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ClassicsOnline Home » ERICKSON: Orchestral, Chamber and Vocal Music
Robert Erickson was a formidable guiding spirit as composer and teacher, acting as a mentor for a whole generation of California-trained composers. He utilized many different styles and techniques in his music, from microtonality to electronics and improvisation. High Flyer, written in 1969, requires the solo flutist to speak through the mouthpiece of the instrument while playing. In the 1970s, Erickson turned to a meditative, Asian-inspired aesthetic. The late works Two Songs and Recent Impressions, composed for Continuum as the composer was battling a progressive illness, are remarkable for their intense sensitivity to pure elements of sound and their joyous, life-affirming spirit.
By David Denton
Though born in Michigan in 1917, Robert Erickson has become
known as one of the highly fertile group of composers working in California
during the second-half of the 20th century. Once arrived in San Francisco he
was became involved in college teaching, acting as tutor to a whole generation
of American composers, while also working as Music Director for a West Coast
radio station. Sadly he was plagued with ill-health which curtailed his own
output as a composer, though as this disc shows he had a highly fertile imagination
in the field of sonorities, and experimented in microtonality and electronic
music. The disc contains two late works, Recent Impressions having been
commissioned by Continuum in 1987 and scored for thirteen instruments including
a solo piano. Undoubtedly of its time - though Copland flits around in the background
- it is also a piece that is readily accessible to conservative ears, the score
having a transparency and interesting use of the mixed string and woodwind ensemble.
Written the previous year, Two Songs for mezzo, clarinet, viola and piano,
is to words by Erickson, there content obviously reflecting the autumn of his
life. They are modern art songs, to my ears less attractive than the previous
work. High Flyer is for solo flute which at one stage is asked to speak
into the mouthpiece. Like so many pieces written in the 1960's its interesting,
but I question its lasting value. Summer Music is haunting piece
slow moving music for violin and tape, the tape providing a chattering backdrop
that becomes more active as the work draws to a close. The violin part is rhapsodic,
its mood handed down from Ernest Bloch, who presumably worked with Erickson
briefly at the University of California in Berkeley. The performances can be
taken at face value as a dedicated response to a composer much admired by Continuum.
Very good 1980's sound derived from a Musical Heritage LP.
Robert Erickson (1917-1997)
Orchestral, Chamber and Vocal Music
Over the past century California has been known as a particularly fertile center of musical creativity, a stature which was significantly enhanced in the later 1930s with the arrival of emigré European giants such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The impact of the Europeans was enormous, but at the same time a fierce strain of musical independence persevered, reinforcing an atmosphere in which composers felt free to explore new musical frontiers, and not automatically accept the powerful influences of Europe and East Coast America. That California spirit is part of a tradition dating back to the work of Henry Cowell, the "ultramodernist" pianist-composer of the 1920s and 1930s who also created the New Music Society of California, which produced most of the state's earliest new-music concerts. Cowell also campaigned continually for recognition of the great non-Western musical languages. A second generation of West Coast master innovators comprises John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Harry Partch. Then after World War II, the circle of unusual California composers broadened tremendously, leading to a host of unique fusions of Western and Asian cultures, mixed media, electronic music, virtuoso "performance music", and other lively activities.
Robert Erickson, although not a native Californian, was a formidable guiding spirit as composer and teacher, nurturing the distinctiveness of West Coast music and acting as a mentor for a whole generation of California-trained composers. Michigan-born (1917) Erickson's education included composition studies with Ernst Krenek, after which he taught in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the early 1950s he moved to the San Francisco area, teaching at San Francisco State University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the San Francisco Conservatory, and working as Music Director of the innovative KPFA-FM radio station in Berkeley. In 1967 he accepted a professorship at the recently-formed music department of the University of California at San Diego, and became a crucial figure in its ascent to leadership in composition and new music performance. Among his students from his various positions are Pauline Oliveros, Bun-Ching Lam, Terry Riley, and Loren Rush. Many of his ideas are found in his seminal book The Structure of Music (1955) and Sound Structure in Music, an exploration of the syntax of musical language (1975). In the 1980s, thanks to increased performances and recordings by leading ensembles, his national reputation began to grow, but many of his works are still seldom heard. Unfortunately, for many years Erickson battled chronic health problems, the seriousness of which made his continuing activities as a composer almost miraculous. He died in 1997.
Erickson's music includes works for chamber ensembles, soloists, orchestra, chorus, voices, and tape. It passed through distinct phases, beginning with atonality and the use of serial methods, skills he developed in the 1930s, before most Americans even knew of twelve-tone music. During his influential years in the San Francisco Bay area, his compositions and aesthetic concepts formed a significant musical parallel to the strong movement of Abstract Expressionism in the visual arts. In the late 1950s he focused his attention upon the use of timbre as a primary component of music, and the organization of time into non-metric and extremely fluid structures. His works of the early 1960s superficially relate to the so-called "post-Webern" style then prominent, but differ in the way that his tiny moments of sound accumulate to form long melodies. He also began to incorporate some elements of improvisation into compositions that were otherwise fully written out, and, in 1964, began writing for tape with and without live performers. (This CD does not contain any works using improvisation, however.) Microtonal writing and his creation of instruments producing new sounds have also been conspicuous.
An increasing fascination with speech and speech sounds played a major part in two 1969 compositions for solo wind players. One of these is probably his most-performed work - General Speech, a hilarious display piece for a trombonist based on the overblown rhetoric of General Douglas MacArthur. The other is High Flyer, for flute. In both pieces, the verbal component is not meant to be comprehended, although occasional words may emerge from the music. Instead, because the text causes the performer to constantly reshape the mouth and lips while playing, a palette of novel tone colors and percussive effects is created. Erickson wrote that nonsense syllables would have served equally well, but would have been more difficult for the player to remember. The effect is a bit as if the instrument were talking in its native tongue, incomprehensible to us but meaningful to itself. The text of High Flyer is a collection of disconnected pronouncements by a drunken airplane passenger.
After the period of experimentation, Erickson turned to a calm and meditative aesthetic, in which the impact of Asian culture, which plays such a strong role in West Coast music, can be felt powerfully. Predominant techniques are a spare, triadic harmonic vocabulary presented through drones (sustained tones that support florid melodies, as in the sound of bagpipes), hocketing (a medieval technique of passing the tones of a melody back and forth among different voices or instruments), carefully-controlled improvisation, extended performance techniques, amplification, and the use of pre-recorded tape. Some of his music presents special challenges because it was written in collaboration with musicians, especially his U.C. San Diego colleagues, who had developed their own unusual instrumental techniques.
One of the most spacious works of those years is Summer Music (1974), an extraordinary unification of Erickson's intense love of nature and an expressive simplicity that arises only from complete inner peace. Erickson created the tape part from the sound of tiny brooks in Sequoia National Park, recorded and then acoustically filtered to enhance drone pitches within the bubbling waters. He wrote, "The violin sounds emerge gradually from the tape background sounds, and its melodies sometimes separate from, and sometimes merge with the prerecorded sounds… There is a profusion of notes, contrasted, at times, with long continuing single sounds. The composition has much to do with rhythm: the dancing rhythms of myriad sound particles; the way they coalesce into larger musical units; the rhythmic implications of 'small sounds'; the superimposed phrase organizations of the violin… It is Summer Music because it hardly sounds like a winter piece – maybe a spring piece, not likely an autumn piece. It may not sound the way summer sounds, but to me it sounds like the way summer feels."
The two most recent compositions on this recording were composed for Continuum. Here Erickson returned to the most basic performance principles, eschewing improvisation, extended techniques, or electronics. Yet the rarefied simplicity of Two Songs and Recent Impressions is a natural outgrowth of compositions like Summer Music. Two Songs, setting Erickson's own poetry, was composed for Continuum's 1986 European tour. Traditional "word painting" ties this score to the tradition of art song, although the musical vocabulary is unmistakably that of Erickson. Recent Impressions was composed for Continuum's 1987 appearances at the contemporary music concerts of Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German Radio), Cologne, and was commissioned by Betty Freeman, a noted patron of the arts and long-time advocate of Robert Erickson. It is unusual in having both a solo piano and a second piano played by the conductor. The intense poetry of this work stems from the composer's sensitivity to the most fundamental musical components of single pitches and basic harmonic intervals – especially pure octaves, fourths, and fifths. There are no melodies in the traditional sense, but abundant playful musings on these unadorned elements, in a brilliant dialogue of instrumental colors. A sunset work, written as the composer suffered the progression of a debilitating condition, the work incredibly radiates a joyous, life-affirming spirit. Although very accessible to the general music-lover, its slowly evolving development demands tremendous concentration from both performer and listener. In fact, the extreme delicacy and transparency of Recent Impressions makes it one of the most difficult compositions Continuum has ever performed — proving that performance challenges are not the exclusive province of overtly complex music.
© Continuum 2007
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ERICKSON: Orchestral, Chamber and Vocal Music