About this Recording
8.559617 - TEIRSTEIN, A.: Kopanitza / Invention / What is Left of Us / Suite / Maramures (Open Crossings - Music by Teirstein)

Andy Teirstein (b. 1957):
Open Crossings


In the winter of 1977, composer Andy Teirstein was performing as a musical clown in a circus in Mexico. He would balance a guitar on his head while playing the concertina, or play the violin up on a tight wire and eventually seem to eat the instrument, his signature trick. Far below, from my position on the conductor’s podium of the circus orchestra, I occasionally worried about his well-being. My fears were well founded. While I moved on to other musical positions in Latin America and Italy, Teirstein returned to his native New York City. In his life as a free-lance composer for theater, film, and dance, he walks the high-wire still.

Happily, even a clown’s life has a logic. Teirstein’s roots in movement theater have given him a unique view of the dramatic possibilities of music composition. His sense of physicality in musical impulse has grown more expansive and varied through the years, finding expression over the last decade in a series of concert works for orchestra and chamber ensembles, commissioned and/or performed by a wide array of distinguished artists, as is evident in these recordings. Teirstein’s presence on the folk scene, performing in The Vanaver Caravan with Pete Seeger, or touring internationally in various shows about Woody Guthrie, gives him the grounded perspective of a world-music multi-instrumentalist. Although varied in orchestration, all of the pieces included here seem to have risen from the fiddle’s open D string, as if the CD is a journey that begins and ends in a folk tune gone wildly afield. The juxtaposition of folk and new-music styles can, in itself, embody a dramatic scenario. It results in music at the confluence of old and new traditions, embracing the symphony and the blues harp—music that is all about synthesis, whether of artistic genres, time periods, or peoples.

In Kopanitza Balkan influences imbue the violin and viola with the earthy energy of vernacular fiddle bowings and a restless sense of time. The 11/8 meter of the traditional Kopanitza dance is a leaping-off point for a chain of shifting time signatures.

Invention for Six Instruments, composed for the Cygnus ensemble during a seminar with Tania León, also plays with time—meter, tempo, subdivision, tuplet, etc. An inspiration for the piece was Arnold Schoenberg’s Serenade, Op. 24, particularly in its raucous mixture of timbres: mandolin and guitar with winds and strings.

Initially composed for a ballet by New York choreographer Jim Martin, What is Left of Us is Teirstein’s response to the events of 11 September 2001. Written for singer/ dancer Naaz Hosseini and loosely based on the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the work has evolved to include a Balkan-infused women’s chorus and cello. Plans are now in place for a companion ballet score drawing on Israeli poetry.

The four short movements that make up Suite were commissioned in 1996 by choreographer Terry Creach for an outdoor première on a sprawling meadow at Wave Hill in Riverdale, New York. A string trio was placed near the audience, and eleven violinists were choreographed crossing the lawn as they played, requiring an easily memorizable part. Against the repeated notes and phrases of the “traveling” strings (represented in this recorded version by the second violin), Teirstein creates a counterpointed, shifting musical landscape.

The Shooting of Dan McGrew is a melodrama, a spoken narrative accompanied by music. The poem by Robert Service, written in 1907, tells of a shooting in a gold-miners’ piano saloon, which occurs just after the pianist speaks his mind through the instrument, and is shot dead. The two suitors—the pianist and Dan McGrew—having killed each other, the lady known as “Lou” walks away with the loot.

In Three Movements for String Quartet and Folk Musician, the rustic timbres of Jew’s harp, harmonica and banjo, three of the most “anti-classical” instruments in the musical world, played in their own vernacular, are set into the thick of the string quartet. Lowbrow meets highbrow. Again, the music draws on folk-inspired physicalities, whether in string bowings, harmonica breath, or the rhythmic impulse of the Jew’s Harp. The third movement, featuring a modally re-tuned banjo, is based on two sources: the old Appalachian ballad, East Virginia and the fiddle tune Over the Waterfall. The banjo part is inspired by Pete Seeger, to whom the movement is dedicated.

The movement titles for the piano trio Turn Me Loose (The Old Trail, The Creek, The Rebbe’s Dance) evoke a walk in the woods, leading to an ecstatic moment. Movement I begins in the lazy idiom of an old forgotten ragtime blues. The piano retains a little of that feel in Movement II, but the bluesy quality is metrically infused with impulsive asymmetry (the gyrations of a tightrope walker keeping his balance?). The third movement is built on a tune the composer wrote for the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. It represents the “magical” rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov, dancing. This piece was given its première by the Alaria Trio at Carnegie Hall in February 2007.

In 1994 Teirstein went to Eastern Europe on an Artslink grant to collect folk music. Modeling parts of his trip on Bartók’s wax cylinder recording sessions in villages throughout the region of Maramures, he traveled from town to town, asking if anyone knew a fiddler or a singer. He recorded fourteen hours of fiddle tunes and songs from Romania through Bulgaria to Northern Greece. Eventually, material from this expedition found its way into his viola concerto, Maramures. Teirstein’s program notes from a 1997 concert of Movement I in Prague (Karen Dreyfus soloist with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra) include the following:

We came upon a little hill alongside the Mara River. A few men and women reclined on blankets in the sun, eating roasted potatoes and goat, while a teenage girl and boy made music, serenading the town’s mayor and chief engineer. When they learned why I was there, they told me I would have to drink before I could have their tunes, and then we would trade fiddle music, tune for tune. This is where I found some of the themes for the viola concerto, in the bottle of homemade tzuica from the grinning engineer, in the gentle assurances from the pot-bellied mayor that my wife’s pregnant belly would yield a son, and in the mingled sounds of the rushing river and the singing fiddle. When, late in the night, the conversation turned to quiet things, someone said they have no anti-semitism in Romania. Why? “Because we have here only the good Jews. The bad ones are elsewhere.” One day I sought out Gypsy fiddler Vassily Kovic, who told me he used to play in the Jewish wedding bands before they were taken away. There is something reminiscent of those old songs in the Lento movement. The concerto is dedicated to my daughter Zoya, who was born shortly after our return to New York.

In the air where Andy Teirstein works, violin in hand (or viola, guitar, mandolin, accordion, or any number of other musical instruments), music rises from strings open to the crossings of a world of forces. Open Crossings represents the play of these forces through the mind of a profound and expansive composer who is still, at heart, a youthful, peripatetic musical clown.

Rollo Mortéz

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