Greetings from Red Hook, New York! As I alluded to last week, officially I am here in the Hudson Valley to participate in the New Albion Festival that is taking place this week at Bard College, but I’m also taking some time to catch up on various composing projects while partaking deeply of the good air and farmland in the area.
I’m billeting at the 1820s farmhouse owned by New Albion Record’s creative genius Foster Reed, and forgive me if I seem breathless, but simply put, I have never seen such magnificent stars as I did on my first night—moonless, cloudless, and light-pollution-free as it was, it seemed the skies were white dotted with black points, not the other way around. Then, the glorious cacophony of tree frogs, crickets, cicadas, and night birds (which I must leave to an ornithologist to identify) that I heard during a wonderful dinner at the nearby home of Kyle Gann and Nancy Cook rivaled any concert I’ve heard this year in its splendor and inspiration.
New Albion is not only a label but a kind of brand, epitomized by the composers who were on its roster at or near the label’s launch 25 years ago: John Adams, Ingram Marshall, Paul Dresher, and Daniel Lentz, all with strong links to the West Coast. Over time the label’s reach has expanded to included folk music of Norway, South America, Asia, medieval music, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Virgil Thomson, Morton Feldman, and more. I’m proud to have been a member of the roster since 1992 when my CD Mom’s was issued. And Foster Reed, bless his heart, has kept almost the entire catalog in print to this day, in the face of tremendous contrary pressures from the economies of the record business.
Alas, I could not arrive in time to catch the first several concerts of the festival and so I missed performances by Abel-Steinberg-Winant, Margaret Leng Tan, and Sarah Cahill. But I was able to hear Stephen Drury nail Frederic Rzewski’s blockbuster The People United Will Never Be Defeated, 36 variations on the anthemic song of the same name by the Chilean composer Sergio Ortega. Drury performed from memory and with considerable élan. The variations are divided into six groups of six variations each, with each group focusing on a different musical element, and the sixth variation in each set distilling and summarizing what came before. It’s the kind of work I most deeply admire, with formal clarity and logic combined with musical force that communicates just as strongly emotionally as it does intellectually.
After the concert I was joined in my cabin by Larry Polansky, composer and co-director of Frog Peak Music (a composers’ collective), the aforementioned Kyle Gann, as well as pianists Joe Kubera and Sarah Cahill. Over the course of the evening, as the cask-strength scotch was liberally shared, notable facts about the participants slowly emerged. Polansky turns out to be a connoisseur of musical rounds from the past up to the present day and has even published modern ones ad-hoc in a spiral bound collection called Rounds Unbound. Joe Kubera, unbeknownst to any of us, turns out to be a connoisseur of rare Chinese teas, most of which he says are almost unfindable in the USA. Perhaps the most surprising fact of all is that Kyle Gann, in addition to being a composer, award wining critic, and expert on American music, is also one of the five top Muzio Clementi scholars in the U.S., even participating as a panelist in the Graduate Center of the City University of New York’s conference organized on the occasion of the composer’s 250th anniversary back in 2003. Somehow this fact had completely escaped the rest of us. As the evening went on it became clear that many surprises were still in store, with connections between each of us not yet fully understood.
Tomorrow I’m participating in a marathon concert that promises to be long but varied, and hopefully not too arduous for either performers or audience. As every other piece combines electronics with acoustic instruments (Richard Teitlebaum’s From Blends, for electronics, shakuhachi, and percussion; Stephen Vitiello’s Bright and Dusty Things for accordion, video, and electronics; et al.) it looks like I am the only performer the entire evening—or festival for that matter—performing on laptop alone. I’ll see what I can do to give you a performer’s-eye summary of events next week. Until then, this is Carl Stone, channeling Henry David Thoreau, here in Red Hook, New York.