Saturday, August 06, 2011

More from the Lost & Found Dept.

Barney Childs, Keet Seel (1970) for mixed chorus (ACA).

I knew Childs (1926-2000) slightly, as he taught in Redlands, not so far as the crow flies from where I lived in Southern California but a bit out of the way for a teenager limited to bicycle transport, and in retrospect I wish that I could have known him better, as he was the more experimental and interesting of the local composers (who included Gail Kubik and Karl Kohn.)

Childs's academic background — via Deep Springs College, Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar) and Stanford — was in English literature and it seems his initial ambitions were mostly as a poet. He was largely self-taught as a composer, but could count Aaron Copland and Leonard Ratner among his teachers and kept an open ear out from the useful distance of the desert, to whatever was going on at the moment in new music. Childs is probably best known for his solo instrumental works (especially the Sonatas for Trombone and Bass alone and Mr T., His Fancy for bass, and a large number of woodwind pieces, many of them written for clarinetist Philip Rehfeld) and the extravagantly extended-technique and partly indeterminate ensemble work Jack's New Bag, which was published in an issue of Source: Music of the Avant-Garde. Material Press, my own publishing project, carries Childs' Eighth Quartet it its catalog. When last we spoke, at a Bertram Turetsky recital at New Music America in L.A. too many years ago, Childs pointed to his Four Pieces for Six Winds and his setting (for voices, wind ensemble and big band) of Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd as his major works, but I've only had the fortune to hear the first (which features a desert-still gamut study as a slow movement) and recordings appear not to be available of either of these.

I happened to pick up a copy of Child's Keet Seel for mixed chorus recently and have spent some time working with the score, in part writing a large section of the piece out in a notation program, so I could figure out how the opening, a passage of some mensural complexity, works. In this opening, a small gamut of pitches are used (entering, in order: soprano only on e', alto moving from e' to g' and then a', tenor on d' and c', and last bass on b and a.) Through non-aligned repeat signs, the simple melodicles get combined and re-combined to create and sustain more of a tonal color than a tonality, a not-yet-functional harmony, as we put it in these parts. But what is most remarkable, compositionally, is how Childs sustains both rhythmic interest and a steady ensemble density gently shifting only in details while sticking to a very clear syllabic text setting when the mensural system would tend to invite more happenstance than continuity. The rest of the piece alternate between more declamatory/soloistic sections and further textural sections, sometimes overlapping ("shingling" is the term of art, I believe) to create clusters, sometimes suggesting a diatonic tonality otherwise clustering chromatically. The text, by Childs himself — though later augmented by snippets of Donne, Shakespeare and George Herbert, seems more about sound and rhythm than semantics, just words to float in and out of the quiet ensemble texture and is eventually — and most mysteriously — interrupted by large spread-out divisi chords loudly singing the name of Keet Seel, that Anasazi cliff dwelling in Arizona's Navajo National Monument. What does this mean? It's music of the desert, but also music which recalls English choral traditions. The non-functional shifts between harmonies and the fragmented and disparate text should make for something less than coherent, but it all comes together with a peculiar, but clearly musical, force.

This is music — challenging music — that is worth renewed attention by a gifted choir.

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