Allen Shawn: Piano Music



Allen Shawn


Piano Works






Allen Shawn




Allen Shawn (born 1948) grew up in New York City and started composing music at the age of ten. He studied the piano with Francis Dillon and Emilie Harris, received his B.A. from Harvard University, where he studied with Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim, spent two years in Paris studying composition with Nadia Boulanger, and received his M.A. in music from Columbia University, where he studied with Jack Beeson. Up until 1985 he continued living in New York and holding a variety of jobs including teaching at the Mannes College Preparatory Department and the Elizabeth Seeger School, working as a pianist in pit orchestras on Broadway and at the New York Shakespeare Festival, and writing incidental music for theater. Since 1985 he and his family have lived in Vermont, and he has been on the faculty of Bennington College, where he teaches composition.




The bulk of Shawn's output is chamber and piano music. He has also composed seven orchestral works, two operas to libretti by his brother, playwright Wallace Shawn, much incidental music for theater (including scores for the New York Shakespeare Festival, the La Jolla Playhouse, and Lincoln Center theater), and music for the film "My Dinner With Andre," as well as works for voice and chorus.




Other recorded works have included the Wind Quintet, the Sextet for Piano and Winds, the Suite for Cello Quartet, the Clarinet Trio, Winter Sketchbook for violin and piano, Eclogue for two pianos, the Piano Trio, Blues and Boogie for cello and piano, and Song of the Tango Bird.




In 1995 he received the Goddard Lieberson Fellowship for composers from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.




He is currently at work on two concerti: a Piano Concerto for pianist Ursula Oppens, and a Cello Concerto for cellist Maxine Neuman.










"Taste" is a term which currently doesn't have the best reputation in the arts. Most tend to associate it with over-refined, "elitist" preferences, or at best, they accept it as being a necessary result of humans' inherent subjectivity. "That's your taste, I have mine" is the current mantra. But if such taste is neither immediately quantifiable or provable, that does not preclude its still being a very real factor in the success of a work of art. We apply the term to the process of criticizing existing art, but we rarely think of how necessary it is for the act of creation itself. From a different perspecitve, no one in their right mind would ignore taste as a factor in successful cuisine. Unusual flavor combinations, new modes of presentation, experimental ingredients all play a part in contemporary cooking, but in the end, if the taste is unpleasant, the food is a failure. Certainly it's subjective, but it's utterly real.




This opening digression may seem unusual, but I find it very germane to the music of Allen Shawn. Rarely have I encountered a music which evidences such a refined, dead-on accurate sense of what is pleasing on many levels to the listener. This is music which is great fun, enormously witty, highly sensuous, and intellectually adventurous. It is simultaneously personal and accessible. And these works in particular show an unerring sense of how to write for piano in a way that is both original and idiomatic. In short, the taste that Shawn brings to his music-making is a subtle mixture of technical polish and aesthetic instinct, art and craft in perfect balance.




The works on this disc cover the past eighteen years, and run through a wide stylistic and expressive range. In some ways, the effect of listening is that of hearing a single, multi-movement, hour-plus piece that encompasses a vast world of experience, ranging from the light and occasional to the soulfully profound. Rather than presenting a work-by-work exegisis, I would like to point out some of the general features of Shawn's voice, aspects of his music which find concrete form in specific pieces. With such a global understanding of his style, the particulars of the separate works become easier to grasp in the actual listening.




Shawn's music shows four common underlying traits. The first is a natural feel for popular musical styles. Shawn says that he has never played jazz piano, and if that means he has not attempted to master the entire craft of jazz improvisation, we'll have to take him at his word. But this music shows a profound understanding of the language of jazz, of its lush harmonies, of the mercurial moment-to-moment morphing of ideas which defines its spontaneity. I can't emphasize this point enough: while many composers are exploring fields of non-classical music with varying degrees of success, the dangers of either sounding pandering or hypocritical are always great. Shawn avoids these pitfalls by the total honesty and lack of pretension in these works. The Four Jazz Preludes of 1980 show an uncanny ability to recreate through precise notation the delicious prolixity of classic jazz keyboard performance, whether in the languid sense of late-night cabaret in the first; the boogie-woogie of second; the spiritual of the third; or the exuberant, Fats Walleresque stride piano athleticism of the fourth. This feel for jazz and a host of related styles runs through the entire collection of pieces. Particularly strong examples include the 1984 Valentine, a heartbreakingly sweet rag, written for the composer's wife as a last-minute Valentine's Day present.


The 1987 Tango combines the signature rhythmic sexiness of the form with a poignant countertheme. And the 1995 Three Dance Portraits begins with a blues vamp, moves to a Latin dance, and concludes with an incredible rock-and-roll stomp in its third movement, taking a standard bass riff and making it transcendent in its energy, richness of detail, and sheer seat-of-the pants recklessness, careening along a particularly dangerous piece of pianistic highway.




Second, Shawn's music goes far beyond mere recreation of popular musics in classical guise. In these pieces one finds exceptional stylistic and expressive range. The two Reveries of 1992 both probe a tender, fragile world of sound that values contemplation of beauty over the demands of a rhythmic groove, evoking a more "French" musical world in the process. The rambunctious Growl of 1995 is angular, dissonant, and expressionistic, though never without a fierce momentum. And most notable is the Letter to a Friend of 1995 (a very good year for the composer, on the basis of these pieces!), by far the most formally ambitious work, which gradually marshalls its energy until the immense eruption of its middle section, showing remarkable patience in its pacing. This work is sober and thoughtful in tone, its overall ruminativeness demanding a corresponding concentration from the listener which I have found rewarded on muliple listenings.




Third, Shawn's music is written with exceptional understanding of the piano, its special capcities and colors. This results from the strength of the composer's performance technique. In this century, when so many composers now grow up either playing guitar in a rock band, or learning music purely from recordings, the great keyboard-virtuoso composer is a rarer thing. Bernstein, Foss, Bolcom come immediately to mind, and Shawn is in their company, as this recording will attest. Apart from the sheer power of the performances themselves, this viruosity pays off in giving the composer a freedom of exploration and knowledge of resources that eludes many others. A few examples include: the wonderful silvery splintering of upper register cascades near the conclusion of the Reverie No.2; the basing of large chunks of Growl on octave unison runs, and the even more daring use of a single, monophonic line for material at opening and close of the 1994 Prelude No. 3 (Shawn's telling sense of registration and voicing is evident in every piece, and his understanding of how tempo effects our perception of a musical gesture what may seem simple on the page becomes richly complex at the proper speed shows a profound study and understanding of the classic repertoire).




Finally, Shawn's music, despite all its familiarities, is truly personal and original. Of course, one can identify influences: I hear Prokofiev in the second Reverie and the third 1994 Prelude, Gershwin in the Jazz Preludes, Copland in Letter to a Friend, even Messiaen in the fourth 1994 Prelude. But those influences never sound like appropriations. Rather, they are part of a rich ancestral mix that Shawn has absorbed, judged, and synthesized into his own voice. The originality is subtle, but it is true originality nonetheless. What gives it such personality is its authenticity, the sense that Shawn believes in every note he has written, that every moment is the result of a choice, that no gesture is unbacked by genuine feeling. The music is sparkling, infectious, and smart, yet its intellect never becomes purely cerebral or interferes with an essential, coporeal musicality.




I first listened to a mix of this album while on a long drive through a parched US South in the summer of 1998. In the midst of scorching weather, Shawn's music was a cool oasis, refreshing in its seemingly unending sequence of delights. With this program, listeners are in for a treat, one they will savor time and time again.




Robert Carl




Composer Robert Carl directs the Extension Works new music ensemble in Boston, chairs the composition department of the Hartt School, University of Hartford, and writes frequently for Fanfare magazine.




Daniel Epstein




Daniel Epstein made his debut concert tour with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1973. Since then he has appeared as guest soloist with such major American orchestras as San Francisco, Detroit, Houston, Dallas, Rochester and Honolulu. A charismatic performer in a broadly varied repertoire, he has given recitals in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center as well as on concert stages across North America, Europe, and Japan. He is a founding member of the Raphael Trio, wtih which he tours internationally.




Recorded February 3, 4 and 5, 1998 at Middlebury College Center for the Arts, Middlebury, Vermont.


Producer: Su Lian Tan


Recording Engineer: Mark Christensen


Digital editing and CD mastering: Andor Toth/Affordable Arts


Booklet Notes: Robert Carl




Special Thanks to:


Cecille Shawn


Tom Corbin, Susan Stockton and Joanne Leggett of Middlebury College


Evan Bennett






Tango for Philip and Anna Hamburger


Valentine for Jamaica


Growl for Amy Williams


Four Jazz Preludes for my father


Five Preludes for Elizabeth Wright


Three Dance Portraits for Joan Stein and Betty Rosenblum


Cover photo: © 1998 Cynthia Locklin


Cover design: Bates · Miyamoto










Allen Shawn: Piano Music


Allen Shawn, piano




Tango (1987) (4:03)




Reverie No. 2 (1992) (3:33)




Valentine (1984) (4:11)




Growl (1995) (3:25)




Four Jazz Preludes (1980)


andante (3:31)


moderately (3:07)


Spiritual lento cantabile (3:09)


largo; allegro (4:11)




Letter To A Friend (1995) (14:11)




Preludes No. 3, 4 & 5 from Five Preludes (1994)


no. 3 scherzando; restless, quirky (2:51)


no. 4 Largo; reflectively (3:20)


no. 5 with driving energy (2:27)




Three Dance Portraits for piano four-hands (1995)


lilting = 100 (2:13)


grazioso = ca. 132 (2:08)


hard edged = ca. 120 (2:58)




Daniel Epstein and Allen Shawn, pianists




Reverie No. 3 (1992) (3:09)