Piano and Poetry

April 6, 2020

French pianist Vanessa Wagner and singer/songwriter Arthur H appeared together to celebrate Piano Day 2020. The concert was filmed on March 9, 2020 at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

They performed a number of piano pieces and poems including my Quiet Rhythms no. 9 with an extract from Yves Bonnefoy’s Le haut du monde at 18:45.

ARTE Concert with Vanessa Wagner and Arthur H
Yves Bonnefoy - extrait.jpg

Programme:

Philipp Glass – Glassworks, ouverture
Hans Otte – Das Buch der Klange, Part X
Bryce Dessner – Ornament 3
William Susman – Quiet Rhythms, Prologue and Action No. 9
Philipp Glass – Etude No. 9
Philipp Glass – Etudes No. 5

Poèmes :
Jacques Prévert – Sables mouvants. Chansons. Sanguine
Henri Michaud – Poteaux d’angles (extrait court)
Gaston Miron – La marche à l’amour (extrait)
Yves Bonnefoy (extrait)
Arthur H – Anatalius sans remord ni regret
Arthur Rimbaud – L’éternité

 

Fanfare’s 2nd Album Review of Collision Point – “Crystalline Music”

January 22, 2020

888295908887_Frontcover_Physical_and_Digital

SUSMAN Camille1. Clouds and Flames 2. Motions of Return3. The Starry Dynamo4  —  1Piccolo Accademia degli Specchi (3,4Alessandra Amoreno, fl; 4Claudia Di Pietro, alto sax; 2,4Giuliano Cavaliere, vn; 2,4Rina You, vc; 2Assunta Cavallari, 3,4Fabio Silvestro, pns)  —  BELARCA 007 (47:01)

 

Back in Fanfare 38:2, I wrote about a disc of William Susman’s music entitled Scatter My Ashes. Like the current disc, similarly on the Belarca label, playing time was short, but a sense of fun and enjoyment of life was long. Susman’s minimalist tendencies are fully on display again in this release, itself entitled Collision Point.

Scored for flute, alto sax, violin, cello and piano four-hands, Camille (2010) is based on the Afro-Cuban clave rhythm, with 3+2 layered against 2+3 in the first movement, “Vitality”. Susman suggests the aural equivalent is that of Escher’s woodcut Illustrations, where the eye can choose to concentrate on wither white fish or brown fish; here, it is the ear that opts which division of the measure to concentrate on. Booklet annotator David Sanson puts it well when he refers to Susman’s music as a “labyrinth of rhythms, a perpetually moving trompe-l’oeil,” a statement that seems to fit particularly well with Camille. The contrasting second panel “Tranquility,” is like a slowly turning kaleidoscope, before the pulsating finale, “Triumph,” emerges. The work was written for the current ensemble and is performed with the sense of rhythmic cleanliness and exactitude minimalist music requires.

The 2010 piece Clouds and Flames finds the scoring reduced to piano trio. Seven short movements are inspired by events in Colum McCann’s novel Let The Great World Spin and also by the tightrope walk of Philippe Petit between the World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974. The central theme of Clouds and Flames is remembrance and loss, nowhere more evident than in the fourth movement, “The Alphabet of Dying”. The title of the next movement, “Collision Point,” a restrained movement built on slow-moving piano against pizzicato strings, also forms the title of the disc as a whole. The scoring for piano trio gives the piece a brilliant sort of clarity completely different from the ensemble used or Camille; again, the performance is beyond criticism.

The two remaining pieces date back into the 1990s. Based on cyclical melodies and chord progressions, Motions of Return for flute and piano (1994) takes its title from Francis Bacon’s 1627 The New Atlantis and is, like Camille, based on the idea of illusion. The agile flute part is superbly rendered by Alessandra Amoreno; Fabio Silvestro is the most fluent-fingered of pianists. Together, they negotiate the tricky asynchronous passages with great confidence.

The disc is bookended by ensemble pieces, that for The Starry Dynamo (1994) only one pianist short of that used for Camille; the original clarinet part has been replaced here by the alto sax of Claudia Di Pietro to fit in with the line-up of Piccolo Accademia degli Specchi. And, as in Camille, it is an Afro-Cuban rhythm that forms the basis, this time especially the montuño, a repeated syncopated figure.  It is a poem by Allan Ginsburg, HOWL, that forms the inspiration for The Starry Dynamo, including the line, “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”. This is a work that, in one continuous movement of nearly 15 minutes, goes further than any on this disc to offer a sense of immersion into Susman’s world.

Performances are superb throughout, while the recording is perfectly judged, enabling the crystalline aspect of Susman’s music to shine through. Recommended.

Colin Clarke

Five stars: Performances are superb, while the recording enables Susman’s crystalline music to shine.

FanfareMagazine

Fanfare Magazine, March-April 2020 Issue

LISTEN HERE: Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify and other streaming platforms

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collision Point Reviewed in Fanfare

January 7, 2020

 

 

SUSMAN Camille. Clouds and Flames. Motions of Return. The Starry Dynamo ● Piccola Academia degli Specchi ● BELARCA 007 (47:01)

On the face of it this album of chamber works by the accomplished Chicago-born composer/pianist William Susman is very accessible, delivering ingenious variations on Minimalism’s familiar techniques from a confident and fertile musical imagination. But bit of exploration into Susmnn’s biography reveals an intriguing story, a capsule history, in fact, of where modern American music has traveled over the past decades.

Born in 1960, Susman studied both classical and jazz piano. He is probably the only performer who learned from both a student of Artur Schnabel’s (Pauline Lindsey) and a pianist with Louis Armstrong (Steve Behr). He founded his own jazz ensemble when he was 13 and later performed with big bands and Afro-Cuban groups. That’s merely the beginning of a complex web of influences that led him to gravitate toward Xenakis and Ligeti in the Eighties. At 25 he enjoyed a major breakthrough by becoming the youngest composer to be awarded a commission from Harvard’s prestigious Fromm Foundation. There were graduate studies in computer-generated music at Stanford and an invitation from Pierre Boulez to engage with IRCAM in Paris.

For a composer rooted in the European avant garde, using arcane methods based, for example, on Fibonacci sequences to generate rhythmic repetitions, his eventual encounter with American Minimalism came as an “aesthetic shock” and a kind of spiritual awakening. In a booklet note Susman relates that “The way Riley, Reich, and Glass incorporated the things they liked—Indian or African influences, for example into their music led me to think about the things I knew and admired.”

As listeners we are so accustomed to following our personal tastes that it might be hard to relate to a young composer tightly identified with mid-century Modernism (and receiving commissions and praise for adhering to that idiom), but Susman’s awakening moment was a kind of liberation. In a much publicized shift, another arch Modernist, the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, had a similar conversion to Minimalism as a composer.

In none of these cases does the shift represent a move from complexity to simplicity. No one could be more theoretical than Glass or more steeped in the Modernist styles he rejected. The hidden texture inside today’s Minimalism consists of personal and private influences being brought to bear. For Susman, his style today is inspired by Afro- Cuban montuño, medieval hocket and isorhythm from the École de Notre-Dame de Paris, and jazz.

I’ve gone into these facets out of fascination but also to illustrate how these four chamber works came about—you couldn’t guess it by ear alone. The instrumentation varies from a duo for flute and piano (Motions of Return) to a standard piano trio with violin and cello (Clouds and Flames), with a sextet, Camille, and quintet, The Starry Dynamo, that call upon the largest complement of the Rome-based ensemble, Piccola Academia degli Specchi (Little Academy of Mirrors), which is flute, alto saxophone, violin, cello, and two pianists (they play four-hand in Camille). While listening to Camille, which opens the program, I thought that Susman should consider writing film scores, because he uses Minimalism to express a range of feelings that can be unusually tender or bold. My impression was justified, as I discovered later, because Susman has composed a number of award-wining film scores.

Needless to say, Minimalism has evolved into more than one thing, and for me, Susman’s version is appealing because it isn’t mechanical and the harmonic shifts don’t occur with glacial slowness. This is quick-witted music guided as much by emotional change as rhythmic and harmonic modulations. The flute and piano duo, Motions of Return, is necessarily fairly monochromatic, so here the focus is on rhythmic changes that might well be mathematically based. The quintet and sextet, since they use piano and alto sax, are more colorful and jazzy, I’d say, although Susman is capable of considerable surprise and unpredictability.

In all, I recommend this release to fans of Minimalism and more broadly to general listeners interested in an intriguing American voice. The performances are energetic and committed, the recorded sound excellent.

Huntley Dent

Four stars: An enjoyable and original version of today’s Minimalism

FanfareMagazine

Fanfare Magazine, March-April 2020 Issue

LISTEN HERE: Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify and other streaming platforms

 

Checkout This New Album Trailer

September 1, 2019

Video artist Valeria Di Matteo created a stunning album trailer for Collision Point . Valeria also designed all the album artwork.

Enjoy more of Valeria’s work here!

Belarca Records presents Collision Point, a new album by American composer William Susman and Rome-based ensemble Piccola Accademia degli Specchi celebrating a 10-year collaboration.

Collision Point features music inspired by love, loss, redemption, and the writings of Allen Ginsberg, Colum McCann and Francis Bacon.

Streaming everywhere October 11, 2019.

The Forest Within

July 16, 2018

SueSusmanBook

My sister Sue Susman recently published a new collection of poetry called The Forest Within. This stunning work spans several decades. Her poetry touches on the sublime as well as everyday occurrences with language that is direct and natural. There are many wonderful testimonials to Sue’s poetry, and this one especially rings true:

“These poems are the voice of courage, so much more courageous because it dares to be tender. An honesty that finds simplicity in its many layers, a silence that sings, filling the sky.” – Louise Cloutier, Women’s PowerVoice.

The connection to Sue’s poetry goes back many years. Some of the poems in this book I set to music, first in the song cycle Moving In To An Empty Space and then, with Scatter My Ashes.

The collection opens with a poem from the song cycle and eponymous album title Scatter My Ashes.

Even in the Dark

The forest breathes in and out
as I sleep and curl
like a cat snuggled into a bigger sleeping body.
Even in the dark,
I wake
and see light from above,
the moon burning into black earth.
Stars,
glittering chips of glass,
scatter in a strange design.
I keep my eyes open until morning.

A review of The Forest Within aptly called Waking Up From the Dark Night of the Soul  is at The Mindful Bard

Listen to more of Sue’s poetry set to song on the album Scatter My Ashes at Amazon, iTunes, Spotify et al:

 

Clave Patterns in Quiet Rhythms

October 13, 2017

In the Action of Quiet Rhythms no.1, the clave appears immediately in the right-hand in measures 1 and 2 playing a 3-2 clave over the left-hand playing a 2-3 clave. Layering the clave in both hands creates a 3 over 2 polyrhythm in measure 1 and, a 2 over 3 polyrhythm in measure 2 and, so on.

Action 1 m1-4

Starting at measure 89 through to the end at measure 175,  there is an amplitude cross- fade every four bars. The 3-2 clave, clearly standing out in the right-hand, gradually morphs to the left-hand. The perception of the 2 bar clave and 1 bar polyrhythm moves in and out of focus as the volume changes.

Action 1_m89

The amplitude cross-fade creates somewhat of an aural M.C. Escher effect where the ear may focus on either the left or right hand depending on the volume just as the eye may focus on the bird or the fish in varying degrees of clarity.

M.C.Escher

M.C. Escher

In the Prologue of Quiet Rhythms no. 18. a 3-2 clave rhythm starts at measure 5, but using accents on top of an even 16-note contrary motion pattern that contracts and expands every measure.

Prologue 18_m5

At measure 21 the accents switch to a 2-3 clave expanding in contrary motion every two measures.

Prologue 18_m21

And, then at measure 33, back to a 3-2 clave in a new texture of two-note chords alternating 5ths and 4ths over even single-note 16ths alternating 5th and 4th motion.

Prologue 18_m33

In the Action of Quiet Rhythms no. 18, the clave rhythm is augmented in a 4/2 meter creating a slow meditative quality. The middle line or L.H. is playing the primary 3-2 clave in measures 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8 at half speed against the high and low pitched octave drones in the top and bottom staves.

Within each measure there is a 3 against 2 polyrhythm (as in Action 1 above). In measure 1, the 3 against 2 polyrhythm sounds in the middle and top staff. In measure 2, it starts in the bottom staff and then moves from the middle to the top. In measure 3, it traverses middle, top, middle, bottom, middle.

The overall design is a 3-2 clave hocketing pattern of the top and bottom “drone voices” within an 8-bar isorhythmic cycle. It begins again at measure 9 for another eight measures contrasting in a major key and flipped with the bottom staff sounding first.

Action 18_m1

Up until measure 17, the middle staff left-hand chords are a static back-and-forth of 3rd and 4th intervals. At measure 17, they change to a rising pattern of 5ths and 4ths for eight measures.

Action 18_m17

At measure 25, the pattern goes back to the rhythmic design of the opening measures 1-8, but the intervallic movement is the opposite: The top staff moves up and the bottom moves down while the middle moves 4ths to 3rds.

Action 18_m25

Action 18  follows a 32-bar AABA form found in much of American popular song. AABA corresponds to the measures as follows: A (1-8) A (9-16) B (17-24) A (25-32)

An important note is that throughout this series of piano pieces the Action is always composed first. In most cases, the Prologue is sort of a rhythmically smoothed out version of the Action which typically explores a syncopated pattern.

Listen to Quiet Rhythms no. 1 performed by Francesco Di Fiore

Listen to Quiet Rhythms no. 18 performed by Erika Tazawa

 

Composer/Percussionist Olivia Kieffer Talks About Arranging and Performing

January 22, 2016

World premiere of William Susman’s Material Rhythms for percussion quartet performed by Reinhardt University’s Percussion Ensemble under the direction of Olivia Kieffer.

I recently asked composer/percussionist Olivia Kieffer to talk about her work on some of my percussion music. She and her ensemble, the Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, premiered my quartet Material Rhythms. She also arranged some of my piano music from the series Quiet Rhythms. -William Susman

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Before we met, Bill and I exchanged emails in preparation for the premiere of his percussion quartet “Material Rhythms”. One of the first pieces of his that I listened to was a recording of Francesco Di Fiore on piano playing “Prologue and Action 1” from Quiet Rhythms Book I.

Francesco Di Fiore performs Prologue and Action 1 from Quiet Rhythms in a film by Valeria Di Matteo.

I loved it so much, and was immediately taken by the beautiful ringing tones and thought how marvelous it would sound on vibraphones and marimbas. I asked Bill if I could arrange it for a keyboard quartet of 2 vibes and 2 marimbas, and he was on board!  I stayed up all night and arranged “Action” and sent it to Bill in the morning. He came back with excellent suggestions, and I let the arrangement sit for a good while.

When Bill came to Reinhardt to hear the Percussion Ensemble premiere Material Rhythms, he gave me the bound score of Quiet Rhythms, Book I. Once I had that, I was able to truly start translating the piano score into a living breathing keyboard quartet. Taking apart the notes and rhythms in each hand, sometimes keeping them the same and sometimes rearranging them,  and fitting them in creative ways to the range and tone of the keyboards was a lot of fun and a new experience for me.

Turns out this solo piano music fits beautifully and naturally on marimba and vibes. Since it is less Right-Hand/Left-Hand and more Hands-Working-Together, it is physically familiar for percussionists to play.

Prologue 1

Prologue 1 (excerpt) from Quiet Rhythms for piano

“Prologue 1” starts with ascending and descending 16ths, and introduces the hand-to-hand clavé.

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Prologue 1 (excerpt) from Quiet Rhythms arr. Olivia Kieffer

In “Action 1”, there is a constant clavé rhythm, which changes from 3/2 to 2/3 alongside the harmonic changes. It starts with a busier amount of pitches, then simplifies, then moves into big chords.

 

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Action 1 (excerpt) from Quiet Rhythms for piano

 

The clavé is notated in the piano score with beams that cover both staves, to make the pattern visually clear. I had to find an idiomatic way to notate this for percussionists which led me to figuring out a 4-mallet sticking that would naturally ascend like the “right hand” of the piano. Another idea was to use harder mallets in the right hand.

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Action 1 (excerpt) from Quiet Rhythms arr. by Olivia Kieffer

Letter D in Action 1 is the first time that all four parts are playing together, it’s the first time full chords appear, and is one of two spots where the vibraphones represent one hand and the marimbas the other. Though Prologue has slightly similar music in its last section; it is pianissimo and subtle. So it felt important to bring those Action 1 clavé chords in with a bang!

A1_Kieffer_D.jpg

Action 1, mm.84-96 from Quiet Rhythms arr. Olivia Kieffer

 

Below, is the original with the clavé chords entering at measure 89.

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Action 1, mm.85-96 from Quiet Rhythms for piano

 

In Material Rhythms, each movement has its own rhythmic patterns which are passed from instrument to instrument, player to player, in various combinations. The first 3 movements are Wood (2 blocks), Metal (3 metals), and Skin (2 drums). The last movement is a combination of all 3. This passing rhythmic material creates its own melodies, particularly in “Metal”. I cut pipes to be very close in pitch to each other (in relation to low-middle-high across the players), to create a sort of Balinese Gamelan, shimmery sound. “Metal” has constant 3s, and the rhythms come out from the melodies of the pipes, and the stark dynamic contrasts.

MR_Metal_susman.jpg

III. Metal (excerpt) from Material Rhythms for percussion quartet

Something I love about Bill’s music is that he is a master of layering. This is something that can be discovered while listening to the music and also from studying the score. The depth of his music comes to life, though, when being played.  There are beautiful patterns which fit themselves into all the chords. Like a beloved book often returned to, and every time something new appears, so these layers are found over time by the performer. His music speaks for itself! He can create a pattern that is, in a single line, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic. Quiet Rhythms is beautiful and uncomplicated, yet goes as deep as one is willing to take it. When the music speaks on its own, the details are fresh to see and to work with. -Olivia Kieffer

 

Writing for Percussionists

January 22, 2016

For many years, I have written music for percussionists. Their diverse musical backgrounds generally gives them a very open mind towards the new and contemporary.

My music tends to be highly energetic, groove-based, pop/world-influenced and grounded in modes. In other words, the sound world of jazz and rock, a world that most percussionists of American origin are familiar with due to playing in bands as well as high school and college music programs.

So, if you’re going to write new music today, you’re probably going to find percussionists welcoming you. It is worth noting that the first classical percussion piece written specifically for percussion ensemble begins with Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation (1929-31) a seminal 20th century piece. And, by the way, it’s highly energetic with grooves and world music influences.

Here is the opening to my percussion quartet Material Rhythms. The world influence in the opening measures are found in the 3-2 clave pattern in the percussionist’s right mallet layered over a 2-3 clave pattern in the left mallet. Layering the clave in this way also creates a 3 against 2 rhythm within each 4-beat grouping.

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Material Rhythms for percussion quartet by William Susman, Section I. Wood

William Susman’s Material Rhythms for percussion quartet performed by Reinhardt University’s Percussion Ensemble under the direction of Olivia Kieffer.

 

 

The Video Art of Valeria Di Matteo

October 2, 2015

Valeria Di Matteo, video artist

Valeria Di Matteo, video artist

Valeria Di Matteo is a video artist based in Sicily. She creates stunning videos that combine music, text and visuals. Recently, she created two beautiful videos. They are promotional album trailers for contemporary music CDs. One was for the composer/pianist Francesco Di Fiore and the other for pianist Erika Tazawa.

Her works are fantastic film miniatures that capture in moving pictures the essence of the music. Enjoy!

-William Susman

Zefir Records presents Pianosequenza, Francesco Di Fiore, pianist:

Belarca Records presents Rhythm of Silence, Erika Tazawa, pianist:

You can see more of Valeria’s work here.

FRAMEWORK

August 8, 2015

For the past few years film curator, scholar and archivist, Jon Gartenberg has presented Native New Yorker at many exciting film festivals such as the 50th Pesaro International Film Festival in Italy and the Athens Avant-Garde Film Festival in Greece in programs entitled A Panorama of American Experimental Narratives in the New Millennium. In May 2015, Jon curated a screening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. called “AMERICAN EXPERIMENTS IN NARRATIVE: 2000-2015”

NNYDVDfront

Original DVD box cover for the award-winning film Native New Yorker, Best Documentary Short, Tribeca Film Festival.

Jon recently published the essay NY, NY: A Century of City Symphony Films, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, Fall 2014. Here is an excerpt:

“…Photographed during both day and night, through distorting mirrors and prisms, as well as by more direct photographic methods, the films include scenes filmed from atop skyscrapers, under bridges, through parks, down Broadway, and in Coney Island. Such motion pictures have come to be identified as “city symphony” films.

In cinematic terms, such works represent the articulation of both a defined time frame (most often from morning until evening) as well as a carefully articulated geographic space (e.g., a loft apartment, a city block, the length of the island of Manhattan)…

…The tragedy of 9/11 is woven into other filmmakers’ works…

In Native New Yorker (US, 2005), filmmaker Steve Bilich employs a hand-cranked 1924 Cine-Kodak camera to shoot a geographical city symphony, extending from the northern reaches of Manhattan to the island’s southern tip. The Native American protagonist first identifies with soaring birds, clusters of trees, and rocky outcroppings, and then is confronted with the effects of modern urbanization. As the protagonist encounters the smoldering World Trade Center towers, the filmmaker challenges in apocalyptic fashion the conflict between who can be considered the American native as opposed to the foreign intruder.”

Jon Gartenberg
Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media
Vol. 55, No. 2 (Fall 2014), pp. 248-276
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October 28, 2016, 6:15 p.m. at NYU Cinema Studies, Jon Gartenberg presents Native New Yorker in a special screening: