Composer Schwantner, Marching To His Own Drum, Chimes, Crotales

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Joseph Schwantner, second from left, with Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra percussionists, for the 2011 world premiere of his Concerto #2 for percussion section, timpani, and orchestra.

PERSPECTIVE – Picture a boy of 7, growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the early 1950s, learning to play guitar on a large Martin Dreadnought model while holding his ear down against it. Like stepping into a cathedral, the resonance is transformed from a distant auditory feature to a physical phenomenon in which you can feel the properties of the sound.

Hidden gem: “Schwantner’s “Aftertones of Infinity” received the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

“You hear the kind of articulations and colors that you simply don’t hear when you’re a foot away,” composer Joseph Schwantner said in a phone interview from his home in Keene, N.H. “That gave me a whole different perspective about musical sound worlds.”

At 78, Schwantner still channels the excitement he once had as a curious kid digging through his parents’ record collection, listening to late-night Chicago radio stations that would air bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy, and then falling under the spell of gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Although Schwantner has only one published work for guitar — From Afar… (for Sharon Isbin, with orchestra, 1988) — his interest in the instrument’s resonance and the way in which its sound is projected has influenced his approach to composition.

“You can’t sneak up on a note on a guitar the way you can on a clarinet or a violin,” he said. “You either pluck the note or you don’t, so there’s always a very clear articulation. It became an essential part of my musical bone marrow.”

With some 60 published scores to his credit, Schwantner has been prolific and consistent in his output. But in spite of his stellar credentials — the Pulitzer Prize for Music, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters — he is something of a hidden gem and remains relatively unknown among the general public.

Schwantner wrote “From Afar…” for guitarist Sharon Isbin.

As a graduate student at Northwestern University in the late 1960s, Schwantner was trained in the stern academic environment of that era; his early music for small ensembles has the pitch shifts, glissandos, and prescribed use of specific intervals — Diaphonia Intervallum (1965) is based on the dissonant major seventh — that today seem iconic of postwar serialism. Recordings from European new-music festivals — particularly Polish festivals spearheaded by the late Krzysztof Penderecki — made a major impact on his musical thinking. When he happened upon the score of Charles Ives’ eclectic Symphony No. 3, it was a revelation.  

The heterogeneous sound palette of Schwantner’s mature style, which began to take shape in the late 1970s, more or less falls within what musicologist and composer Robert Greenberg describes as the “new pluralism” that came after postmodernism’s return to tonality. Schwantner doesn’t subscribe to any style in particular, though; his impetus is rather to be pragmatic about meeting the demands of each commission, and the stylistic traits that have come to be associated with his name are just a byproduct of his work ethic. In Consortium I (1970), for instance, he stumbled into serial techniques guided by ear, only to recognize his use of 12-tone rows retrospectively.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin, who has premiered eight Schwantner pieces over 23 years, calls him a neo-impressionist and places him in the direct lineage of American composers highly influenced by George Crumb. “He falls in this category of people who are opening up the world of sound,” Slatkin said in a phone interview. “When you listen to a Schwantner piece, you’re aware of the kind of sonority he creates, regardless of the harmony, melody, and rhythm. Sustained sounds, the way certain chords are voiced in the orchestra, the way he uses percussion — that’s a crucial element for Joe.”

Conductor Leonard Slatkin has long championed Schwantner’s music, going back to his tenure as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1996. (Photo: Dilip Vishwanat)

Having composed mostly serial music in the 1960s and into the next decade, Schwantner became preoccupied with the manipulation of orchestral color around the middle of the 1970s. Much of his music is also distinguished by the dominant role of percussion, metallophones in particular: The use of glockenspiel, cymbals, tam-tam, vibraphone, chimes, and crotales (tuned metal discs) can be traced back to Modus Caelestis (1972), his first published piece for orchestra. Colorful orchestration became an overriding interest.

The use of octatonic scales (alternating whole- and half-steps) also tinges his music with a distinct eeriness, compounded by unconventional touches, like having orchestra members sing and play crystal glasses. Add to this an extended percussion battery, amplified piano and timbral effects, along with unusual seating arrangements (indicated in the score), and you have the building blocks of Schwantner’s most memorable tone poems, such as …and the mountains rising nowhere (for wind ensemble, 1977).

In …and the mountains rising nowhere — the title comes from a poem by Carol Adler that inspired the piece — an initial disquieting atmosphere is contrasted by a heroic fanfare in the trumpets and trombones halfway through, a departure from the style Schwantner had used before. It laid the groundwork for his breakthrough work for orchestra, Aftertones of Infinity, which won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize. By age 35, he had developed a confident approach that evoked Crumb’s extended techniques and literary focus in score crafting and Witold Lutosławski’s specialized ensemble writing that spotlights solo instruments.

Aftertones of Infinity opens with a harmonically ambiguous nine-note slithering motif in mallet percussion that returns later in the piano. The score asks for orchestra players to sing wordlessly, “like a distant ethereal choir,” as the performance note says. The 15-minute piece is carefully structured and articulated with dramatic gestures: There is a loud climax around the midpoint and an extended crescendo for full ensemble near the end that suggests a sense of arrival. This imparts a strong directional flow to the music. Between these peaks, there are pools of exploratory kaleidoscopic whirls from the orchestra and standout solo passages for woodwinds.

Yet the piece remains a curiosity; within Schwantner’s output, it has been eclipsed by works that are characteristic of the composer’s later change of style. His manipulation of timbre and calculated shaping of impressionistic images over a relatively compact timespan make Aftertones of Infinity a lasting contribution to American art music. A new recording is long overdue – Slatkin’s account with the Juilliard Orchestra (New World Records, 1989) is the only release on CD to date.

Three powerful single-movement works for wind orchestra by Schwantner are performed in a 2006 double CD by the North Texas Wind Symphony.

When he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Schwantner had been on the faculty at the Eastman School of Music for almost a decade, becoming chair of the composition department in 1979. During his 30-year academic career at Eastman — followed by a stint at Yale University, from 2000 to 2002 — he straddled both an academic and an artistic life. As a professor, he felt responsible for giving his students the tools to develop a voice of their own, he said, rather than imposing principles that might inadvertently force them to mimic established composers. Two of his most notable students are Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts (2012) and Pulitzer finalist Michael Torke (2020).

Though Yale was “probably one of the best professorial positions one could have in music,” Schwantner said, it was outweighed by his need to be a freelance composer without compromises. “I felt I really needed to move away from teaching,” he said. “I had a series of commissions at the time, so I simply walked away.” He was 59.

There is a quality of commotion and busyness to much of Schwantner’s music; the score for …and the mountains rising nowhere, for instance, calls for nearly 50 percussion instruments. Unusual effects, like the use of bowed crotales, have become a staple of his sound. But there is also a hidden simplicity to his music, perhaps best encapsulated in the approach to texture he calls “shared monody.” A way to understand this is through the medieval hocket, a technique in which a melodic line is distributed among two or more voices, adding color and timbral variety and creating the illusion of a more complex texture. This refraction of melody happens in Aftertones and is rooted in the composer’s ever-present interest in color.

Schwantner’s time as the first composer in residence of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, from 1982 to 1985, was a crucial chapter in his career. Working with Slatkin, who was music director of the orchestra from 1979 to 1996, part of the composer’s responsibility was to curate a series of contemporary music concerts, with members of the orchestra split into smaller ensembles.

One of the pieces performed at those concerts was Sparrows (for soprano Lucy Shelton and chamber ensemble, 1979), which for Slatkin was “the piece that got it all going.” It was one of the first Schwantner scores that impressed the conductor, when it was brought to his attention soon after the work’s premiere in Washington, D.C. “There were characteristics in Sparrows that would go through almost all of Joe’s music: the use of color, and the idea that the players would do more than play their instruments, like sing and rub crystal glasses,” Slatkin said. The large-scale premieres that resulted from the St. Louis residency were Magabunda (also for Shelton, 1984); A Sudden Rainbow (1985); and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (for Emanuel Ax) and From Afar… (both 1988).

Slatkin performed A Sudden Rainbow often as a concert opener. Its more conventional style, requiring no singing from the players, marked “the moment I began to see Joe slightly changing his musical style,” he said. “It was a purely orchestral work, having more in common with classic American composers like William Schuman and Walter Piston.”

The immersive relationship with Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony is something Schwantner still treasures. One memory that stands out was when Slatkin stopped a rehearsal to tell the composer that his music had become as familiar to him and the ensemble as the standard repertoire; they all felt they understood his voice and artistic intentions. “That’s how new music ought to be engaged by a major orchestra, where they have the opportunity to perform these new works with familiarity and intimacy,” said Schwantner.

Coretta Scott King narrated “New Morning for the World.” (Wikipedia)

If there’s a piece that has become emblematic of Schwantner, it is New Morning for the World (for orchestra and narrator, 1982). With five percussionists playing a total of 27 instruments, it is a highly rhythmic portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., neatly structured into a “past, present, and future” outline. After an aggressive barrage on tom-toms and timbales in the opening, eventually giving way to a calmer mood for the entrance of the narrator, Schwantner’s signature ostinatos come in on the vibraphone and xylophone. There’s a cinematic, rousing hymn-like section for strings before the narrator announces “the promise of democracy.”

It’s about as straightforward, yet penetrating, as Schwantner gets, and toward the end he squeezes the juice out of that same lucid string passage for the “I have a dream” section. The piece ends quietly with vibraphone, glockenspiel, and piano over the orchestra players singing a hushed perfect fifth.  

Schwantner spent a summer culling the right words, ultimately selecting material from more than a decade of King’s life. The final text reflects what was most meaningful to the composer “as a young white adult living in the U.S.” in the tumultuous 1960s, he said. It created the architecture for the piece, with the slavery of the past still looming in the history of America; the civil rights movement forming the “present” section; and finally, King’s plea for a more tolerant and inclusive tomorrow.

To play up the significance of King’s words, Schwantner employs thinner orchestration and quieter dynamics for the parts with narrator, which are carefully spaced over the 25-minute piece. A 1997 BMG Classics recording, with Slatkin leading the National Symphony Orchestra and narration by the late civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, remains a reliable account. The album also features Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion (1994), with soloist Evelyn Glennie.

Among hundreds of performances of New Morning for the World — it is the most performed Schwanter piece, along with …and the mountains rising nowhere and the Concerto for Percussion — there is one that stands out for the composer. In 1985 he got a call from William Henry Curry, then associate conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony, asking whether Coretta Scott King had ever been invited to narrate. She hadn’t, but the widow of the great civil rights leader agreed to participate in a performance in Indianapolis under Curry.     

Upon arriving for rehearsals, Schwantner noticed, to his surprise, that King was reading from the score. “Normally non-musicians have the plain text and follow cues from the conductor,” he said. When they met, during a break, Schwantner learned that in the early 1950s she had been a voice student and graduated from the New England Conservatory, not long after meeting Martin. “She said to me, ‘Mr. Schwantner, will you stand next to me while we continue with the rehearsal, in case I have questions?’” which he did. “And I thought to myself, I’ve never been closer to the source.” That concert was the only time King performed the piece.  

In December 2020, I caught a socially distanced performance by the Florida Orchestra of the wind ensemble arrangement of Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 150th anniversary and premiered by Slatkin, the concerto has become a mainstay of the percussion repertoire and been performed more than 300 times.

A monumental work structured with minimalistic processes and recurring fanfares, the three-movement concerto spins out an imaginative and multifaceted soundscape through a variety of instruments that includes the Almglocken (a set of tuned cowbells) and the shekere (a large West African gourd wrapped in beads), framed by ostinatos from marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone, as well as a raucous brass section.

The soloist for the Florida performance was principal percussionist John Shaw, supported by about 30 players, under music director Michael Francis. Besides the sheer exuberance of the score, a performance of the concerto often makes for an engaging show. In the second movement, the soloist is positioned downstage; during the transition between the second and third movements, the soloist returns to the back as he improvises on the shekere. Shaw followed this design in a lively fashion, coloring his original third-movement cadenza with bongos, tom-toms, bass drum, suspended cymbals, cowbells, and woodblock. In the second movement, the water gong — a tam-tam dunked in a water tank to bend the pitch — added peculiar sonorities. The breadth of the composer’s orchestral palette was on display that evening.

Three works for wind orchestra represent some of Schwantner’s best music across nearly two decades, beginning with … and the mountains rising nowhere in 1977, followed by From a Dark Millennium (1980) and In Evening’s Stillness (1995). All three single-movement works are connected by the use of amplified piano to carry forward much of the material. A 2006 double CD by Eugene M. Corporon and the North Texas Wind Symphony, on GIA Publications, features the trilogy, as well as the Concerto for Percussion. The powerful performances capture the essence of Schwantner’s interest in exploiting the sonorities of the wind orchestra.

If Schwantner’s voice has remained focused, by the 2000s his orchestral music began to feel slightly predictable, with its use of repetitive patterns, extended percussion, and amplified piano. The orchestration of Chasing Light (2008) employs a reduced instrumentation to allow ensembles of different capabilities and budgets to play it. This accessibility is also perceptible in the music itself, as it tries a bit too hard to be liked, scrapping the mysterious sonorities of the essential works from the 1980s in favor of a simpler and harmonically unambiguous  style, with melodic patterns that are easier to follow, though always sifted through interesting rhythms.

The premiere of Schwantner’s Violin Concerto for Belarusian-American soloist Yevgeny Kutik and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, under Slatkin, is slated for Oct. 15 (rescheduled from April because of the pandemic); it will be the conductor’s ninth Schwantner premiere. The concerto has its origin in the composer’s single-movement work The Poet’s Hour (for solo violin and strings, 2010), which was inspired by writings from Henry David Thoreau’s journals. That piece was premiered by the Seattle Symphony and then-concertmaster Maria Larionoff, under Gerard Schwarz.

“Sometimes a piece will come to you and it has a kind of finality that you don’t want to mess with; other times, after further reflection, you see that the potential wasn’t fully explored, and you can go back and engage those elements,” said Schwantner of the evolution of the new two-movement concerto. At around 26 minutes, it is twice as long as The Poet’s Hour…, and mostly an expansion of the original score, but with the heft of a full orchestra.

According to Kutik, the Violin Concerto takes the themes and ideas of its predecessor, especially in the first movement, and fleshes them out. It “explains the older piece in a different way, introducing new ideas, contexts, and rhythmic structures,” said the violinist, who has recorded The Poet’s Hour… with Schwarz and his All-Star Orchestra. “Sometimes I think of crystal,” Kutik said. “If you truly look into a crystal structure, there are all these elements behind it. Sometimes you find that in Joe’s music, where you’re really exploring the depth of the sound world.”