeling of Kentuckiana in this piece that Mark O’Connor’s following might enjoy this quartet. Like Mr. O’Connor, Ms. Anderson has absorbed many influences from a variety of musical styles and genres and has shaped these influences into a new American classical music.
Next up was “Rosemary Swale” a piece from 1986. This quartet was full of important inner parts, 5/4 meter, and a beautiful cello solo that contained echoes of shape-note singing. Ms. Anderson studied with John Cage and Terry Riley and their separate influences are apparent in the cutups (as in Cage’s “Radio Music”) and in the bright colors of the harmony.
Next on the program was “New Mexico Swale” for flute/piccolo (Andrew Bolotowsky), percussion (David Rozenblatt), violin, viola, and cello. Anderson composed this eclectic piece in 1995 to express a variety of styles that were descriptive of the diverse regions and people of New Mexico. It began with string octaves under a guiro followed by a spring drum that created a sense of wind across the desert. The percussionist, had a long section for cuica, an instrument rarely heard in concert and improvised a section using a diversity of instruments including the magical sounding Mark-tree, bowed suspended cymbal, woodblock, shakers, a talking drum and small tuned drums. Gary M. Schneider conducted energetically, as he did each of the three larger works.
The first half ended with “The Angel” from 1988 for soprano, string quartet, celeste, and harp, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 story of the same name. The lyrics, by Anthony Calabrese, were appropriately childlike. Jessica Marsten, a sweet voiced soprano, brought this two and a half octave extended song to life. The elegant harpist Andre Tarantiles, Joseph Kubera, celeste and the Rubio String Quartet, assisted her.
The modal music included a section akin to an old-time hymn (perhaps appropriate to the Salvation Army), a fugue, and a lot of vocalise and music appropriate to angelic flying. Different areas of the singer’s range and production were used to represent the various characters (the narrator, the angel, the angel when he was a child, and the girl) in similarity to the way Schubert’s “ErlKing” functions. The story was full of Victorian sensibility and had to do with an angel taking a child and some flowers to heaven. The composer said, “It is a story about the interconnectedness of all our lives (the stories within the stories), about the simplicity of miracles and the complications of daily life, about the possibility of multiple realities and the reality of life after death or rebirth, and the rewards for a life bravely lived.” Her understanding of the story enlarged its meaning and gave it a breadth of vision that touched this writer and more than a few members of the audience.
Andrew Bolotowsky opened the second half with “Flute Swale”, performed on alto flute with obvious enjoyment. It included a lively fiddle tune, a smoky, jazzy section, an Irish tune in which the flute implied its own harp, a section in which the flute implied its own drum accompaniment, and various cutups of the music that began earlier in the work than in most of the other swales.
This was followed by “January Swale” and “March Swale”, the final two string quartets on the program. “January” began with a short modernistic theme that was repeated in retrograde at the end of the work and included a disjunct minor section, and a small children's theme that reappeared later on in the piece in cut up form. “March” had an interesting string effect that created the sense of the wind blowing through the piece. It included a variety of rhythmic dance musics as though March were a month of exuberance.
The 1997 “Piano Concerto” closed the evening in style. It was performed by soloist Joseph Kubera, a renowned interpreter of contemporary music, along with string quartet, string bass (Darren Campbell), and percussion. Mr. Rozenblatt’s showy marimba and drum set performance competed with Mr. Kubera’s piano performance almost to the point of it becoming a duo concertant. It was a very American sounding work that grew out of the composer’s experiences as a pianist including rock, gospel, ballet accompaniment, classical piano recitals and concerto performances. These influences and the resulting four sections cut into each other creating a rich tapestry of exquisite craftsmanship and fun. The “Piano Concerto” demonstrated especially well that Beth Anderson has developed a unique and authentic voice.
A CD of the music on this concert will be released on New World CDs in 2004. Pogus Productions just released a CD of Beth’s text-sound, graphic, electro-acoustic, and electronic music from the 1970’s entitled PEACHY KEEN-O. You can see it online and hear a little of it at http://www.pogus.com. Her orchestral compositions, “Minnesota Swale” and “Revel” are available from Opus One, “Trio:dream in d” (for violin, cello and piano) and “Net Work” (for piano solo) were released on North/South Consonance, “September Swale” (for mandolin and guitar) is on Antes/Bella Musica, and “Lullaby” (for voice and piano) was released in 2002 on Capstone. The Rubio’s new live recording of the complete Shostakovich quartets was released on Brilliant Records in January 2003. Ms. Anderson's publishers are Antes/Bella Music in Germany, Recital Music in England and E.M.I/Joshua Corporation. For more details, see her web site at: http://www.beand.com
Karen Sharf is a singer and is just finishing her Ph.D. this month at New York University. This review was commissioned by the London web site, http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk/ and reprinted on the New York City web site, http://www.sequenza21.com/ in its December 1, 2003 issue.
by Mark Greenfest
These Belgian musicians, the Rubio Quartet, are fantastic. They just launched into Beth Anderson s Pennyroyal Swale with such gusto, precision and luscious tone that my jaw dropped. The rhythms of the swale, both renaissance and neo-romantic, are enchanting, and the melodies are visions - the excitement of folk music and the beauty of classical.
Ms. Anderson’s music is entirely friendly and accessible but do not be deceived. This music is complex and difficult to play well. It is not the least saccharine- pure honey- and the darker hues and threads are woven together with the light.
Although resident in Brooklyn, Ms. Anderson is a Kentucky-bred composer, and her music sounds like the Elizabethan melodies heard in the hill country, although newly composed by her, and brilliant.
I have listened to many remarkable programs in New York. In its own way, however, this one stands out.
The New Mexico Swale, while clearly post-minimalist, has such lively flute and percussive elements in its soundscape.
In The Angel, the harp touches may have been a little florid, and the recitative narrative a little long, leading up to the vocalize and the Hans Christian Anderson poem, but the resulting poem and its performance by soprano Jessica Marsten hits the mark, with exceptional dramaturgy. Ms. Marsten’s delivery and diction was a delight.
The Flute Swale (1995) takes you on a trip and brings you home in the end. Andrew Bolotowsky (noted for baroque flute), flute solo, was rich and amiable.
After excellent renditions of the January Swale (1998) and the March Swale (2000), by the Rubio String Quartet (the latter dedicated to Mary Rowell), the program concluded with the Piano Concerto (1997) with the power of Joseph Kubera as soloist. With Gary Schneider conducting, David Rozenblatt, marimba percussionist, the Rubio Quartet and Darren Campbell, bass, all fine players, this jazzy but charming piece constituted dessert.
This review is by Mark Greenfest for NEW MUSIC CONNOSIEUR, a New York City magazine and also made available by the London web site, http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk/ .
McCusker spins stories 'Recent and Revisited'
By Thea Singer, Globe Correspondent, 3/22/2003
Daniel McCusker's long-limbed geometrical dances fairly burst with heart. Coupled with the choreographer's musical choices, particularly those for live piano (played by John Kramer), they can hover at the edge of tears. That's because their rigorous structure, their edgy dynamics, and their idiosyncratic gestures permit them to show rather than tell their stories, as the best novelists do.
Not that there's anything narrative about McCusker's creations. to the contrary: They are abstract, nearly pristine. Their emotional content, drawn from some of the grand themes - loss, love, hope - arises from how the dancers use McCusker's shapes and traffic to communicate with one another. Consider ''Commonplaces '' (1983), a wondrous dance for eight set to Beth Anderson's rippling ''Quilt Music,'' with Kramer on piano. The dance posits onstage an entire world, complete with its own language. Snippets of the vocabulary include hands circling eyes like binoculars, bodies jumping rope, and legs wrapping around a partner's waist. The snippets repeat and reconfigure like words in all manner of sentences, as dancers execute them now in canon, now in unison, now in shredded bits at varying speeds. The space thickens and thins as they enter and exit in myriad solos and groupings. The motifs become not tedious through all the repetition but comforting in their familiarity. ''Commonplaces'' has the effect of sand sifting through an hourglass. Yet the audience isn't just watching time go by; it's becoming part of the community.
Beth Anderson’s music has an air of innocent child wonder and beauty coupled with Americana and exquisite craftsmanship. She has clearly developed a unique and authentic voice as a composer. -- Michael Harrison, composer, 11/19/03
"Her music, too natural and intuitive to even be called minimalist,
is always sweet, charming."
--Kyle Gann, VILLAGE VOICE, 4/30/96
"...Anderson stirs the mix in her own way. She also
writes good tunes and orchestrates well....It's music that's easy to like,
even though, because it refers to an earlier idiom, it probably seems less original than it is.
--Michael Anthony, MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE, 2/21/94
"Anderson's postminimal music music can be charming and deeply felt to the point of romanticism."
--VILLAGE VOICE, 4/23/91
"...a feathery, swooping effect suggestidng celestial flight."
--Jane Lee Anderson, ASBURY PARK PRESS, 7/15/88
"Genteel modesty-full of drones and melodies from our English past"
--Bernard Holland", NEW YORK TIMES, 10/23/85
"The music's appeal is immediate"
--Clarke Bustard, RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH, 1/28/85
"a folk dance flavor,...lively, repeating, upbeat rhythms"
--Christine Temin, BOSTON GLOBE, 3/28/83
"I loved your flowing melodic gift."
--Eric Hawkins, 1980
"Anderson's an underground favorite."
--THE VILLAGE VOICE, 1/28/80
"...a kindred soul: a brilliant and perceptive lady named Beth Anderson."
--Alan Rich, NEW YORK MAGAZINE, 7/2/79
"...it was mostly tonal and often positively rhapsodic...overall concern with the inflections, rhythms and organizational patterns of verbal expression...text as a basis for instrumental writing."
--Robert Palmer, NEW YORK TIMES, 5/7/79
"...pieces include elements of music, dance, poetry and theatre."
--Robert Palmer, NEW YORK TIMES, 5/16/78
"...reveals a striking number of ways of making words into music."
--Tom Johnson, MUSICAL AMERICA, 3/76
"Tonality centered on modal A, a sense of Nietzsche's 'icy laughter of the gods', a cosmic tuning-up for spiritual transcendence. JOAN is Anderson's vibrant answer to the tyranny of so-called perfection."
--Mark Lawshe, SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL, 8/23/74
"What we know as 'opera' is evolving away from the old Italian description 'drama per musica', drama expressed in musical terms. Quite likely the greatest musical usefulness of all the new 'media technology' will be found in their contribution of new energies to opera. Certainly the oldest 'mixed media' art form still going, opera can still be enriched further.
All this comes to mind after seeing Beth Anderson's opera, 'Queen Christina', in a Mills College production Saturday night. The opera is about the Swedish Queen who abdicated in 1654 in favor of conversion to Catholicism and other pleasant calls to the South. Its loose scenario treats Christina's coronation, her love life, the crisis her power made in her life, and her abdication in a manner which uses pastiche, pageantry, mime, dance, and song with music ranging from avant-garde sound poetry to mountain music and 'Pale Hands I Loved'.
A long introduction established the feminist stance of the opera, playing a tape recording of an unidentified feminist lecturing on The Movement superimposed on a half-speed recording of a woman singing a Schubert song. The small orchestra gradually infiltrated with a complex, slow montage of sustained pitches while images of clouds were projected over the stage.
The Queen was introduced as a child of two, of three, of four, as seen receiving guests—each time as a projection of Gainsborough's 'Blue Boy'. A Chinese pantomime was followed by a coronation procession through the audience, completely unlike yet recalling the similar scene from 'Boris Godunov'. Banjo music on stage. A solo aria from Christina, her introduction to Rene Descartes, a love duet sung while a film showing the enrobing and coronation of a male 'queen' at the beach is projected.
Descartes sings 'Zippety Doo Dah'; Christina sings 'The Temple Bells', and then a long abstract spoken piece begins via tape while the audience is encouraged to discuss among themselves 'relationships with women in their lives'.
The Queen's political crisis continues with a ballet to the waltz from 'Gayne', represented traditionally on stage but including a Flit gun playing afterbeats in the audience. Christina's mistress appears, seducing her away from Descartes; on succeeding, Christina sings 'Shalimar' and 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend' in rapid succession, and the opera is over.
This wasn't all 100% successful, of course. Some of the elements seemed insufficiently theatrical, not considerate of the need to project to the audience. The introduction was a bit long—one critic left before it was over. And the entire production was woefully under rehearsed.
But in spite of these matters, and in spite of a shockingly rude audience, the opera was absorbing. The three longest 'serious' sections were quite moving: separate pieces well integrated into the opera, they include the orchestral collage after the introduction, the 'dream-sequence' tape piece 'Supplication', and the abstract sound-poem 'Valid For Life' which puts a touching tribute to the composer by her mother in crazy juxtaposition with voiced consonants repeated by another female voice.
Perhaps the most telling thing to the opera's credit is its ability to maintain interest and to further its subject by alternating stage action and abstract sound. The projections work in general, and it would be worth reviving under better conditions."