Keith Kirchoff

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Dynamic Motion: American "Ultra-Modernism"

I will be touring with the following program throughout the 2007-08 season. To learn where I will be performing, please visit Upcoming Concerts.

Charles Ives:
Three Page Sonata (1910–11, rev. c1925–6)

Carl Ruggles:
Four Evocations: original version (1937-1940)

Henry Cowell:
Banshee (1925)
Five Encores to Dynamic Motion (1916-1917)
Piece for Piano with Strings (1924)
Tiger (1928)

John J. Becker:
Soundpiece 5 (1937)

Wallingford Riegger:
4 Tone Pictures (1932)

George Antheil:
Sonata No. 2 “Airplane” (1921)
Sonata No. 4 “Jazz Sonata”(1922)

Conlon Nancarrow:
Sonatina (1941)

Recital Overview

The first forty years of the twentieth century was perhaps the most pivotal period in the development of the United States as an independent, creative, international musical presence. It was during these four decades that musical America freed itself from European influence and found its own original voice. Composers began experimenting more than ever before, and both new instruments and new sounds were discovered. For the first time, pianists played directly upon the strings inside the piano and played the keyboard with palms, fists, and forearms; airplane propellers and car-horns were used as instruments; and the value of art was based strictly on its own original creativity.

During these forty years, America produced some its greatest composers, and these composers subsequently wrote some of the greatest pieces of all time. They embraced their national heritage by incorporating folk culture and music into their serious compositions. Both jazz and folk tunes soon became integral elements in the American voice.

Seven composers stand out from this time as the forerunners of this movement: Charles Ives (1871-1954), Carl Ruggles (1876-1971), Wallingford Riegger (1885-1961), John J. Becker (1886-1961), Henry Cowell (1897-1965), George Antheil (1900-1959), and Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997). Ardently supporting the need for an original American voice, and violently throwing away any reference to clichés and older, European models, these seven were at the forefront of “ultra-modernism.”

Yet, despite the fact that these men are among the most important characters in American music history, with the single exception of Ives and perhaps one or two other individual works, these composers have been nearly forgotten. Their music is no longer in the concert halls or on recording (only one out of nine of Becker’s piano works have ever been recorded and that one recording is no longer available). Riegger, Antheil, and Becker are not even mentioned in Grout and Palisca’s standard music history text, and Ruggles is relegated to a couple of lines.

This program seeks to educate audiences, both musician and non-musician alike, about the importance and greatness of this music. These are amazing works of art, testaments to unfathomable creativity, and are far too valuable to leave unplayed. Furthermore, these works are fun to listen to and stimulate thoughts and images they alone and conjure. Therefore, these works need to be presented regularly and deserve a permanent place in the standard repertoire. My hope is that through my performance and subsequent discussion of these works, I can spark a renewed interest in the genre and that others will be inspired to play this work in turn.

During this lecture/recital, I both speak about the composer’s background and importance, as well as play representative works of each of the seven composers. For each set of works, I will also supply the cultural and artistic context surrounding the composition of each piece. I encourage discussion, questions, and interaction from the audience throughout the recital.

In addition to the recital, I also offer master classes to both piano and composition students, as well as a composition seminar discussing my own background and experience as a composer-pianist.

Please do not hesitate to contact me with any further questions about this program or myself.

Piece-by-piece breakdown:

What follows is a detailed description of three of the works presented.

Ruggles: Four Evocations (original 1943 version)
Throughout his entire life, Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) was a very self-critical composer. He would edit, revise, discard, and start-over every composition so many times, that by the end of his ninety-one years of life, he had completed only nine different compositions. Granted, he essentially quite composing by the time he was fifty, but it remains a rather small number considering he was one of America’s most important and prominent composers during his lifetime.

As a composer, he was a musical visionary, his music containing radically harsh dissonances that were highly uncommon for their day. His music was very dense and contrapuntal and contains a gritty quality truly unique to Ruggles’s music alone. But for each radical idea put on paper, Ruggles immediately feared the public’s reactions. He would play his work for a colleague or friend and then immediately make dozens of changes to the work. Any suggestion or comment would be interpreted as criticism, and the place in question would likely get changed. While some of these revisions were for the better, often they resulted in a final product that was more mellow and conventional (and less interesting!) than the original.

Ruggles’s one piano piece, Evocations, is a four movement suite that shows Ruggles at his best. In its original form, Evocations is a highly poetic composition that reminds me a great deal of the Schubert Impromptus. Lyrical and singing lines interact in thick, dissonant counterpoint with each other. Sonority is explored to the fullest, as Ruggles meticulously notates every subtle details of finger release. He stretches both the pianist and the listener to think and work in new, radical ways. Unfortunately, this piece underwent so many revisions, that the final version, published in a revised edition by John Kirkpatrick, barely resembles the original.

The revised version, which has become the standard representation of the work, loses the poetic charm of the original. The subtle nuance of the original is replaced by brash virtuosity in the newer version. Consequently, Ruggles’s original, pure, and uninfluenced composition has never been recorded and likely performed fewer than a dozen times. In its original form, Evocations is a looking glass into the brilliant mind of Carl Ruggles.

Cowell: Banshee, Five Encores to Dynamic Motion, Piece for Piano with Strings, Tiger
Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was perhaps the single most influential musical character of the early twentieth century. Throughout his entire life, he selflessly supported the American composer--as both a pianist and the United States first cultural diplomat, he bravely showed the world what his country was capable of. He ardently fought for an original American voice and fearlessly advocated anyone who found one, likely publishing their work in his periodical New Music Magazine. Cowell was responsible for the “discovery” of Ives, and he taught many of the later members of the avant-garde including John Cage and Lou Harrison.

While his role in developing American music is unlikely to ever be completely forgotten, his actual compositions rarely get the attention they deserve. His work is often seen as a novelty, and the study of Cowell generally stops with acknowledging his creation of tonal clusters and extended piano techniques such as plucking, strumming, muting, and stopping the piano strings. What many people fail to realize is that he used these techniques to write really great compositions.

The pieces represented on this program each feature a different extended technique and demonstrate how each technique is not merely a novelty, but always employed judicially for explicit musical intent. The Banshee is the only piece represented played entirely on the piano strings. A haunting piece, it evokes the image of the Irish legend that rode on horseback in the night and stole people’s souls. This picture is painted by the pianist scratching, rubbing, and plucking the piano strings. Five Encores to Dynamic Motion explores many different uses of the tonal cluster. For example, the tonal cluster is used melodically in Antimony (no. 4), used to accompany a quirky melody in Amiable Conversation (no. 2), and in What’s This? (no. 5), the cluster is held silently in the bass to highlight the overtones of the melodies played above. Tiger demonstrates the tonal cluster’s percussive capabilities and creates such a massive sound that it may be one of the loudest piano pieces ever written. Lastly, Piece for Piano with Strings is a work that combines nearly all of Cowell’s extended techniques and results in a rich, orchestral sound, truly unique and unlike any other work before or after him.

Becker: Soundpiece No. 5
Of all the composers presented on this program, John J. Becker (1886-1961) is the least known and most underrated. This is odd, considering his colleagues looked upon him with enormous respect and admiration. Ives in particular thought very highly of Becker: in 1947, after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony, Ives gave Becker all of his prize money, and referred to Becker’s Credo as “…one of the finest, high-moving, stirring pieces of music of its kind I have ever heard. It is the expression of a big man with something great to say and not afraid to say it.”

Throughout his entire life, Becker was very interested in the medium of percussion. One of the first great percussion composers, he strongly believed that the piano was not a melodic, singing instrument, but rather a percussion instrument. Despite this, his music is rarely violent or aggressive and is never allowed to get out of control. He obsessed over form, and every composition has a clear, albeit sometimes unpredictable, structure from beginning to end.

Most of Becker’s oeuvre remains unpublished and unrecorded. Even by the time of his death he was almost forgotten; he is a composer in desperate need of a revival. Soundpiece No. 5, one of his few published compositions, is a short sonata for the piano. Probably one of the greatest pieces he ever wrote, the work combines radical new forms with old familiar ones. Extreme repetition was one of Becker’s favorite formal devises. For example, in Soundpiece No. 5, he often repeats the same chord or series of chords successively dozens of times. Entire pages are then repeated again. Suddenly, in the middle of the work, he introduces a fugue, by nature a repetitive devise, that eventually gives way to a large, chorale-like, climax. The work is incredibly exciting and constantly drives forward with insistence; it is paced perfectly and is an exhilarating listening experience. Although a shorter work than many of his other compositions, it nevertheless accurately represents the most important unknown composer in American history.

I am currently undergoing an in depth study of Becker's keyboard works, including the three piano concerti. For more information regarding this project, click here.