David Macbride: Three Dances; Chartres


David Macbride

What sets David Macbride apart form many composers of his generation is his firm commitment to - and, indeed, his continuation of - the high modernist tradition that has shaped so much of the best 20th century music. By this I mean that his musical syntax is unified, complex, chromatic and often frankly dissonant; he has neither fallen in love with the repeat sign nor proclaimed a born-again “return to tonality” and it is obvious that he has listened with profit to such masters as Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravisky, and Bela Bartok.

Macbride would, therefore, be accepted by the academicians as a “serious” composer, in a way that most of the minimalists, conceptualists, new-tonalists and various other late 20th century “its” might not. And yet Macbride's work has none of the learned grayness of the academy; what impresses me about his music is its lyricism, its clarity, its precision and its “accessibility” (in the best meaning of that much-abused word). While Macbride has never deliberately written down to his audience - “I don't think it's necessary to appeal to absolutely everyone,” he told me simply filling in familiar forms. This is always personal music: One has the sense, listening to Macbride's best compositions, that he is saying just what he wants to say, in the most direct and elegant manner, without condescension of obfuscation.

This compact disc, the first devoted entirely to Macbride's music, should win him many new listeners. I was introduced to his work some ten years ago, when he was living in New York and his chamber opera, The Pond In A Bowl was presented by Golden Fleece Limited in a tiny midtown theater. I admired the way he seamlessly incorporated Eastern elements into what remained clearly a work of European-derived modernist art music, without any self-consciousness of facile Chinoiserie; I was also impressed by his ability to fashion distinct, cogent - and downright singable - vocal lines for his soloists. (Too many modern opera composers have their tenors and sopranos leap around the bar lines like so many mountain goats.)

As it happens, Macbride, born in Berkeley, California in 1951, is of Eurasian heritage and many of his works are, to use his words, “profoundly influenced by Chinese music and thought.” Macbride studied at the Hartt School of Music (where he now teaches) and later at Columbia University, where he took his M.A. and D.M.A. H has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, at Yaddo, at the Ives Center for American Music, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Leighton Artists colony. He won the Leo Snyder Memorial Composition Prize, sponsored by the League/ISCM Boston in both 1986 and 1988 and has twice been a semifinalist in the Kennedy center Friedheim Awards, the last time, in 1991, for the Three Dances recorded here. Macbride is currently composing a new work for the Aurora String Quartet, commissioned by Chamber Music America.

Macbride lives with his wife, the painter Lisa Macbride, and their son James Samuel, in the West End of Hartford, within a mile of the homes of such other historic Hartford notables as Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Wallace Stevens. “I believe in becoming as involved in your own community as possible,” he said. “You can chase that whole big city dream of fame and fortune or you can settle down and try to make a difference in people's lives - a real difference, working in the schools, working in the local orchestra, and trying to be the best composer possible”.

The two works on this recording were both written in the late 1980's - the Three Dances in 1987, Charters in 1989. Macbrde chose the title of the first pieces as a homage to John Cage, whose Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos he admires and because, he explains, although the three movements don't need choreography, “they might adept well to it, because each movement has strong rhythmic ideas.” And, despite a considerable rhythmic complexity, the Dances flow. This is music that provides satisfaction yet contains depths and intricacies to inspire further listening.

The Three Dances originated during a trip to China. “Lisa and I had gone over with the Greater Hartford Youth Orchestra and wee stayed on for a couple of weeks when the tour was over,” he recalled. “In the middle of the night, I started hearing a passage in my head. And it wouldn't leave me alone and so I finally wrote it down and it ended up in the conclusions of both the second and third movements.”

Chartres, as its title might suggest, also began with a sojourn abroad. “It was inspired by the great cathedral in Chartres, “ Macbride said. “I was particularly fascinated by the labyrinth in the center of the nave. I've been interested in musical mazes for about a decade and I've incorporated them into Chartres so that every performance will come out somewhat differently. The music is strictly notated buy there are many choices the performer can make within the structure. The central movement is eight musical mazes, each one leading into the next, and any path that is chosen should provide a successful aesthetic totality. I wanted to write a large-scale piece that would reflect some of the magnificence I find in great works of architecture.”

Indeed, to this listener, Charters summons to mind another magnificent edifice, the literature of 20th century Modernist piano music. At various points during the piece, one may be reminded of such divergent composers as Berg, Barber, Messianen Prokofiev, and Carter. And yet Charteres never devolves into pastiche; rather, Macbride takes what he has learned from the past and, in his won manner, builds a contribution towards the future. T.S. Eliot entitled one of his finest essays “Tradition and the Individual Talent;” David Macbride has both of these qualities and one will observe his progress with considerable interest.

  • Tim Page

Kathleen Supové is one of the most captivating interpreters of New Music on the East Coast, having premiered countless works for solo piano and piano with ensemble. In 1984, she won Second Prize in the Gaudeamus Competition For Interpreters Of Contemporary Music in Holland, as well as a Special Prize for Best Performance of a Dutch work. Since then, she has been a regular guest artist at the Summer Courses For New Music in Darmstadt, the June In Buffalo Composers Festival, and the Sonoklect Festival of New Music in Virginia. She has made numerous radio appearances of WGBH-Radio, Boston; WNYC, New York, and WDR-Cologne, among others. In 1989, she received a Meet-The-Composer/Reader's Digest Consortium Commissioning Grant for solo piano works from composers Donald Martino, Maurice Wright, and Matthew Greenbaum. Ms. Supové gives a regular series of concerts in Boston and New York City featuring new music for solo piano, entitled The Exploding Piano. She is a member of a newly formed, innovative trio, The Bermuda Triangle, that includes soprano Dora Ohrenstein and bassist Robert Black. In Boston, she is co-founder of and pianist for Extension Works, in addition to making frequent appearances with many local new music groups. She has recorded a CD of new solo piano music by Marti Epstein, Lukas Foss, David Lang, Frederic Rzewski, and Randall Woolf for release on CRI's acclaimed Emergency Music series in late 1993. Her recording of Five Incantations by Giacinto Scelsi is available on the Neuma Records label. She also appears on Bridge Records, playing the Yamaha DX-7 in Jonathan Harvey's From Silence. In October, 1993, she will appear as soloist with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, in the premiere of Randall Woolf's Skin deep for Piano and Chamber Ensemble.

In 1987, the New York Times counted the Aurora String Quartet, now in its fourteenth season, as “among the Pacific elite” of chamber ensembles in the West. All four members are long time members of the San Francisco Symphony. In 1983, Edo de Waart asked the quartet to perform in the Symphony's subscription series as soloists, and they appeared as part of the Symphony's Beethoven Festival in both 1990 and 1992. The Aurora String Quartet is currently an ensemble-in-residence for San Francisco's Old Frist Church Concert Series, and performs regularly throughout the Bay Area. In 1991, they performed for the Mozart Festival in Tahiti. Critics have applauded the Aurora String Quartet for its incisive, resonant, lyrical style and rhythmic intensity. It has mastered equally the repertoire of the Classical 28th and Romantic 19th centuries, but also has a vital interest in showcasing new 20th century works. The Aurora String Quartet has given West Coast premieres of works by Benjamin Lees, George Tsontakis, Robert Helps, and David Macbride, and has works by John Harbison, Charles Wuorinen, George Perle, Henri Dutilleux, Andrew Imbrie, and Sir Michael Tippett in their repertoire. In 1989, Benjamin Lees wrote his String quartet no. 4 for the Aurora String Quartet, and in the 1992-93 season they will give the world premiere of a commissioned work by David Macbride and the East Coast premiere of Steven Jaffe's String Quart No. 1.

Three Dances (1987)

Recorded October 20, 1991 at Pony Tracks Ranch, Portola Valley, CA. Recording Engineer: Jack Vad.

Edited by David Budries, sound Situation.

Chartes (1989)

Recorded August 8, 1992 in John Knowles Paine Concert Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Recording Engineer: Joel Gordon. Edited by David Bundries, Sound Situation.

Both works published by American Composers Alliance (ACA), New York. (BMI)

Three Dances premiered by the Arditti String Quartet, March 8, 1989, Town Hall, NYC. Chartres premiered April 18, 1990 by David Macbride, Bronson & Hutensky Theatre, Hartford, CT.

Mastered by Ellen Fitton, Engineer at Sony Classical Productions, Inc., New York, NY.

This compact disc was made possible through grants from The National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, and the Vincent Coffin Grant of the University of Hartford.

Three Dances for string quartet (1987) (30:02)

  1. I (9:42)

  2. II (10:23)

  3. III (9:57)

The Aurora String Quartet

Shaon Grebaier, violin; Mariko Smiley, violin; Basil Vendryes, viola; and Margaret Tait, cello

Chartres for solo piano (1989) (30:55)

  1. In Strict Time (8:40)

  2. Mazes (11:25)

  3. Simply (10:50)

Kathleen Supové, piano