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KV (K Five)
Jonathan Kramer: Five Compositions

Jonathan Kramer (b.1942) is Professor of Music at Columbia University. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Kramer received his B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard and his M. A. and Ph. D. from the University of California at Berkeley. His composition teachers included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Roger Sessions, Leon Kirchner, Seymour Shifrin, Andrew Imbrie, Richard Felciano, Jean-Claude Eloy, Billy Jim Layton, and Arnold Franchetti. Before joining Columbia, Kramer was Assistant Professor at Oberlin, Director of Undergraduate Composition at Yale, and then Director of Electronic Music at the University of Cincinnati, where he also served as Composer-in-Residence with the Cincinnati Symphony. Jonathan Kramer's music has been performed in 23 countries. Orchestral performances have included the Cincinnati, Seattle, and Sacramento Symphonies, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, and the National Orchestra of El Salvadore. Two works on this disc were played at ISCM's World Music Days: Renascence (1980, Israel) and Music for Piano, Number 5 (1985, Netherlands). The latter work also represented the United States at the International Rostrum of Composers, where it was selected for worldwide broadcasts.

The five works collected on this disc chronicle Jonathan Kramer's development as a composer over a period of some twenty years. The earliest compositions represent an experimental stage, when he tried to make each piece different from its predecessor. The middle works represent his fascination with self-imposed limitations. The most recent pieces display Kramer's interest in eclecticism and postmodernism.

Kramer is intrigued by contradictions. A dialectic opposition between rational and intuitive approaches to composing, for example, underlies virtually all his music. This confrontation is traceable at least as far back as the late 1960's, when he was a graduate student in Berkeley. The Bay Area's wild and exciting experimentation in the arts paralleled its political and social upheavals. This was the time of the Free Speech Movement, People's Park, flower children, drugs, acid rock, and Vietnam protests. Yet Kramer was studying in a music department dedicated not to the present, not to the American avant garde, but to the central European tradition. He acutely felt the conflict between the traditional academic education he was receiving and the exciting artistic underground beyond the walls of academia.

One year Kramer studied with Andrew Imbrie and Karlheinz Stockhausen simultaneously, writing intuitively conceived music for his seminars with Imbrie at the same time he composed intricately calculated music for his classes with Stockhausen. The French composer Jean-Claude Eloy, teaching at Berkeley the following year, reinforced Stockhausen's ideas on experimentation and on quasi-mathematical approaches to music. It was while studying with Eloy in 1968 that Kramer composed Music for Piano, No. 3. The piece reflects Kramer's interests in the techniques of the Darmstadt School. He was taken more by the sounds these techniques produced, however, than by the methods themselves.

While Number 3 is not serial, it abounds with directional processes. Some are simple, such as the gradual motion in periodic rhythms out from the middle register toward a three-register passage (top, middle, and bottom of the piano--no mean feat for a two-handed pianist!) in the fourth of the work's five sections. The opening crescendo in volume, density, and complexity--all within the bottom octave of the piano--is another simple process. More complicated processes involve a gradual freezing of each pitch in register and a concomitant statistical progression toward short note values and soft dynamics.

During the early 1970's Kramer continued to experiment, trying to sift through and move beyond the lingering influences from his many teachers. He composed tonal music, multimedia works, conceptual pieces, twelve-tone compositions, and electronic pieces. By 1974 he settled into a personal style that allowed him to reconcile conflicting predilections toward both conservatism and radicalism. The new style was fully formed in Renascence.

The pitch content of Renascence is limited to six notes; the other six notes of the chromatic scale are never heard. There is a drone throughout. The work remains in 2/4 time without exception. There is a limited repertory of note values. All sounds come originally from the clarinet. These limitations were intended to create a trance-like sense of suspended time. Yet the work simultaneously progresses through time, as the density of sound gradually increases. Thus Renascence is an attempt to superimpose motion on stasis.

In the original version a tape delay system records music played by the clarinetist and allows it to be played back some twenty seconds later, at which time it may again be recorded for later playback, etc. The original version is treacherous to perform. Any slight mistake by clarinetist or technician--both of whom must perform virtuosic feats of technical dexterity and precision--is destined to be heard again and again. In order to avoid these pitfalls, Kramer made a new version for clarinet and tape in 1977. The revised version simplifies the electronics by prerecording all taped materials. To take advantage of new advances in recording technology, Kramer made yet another version for clarinet and tape in 1985. The 1985 version is heard on this recording.

From 1974 to 1984 Kramer continued to explore music with limited pitch content. He gradually loosened his restrictions, doing away in turn with drone, rhythmic, metric, and timbral limitations. He became less interested in stasis and more intrigued with the idea of combining very different kinds of music within a single piece, with the underlying restriction to (usually) six notes providing a family resemblance to otherwise disparate musical styles.

Music for Piano, No. 5, composed in 1980, is a midpoint in this development. This piece moves very slowly in a structural and harmonic sense, yet on the surface we hear rapid motion of notes and rhythms. The hypnotic background of the music is ideally reinforced by the resonant intervals that result from tuning the piano in meantone temperament. Although normal equal temperament is an acceptable substitute when practicality demands it, the piano for this recording was tuned in meantone.

Like Number 3 and Renascence, this work utilizes directional processes, which involve repetition and gradual change. Some of these processes are simple and obvious while some are subtle; sometimes several occur simultaneously at different rates. As the music goes on, the procedures become gradually freer, and eventually process itself is defeated by the one thing repetitive music cannot include: dramatic surprise. The patterns of fast notes and rhythms that gradually emerge at the beginning of the piece are slowly transformed into other patterns before the very idea of pattern gives way to a freer, more rhapsodic, yet decidedly slower music. The work ends with a reminiscence of repetitive process.

There is an unmistakable flavor of jazz in parts of this music, as there is in Renascence. Although Kramer was never a jazz musician nor a deeply devoted jazz listener, this truly indigenous American music has had an obvious impact on his style. The composer's affinity for jazz is even more evident in Atlanta Licks, his last six-note piece. Despite its distinctly non-jazz ensemble--violin, viola, cello, clarinet in A (doubling bass clarinet), flute (doubling alto flute and piccolo), and piano--and despite the strict asymmetrical rhythms, the music unmistakably swings. It abounds with "licks"--a jazz term for fast, characteristic figures.

Since Atlanta Licks is in no sense static, despite its restriction to six notes, Kramer no longer felt the need to restrict the pitches in subsequent pieces. Instead, he expanded the stylistic eclecticism of Atlanta Licks. His recent works continue to use scales with limited numbers of notes, but they are freely transposed, so that all notes are eventually heard. The rate of transposition is slow, so that harmonic stasis is still a possibility. The result is something analogous to modulation in tonal music.

In October 1986 Kramer traveled to Korea, where Music for Piano, Number 5 was featured at the Pan Music Festival. He was constantly struck by Korea's uncomfortable amalgamation of a centuries-old culture and brand-new Western influences. The face of Seoul--its tall buildings, wide streets, and bustling traffic--was very Western, but behind these facades he found the life of the working class to be medieval and its values to be traditional. He was constantly aware of both the excitement and the superficiality of grafting an outside culture onto one with a strong and different heritage.

Soon after returning, Kramer began to compose Musica Pro Musica. He had no conscious plan to let the clash of cultures he had seen in the East influence the music. Yet what resulted is as eclectic as modern Korea, with conflicting values in an uneasy co-existence and with foreign elements intruding on the music's natural language. Musica Pro Musica is not "about" Kramer's experiences in Korea. It does not tell the story of his travels, nor represent the city of Seoul, nor express his emotional reactions to Korea. It does not sound Oriental. It is not a vehicle for articulating what words or pictures convey far better. Musica Pro Musica is nothing more than its title implies: music for the sake of music. What the piece has to do with the trip, rather, is that both the music and Kramer's feelings about Korea reflect his fascination with the confrontation of opposites. Thus Musica Pro Musica contrasts many sounds as well as several approaches to composition. It juxtaposes the Eastern and the Western, the new and the old, the tonal and the atonal, the regular and the irregular, the familiar and the novel.

The coexistence of different musics in this piece creates certain paradoxes. Beneath the often rapidly moving and distinctly Western surface, for example, lies a fundamental stasis not unlike that in traditional Eastern music. A pervasive motive, borrowed from Balinese music, is invariably used in a thoroughly Western manner. While the piece is constructed according to atonal principles, it often sounds tonal. In addition, there are waltzes, jazz-influenced passages, mensuration canons (in which the same melody is played simultaneously at different speeds), complex rhythms, romantic adagios, a double canon by inversion (two melodies played simultaneously "upside-down" and "rightside-up"), and a decidedly American trombone tune. The piece is not a collage of unrelated musics, however. Its different styles belong together, complement one another, comment on each other--in part because of the underlying use of just two different scales (one with six notes, the other with seven). While the juxtaposition of opposites may result in certain inevitable tensions, especially when one idiom follows another rapidly, the work's diversity is a celebration of the enormous variety in the world's music.

-Nathan O. J. Remark



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