About this Recording
8.559639 - BISCARDI, C.: In Time's Unfolding / Piano Quintet / Di Vivere / Companion Piece (Da Capo Chamber Players)

Chester Biscardi (b. 1948)
In Time’s Unfolding


In one way or another all of the works on this disc—spanning thirty-three years from 1972 through 2005—reveal an ongoing aspect of my creative process that looks back in order to move forward. It’s about being in the present by unraveling memories and feelings—both joyful and full of loss—from the past.

In Time’s Unfolding—the title of this disc as well as the solo piano work that frames its musical program—comes from the seventh section of Galway Kinnell’s eleven-part poem, “When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone” (1990), where “as the conscious one among those others/uttering their compulsory cries of being here…all of them in time’s unfolding/trying to cry themselves into self-knowing / one knows one is here to hear them into shining…

In Time’s Unfolding, for piano (2000), was commissioned by the Music Library Association to commemorate its 70th Anniversary in New York City in 2001. In response to the MLA’s request for music that would “look forward and reflect backward at the same time,” I created a work that reflects the past and celebrates the moment, in which time unfolds over a musical landscape that is at once poignant and painful, lonely, exuberant, heroic, and—in a concentrated way—epic. I evoke my childhood memories of music by Robert Schumann, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland that interweave with self-references to several of my earlier piano works—Mestiere (1979), Piano Concerto (1983), Piano Sonata (1986; rev. 1987), and Companion Piece (for Morton Feldman) (1989/1991)and the song, “Recovering” (2000). Schumann’s influence appears as a direct quote from the opening of Carnaval, Op. 9 (1834–1835) as a way of moving the work forward, while I incorporate the sounds of Gershwin and Copland to subtly resonate in the texture of my work without directly imitating their music. The opening measures were suggested by the simple and stunning repeated two-chord introduction of Keith Jarrett’s version of “Something To Remember You By” (Howard Dietz/Arthur Schwartz) on his 1999 solo recording, The Melody At Night, With You (ECM 1675).

Tartini, for violin and piano (1972), was written for Thomas Moore, a member of the Pro Arte Quartet. It employs a twelve-tone row constructed from the melodies that make up the Allegro assai-Andante-Allegro assai movement of Giuseppe Tartini’s “Devil’s TrillSonata in G minor (ca. 1714). I also borrow melodic fragments from that work as well as Tartini’s virtuosic technique of juxtaposing two simultaneous voices against an extended trill as countermelody, for which his piece is famous. The “fast-slow-fast” structure of my one-movement work is a miniature representation of the last and more expansive fourth movement of Tartini’s sonata. There are also hints in Tartini from Arnold Schoenberg’s Phantasy (1949) and Charles Wuorinen’s Duo (1967), two works for violin and piano that particularly impressed me as a young composer.

I see Tartini as the first significant work that I wrote as an adult. I started writing music when I was nine but took a hiatus from composing in my late teens due to family pressures to become a lawyer. I didn’t become a lawyer, but after finishing an undergraduate degree in English literature I did become a graduate Italian scholar before moving back into music. My studies in English and Italian have had a profound effect on my musical process, and I continue to be influenced by the ways literature can generate musical ideas and form—how literary images can inspire everything from the smallest melodic shape to a work’s overall structure.

It’s not surprising then that early on I would turn to an Italian composer and a poem about his musical experience to generate the musical ideas and form of Tartini. Charles Burney’s 1773 account about how the devil supposedly appears to Tartini in a dream has become legend. Tartini handed the devil his violin and was astonished when he heard him play “with consummate skill, a sonata of such exquisite beauty as surpassed the boldest flights of my imagination. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted; my breath failed me, and I awoke. Seizing my violin I tried to reproduce the sounds I had heard. But in vain. The piece I then composed, the “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, although the best I ever wrote, how far was it below the one I had heard in my dreams!”

I was inspired by a poetic adaptation of that legend by my friend, Lois Drapin, in her poem, “Tartini Dreams Trillo del Diavolo” (1972):

The night Tartini slept, he woke the Devil.
The creature came to him, unchained and crazed
The rabid dog strikes first at his own master.
The creature came to him whose flesh he craved
And stood before him freed from his horsehair grave.

And Tartini screamed the scream that loosed his soul
His body twisting with his night-hawk call.

© 1972 by Lois Drapin

Piano Quintet, for piano and violin, with violin, viola and cello (2004), was written in memory of my father who died when I was twelve. I am forever looking for him. He bought me a violin when I was nine. He serenaded my mother on the accordion after dinner at dusk smoking a cigarette—mostly love songs from Italy. But for a long time I couldn’t find a way to express that loss in music, so I wrote a poem about it—at the end of which my father enters the fabric of my work:

What I’m finding, now that I’m older than he ever had a chance to be,
Is that I love him for who and what he was.
He lives in the details of my music.
And I’ve stopped asking myself
What sort of man I would have been
If my father hadn’t died when I was twelve.

I finally did find a musical way to remember him in Piano Quintet, inspired by the recognition scene from Book Sixteen: Father and Son in The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fitzgerald:

I am that father your boyhood lacked and suffered pain for lack of. I am he.

Piano Quintet is in part a composite of sketches dating back to 1987. I attempted to incorporate these ideas in a variety of ways—a work for orchestra, a ballet, an act of an opera—before I settled on a chamber version inspired by having heard a performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44 (1842). I also borrowed musical images from several of my earlier works, including Mestiere, Trasumanar (1980), Traverso (1987), Piano Concerto, “Recovering”, and In Time’s Unfolding, all of which explore the passage of time, loss, recovery, and transcendence. Recognition, for piano and violin with string orchestra (2004/2007), is an arrangement of this work.

To a certain extent I relied on a rather loose telling of The Odyssey to shape my musical narrative and the overall structure of this quintet. The piano may be interpreted as “Odysseus” and the violin as “Telemakhos”, Odysseus’s son. And the opening web-like music suggests the goddess Athena as she pulls Telemakhos out of his anger and daydreams and sets him on a hero’s path of action.

Mestiere, for piano (1979), and Di Vivere, for clarinet in A and piano, with flute, violin and cello (1981), take their titles and share the same source of inspiration from Cesare Pavese’s collected journals, Il mestiere di vivere (1935–1950) (The Business of Living).

Mestiere was commissioned by Tulane University for the 1979 Festival of Piano Music in New Orleans and is dedicated to Robert Weirich. The Festival created a context for it: my work would come on the first half of the program between Muzio Clementi’s Piano Sonata, Op. 36, No. 3, in C Major (1797) and Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53, in F# Major (1907), followed by an alternating mix of etudes by Chopin and Debussy on the second half. Mestiere is a celebration of the contrasting sonorities—incisive and lyrical—that are natural to the piano. The Italian title can be translated as “craft, business, occupation—whatever is necessary to one’s profession or art”. By extension “Mestiere” is what one is and does, what is integral to one’s life and work.

From the celebratory opening to the quiet, still ending, I play with sudden changes, expansions, and contractions of sounds. Dynamics and pedaling (all three are used) are gradated and subtle. I create areas of “frozen registration” from which I try to break free—a tone remains in a certain place until intuitively I feel that it must move. The freely, fast flowing music in Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata (1945–46) resonates in this work, and there are hints of a three-note gesture and a chord from Toru Takemitsu’s Piano Distance (1961) where the music is the direct and natural result of sounds themselves. There is a direct quotation from the third movement, “Farben”, Mässig (“Summer Morning by a Lake: Chord-Colors”, Moderate), from Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 (1909). I also adapted material from my earlier works, including they had ceased to talk (1975), Trusting Lightness (1975), and Eurydice (1978).

Di Vivere was commissioned by the Da Capo Chamber Players for their “Connections with the Past” series at Carnegie Recital Hall where it was paired with Debussy’s Sonata, for flute, viola and harp (1915), and is dedicated to my friend, David Olan, composer and clarinetist. Although self-contained, it continues the contrasting sonorities found in Mestiere. In a single movement it explores both the inward and outward directed music of the clarinet and piano, heightened and further exteriorized by the coloration of a trio of flute, violin and cello.

During the writing of this work I took a trip to Mexico where I discovered the paintings of Rufino Tamayo and how they reflect Aztec fresco colors—green, yellow, red, white, and black. Like literary images, color and visual shapes also influence my work as in Piano Sonata and as here in Di Vivere. I wrote the following in my personal journal on January 13, 1981 that makes the connection between color and harmony and the inner-outer directed nature of this work: “I was impressed today in a yoga class by how I feel so isolated while doing certain positions—very personal—but then all of a sudden I straighten up, turn my head to the side, and realize that there is a larger world, more expansive, brighter than just my own warmth and my own presence. And then back to that inner world. It is the isolated world of the clarinet and piano being enhanced by the trio of flute, violin and cello. Here the difference, too subtle, between the Aztec and Tamayo’s coloration. How do I shade these different harmonies?”

Originally, Da Capo requested a work for clarinet and piano. I found that to be a daunting idea and became creatively blocked because of it. So I went to complain to Morton Feldman whom I had first met in Buffalo in 1979: “It’s difficult to write for two instruments.” To which he responded: “Think of the piano and clarinet; add horn (then take it out); add violin, pizz. (then take it out), etc. Arrive at piano and clarinet!” His advice to me was akin to a Japanese aesthetic that suggests that one should remove everything unessential in order to strengthen a work of art. So, I “added” the flute, violin and cello as a way of “pulling” the colors out of the clarinet and piano duo, and they became permanent residents. But the work is structured in such a way that it could be performed as simply a duet for clarinet and piano.

The Viola Had Suddenly Become a Voice, for viola and piano (2005), was written in memory of violist Jacob Glick, internationally recognized violist and teacher. He was principal viola in many groups, and as a chamber music coach his inspirational and kind guidance was legendary. He championed the music of the 18th century in his performance of numerous works for the viola d’amore, and he was an advocate of contemporary music and of living composers, premiering over 200 new works as a performer and encouraging the study and performance of new music as a music festival director and as a college teacher and coach.

The title was suggested by a passage from Andrea Camilleri’s mystery novel, Voice of the Violin (2003), translated by Stephen Sartarelli, where Inspector Montalbano becomes aware of a violin that “had suddenly become a voice, a woman’s voice, that was begging to be heard and understood. Slowly but surely the notes turned into syllables, or rather into phonemes, and yet they expressed a kind of lament, a song of ancient suffering that at moments reached searing, mysteriously tragic heights.”

The Viola Had Suddenly Become a Voice takes as its departure a quote from the last movement of Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47 (1842), and includes self-references to Di Vivere, a work of mine that Jacob Glick admired. In The Viola Had Suddenly Become a Voice one thing becomes another: there is a transformation from Schumann to Biscardi; the viola moves out of a chamber texture into a solo role; and I celebrate the musical legacy transferred from generation to generation, acknowledging the work of Jacob Glick’s daughter, soprano Judith Bettina.

Companion Piece (for Morton Feldman), for contrabass and piano (1989), was written for Robert Black and Anthony de Mare to be premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in England. This work was inspired by that first meeting with Feldman in Buffalo in 1979. His apartment was neat, almost sparse: a Steinway, a work table, a Rauschenberg on one wall, the now-famous Brown/Feldman cover from TIME records on another, and many ancient Oriental, Turkish and Iroquois carpets. He talked about his music and compositional techniques that had as lasting an impact on me as did his intense passion for those carpets. He encouraged me to get close to the floor and look at their textures, reliefs, orchestration, what he called “symmetry even through imperfection,” and explained how he was translating these impressions into the musical notes of the string quartet that he was writing.

In my duet, I am commenting musically on Feldman’s Extensions 3, written for solo piano in 1952. I borrow two things from his work: 1) a quick juxtaposition of pianissimo (“Soft As Possible”) and fortissimo (“Loud As Possible”) in the way that soft sounds in my work are interrupted by unmotivated loud sounds; and 2) the last four bars of his piece—a poignant repeated figure—become a repetitive idea in Companion Piece that expresses loss and leads to stillness.

Feldman’s sounds are “drier”, more minimal than mine; I put the pedal down in a way that he never would in order to flesh out the notes with a different, “wetter”, more lush kind of harmony. The bass player has the difficult task of creating an illusion of pianissimo—almost in a trompe l’oeil fashion—by means of an intense, dynamic concentration and focus of sound.

Following Feldman’s earlier advice regarding Di Vivere, I made an alternate version of Companion Piece (for Morton Feldman) in 1991 for solo piano for de Mare. Feldman taught me well: I took out the bass.

As much as this disc is about the past and the present, about influences, resonances, borrowings, and transformations, it is also about interpretations and the ways in which composer and performer endlessly interconnect. I am deeply grateful for the remarkable performances on this musical program and for the amazing musicians who made them. The performers got inside of the music to such an extent that it is as though they feel the palpable participation of a distant audience—as well as the silence.

Chester Biscardi

“When Chester Biscardi was awarded (in 1975) a Charles Ives Scholarship by the Academy, it was for a body of compositions that was predominantly and singularly vocal, reflecting the composer’s study of and devotion to literature, particularly Italian Literature. The music has changed but the poetry remains, not only in the vocal music but in the chamber and orchestral music, as the composer himself asserts in one of his later works: The Viola Had Suddenly Become a Voice. One can forsee that, in the shapeliness of creative things to come, there will be even longer lyrical lines, illuminating other lines and speech lines in a developing succession and contextual counterpoint unprecedented and unparalleled.”

— Milton Babbitt: Citation for the Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, May 16, 2007.

Close the window