The dominion of post-Webernian serialism has shrunk considerably since the early 70s. More and more composers regard it as merely another arrow in the quiver, rather than as the archer's entire art. Leonard Bernstein's mixing of styles (which includes his own brand of serialism) within a piece, so often ridiculed during his life, looks more and more prophetic. As an interested listener, I increasingly see serialism as something of definite historic moments and milieus – namely, Austro-German culture between the wars and post-Stalin, pre-perestroika Eastern Europe. With certain mighty exceptions (Copland, Riegger, and Sessions, for example), I found its American manifestations slightly risible, precisely because they took themselves so seriously. To paraphrase John Adams, it's hard to suffer Expressionist Angst at the Burger King, or at the faculty sherry party, for that matter.
Believe it or not, there's a downside to the breakup of a generally-accepted style. The composer must decide what to do next, and without the guidance "rules" provide. It's all very well to say a composer should write what he sincerely feels, but sincerity isn't music. It must take an outward form the composer, for the most part, consciously shapes, including those elements that just "come to mind." I find the present state of music tremendously exciting. So many people have new things to say and new ways of saying them. Even the minimalists turned out not to be a bloc, but a temporary coalescence of similar expressive aims. If anything, the major minimalists are individuals. Glass doesn't sound like Reich who doesn't sound like Adams who doesn't sound like any of the "holy wing" of the party who in turn don't sound much like each other. Glass and Reich always went their own way, and Adams, in his recent work, surprisingly has begun to approach the neo-Romantic Barber.
One of my Big Ideas (a category I reserve for those notions I'm usually ashamed to mention out loud) is that really vital music in some way makes use of the musical vernacular. As much as I love Webern, for example, it bothers me that his music seems so cut off from this source of energy. Ives is our musical Whitman, including just about everything he hears. Elliott Carter, ironically, finds Ives more interesting than the culture that nourished him. Our musical vernacular is one of our glories, but we tend not to believe in it. To show us they're serious, most of our composers have tried to make high art from other high art and have produced the equivalent of Masterpiece Theatre television. As Aesop noted, the mountains heaved in labor and delivered a mouse. Yet, it's American pop that has colonized the subconscious of the rest of the world, and it's so various besides. Given the choice between any Merchant-Ivory snoozer and a Jim Carrey flick, I'll sit with the slobs, thank you very much.
Nevertheless, I believe I detect a change in the weather. Composers are looking into the cornucopia and finding nothing impure. To some extent, most of these artists have grown up immersed in pOp. Luckily, it's become a part of them. Composers like Daugherty, Larsen, Bolcom, Kernis, Harbison, and even Reich and Adams have mined materials from the neon strip. There's gold here.
Jay Weigel was born and raised in New Orleans, a city so isolated from the rest of the country that it has preserved its very strong local culture, mostly black and Italian. New Orleanians don't talk, eat, or dance like anybody else in the country. I swear even the local McDonald's cuisine tastes different than it does in, say, Sandusky, and I know of no other airports (that other great symbol of cultural homogenization) where one can find alligator sausage. Like most "normal" musical teens, Weigel began playing in rock bands. From there, he moved to jazz. After graduate work in composition in southern California, he returned to his home town, where he makes a living doing commercial work and directing the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center. His concert music shows the diverse influences of such people as Stravinsky, George Crumb, and Eddie Van Halen. There's also a very strong dose of various New Orleans musics - the brass bands, rhythm & blues piano, and the local version of post-bop. Most people mistake Kansas City and Chicago hot jazz for New Orleans, when they think of New Orleans music at all, but the approach to rhythm differs, with New Orleans leaning toward the rhythmically independent lines of the Caribbean. Listen to the Nevilles or the Rebirth Brass Band for examples. Weigel very often abstracts local elements and combines them with contemporary techniques as the basis of his work. For instance, one of his piano pieces puts riffs from the r&b piano playing of Professor Longhair and Toots Washington over an extended, highly chromatic passacaglia bass. The blend works more often than not.
Oh Yeah! opens the first CD almost like a call to arms, breezing along like Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks caught among rhythms loosely ragtime. The instrumentation of flute, harp, violin, and cello is bright and clean as fresh air. The rhythmic counterpoint of cross-accents among the instruments gets inside the body, reminding me that New Orleans audiences love bands they can dance and shake to. After first hearing, I spontaneously exclaimed the title out loud.
Power Press, for multi-timbrel synthesizer (there may be conventional instruments, but, if so, it's definitely multi-track tape in this performance), is another rhythmic study, appropriate to what the composer conceived of as a dance work. Mardi Gras drumming, cliché jazz cymbal riffs, and always the cross-accent counterpoint float in and out, as do "free-form" Crumb-like booms in the lower percussion registers. It took me a while to warm up to this one, and at one time I thought that perhaps it needed the missing visual element of dance. After about a dozen listenings over a few months, however, it finally got to me. I can understand why a dancer would want to move to this celebration of movement.
The Three Evocations for solo piano disappoints a bit, in that I feel the first movement could have been written by anybody who knew Messiaen's piano writing, and it could be that its origins as a competition piece failed to fire inspiration. It's thoroughly professional, but a bit anonymous, compared to the other works. In fairness, musical interest picks up in the second and third movements, with an Ives-like hell-for-leather ragtime in the second and a nervous scherzo built around a single, rapidly repeating tone in the third.
Weigel calls Old Winds a study in quotation (a phrase from Mozart crops up now and then). The work also provides interest as a study in sonority of a wind trio - in this case, flute, oboe, and clarinet, which might seem top-heavy, but Weigel so arranges things that you don't really miss the bottom registers. The work strikes me as a composer trying on new voices, so that he can find his own. The Mozart quote sounds symptomatic of what I perceive as the unsettledness of Weigel's style at the time of writing. The work is at least four years old, and Weigel's music has since become more focused. Old Winds relies on a micron of Coplandia, some Stravinsky riffs, the Mozart, perhaps the Concerto for Orchestra Bartók, especially at the beginning. But the composer quickly finds something new and worth saying. At this point, the Mozart becomes completely de trop, even annoying, because it intrudes on Weigel's genuinely interesting music. It wouldn't hurt the piece any to cut the quote altogether.
No reservations whatever about the two big pieces on the Albany disc, Take Me Home for orchestra and An Affirmation, a one-movement piano concerto. The outer sections of Take Me Home have the bounding optimism of Copland and Piston – especially rhythmically - while the innards of the piece show an ecstatic, yearning lyricism. This is a gorgeous, purposeful work. In his brief liner notes, Weigel mentions that the opening is taken from a New Orleans r&b riff. I sort of hear it, but it strikes me that Weigel and his orchestration have changed its character entirely and, in doing so, discovered a new kind of music, much as (on a larger scale) Chuck Berry's appropriation of r&b piano birthed rock & roll guitar. The confidence and fullness of Weigel's orchestration impresses me mightily. I've always wondered how composers, with such limited access to performances, acquire such a sure "feel" for instrumental combinations. I'm sure some of it comes down to luck - at least for the good ones, since they tend to take chances to avoid the tried-and-true - but it can't all be luck.
The concerto takes Weigel's orchestral approach even further. The music is clearer, sharper in outline, and, in the quick movements, built out of instrumental fragments. In fact, it's a test as much of the orchestra as of the soloist, demanding pinpoint jabs in the texture from the players. Again, the vernacular elements are largely subsumed into an idiom with larger expressive aims, although the finale takes a "Latin" r&b riff (again, very characteristic of New Orleans music) on a thrill ride. The performances of both large works - from the soloist, orchestra, and conductor – are all a composer could ask for. They not only get the notes, they play music.
Dancing on Glass (where does he come up with these titles?) plays an intriguing trick on the ear. It is essentially a largely-static piece which somehow generates momentum through ingenious gambits, usually initiated by the bass drum, which plays with the drumming of the New Orleans marching band. Jim Atwood, the percussionist, does beautifully: razor-sharp, clean, and still a part of the ensemble. I'd also single out Cheryl Hollinger on trumpet and John Touchy on trombone, playing with strength and precision. Again, their entrances tend to be difficult short stabs, which they hit spot-on.
The Turnipseed CD also includes Weigel's arrangements of works by others. I don't think much of Ray Ganucheau's "Muscle Man," musically or lyrically: it seems to me knock-off Elton John. Not even Weigel's very interesting accompaniment for string quartet rescues it. New Orleans jazz icon Harold Battiste's "Beautiful Old Ladies," on the other hand, is a gorgeous slow number, arranged by Weigel for solo bassoon (James Lassen) and strings. The surprise here is that Lassen actually swings, despite the pokiness of the string players. The string parts, however, show the influence of jazz wind voicings. I'd love to here this in a performance where the accompanists matched the solo.
With On the Levee, Weigel comes up with essentially a two-movement cello chamber concerto, the movements placed slow-fast. The first moves a little like a slow Villa-Lôbos choro, with its main strain startingly close to the Jerome Kern standard "Make Believe." It's an extended movement for the soloist, mostly alone with punctuation from the percussionist (again, Jim Atwood). The cello part walks the line between recitative and aria, and the soloist, Alan Nisbett, does the hard job of keeping coherent in this music. Weigel's second movement challenges the performers to switch emotional gears often and quickly, challenges this group sometimes fails to meet. The music doesn't lack focus, but the performance does. It sounds under-rehearsed. Still, Nisbett does a fine job.
Weigel's music is more than the avoidance of cliché or even well-worn paths: it's an energetic and enthusiastic search for a unique voice and a celebration of discoveries. I count Weigel among my more engaging finds of recent years.
Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz