About this Recording
8.559351 - SMITH, L.: Chamber Music - Piano Sonata / Viola Sonata / Suite for Solo Viola / 6 Bagatelles (S. Darling, Grossman)
English 

Leland Smith (b. 1925)
Chamber Music

 

The story of American composer Leland Clayton Smith is one of versatility and excellence. In a musical career that has spanned over seventy years, Smith’s work as a composer, performer, teacher, and computer software developer has reached consistently high levels of achievement and recognition.

Smith presents a biographical sketch of himself in his own words:

I was born 6 August 1925 in Oakland, California. I began serious study of music at the age of eleven, concentrating on the piano and woodwinds, but also learning the rudiments of brass and string instruments. I joined the Musicians’ Union at the age of seventeen (playing tenor sax in dubious San Francisco nightclubs) and am now a life member. I began composing at age eleven and, after brief music theory studies in the Oakland Public Schools, I began, at the age of fifteen, studying counterpoint, orchestration, and composition with Darius Milhaud—who magically appeared in my Oakland neighborhood in 1941. During the war years I served for two and a half years in the Navy, regularly performing on six different instruments as a member of the 13th Naval District Admiral’s Band based in Bremerton, Washington. After the war I spent two and a half years at the University of California in Berkeley studying with Roger Sessions. In that time I received the A.B. degree with Highest Honors in Music, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and received the M.A. in composition. During that same time I became an assistant to Darius Milhaud in his teaching at Mills College. In 1948 I began a year’s study at the Paris Conservatory, which included classes of Olivier Messiaen and woodwind performance and conducting.

In 1950 I returned to New York where I began playing in concerts of the National Orchestral Association and the International Society for Contemporary Music. I also worked for the Mercury Music Publishing Company. In the fall of 1950 I was engaged as a bassoonist with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. In the years up to the mid-sixties I also played in the San Francisco Symphony, the orchestras of the New York City Ballet and the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the Chicago Symphony. My teaching career covered 42 years and included public school music, one year at Mills College, six years at the University of Chicago, and 34 years at Stanford, where I served as major advisor for 41 students receiving music doctorates in composition, computer music and musicology. I also have taught at Colgate University and served as Visiting Distinguished Professor at the University of California at Davis. My compositions have been performed by the San Francisco Symphony, the Orchestra of America (Carnegie Hall), and the Singapore Symphony. Also my works have been presented in Athens, Belgrade, Paris, London, Chicago, Taipei, etc. I have lectured on various musical topics in over ten different countries in America, Europe and Asia.

In the 1960s I began working with computer-generated sound and assisted John Chowning in the founding of the Stanford Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). I served as a musical programming consultant for the establishment of the IRCAM center in Paris. In 1970 I turned my attention to computerized music typography, producing the first completely computer-produced edition of music in 1971. In 1979 I published the first book on music ever produced completely by the computer. The outgrowth of this work, the SCORE music typography system, is now being used by many of the world’s leading publishers.

Throughout his teaching career, Smith taught a number of noted composers including William Bolcom, Richard Swift, David Lang, Kui Dong, and Dexter Morrill. Smith’s own output as a composer dates primarily from the years 1940–70, ending when he began intense work in the computer music field. Though Smith has completed no new compositions since 1971, he assembled a distinguished body of music in many forms, including an opera (on a libretto by E. E. Cummings), orchestral works, choral and vocal music, and numerous chamber and solo pieces. Most of Smith’s music falls into this final category, drawing upon his extensive experience as a chamber musician. He is a self-described “miniaturist”, usually creating his works from the compilation of short movements.

Despite Smith’s considerable success in the fields of composition, performance, and education, it is his work in computer music that has made an indelible impression on the musical landscape of the twentieth century. His SCORE music typography system was not only the first system of its kind, but set the standard for professional computer music engraving. Though its dominance in the field has lessened with its age and the new and further updates to subsequently released computer software programs, the output from SCORE continues to remain the benchmark by which professional engravers judge music typography.

Smith’s compositions employ a delightfully personal musical style, combining elaborations of traditional forms with a harmonic language integrating both extended tonality and atonality. One of the most immediately noticeable style elements is a witty sense of musical humor. The use of humor within a serious musical language is a rare attribute but has occurred from time to time throughout music history in the catalogues of composers such as Josef Haydn and György Ligeti.

Throughout all of the compositions on this recording, Smith plays subtle musical games with pitch and rhythm. He sets up expectations based on familiar gestures and then quickly “destroys” them. Examples abound, such as the many places in piano parts where Smith creates “intentional cracks”—a single voice line will suddenly gain an added minor second for a moment; at first, it sounds like a mistake, but the purpose is quickly revealed as Smith uses the textural change as a springboard for further musical development. Likewise, Smith frequently disrupts expected rhythmic pulses. An excellent example of this can be found in the first movement of the Piano Sonata, where it almost sounds as though the pianist is adding violently inconsistent “lurches” to the texture, skewing the listener’s sense of expectation in what otherwise seems like familiar patterns. Everything in Smith’s music is very scrupulously notated; all of these effects are not left up to chance but are rather executed precisely by the performers.

The end result of these techniques is a sound world of immense character, contrast, and color. Smith’s music seduces with its elegant development of textures and harmonies, its imaginative use of familiar structures such as sonata form (with audible transpositions and recapitulations), and its sparkling wit and humor.

Sonatina for Violin and Piano (1952–53) is dedicated to violinist Anne Kish. Smith writes: “Anne Kish was an excellent violinist whom I first met at Mills College in 1946. We played in very many concerts together over a period of over twenty years.” The sonatina is cast in three very brief movements: a vibrant opening, a lyrical interlude, and a bouncy finale.

Four Etudes (1952) for piano were written for Darlene Mahnke. Smith writes: “Darlene Mahnke was a piano student at Mills College when I taught there in 1951–52. I remember her impressive senior recital which featured Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. She also conducted the orchestra for the Mills College Centennial celebration for which I wrote the music.” Unlike some etudes which focus on a single musical element, each one of these pieces, while only a page long, explores the integration of at least two different textures.

Suite for Solo Viola (1948) is dedicated to Herman Gordon. Smith writes: “Herman Gordon was the night clerk in the Union Square Hotel in New York City, where my wife and I stayed on our way to Paris in 1948. At midnight we found him industriously practicing the viola with a mute on. He was a rather good performer but could not get work as he was blacklisted by the union—I think for communist affiliations. The opening of the suite I later used in the first movement of my Concerto for Orchestra which was performed by the Orchestra of America in Carnegie Hall in the 1960s.” The opening movement alternates between long-lined slow, melodic music and fast music based around repeated chords. The second movement presents three extended “phrases”, each of which is a variation on the one that preceded it. The third movement begins with a tonal “shanty” in 6/8 time. The simple tonal and rhythmic patterns quickly break down into a scherzo-like development. The final movement begins with a very still passage featuring the bowing of double stops while also plucking additional notes. The fast section that follows has the character of a folk dance.

Intermezzo and Capriccio (1952) for piano is dedicated to Rosalyn Frantz. Smith writes: “Roslyn Frantz was also a piano student at Mills in that year. She was a remarkable natural talent who seemed to be able to play anything. She played these pieces on her senior recital.” The Intermezzo is basically lyrical, with some jagged interruptions. The Capriccio is virtuosic and brilliant, heavily using the piercingly bright uppermost register of the piano. Smith performs many rhythmic transformations on his basic material, which is derived from the opening jagged rhythmic figure. A quiet, chorale-like middle section presents a hint of a more romantic texture before the movement spirals to its conclusion.

Sonata for Viola and Piano (1953) was originally composed as a work for heckelphone and piano. Smith later created versions for both tenor saxophone and viola. The viola version is a full re-conception, adding chords and textures (e.g., pizzicato and sul ponticello) that are not possible on the monophonic heckelphone. Smith writes: “I had a heckelphone on loan in Chicago from 1954 to 1958 when I was teaching at the University of Chicago. We had an excellent performing group there. With a pianist and violist we arranged a concert with this sonata (me on heckelphone), Darius Milhaud’s second viola sonata, some piano works of Alexander Tcherepnin and the wonderful Trio for Heckelphone, Viola and Piano of Paul Hindemith. We repeated this concert at other Midwestern colleges. My sonata was also played at a U.S. embassy concert in 1964 by a violist from the Paris opera and myself on piano.” The opening movement of the sonata employs both lyrical melodic passages and static “color” sections of clusterbased harmony. A fast, middle section tries to assert itself, but is silenced with the opening material again. The second movement is a light waltz, where the steady expectation of the basic waltz rhythm leaves Smith plenty of room for his rhythmic transformations. The finale consists of two vibrant sections surrounding a strangely textured middle one; mysterious colors in both piano and violin interact with a repeating harmonic pattern in the piano’s bass register. The coda of the movement draws quick references to the previous two movements before disintegrating into the last bars of music, sounding nearly uncoordinated before converging on a unison.

Six Bagatelles (1964) for piano is notable for being the first work that Smith engraved with the initial version of his SCORE software in December of 1971. It is thus the first musical score to be typeset entirely on a computer. Smith writes: “These bagatelles were written in Paris in 1964 where I was using a studio in the Salle Pleyel which had purportedly been used by Stravinsky.” These musical miniatures each contain various musical elements that are juxtaposed and usually repeated. Frequent use is made of repetition with subtle rhythmic variation; a good example of this occurs in the third Bagatelle where a somewhat silly, cartoon-like cadence figure “pops out” of the cascading texture, in a slightly different rhythm each time.

Piano Sonata (1954) is the most ambitious and extended work on this recording. Smith writes: “The piano sonata was written for my colleague at Chicago and longtime professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jeanne Bamberger. Jeanne had been a student of Artur Schnabel, and we met in the classes of Roger Sessions in Berkeley in 1947. Jeanne gave the first performance of the Sonata at the University of Chicago in about 1956.” The first movement of the sonata is a march and trio. The opening section begins with a light march (with influences of Haydn and Hindemith) before devolving a section of nearly crazed rhythmic declamation. The trio is in a flowing triple meter; the sense of beat placement is disrupted in nearly every bar by grace notes, countermelodies, and rhythmic offsets. The second movement is one of Smith’s most impressive creations, an incredibly virtuosic and extended rondo that is based upon the opening motive of the first movement’s march theme. The movement is a veritable catalogue of the rhythmic and textural techniques of Smith’s language and is a dizzyingly wild ride, nearly threatening to “fall off the rails” in places. The short third movement of the sonata is a slow, lyrical “coda” in two parts. In the first part, a melody in the middle register of the piano is repeated four times (with faster rhythmic values each time) while a filigree surrounds it in the outer registers. In the second section, enigmatic gestures accompany fragments of melody before dying away to nothing.

Concert Piece for Violin and Piano (1951) is dedicated to “Mr. and Mrs. Robert Goldberg.” Smith writes: “Robert Goldberg was an amateur violinist and classmate of mine at Berkeley in 1946–48. He later became a doctor, devoting much of his time to the poor and homeless.” Cast in an extended single movement, this work contains a large number of mood and texture shifts. Particularly notable is the evocative ending, where the work spirals ever faster through a large number of harmonic permutations before suddenly changing gears and ending quietly in F.

Carson Cooman


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