Fort Worth — If you have a picture of a composer as some kind of nerd, you can forget it with Kevin Puts. He is strikingly handsome, in a vaguely Clooney kind of way, and has a disarming personality that says he is just a regular guy who happens to write music and chase after his 3 year old. You will not hear him talk about the wall full of prestigious awards—Rome Prize, Pulitzer Prize and so on—unless you ask. Instead, he will gladly talk about his music and the fact that he is a neo-romantic who loves an impassioned melody. The glowering critics who are still longing for dissonance, and so-called “new” sounds, do not bother him one bit. He dismisses them with a breezy “My music isn't for everyone.”
But everyone, that is the greater everyone, loves his music and is grateful to hear a new piece that is listenable and that has immediate impact. The Pulitzer Prize for his opera Silent Night, which will be performed as part of the Fort Worth Opera Festival in 2014, shows a definite move of the classical music “establishment” away from the avant-garde and mind-bending complexity to harmonies and soaring melodies that touch the heart instead of flex the brain.
All of this was on display on Saturday when he was the featured composer for the Van Cliburn Foundation's Cliburn at the Modern series at the auditorium of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Four works were selected to be discussed and performed. The last, actually, should have been the first in that is was a student piece and unapologetically displayed the roots of his musical language: Ritual Protocol—which is for marimba and piano.
“Ritual Protocol is quite old,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I wrote it when I was a student at Eastman, an undergrad, and we had a class on the use of music in rituals worldwide. It demonstrates my fascination with minimalism, which was the way I was working at the time.”
Moment of Geek:
Minimalism is a movement in art, music and theater that emphasized the use of the fewest materials possible or anything that is stripped to the bare essentials needed to create a work of art. It was a reaction to the complexity that the 20th century produced in music by the descent into atonality as well as the serialization of elements so completely that a graph of the piece was as highly praised as the actual sound. That is an exaggeration, but not much on one. To its everlasting credit, Minimalism brought a welcome return to the simple unadorned triad. Even if it was occasionally shopworn by endless repetition, many were glad to see its return.
Composers such as John Adams (who didn't like the term) and Phillip Glass (its patron saint) wrote endless loops of undulating triads, overlaid with increasingly complex melodic fragments. In art, there was John McCracken, whose resin sculpture, which resembled a black shelf out of a bookcase leaning against a wall, baffles observers at the Smithsonian. Samuel Beckett gets the prize for his 1969 Breath, a play (I guess) that lasts for only 35 seconds and has no characters. Filmmaker Robert Bresson, another minimalist, summed the entire moment with this great quote : "The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance.” (Substitute “note” or “color” or “breath," I suppose, for “word.”)
Ritual Protocol, then, is a look back in time to the developing composer. You could not hope for a better performance than we heard on Saturday. Drew Long played the challenging marimba part and moderator and Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Principal Keyboardist Shields-Collins Bray was at the piano, as he was for the entire program.
Puts' roots in the minimalist school are apparent in this piece. “There are only three chords in the whole thing,” he said.
You would not know that upon hearing, unless you had perfect pitch. Puts puts these three tonal centers (better term than chords) through their paces. The piece is sometimes reflective and other times stormy with both instruments playing very fast passages.
“I tried to combine the two in such a way that the listener would hear a new instrument—the marimpiano, maybe—and not be able to tell who is playing what,” he said. “They toss the melodic fragments back and forth in such rapid succession that the sonorities blur and become one.”
Hearing it after his other, more recent works, you better understood his musical journey. His later pieces still have a whiff of minimalism, with their signature use of repeated chords and melodic fragments, but his musical language and style metamorphosed past this into a fresh take on neo-romanticism.
The opening piece on the program was commissioned by the Vedehr Trio, which is made up of the unusual combination of a clarinet, violin and piano. The more usual combination uses a cello instead of the clarinet. This odd instrumentation is reflective of the founders, violinist Walter Vedehr and his wife, clarinetist Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr. The certainly didn't invent the combination. Earlier composers, even Mozart, wrote for a similar combination, using a viola instead of the violin. However, modern composers took to the trio. There are works by as diverse a group as Bartók, Krenek, Poulenc and Ives. The Vehehr Trio set on a commissioning program that developed more than 200 new pieces and from composers going back to Menotti. They called it “the development of a medium.”
Puts was honored to be asked to write for them. What resulted was a set of three nocturnes. We heard a marvelous performance by FWSO Concertmaster Michael Shih and clarinetist Ivan Petruzziello (a last minute replacement for FWSO clarinetist Ana Victoria Luperi). Bray, was at the piano.
“This is a very serene piece,” he said. “It never gets tumultuous, but stays nocturnal.”
The name came to him after writing the first movement. “This sounds like a nocturne,” he said he thought at the time.
Thus the die was cast and the other two followed suit. Puts' penchant for long soaring melodies was in evidence here as well. The last Nocturne was mostly for the piano, with the other two joining in for the final resolution. The end result is a peaceful and reflective piece that lets the violin and clarinet shine, each playing the kind of lines that show off their best features. The violin solo is impassioned while the clarinet line is full of legato leaps throughout the considerable range of the instrument. The piano offers the harmonic underpinning. In the last movement, the piano plays a series of descending scales against triads.
There was one moment that brought a smile. Each of the instruments were so much in their own world hat there was no discernible relationship between them. It brought to mind the experience of standing in the hallway of practice rooms at a conservatory and hearing the cacophony through the not-very-soundproof doors.
This tonal diversion was true of another work on the program—two Airs from a piece called “Four Airs.” Each is for a different instrument and these two are for the ones at hand in the concert—violin and clarinet. “I picked the name because it sounded old, like something out of music history,” he said.
This is true, although the Italian word “aria” is just a translation of “airs.” The term is frequently found in English music of composers such as Purcell and Tallis. In fact, these Puts pieces harkened back to what we think of as English harmony, such as that found in the song “Greensleeves” and developed into a school of composition by Ralph Vaughn Williams.
In these pieces, as well as the others on the program, Puts likes to set his instruments in different tonal centers. In other hands, this might be called “bitonality”—placing different lines in different keys. What Puts is doing is somewhat subtler. He is placing his instruments in associated keys so that they live in different, but complementary, tonal universes.
You would be tempted to think that he did this to “modernize” his piece to appease the atonal hierarchy and would really rather have written the melody in the key of the accompaniment. Prokofiev said that he wrote the work from start to finish and then went back through it to “Prokofievize” it. Wouldn't you love to see the original? Did is sound like...er...Elgar?
That is not the case in Puts' music. He is unapologetic for not sounding like Elliot Carter and his ilk. Unconstricted by dogma, his melodies soar on their own, free of the tonal centers being dictated by the piano. “We will go where the inspiration of the moment leads us,” they seem to be saying, “but will come home on time when we are through.”