Wednesday, October 7, 2015

In honor of the 75th birthday of James Sellars

This post is contributed by Thomas Schuttenhelm.  Thanks, Thomas. 

On Sunday, October 7, 2015 Hartt presents a concert in Berkman Auditorium at 2:00.

James Sellars (b. 1940) has enjoyed a long and varied musical career. His path to becoming a professional composer followed a traditional course but his extraordinary imagination has led him to create an increasingly original music that has set him apart from his contemporaries.

His generation includes some notable names such as Joan Tower, Charles Wuorinen, and Brian Ferneyhough. But notability is not a consequent of ingenuity. All too often the monotone of historians and commentators compress the narrative of music history into a predictable continuum of pedigreed names that lead to an over-determined ending. Only the most astute critic, such as Arthur Danto, has asked: what do we do “after the end?” James Sellars has a most convincing answer.  

If I had to identify a creative artist equal to Sellars it would be Thomas Pynchon. Both create counter-fictions with intricate interiors and alternative histories. Parodies and puns pervade their work and they are the unmatched virtuosi of apophasis. 

 If Pynchon’s favored genre is the novel, Sellars gravitates towards chamber music, and what is represented here today is some of his best. In it he celebrates a distinctly American tradition and by doing so he distances himself from the European models that could not accommodate his accent in a musical language that was accustomed to convention. His music is not without influence but his affiliations are self-selected and add an interpretive dimension to the compositions.   

His earliest acknowledged work, The Merry Guide (1961), is a series of short piano pieces that were in stark contrast to the more ‘notable’ premieres of that year, that included Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and Pli selon pli: improvisations sur Mallarm√© (No. 2) by Pierre Boulez. The severity of the contrast is evident on many layers, not the least of which can be detected in the titles alone. If Sellars did not compose his Merry Guide in conscious opposition to these works one cannot resist accompanying him on his alternate path which, interestingly, also motivated Boulez, who was attracted to the phrase: ‘Dans le doute du Jeu supreme” (“In the doubt of the supreme Game”) that provided the conceptual impetus to his “portrait” of the poet. 
Sellars excels at undercutting the ‘game of music’ in whatever form it has presented itself and which has, regrettably, taken over an art form that was once evaluated on craftsmanship and aesthetics. These latter qualities were cultivated in careful and deliberate degrees by Sellars and they occupy a central place in his music. Sellars has an impeccable ear (at one time a necessary prerequisite for a composer) and outstanding facility as a pianist, which he studied for many years. He has so successfully fused technique and intuition that it is often impossible to determine where one begins and the other ends and the pieces on the program display this quality supremely.

The earliest piece on the program:  
5 Dada Deelites (1973) finds a way—five in fact—to paradoxically find pleasure in tradition even as it deliberately subverts it. I first heard these pieces at a Hartt May Day concert, an annual event of musical absurdities, in 1996. I was not prepared for the theatricality, or for the humor which, at the time, I had trouble accepting into my conservative notions of “high art” music that often confused seriousness with a singularity of style. But it was through this experience that I was converted and ultimately led me to appreciate Sellars’ most original creation: Haplomatics

This work originated as a lecture to the combined theory and composition faculty at Sellars’ home on 17 March 1983 with the title: “Nothing Means Anything (Anymore) But Anything Means Nothing.” It subsequently developed into a multimedia work that includes illustrations by David Hockney.  

In my estimation Haplomatics is one of the most significant works of American music: a piece so sui generis that it is hard to imagine it having been created anywhere else or by a mind less inclined towards a musical multiverse. It is positively Blakeian and it requires more synesthetic capacities to comprehend, or apparently to produce, than is currently capable. It promotes an entirely new ecology of music where an acoustic particle called the haplome inhabits a realm as yet unheard. Once you hear it, it cannot be unheard, but until you hear it, you might remain unconvinced. 

Similar to Blake’s strongest works, it is a prophetic text that gives resonance to the absurdity and deathly serious Rumsfeldian delusion: the “known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” If the more experimental and provocative features of Haplomatics prevent it from being appreciated by a larger audience, for which it is certainly deserving, I am confident it will become one of the singular achievements by which music history will be measured. There is little comfort in citing the other works (in all the art forms) that have suffered similar treatment, but as in past dark ages they will continue to circulate with select audiences until the institutions that perpetuate the outmoded paradigms eventually recede into the background or disappear altogether. Thus, 5 Dada Deelites functions as a necessary antecedent to Haplomatics, which deserves a proper launch and even if it cannot be represented here today let this serve as a call for its occasion.

Satie Sat At Tea (1985) was composed between Piano Sonata V, which was created with an aim towards “relieving the indigestion of modernism,” and Patterns on a Field (Sonata VI), Sellars’ response to rock and minimalism. The title Satie Sat At Tea is taken from an epigrammatic poem by the American poet, publisher, essayist, and photographer, Jonathan Williams (1929-2008), to whom the work is dedicated. If Cage and Cunningham represented a union of art forms (music and dance) from the middle of the 20th century, Sellars and Williams should be considered a similar pair for the latter half, as they enjoyed a long association and often visited each other. Williams was a poet with a cultivated ear and Satie Sat at Tea demonstrates that Sellars is a composer with a keen eye for poetic influence. The epigram was selected from one of the many musical references that occur in Williams’ “From: 50! Epiphytes, -Taphs, -Tomes, -Grams, -Thets! 50!” (1967), published in An In Ear Bartram’s Tree: Selected Poems (1957-1967) by New Directions. The opening of the composition consists of a series of epigrammatic fragments that build towards a more continuous middle section. If the textures are traditional the harmonies are unapologetically ironic, which no doubt delighted the poet.

Performing on the piano for Satie Sat At Tea is Michael Barrett, who gave expert direction to The World Is Round (1992-3), Sellars’ opera using text by Gertrude Stein and adapted into a libretto by Juanita Rockwell, that was premiered at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1993. It is no mere coincidence that Four Saints in Three Acts (1927-8), an operatic collaboration between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, who was a mentor to Sellars, was also premiered at the Atheneum. I attended three performances of The World Is Round when it was first produced. At the time I was struck by its audacity and it continues to resonant in my mind even to this day but for very different reasons. Upon further reflection I have come to recognize Rose, the heroine of The World Is Round, as a descendant of Mignon, from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. Both characters go in search of a place where the bildungsroman, from which they sense they have a role to play, can complete itself. The opera merits a second production if only to remind us that Rose’s journey is also our own.

Touch Music (1992) is a movement from an extended 30 minute theater piece for bass, piano, and tape entitled For Love of the Double Bass which was composed for Robert Black, who has enjoyed a 40 year association with the composer. It was premiered in 1982 by Sellars and Black at a Hartford institution of considerable renown: Real Art Ways. Sellars writes: “Touch Music explores many of the delicate, quiet sounds available from ‘touching’ the instrument in various ways. In the larger work, it comes right before the bassist puts the bass to bed for the evening.” It is also a tribute to their association, and was created for Black’s exceptional abilities as a performer who has inspired many composers. Sellars has a particular and personal insight into these abilities and Black’s performances of this work have a signature quality to them that turns affection into a remarkable display of artistry.   

The Alph Through Gardens Bright (1994) features another important associate of Sellars, Jeffrey Krieger, who is the pioneer of electric cello. Krieger commissioned the work and it is dedicated to him. The composition is based on the poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which is celebrating the bicentenary of its publication this year. Throughout the poem Coleridge places himself in an uncertain position as either master over his creative powers or a slave to them. This offers an interesting interpretation on the instrumentalist as master or slave to the technology. The music pursues a “mazy motion” and is at times “measureless” and “loud and long,” created by adding degrees of reverberation to the electric cello. The music evokes the general atmosphere of the poem and followed a method: “to clear the conscious mind as much as possible and allow the unconscious to do the work.” Krieger is also the featured performer in Rebound (1994) for electric cello with signal processing. It is a composition of remarkable economy that consists entirely of ricocheting cells that spiral into multi-directionality.

Stay With Me (1998), four pieces for contrabass sextet, is dedicated to the dancer and choreographer Yoshiko Chuma and was premiered by the Hartt Bass Ensemble in 1999. There is much to appreciate in this composition but the third movement deserves particular mention as it rivals the second movement—the pizzicato scherzo—from Ravel’s String Quartet in F major from 1903. Some scholars have identified influences of Javanese gamelan coupled with references to Ravel’s Spanish descent. Sellars’ music transposes this into a decidedly urban choreography of post-historical dances.    

August Week (1852) was composed in 1982, revised in 1995, and receives its long awaited premiere here today. The text is drawn from Thoreau’s journals that are set without pause. It begins with August 15 1852, which was in fact a Sunday and offers a nice parallel to today’s event. For Thoreau the day held no particular increased sacredness. In fact, his journals, which span 47 manuscript volumes, are a remarkable testament to his private patterns that honored the commonplace above the false regimens set by society. Thoreau was an exceptionally self-reliant individual who originated the concept “off-the-grid.” In his day, Thoreau was judged to be extreme and severe. Thoreau’s rejection of his time led him to retreat into Walden woods where he indulged in a simple yet contemplative life that enabled him to accomplish his most necessary work. One wonders what he would have thought of our present condition: where upward mobility can only be achieved through online social networking and an idea must be reduced to a limited amount of characters whose impact is measured by the number of “likes” it receives. Thoreau’s independence and solitary existence are impossible today, although I remember once hearing Sellars quip: “I don’t live in Hartford, I live in my house.”

In August Week “each day is set off by its own tonal color through a series of modulations into one of seven modes and is yet further distinguished by slight changes in instrumental timbre. All three parts, including the vocal line, are restricted in range, an echo of Thoreau’s quietism and contemplative nature.” Sellars goes on to explain that text and music share an interdependency whereby “the music has become a text and the text, music.” Interdependency might explain the essence of the composition but it is Sellars’ independence that is his most laudable achievement. Emerson once described Thoreau as an “iconoclast,” a term that is also appropriate to Sellars. In a creative career that spans beyond 50 years one has much to celebrate, and this concert and encomium are offered as a testament to his achievements that seem richer with every performance and resound in a presence that transcends the occasion.

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