"I put myself in touch with an area of myself that I would not otherwise be in touch with, and when I offer my music to an audience, I offer them the same opportunity to be in touch with an area of themselves that they wouldn’t otherwise be. That, for me, is the main role of music of all kinds." —Bernard Rands
There is a very simple Bernard Rands story, that of the European modernist who moved to the U.S. in his early forties and became an American poetic romantic. Like most very simple stories, though, it is only half-true. Even in the early 1960s, when Rands was fresh from studies with Luciano Berio and fully associated with the avant-garde, his sense was of sound as a fluid, sensuous, evocative medium, while his more recent music by no means conceals the fissures and excitations of his earlier work. Moreover, his development has been part of a general evolution in contemporary music, away from abstraction and towards a re-engagement with traditional discourse. He is the same man and the same musician he always was, throughout an output that now stretches back more than half a century: cultivated, searching, generous, captivating.
Born in Sheffield, in northern England, whose regional accent left its soft trace in his speaking voice, he studied music, philosophy, and literature at the University of Wales at Bangor. Then came the Italian sun: studies in Rome with Roman Vlad (1958-59), in Florence with Luigi Dallapiccola (1959-60), and in Milan with Berio (1962-63). Unlike his northern English contemporaries Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies, he began to make his way in a continental European context. His first published compositions were written for the Darmstadt summer courses: Actions for Six for Bruno Maderna to conduct in 1963, and Espressione IV for the Kontarsky duo pianists to play two years later. Also at Darmstadt came his encounter with Pierre Boulez, through whom his music was to be introduced to British audiences, with the première of Wildtrack 1 in 1969, Boulez conducting the BBC Symphony.
It was at this point that he moved into a new gear creatively, with more large-scale pieces, the first of his Memos for solo performers, and the glimmerings of a Vincent van Gogh opera, a project not completed until almost forty years later. However, just when he had become solidly established in Britain, as a composer and as a member of the country's most progressive composition faculty, at the University of York, he moved to U.C.S.D., where he taught for a decade, from 1975 to 1985, transferring thereafter to Harvard. The U.S. environment was not entirely new – he had spent two years as a Harkness Fellow in 1966-68, at Princeton and Urbana – but his arrival, now permanent, and coinciding with a period of uncertainty in new music, brought a hiatus.
He returned to full compositional vitality at the start of the 1980s, notably with song cycles on poems of the moon (Canti lunatici, 1980) and sun (Canti del sole, 1983-84), of which the latter won him a Pulitzer Prize. Le Tambourin (1984), a pair of suites for large orchestra based on paintings or drawings by Van Gogh, was introduced by the Philadelphia Orchestra and has been presented widely. Its success helped win him a position as composer-in-residence at Philadelphia (1989-96) as well as commissions from other major orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Symphony, 1995), the Chicago Symphony (apókryphos, 2002), the New York Philharmonic (Chains Like the Sea, 2008), and the Boston Symphony (Piano Concerto, 2014, written for Jonathan Biss). Meanwhile, he has gone on producing solo and chamber music, with three string quartets and a sequence of pieces based on Beckett poems in the latter category.
Folk Songs for voice and eight players (2014)
I. Missus Murphy’s Chowder
II. The Water is Wide
III. Mi Hamaca
IV. Dafydd y Garreg Wen
V. On Ilkley Moor Baht ’At
VI. I Died for Love
VII. Über d’ Alma
VIII. Ar Hyd y Nos
IX. La Vera Sorrentina
A similarly titled Berio work, dating from 1964, has entered the repertory. Half a century later, Rands presents what is both respectful homage – scored for similar forces, with violin and oboe added to the ensemble – and personal testimony, for, as he puts it, the cycle is “semi-autobiographical” in traveling through regions of importance to him, including the U.S. of his present residence, the northern England of his birth, the Wales and Italy of his student years, and other cherished locations: Ireland, Mexico, and Bavaria. The work is also semi-autobiographical in treating the original tunes to imaginative arrangements, with apt colorings and counter-melodies. The commission came from Tanglewood, where the first performance took place last summer.
Each of the nine songs is self-contained, but through them goes a drift of song variation that is Rands’s own, coming to the surface in interludes, each featuring a different soloist or combination, and introduced by the clarinet in a prelude. This leads into a rollicking Irish-American song, followed by an old English folk song and the Mexican number. The tune of “Dafydd y Garreg Wen” (David of the White Rock) was composed by one of the great harper-composers of Welsh tradition, David Owen (1712-41), the words being a later addition, commemorating him. Rands duly gives the harp prominence.
The interlude here covers a change of mood, to the cheerful silliness of the most celebrated song from Rands’s native county of Yorkshire: “On Ilkley Moor Baht ’At” (On Ilkley Moor Without Your Hat), with lyrics that were, probably in the second half of the nineteenth century, written to a Methodist hymn tune. After this, continuing the alternation of lament and vitality, comes the English-American “I Died for Love” and the contribution in Bavarian dialect. Another celebrated Welsh tune follows: “Ar Hyd y Nos” (All Through the Night), again with origins in the eighteenth century, and again with the harp to the fore in Rands’s version. A somewhat longer interlude is needed to get from Welsh night-time to Italian daylight for the finale.
Memo 6 for alto saxophone (1998)
In a series of solo pieces he began in 1971, Rands has taken up the challenge of Berio’s Sequenzas with affectionate admiration and adroitness, responding to particular instruments and also to particular performers – in this case, John Sampen.
The word “memo” suggests a message dashed off, and there is the sense here of a directed improvisation, beginning with immediate intensity, the gestures driving towards and into chosen notes. Much springs from the opening idea, featuring thirds and minor seconds. Activity rises and restarts, eventually reaching up into the instrument’s highest register, before falling back. Slow music supervenes, but soon speeds up into fidgety movement interspersed with melodic flourishes, these growing into a fast section followed by a slower – but still intense – finale. The piece plays for about nine minutes.
Concertino for oboe and seven players (1996)
This chamber concerto, commissioned by the Network for New Music in Philadelphia, presents several faces of the oboe – plaintive, reflective, incisive, athletic – in the course of a sixteen-minute movement that flows continuously through sections of different speed and character. To begin with, the solo instrument is alone, in a quasi-cadenza that offers another fine instance of Rands’s melodic logic. Everything starts from a semitone rise, from E to F. This becomes the first step toward longer explorations, in which the “key note” moves progressively upward from E until it has established itself on C, at which point the harp enters, the tempo increases, and the oboe goes on rising, while becoming agitated.
The outcome is a new section: fast, driving, bringing the string quartet into action, followed by the clarinet, all spurring, echoing, countering the assertive oboe. Out of one last push from the soloist, a new voice is heard, that of the flute, and the music’s character changes to one of ebullient interplay, with flute, clarinet, and violin as intermittent soloists while the oboe has a rest. It re-enters in response to invitations from its woodwind companions together, and soon the music becomes more intensive again, careering in waves up into the high register and down again, until the oboe settles on one pure note.
From this, a low-treble B, the viola begins to weave slow music, which draws in the harp and the other strings, then the clarinet and the oboe, which reflects in a higher register on how the whole thing began. Crystalline, reminiscent serenity, however, does not last long before the oboe is forging on into faster music marked by rushes and wide swings, the texture spare. Slow music then returns, to punctuate an acceleration that mounts in stages until it reaches a condition of high electricity.
déjà for six players (1972)
This is the program’s most distant image, of Rands back in England, more than forty years ago. It was a time of growing freedom and experiment, in music as in other spheres of life, and déjà, meaning “already” in French, belongs to that time, while also sending signals to our own.
In particular, the piece participates in a venture to reimagine chamber music, both by giving individual musicians choices and by altering the balance in rehearsals, away from questions of how to realize a defined score to those of how to deal with some more or less malleable material. Passages that are fully written out alternate with repetitions of a “chorus” that allows a lot of room for the players, separately and together, to come up with their own solutions. All the notes are provided, and they are the same each time: a bunch of melodies – some highly constrained, others moving more freely – and a staccato flurry. What will change from one appearance to the next are the dimensions of speed (faster), dynamic level (louder), and duration (longer), in accordance with the composer’s instructions, and also matters of texture and interaction determined by the performers. At the limits, any of these choruses could be a solo break. A quasi-fugal invention would also be possible, or a free-for-all.
The piece begins with a short fantasy on middle D, to which the piano, entering last, adds other notes. From here the free sections are interleaved with a short cello solo accompanied by piano, percussion, and viola, a jittery ensemble section, and another, of rotating fragments changing in dynamic profile. A short, low solo for alto flute, with piano and percussion, then gives way to a culmination, again of rotating patterns, waning into silence.
Scored for a Pierrot lunaire quintet (flute, clarinet, viola, cello, and piano) plus percussion, the piece parallels the Concertino in length, and perhaps other resemblances will appear, as well as the differences.