Leslie Bassett: Echoes from an Invisible World


Leslie Bassett

Variations for Orchestra was composed in Rome during the spring of 1963, my final year as recipient of the Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome, and was premiered by the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Rome, conducted by Ferrucio Scaglia, on July 6, 1963. The U.S. premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy on October 22-23, 1965 led to my receiving the 1966 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Variations represented, assisted by an award from the American Academy of Arts and letters. Sat5urday Review listed the disc as one of the year's 10 best and there have been excellent subsequent performances.

The piece begins with an introduction consisting of four brief phrases, each of which serves as source material for two of the eight variations. Phrase one generates variations 1 and 5; phrase two, 2 and 6; phrase three is the source for variations 3 and 7; and phrase four, 4 and 8. A conclusion follows, clearly referring back to the introduction. A 12-note series (drawn from a women's choir work completed shortly before) appears in the cellos about 45 seconds into the introduction, as well as throughout all of variation 6. Although this series influenced the work's language to some extent, the music nevertheless came about by very personal means. Reflections upon the mysterious and magical possibilities of non-standard orchestral texture led to the opening sonorities - a mixture of quiet double-bass divisi a 4, piano, harp, tam-tam, delicate suspended cymbals and timpani. Similarly I strove to maintain a backdrop of supportive, yet largely unessential sounds (colors, really soft percussion, muted figures, quiet trills, harmonics, etc.)that would project the expectant quality of the introduction into the variations and ultimately to the conclusion. Variations is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Vera Starr Bassett.

Echoes from an Invisible World was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy for the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. The country's six leading orchestras (New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia) each commissioned a work, and each agreed to perform the others. Philadelphia's premiere took place on February 27-28, 1976. If we included presentations by other orchestras, the work has received over 60performances to date, under conductors, Meheta, Maazel, Harth, Mackerras, Akiyama, Meier, Herbig, Comissiona and others.

In reflecting on music's power and mystery, Giuseppe Mazzini, one of Garibaldi's comrades in the Italian liberation struggles of the last century, remarked that `Music is the echo form an invisible world.' Since part of my work on this score took place while in residence at the Rockefeller Foundation's Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, Mazzini's definition seemed wonderfully apt for the mood and sense of awe that I wished to convey. Orchestral events and textures are highly colored in this work, with occasional small gestures that sometimes reminded me of electronic tape manipulation (tape reverb, splicing and minuscule explosive attack onto a quieter sound, etc.) I wished to create a virtuoso work that would bring out the depth, artistry and virtuosity of our fine orchestra musicians. Echoes won the 1979 National Composers Competition organized by the International Society for Contemporary Music and the League of Composers, and it represented the U.S. at the World Music Days in Tel Aviv, Israel, the following summer.

The Sextet for Piano and Strings was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress and premiered in Washington at the Library's Coolidge Auditorium on April 37-28, 1972, by the Juilliard String Quartet with John Graham, second viola, and pianist William Masselos. It received the 174 Walter Naumburg Recording Award, which resulted in the present recording. As with Echoes, the instrumental parts often rely on special string devises (glissandi, ponticelli, snapped pizzicato, etc.) as well as plucked and stopped notes for the piano. The pitch E is the controlling center, heard at the beginning and frequently throughout the work, pointed up by instrumental color. Enriched by the addition of the extra viola, the string ensemble functions as a group, in dialogue with the piano, the `other half' of the ensemble.

During the preparation of these remarks in 1994 for the present “American Masters” compact disc, I have come to realize that critics will probably refer to these three pieces as “of his middle period.” They were written between 20 and 30 years ago, after all, and I have written a lot of music since. Yet I am especially happy to have them together on a CD, for I consider them to be among my best, pieces that have met with wonderful responses and allowed the emergence of significant change and maturity in my musical language and message.

The latter two scores include un-metered music. To be able to move in and out of meter is a rich and important option, for which I needed to invent a `non-meter' signature (an 0 with lines joining it at the top and bottom). I also like the piling up of sonorities (“pyramids”), which yield a wonderful sound, are easily performed and are rarely present in earlier music. Rustling and scurrying sounds are fascinating and I sometimes like to modify a long sound in one instrument by the addition of a simultaneous short attack in another slightly coloring the result.

Counterpoint and canonic textures fascinate me, for one thing they may mean that the dominance of harmony is momentarily modified. Yet harmony also fascinates me. Triadic progressions may or may not sound fresh, they are standard and simple, on the other hand they usually belong with earlier music by composers for whom they were the basis of their language. Four-part harmony, while somewhat less traditional, leaves us with only three 4-note chords within 12 notes. Six-note harmony seems dense and cluster-like, and thee are only two 6-note chords. I sometimes like 5-note harmony. One can select 5 notes for the first chord, then 5 others for the second. (The chords must progress smoothly and must always be chosen because of their wonderful sound.) Two notes have been left over, so they go into the 3rd chord, supplemented by 3 chosen from the first. The fourth chord begins with the 2 notes left over from the first chord, plus 3 drawn from the second, and so forth. This can be a lovely way to move harmony.

My first concern in beginning a work is that the sound, the gesture, the atmosphere, be poignant and uniquely appropriate for the instruments chosen. Special, unforgettable. Given a good beginning. I can then go ahead, God Willing.

  • Leslie Bassett

Leslie Bassett, born in Hanford, CA, 1923, served as trombonist and arranger in Army bands during World War II. A pupil of Ross Lee Finney, Arthur Honegger, Nadia Boulanger and Roberto Gerhard, his honors include the Pulitzer Prize (1966). Rome Prize, Fulbright Fellowship (Paris), two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Naumburg Recording Award, the James Phelan Aware, two Koussevitsky Foundation awards, and citations from the University of Michigan and California State University, Fresno. He was the 1984 Henry Russel Lecturer at the University of Michigan (the University's highest honor) and is its Albert A. Stanley Distinguished University Professor of Music Emeritus. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Produced by Carter Harmon.

Echoes form an Invisible World was recorded by David Hancock, Baltimore, Maryland in November of 1979.

Sextet for Piano and Strings was recorded May 19, 1975.

All works published by C. F. Peters Corporation, New York. (BMI)

  1. Variations for Orchestra (1963) (24:36)

Radio Zurich Symphony Orchestra; Jonathan Sternberg, conductor

Echoes From An Invisible World (1976) (20:23)

  1. Movement One (fast) (6:26)

  2. Movement Two (slow) (5:48)

  3. Movement Three (fast) (8:09)

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Sergiu Comissiona, conductor

Sextet for Piano and Strings (1972) (20:58)

  1. Movement One (fast) (5:00)

  2. Movement Two (fast) (3:29)

  3. Movement Three (slow) (6:13)

  4. Movement Four (Fast) (6:16)

Total Playing Time: 66:33