Cube Calendar Articles for January/February, 1997

Sermon of the Middle-Aged Revolutionary Spider, a new composition for tenor and chamber ensemble by Janice Misurell-Mitchell
George Flynn at 60
by R. Albert Falesch

At 7:30 PM on January 14th at Ganz Hall of Roosevelt University, CUBE will become the first organization to publicly honor the 60th birthday anniversary of DePaul University's George Flynn. Violinist Katherine Hughes and CUBE pianist Philip Morehead will give a rare performance of the violin and piano duo called 'Til Death. This is a work from the late 1980s, and it is thought to be one of Flynn's most important works. A performance of 'Til Death provides an opportunity to reflect on the significance of the venerable violin-piano-duo medium. Its heyday was the classical period, yet it continues to be explored by some of the most important composers of our own time -- a time during which many observers seriously question the relevance of classical forms or the use of instrumental sounds and gestures that remain within traditional bounds.

At the cusp of the new millennium, much attention is being given to the subject of stylistic splintering among composers of new music. Never before have we had the tools to be so acutely aware of cultural developments. A composer or painter innovates or shocks an audience, and within 24 hours we're aware of it; and within a few weeks we've seen a reproduction of the painting, heard the tape, read a review, or seen the score.

In many cases we can dial up an internet account and view a score, hear an audible excerpt of some composer's latest musical expression, or join a discussion group to publicly ponder the current state of "classical" music. In fact, a few months ago, a major digression erupted on Emusic-L (a group intended for exploration of issues relating to the practice of electronic and electroacoustic music) and its principal protagonist was a feisty 13-year-old boy from northern England, who blurted a description of his musical aesthetic: "...I like dance, rave, house and pop music. I can't stand classical though! Unless it's a really catchy tune, which is played a lot, and has plenty of fast solos, I just can't hear the difference between them all! Why are there no more classical composers? They all seem to have died out... I think the main reason why we don't listen to classical music is because classical music is dead. I mean nobody composes for it any longer and our mind can not feel satisfied with an art that doesn't evolve. Pieces that remain today are just oldies... I truly think that classical music has come to a standstill, and the next century won't have any classical composers or even no listeners!" [...sic(s)]

The youthful Andy's views on music may represent, perhaps in the extreme, a lamentably significant percentage of the populace. Confusing the issue for the Andys of the world, and perhaps for some of us, is the fact that the state of evolution of serious music is unclear, and the community of its practitioners is viewed by some as near-anarchic. Is music composition in a state of becoming, or is it coming apart? CUBE subscribers are not cursed with doubts about the vitality of contemporary "classical" music in general, but one wonders how often we ponder the nature of "classicism" and how it might be manifest in the serious music of today. A little reflection about the possible forms of classicism in our time is a good context within which to consider the work of one of the most individual of composer-performers, George Flynn.

Like the consumers of artworks, the practitioners involved in the pursuit of artistic creation are faced with an infinitude of choices. This presents a singularly new demand, created here at the end of the 20th century: in a society where anything goes, the struggle to find an orientation that is not preordained by academe or other external forces, and to do so without falling into the "me too" trap. There seems to be no compelling new theoretical thought -- reference the often-heard claim that the last innovation in music was Schoenberg's dodecaphony of the 1920s.

We have invented fascinating new music delivery methods which may at times be mistaken for musical innovation. To further complicate matters, many composers use technology in creating germinative material, for complete compositions, for new virtual instruments, or for new ways to originate "cross-disciplinary" or "multimedia" art. Some composers create music via the implantation of musical rules and stylistic blueprints within computer code.

Perhaps the most profound detriment in our current musical culture, with its unprecedented pluralism, is the fear that we have lost the underlying common sense -- or the intuition, if you will -- about what properties of theory or of the very syntax of language are required to be really understood. In regards to electronic music or non-tonal music, many of us still distrust our own reactions to what we hear. However, the absence of predetermined audience and peer expectations and lack of an overriding prototypical philosophy in music is not to be lamented, as it encourages experimentation and creates an environment for exploring new means of expression.

A fundamental characteristic of the "classical" music composer is still an emphasis on form and structure. George Flynn, whose accomplishments and major anniversary are a focus of 1997, is one such musician -- one who expects his music to embody multiple layers of structural componentry, each of which must have interest and complexity in itself, and all of which must work jointly to give a composition a sense of organization and an architectural soundness and texture. This focus on formal structure is an important legacy of late 18th century musical thought, a period of intense musical refinement, and it is still a beacon for many of the most important composers among us.

Highly vigilant of superfluity in his art and resistant to technological experimentation that is not centered on musical purposes, George Flynn has cultivated a career that can be seen to represent a steadily flowing current with which to navigate around the turbulent rapids of upheaval and uncertainty. While never fully satisfied and always searching, he has evolved a unique style that is clearly recognizable to the ear. CUBE's presentation of Flynn's 'Til Death might spark some thought about the differences between composers who clearly build upon traditional elements, and those who appear to eschew everything from the past that is familiar to most people.

In terms of directness of utterance and emotional depth, this most songfully lyrical of George Flynn's works, whose deep sense of longing never abates throughout its 22 minute duration, perhaps stands alone among all the products of his life's work. The music imposes virtuosic demands on the two performers, but 'Til Death's technicalities never displace the singing line that is a hallmark of this piece. Contributing to this is Flynn's resourceful use of silent space and the capture of quiet piano resonances to extend their decay (Flynn has created a variety of new sounds for the piano throughout his career -- many of which depend upon strenuous pedal techniques -- which have not been explored by others in any consistent way, and he is vehement about making them integral parts of his musical structures).

The challenge of combining the sustaining sound of the violin with the innately percussive piano has been taken up by composers over the centuries, but it was during the classical period that this duo medium was viewed as an essential part of any serious composer's work. At the end of the 20th century this is no longer de rigueur, yet George Flynn was compelled to craft a piece in this venerable medium. His effort achieves the classical ideals of perfect symmetry and unity of its forces, while the scoring for the two instruments remains wholly idiomatic and respectful of their traditional sonic identities. This property alone establishes 'Til Death as one of modern music's exemplary displays of classical balance within an instrumental dialog -- that it is recognizable to wide audiences as a profoundly personal utterance should ensure a permanent place for it in the world's concert repertory.

The allusion of its title to the well-known marriage vow, the composer's own references to the inevitable vicissitudes of two people over the course of a long marriage, its haunting opening, and its sustained, deep sense of longing, make it difficult to resist 'Til Death's invitation to muse about the joys, and even more so the sorrows, of romantic love. As the music begins, we are greeted by an opening of extraordinarily hollow and sensual beauty. There is the uncanny perception that we've engaged the work at some point beyond the real beginning (This recalls the famous example of Beethoven's First Symphony, whose opening has been declared by some analysts to be a cadence -- a transitional passage in tonal music which ordinarily serves to connect parts of a composition to other parts.) In poetic terms, the opening of 'Til Death perhaps suggests that the uninvited listener has opened a chamber door to reveal two lovers in the midst of an earnest conversation, haunted by deeply troubling issues, and clinging to each other's words. These are words of devotion and sorrow, words struggling to analyze and solve the problems, words intended to deal with the mysteries of human nature.

The violin and piano of George Flynn refuse to stop caressing one another, and even in those passages which might be described as representative of conflict (the composer himself writes that the two instruments can be viewed as "interacting perhaps as a couple over the course of a long marriage, full of harmony as well as conflicts"), the bonds remain fixed and well articulated. Through the giant cascades of sound, the very loud and technically difficult keyboard-spanning rolling figurations for the pianist, the large interval leaps and biting multiple-stops by the violinist, there survives an indestructible sweetness in the harmonic relationship and a richly woven network of interlocking rhythmic fibers. One cannot escape the notion that loyalty and devotion are still present amidst the conflict and torrents of sound.

As 'Til Death goes on in search of its final resolution, about the musical attainment of which the pen of the composer is deliciously ambiguous, the two characters draw closer together. They have not resolved all of their issues, but they've grown tired of analyzing their relationship and the conundrums it poses. Slowly and tenderly the two lovers fall back into one another's arms, and, once there, they become oblivious to everything, except for the sounds of their own breathing.

Events during 1997 related to the music of George Flynn

On January 14th at 7:30 at Ganz Hall of Roosevelt University, pianist Philip Morehead and violinist Katherine Hughes perform the violin and piano duo called 'Til Death .

At Pick Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston on March 14th, internationally-known virtuoso pianist Geoffrey Madge will perform the American premier of George Flynn's 1996 composition, Derus Simples, in a program which also includes the J.S.Bach Goldberg Variations..

George Flynn is completing a concerto for three clarinets and orchestra commissioned by the DePaul University Symphony Orchestra. This is to be premiered by the orchestra and clarinetists Larry Combs, John Bruce Yeh, and Julie DeRoche at Orchestra Hall, on April 21st, 1997.

George Flynn is planning on performing his Salvage for solo piano on February 14th at DePaul.

On March 17th, a concert devoted to George Flynn1s music will be held at the Harold Washington Library Center.

Other events planned for 1997 include a complete performance of George Flynn1s 50-minute-long piano solo, Pieces of Night, by the distinguished pianist Stuart Leitch.

Please check the listings for exact time and place for these events.

Sermon of the Middle-Aged Revolutionary Spider, a new composition for tenor and chamber ensemble by Janice Misurell-Mitchell, will be premiered at a poetry and music event on Friday, February 21, 1997, 8:00 PM, at the DePaul Concert Hall, 800 West Belden (at Halsted). The piece is based on the poem by Angela Jackson, a Chicago poet currently on the faculty of Howard University. Opening the performance will be a poetry reading by Ms. Jackson; this will be followed by the performance of the Sermon. Written for nationally renowned tenor William Brown, who will be performing, the composition is presented as a sermon in sung and spoken text with instrumental accompaniment. During the presentation of the sermon there are additions (and distractions) from other, often contrary texts taken from the Bible and from other writings by Ms. Jackson. Performing with Mr. Brown are members of the DePaul School of Music faculty conducted by Donald DeRoche. Admission is free and open to the public.