When New Music, Criticism Flowed From Same Pens

Virgil Thomson, composer and New York Herald-Tribune music critic from 1940-1954, pictured in San Francisco in 1984. (Photo: Ron Henggeler)

Composer-Critics of the New York Herald-Tribune: Virgil Thomson, William Masselos, Carlo Bussotti (piano), Seymour Barab (cello), Lucille Lawrence (harp), David Glazer (clarinet), Herbert C. Mueller (trumpet), Elden C. Bailey (percussion), Joseph Crawford and Clyde S. Turner (tenors), Joseph James (baritone), William C. Smith (basso), New Music String Quartet, New York Percussion Group, Carlos Surinach (conductor). Other Minds OM 1024-2

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – Once upon a time, long ago, a major record label was run by a sometime composer who plowed the profits of its hit Broadway show albums into loss-leading volumes of new music. The label chief was Goddard Lieberson, the company was Columbia Masterworks, the time was the 1950s, and after a prolific start, Columbia’s Modern American Music Series continued sporadically into the 1970s.

Way off in the next century, a boutique San Francisco record label called Other Minds raided the Columbia archives – now owned by Sony – for five long-out-of-print titles from this series and reissued them on a single CD. All five of the composers of these pieces (and for the matter, Lieberson himself) worked as music critics for the now-fabled New York Herald-Tribune at one time or another, and all five, in their diverse, sometimes wacky, outlier ways as represented on this album, were bucking the prevailing twelve-tone winds of the time. It’s a great idea for a concept album, and beautifully executed.

The ringleader of this constellation of composer-critics was Virgil Thomson, the chief critic of the Herald-Tribune from 1940 to 1954, and his “stringers” were John Cage, Lou Harrison, Paul Bowles, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks. To a somewhat less-than-star-struck observer, this would raise the red flag of conflict-of-interest – and Thomson himself crossed that line when, for example, he wrote about his own works being performed in dispatches from Denver and Los Angeles in 1948 and 1949. But nowadays, all seems to be forgiven as Thomson’s always-readable and at times eloquent prose is often held up as a lodestar for today’s critics, and some of the iconoclasts whom he hired have posthumously outstripped his own reputation as a composer.

Bowles’ Music for a Farce is exactly what the title describes – a set of eight delightfully loony, cartoon-like pieces for trumpet, clarinet, piano, and percussion with 1920s Paris splashed all over it. This music was intended for a little-known Orson Welles 1938 comedy containing live stage action and silent film called Too Much Johnson, which flopped when first performed. (The film was lost until 2013, and the show was revived in its entirety, with new music by Steve Sterner, in 2015.)

Harrison’s Suite for Cello and Harp (1949) immediately changes the pace – flowing, melodic, serene meditations like so much of Harrison’s music. The Herald-Trib chief critic’s Capital Capitals (1927) is a droll dry run for Thomson’s settings of Gertrude Stein in Four Saints in Three Acts as four deadpan male singers rattle off Stein’s running-in-circles dada lines over baby-simple scales and chords as played on the piano by the composer. Glanville-Hicks’ Sonata for Piano and Percussion (1951-52) follows in the path of Bartók’s work for these forces a decade and a half before but in a more genteel, less astringent yet no less appealing tonal language.

John Cage in Milwaukee, 1976. (Photo: Mike Greenberg)

Up until this point, the music on the CD has been quirky and highly individual but always on tonal ground and easy to assimilate. But with Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, written in 1949-50, the going gets rough as the strings wheeze inch by inch through a succession of hushed minimal gestures, culminating in a tiny Renaissance-flavored finale that is a meager reward for one’s patience. Listeners with an aversion to Morton Feldman, whose endless later works were presaged by this piece, are hereby warned.

The CD comes with a generous 60-page booklet containing a pair of essays by Thomson about his newspaper days and tips for writing about music, vintage photos, music score pages, record album covers, and a lively intro by a fellow composer who thought up this project, Charles Amirkhanian. Along the way, Amirkhanian tries to settle a score when he excoriates a San Francisco critic for alleged sins in reviewing new music. The 1951-55-vintage mono sound is excellent; Columbia clearly gave even these marginally selling items first-class engineering then, and the re-mastering seems to have been made from pristine original sources.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.