Barbara White: When the Smoke Clears


Barbara White

When the smoke clears

Contemporary debates over musical language often revolve around the supposed rupture between modernist and postmodernist approaches. But for composer Barbara White, polemical debates take a back seat to the shaping of musical ideas, which tend to be unruly and difficult to compartmentalize. “Although I am interested in the ways these categories might describe musical experience,” says White, “I find that the distinctions between them dissolve as soon as I step into the studio.”

In the chamber works by White heard on this recording, improvisatory-sounding gestures are placed in sophisticated formal designs, melodic lines are often singable but never predictable, and compositional techniques are equally informed by vernacular traditions and the gymnastics of today's finest new-music virtuosi.

Underlying the formal rigor and syntactical games like the use of canons and palindromes lies a delight in the vitality of live music-making. As White, a clarinetist, says, “I appreciate the excitement, unpredictability, and even the imperfection that characterizes live performance.” At times the composer challenges performers, including herself, to “misplay” their instruments, or to play unusual objects like tin cans and frying pans; at other times white calls for a more traditional blending of instrumental sounds. The overall result is a stream of sonic possibilities presented by acoustic instruments.

White ushers us into her sound world with a juxtaposition of clashing themes, timbres and colors in the mind's fear, the heart's delight (1998), composed specifically for the New York New Music Ensemble. The piece unfolds in five distinct sections: an eccentric dialogue that pits piano and percussion (“glued” together throughout the piece) against the rest of the ensemble; an enigmatic duet between flute and violin, underscored by a shimmering repeated phrase in the upper register of the piano; and a melancholy section that focuses on long, low notes in the cello. Next comes a long development in the bass clarinet and drums that eventually lands in an extremely high register, making the bass clarinet sound like a wailing tenor sax, followed by the final section, in which the other instruments re-emerge timidly through a beautiful, apprehensive passage. The quick, harsh refrain from the opening interrupts often, providing an impetus for sudden contrasts. White explains the sharp disparities between sections as inherently paradoxical: the title, a slightly altered line from the poem “Eruption: Pu'u O'o” by Garrett Hongo, evokes the fusing of anxiety and bliss. White treasures such contradictions, noting that “a single idea or experience can simultaneously inspire both terror and desire.”

The oldest piece on the album, When the Smoke Clears (1995/1998), was written with Nancy Zeltsman and her five-octave marimba in mind. In this instance, White not only bestows a personality on each instrument, but she transforms their sounds by creating unusual relationships between them. The clear textures and quirky rhythms emulate Stravinsky, and there is even a short quotation from his Agon in the opening bars. After a brief introduction, the marimba and the violin begin an extended duo, which is at times friendly and at other times fiercely competitive. Eventually the clarinet sneaks in and plays alongside the violin, and for awhile the identical rhythms and dynamics suggest an alchemical combination of the two timbres. Toward the end of a lilting middle section, the piece ascends to its climax, as the marimba becomes more prominent and eventually overtakes the others to play a short solo in its lowest register. As the climax recedes into what the composer calls “a kind of warped organum,” the quiet, understated homophony brings the sense of resolution evoked by the title. White's mother, to whom the work is dedicated, died just as it was completed. The phrase “when the smoke clears...” is one she heard her father utter many times in the ensuing weeks.

The tranquility at the end of When the Smoke Clears is forsaken to continue the bold quest for adventurous new sounds in Third Rule of Thumb (2000), a piece written specifically for the Talujon Percussion Quartet with the support of the Fromm Foundation. Restricted to “so-called unpitched percussion,” this is a study in how timbre and relative pitch can create a percussion-specific syntax. Indebted to John Cage (the “Third” in the title is derived from Cage's Third Construction) and Lou Harrison (particularly his Concerto for violin and Percussion), White utilizes everything from woodblocks, Chinese opera gongs and a large Brazilian caxixi to tom-toms played with a super ball, frying pans and tin cans. The piece opens with mystical sound of a bowed cymbal cut with a repeated rhythm on the woodblock. For the first several minutes, White focuses on the isolation of sounds, emphasizing the distinct colors produced by their opposition: wood versus metal, struck versus shaken, short versus sustained. As the piece continues, additive rhythms and interlocking patterns appear, often resulting in danceable “grooves.” These grooves gradually entice all the players into a metallic swirl, and all differences are erased as they join in an ecstatic unison at the end.

The solo clarinet piece No Man's Land (1999) is a home-coming. An active clarinetist, White explains that she arrived at the work's unusual sound world though investigating her “not entirely contented” relationship with her primary instrument. The piece grew out of improvised accompaniments to dance performances begun after a long hiatus from performing due to an injury. Her physical discomfort encouraged her to experiment with new ways of approaching the instrument and led her toward an idiosyncratic performance strategy. She describes the process as a way of “claiming extraneous sounds, including conventionally undesirable ones, and forming them into a personal musical language.” tablature notation indicates the “wrong” fingerings that access notes White describes as “falling between the cracks of the twelve-tone temperament.” Her technique—she dislikes the implied dualism of the term “extended technique”— also mines the sonic potential of breath, multiphonic “noise” and high shrieking sounds. Each of the three movements evokes an idea made explicit by a matching epigraph:

I. Pibroch

The sea cries with its meaningless voice

Treating alike its dead and its living.

—Ted Hughes, “Pibroch”

[Also: pìobairèachd, a form of highland bagpipe music]

II. Foolish Fire

“Finally I began to wonder whether I, like the spider that chased the shadow, had been deluded, and had seemed to hear a sound that was not a sound.”

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansions

[Also: ignis fatuus, a flickering light seen over marshes, thought to issue from the souls of the damned]

III. Don't Look Down

“Don't look down.”

—Stan Swartz

“Pibroch,” the title of which refers to Ted Hughes's poem, is an organic lament that alludes to the variation form common in Highland bagpipe music. “Foolish Fire” focuses on “phantom” sounds, including the reverberation of flickering microtonal tremolos and the percussive sounds of fingers drumming on the keys. The more vigorous “Don't Look Down” is a dance that buzzes frenetically, grounding the dialogue in repeated riffs and pedal notes as it inches ever upward. The movement's title is an instruction from one of White's T'ai Chi instructors—an instruction she is still learning to obey!

White's study of T'ai Chi hints at her interest in movement-based art forms. In fact, she describes her own approach to music-making as visual and kinetic. She has been naturally drawn to dance projects, starting in her early twenties as a freelancer playing for a weekly dance improvisation group. As a graduate student, she founded Momentum Interdisciplinary arts with Pittsburgh choreographer Joan Wagman. this relationship gave birth to Life in the Castle (1997), a dance/opera hybrid, dedicated to Wagman, that links the movements of the dancer to the voice of the singer.

The libretto, constructed from a set of six poems, forms a narrative structure that, like most of White's work, avoids linearity. Reflective imagery figures prominently as a structural and aesthetic them, as many of the texts explicitly address mirrors and reflective shapes suspended in what White visualizes as a “cold, stark interior.” The choreography moves through reflective objects onstage, while the music focuses on distinct ideas filtered through various mirror-like procedures. For example, the last movement is a retrograde of the first one, and both movements are based on a single symmetrical chord. The second movement presents an isorhythmic canon at the unison, cycling three times through a 30-note pitch cycle in homage to the Apollinaire calligramme that supplies the text. In each repetition, the voice, flute and violin reposition themselves vis-à-vis one another, eventually coalescing into a blur, which suggests the infinity effect created when two mirrors face one another. Throughout the work, instrumental color underscores the test, as when the return to wooden sounds in the final movement evokes the mirror frame described in Margaret Atwood's poem.

White's music is, as she says, “informed by narrative, although the narrative tends to be unpredictable or enigmatic.” A listener may encounter any number of surprises, including “accidental” sounds, virtuosic displays and off-kilter rhythms in her pieces, but the unexpected twists and turns are all part of a single, compelling sensibility.

—Amanda MacBlane with Barbara White

Amanda MacBlane is a New York-based musician and journalist, and the production coordinator for NewMusicBox, the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award-winning web magazine from the American Music Center (

Life in the Castle texts

1. Life in the Castle

It is an ancestral castle

With no tables or fire

with no dust or rug

The perverse spell of this place

is wholly in its shiny mirrors

the only possible thing to do here

Is to look at oneself day and night.

from “Vie de Château” by Anne Hébert. Published in French in The Tomb of the Kings (Toronto: Contact Press, 1967). English translation by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone, published in A Book of Women Poets From Antiquity to Now, ed. Barnstone and Barnstone (New York: Schocken, 1980). Used by permission.

2. Mirror








NOT Guillaume CLOSED

AND Apollinaire LI








from “Coeur, Couronne et Miroir” (“Heart, Crown and Mirror”) by Guillaume Apollinaire, edited and translated by Anne Hyde Greet. Published in Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-16), ©1980. Used by permission of Univ. of California Press.

3. meeting

At the en

of the longest evening

in this moment, silent,

I wait for you.

I look out, then I see you.

You've been here before.

in the still

of night without end,

in the hush,

I see you,


by Katrinka Kraft. Unpublished, used by permission.

4. Apparition

Having attained her perfect size

the giant moves in shadows

And makes the room sway with her weight

Her grandeur stretches and sprawls

Against the wooden walls

Touches the ebony ceiling

Her deep eye shines

Like a well

in the darkness

from “Apparition” by Anne Hébert, published in French in Day Has No Equal But Night, with English translation by A. Poulin, Jr., ©1994. Used by permission of Boa Editions Limited.

5. The Invisible Woman

Now that I have become invisible

I can go anywhere

Flow through crowds and cracks

Slide past gateposts

Insinuate myself through

Chinks in the wall

Pry into corners

Look boldly into windows

To watch how other people live

Eavesdrop in full view

Nothing can keep me out

No one knows what I do

from “The Invisible Woman” from The Lone Woman and Others, by Constance Urdang, ©1980. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

6. There is More to a Mirror

There is more to a mirror

than you looking at

your full-length body

flawless but reversed,

there is more than this dead blue

oblong eye turned outwards to you.

Think about the frame.

The frame is carved, it is important,

it exists, it does not reflect you,

it does not recede and recede, it has limits

and reflections of its own.

from “Tricks with Mirrors” by Margaret Atwood, from You Are Happy (Harper & Row, 1974). Used by permission of Margaret Atwood.

Composer Barbara White has a long-standing involvement in interdisciplinary collaboration, especially in composing for dance; she has also completed a number of residency projects, including a Continental Harmony Commission from the American Composer Forum for the community of Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Other recent commissions have come from the Stony Brook contemporary Chamber Players, the New York New Music Ensemble, Boston Musica Viva and the Fromm Foundation. white ahs received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the state ar5ts councils of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She spent the 200-01 year as a bunting fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

As a clarinetist., White has performed her works with Momentum Interdisciplinary arts, the Fromm Foundation contemporary Music Series at Harvard and the Florida International Festival of New Music. Her scholarly writings approach diverse topics, including the dramatic mechanisms of unstaged opera, the vagaries of eclecticism, and the intersection of gender and music analysis. White holds degrees from Harvard/Radcliffe Colleges and the University of Pittsburgh, and she is a member of the faculty at Princeton University.

The New York New Music Ensemble is one of the world's premier 20th-century chamber music groups. Its “extensively rehearsed and emotionally charged performances” (New York Times) reflect the group's conviction that thoughtfully performed contemporary music can reach both specialist and uninitiated audience. Each member is a virtuosic solo performer, and the group has a long list of commissions and works dedicated to it. The Ensemble is also committed to the creation and presentation of theater music and interdisciplinary performances.

Described by the New York Times as an ensemble possessing an “edgy, unflagging energy,” the Talujon Percussion Quartet has been mesmerizing audiences since 1990. Talujon performs regularly at New York's Alice Tully Hall, Merkin Hall, the Kitchen and the Knitting Factory. Talujon's most recent CD, ...the speed of the passing time... features the works of Xenakis, Harrison, Rzewski, Shapey and Talujon.

Violinist Sunghae Anna Lim is a member of the Laurel Trio and the new Millenium Ensemble, which won the 1995 Naumburg Chamber Music competition, which won the 1995 Naumburg Chamber Music Competition. She has appeared as soloist with the Honolulu Symphony, the Princeton Chamber Symphony and the Harvard-Radcliffe Bach Society Orchestra. Lim has toured Japan as soloist with the Viennese chamber orchestra Ensemble Nine and has recorded for Koch International, CRI and Newport Classics.

Michael Lowestern is a clarinet soloist, bass clarinetist with the New Jersey Symphony, head jingle writer for Grey Advertising's eMarketing division, and a regular with the Klezmatics, chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Jerome Kitzke's “The Mad Coyote.” He has appeared on over thirty CDs, including two solo CDs: the critically acclaimed Spasm, and his newest, 1985.

conducto4r/percussionist Jeffrey Milarsky is music director and conductor of the Columbia University Orchestra, as well as professor in music at Columbia University. He has led such groups as the American Composers Orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Speculum Musicae and the New York Philharmonic chamber music series. He has recorded for the Angel, Teldec, Telarc, New World, CRI, MusicMasters, EMI, Koch and London labels.

Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger has sung at venues including New York's Alice Tully Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of art, the Gardner Museum in Boston and Wigmore Hall in London. She has appeared with the Baltimore, Grand Rapids, Jacksonville and London Symphonies; the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Her recent recordings are on the Deutsche Grammophon, CRI, Mode and Koch International labels.

Conductor Michael Pratt joined the music faculty at Princeton in 1977 as conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra. He also serves at Princeton as the director of the certificate program in musical performance and co-directs both the Composers' Ensemble and Richardson Chamber Players. He has been music director of the Delaware Valley Philharmonic since 1990 and has appeared with leading ensembles and orchestras of the United States.

Nancy Zeltsman is a leading marimba performer, recording artist, commissioner of new works, teacher and author. She recently joined the faculty of Temple University, has taught marimba at the Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music since 1993, and directed the first Princeton Marimba Festival in July 2001. Zeltsman has recorded two solo CDs, Woodcuts and See Ya Thursday. From 1985-1996 she performed with Marimolin.

Produced by Steven Mackey and Barbara White (the mind's fear, the heart's delight and When the Smoke Clears); Barbara White (Third Rule of Thumb); James Moses, Ted Coffey and Dan Cooper (No-Man's Land); and Paul Lansky and Barbara White (Life in the Castle).

Engineered by James Moses. Edited by Reuben de Lautour.

final mixing of no-Man's Land by James Moses and Mary Lee Roberts.

All pieces published by the composer.

Thanks are due to those credited above. Special thanks go to the Princeton University Concert Office and Music Department, especially to Scott Burnham, Paul Lansky, Steven Mackey, and Michael Pratt for their contributions; to Alan Shockley for the triangles; to Jean and John Friedmann for their guest room; to the MacDowell Colony for several residencies; to Steven Mulvey for his insight; and, most of all, to the performers, for their fine playing.

Recording and production made possible by the generous support of the Princeton University Council on the Humanities and the Princeton University Music Department, with additional support from the Princeton Composer Ensemble and the Fromm Foundation.