"What the Birds Said" Album Notes
We (Mill Ave Chamber Players, Pacific Arts Woodwind Quintet and John Steinmetz) would like to thank everyone that made this collaboration and recording possible, including all those that contributed to our Indiegogo campaign, the University of the Pacific's Scholarly and Artistic Grant Fund, American Lutheran Church, Tom Ornesorge, and our incredible recording and mastering engineer Nathan James.
John was kind enough write album notes so thorough and thoughtful that we thought we would post them permanently on our website once the album is released. Below is a preview of the album notes - a marvelous glimpse into how and why these pieces came into the world. We are so grateful for the time we have gotten to spend with John this past June and look forward to his return next week of our big CD release concert!
What the Birds Said
Album Notes by John Steinmetz
I usually try to write music that doesn’t need any explanation or special knowledge, so these notes are not required reading! But if you like to know a little something about the pieces, read on.
All of this music came about through friendships. In the ‘80s, when I played in several wind quintets, my friends in those groups helped me to write the Quintet. Just a couple of years ago another friend, Gary Gray, commissioned Fits and Starts for us to play with our UCLA faculty colleagues. And not too long before that, Eric Stumacher, a longtime friend to me and my music, rounded up the musicians and institutions that co-commissioned Three Pieces.
This recording also emerged from many bonds of friendship—some longstanding, some recent—between performers, engineer, composer, and donors. Along the way, countless people helped us logistically and emotionally. I am grateful for the bonds of affection that energize our musical network, sustain our musical work, and help us keep going.
I’d like to give particular thanks for the skills and musicianship of Nathan James, who recorded, edited, mixed, and mastered this recording. I am grateful to the Mill Avenue Chamber Players for organizing this project and performing the music so beautifully, and to the Pacific Arts Wind Quintet for bringing their gorgeous playing to Phoenix for Three Pieces.
It is tempting, when composers are closely involved with recording their own music, to assume that the results are somehow definitive. In my opinion, music doesn’t work like that; there are too many right ways to convey a passage’s essence. The interpretations recorded here certainly came under the influence of my taste and preferences, but luckily for me and for the music there were other influences, too. These wonderful performers—with their intuition, taste, and musical personalities—benefitted the music greatly.
The album contains music for quartet, quintet, and dectet of woodwinds. (Well, the horn is a brass instrument, but it has dual citizenship as a woodwind.) There’s a gap of about thirty years between the oldest piece (the Quintet) and the others, but some sounds and approaches appear in all of them: notes and phrases change color as they pass between instruments, movements wander between musical styles, instruments sometimes play multiple roles in a passage, old-fashioned sonorities coexist with new-music techniques.
Why these sounds? Well, these noises continue to affect me and draw me. In addition, some of the approaches carry extra resonance for me. For instance, my enthusiasm for stylistic variety has something to do with our country’s struggles to figure out how to have a multi-cultural culture. That struggle is tough going at times, but music can make a case for diversity as a source of delight.
These pieces all deal in one way or another with Getting Along. In the music, instruments and styles and other aspects of music find different ways of Getting Along, and for me the musical interactions relate to important questions for our species: How can we humans, despite our many apparent differences, get along with each other? How can humans get along with the rest of nature?
These are ancient questions about ancient problems, as urgent now as ever. As I write, our nation is going through another agonizing spasm of racially-tinged gun violence. Meanwhile scientists warn that human impacts threaten to make our own habitat unlivable. It appears that our country, our culture, and our species are having trouble Getting Along.
What do those problems have to do with music? Music is a way for people to enact hopes, fears, and ideals. Music is a way to imagine how the world is put together, what we want it to be like, and how we feel about it all. One ancient purpose of music is to try out different ways of Getting Along.
To the memory of my father, Robert Jack Steinmetz, 1921-1984
Although I didn’t mention the connection for many years, my father’s death had a big effect on my Quintet. While composing the music, I was trying to cope with his passing. I was wondering about where a life comes from and where it goes, about the stages of life, and about the widespread notion that one soul has multiple lives. At first I didn’t tell players or listeners about these influences, because I like people to make their own connections with music. But over the years I learned that some people like to know the personal backstory for a piece of music, so in 2005, for a new edition, I added a dedication to my father’s memory.
The piece isn’t about my father, but its shape, with sections arising from a unison and sinking back into it, reflects musically on unity and individuality, on continuity and change, and on arising and dissolving.
Meanwhile, I was also thinking about blend. I like blended sounds. The strength of the wind quintet medium, however, is its variety of sound. The medium’s challenge—as so often happens—is the same as its strength: its variety of sounds. I had played in lots of quintets, and blending the instruments was always a challenge. In writing this piece, I wanted to find ways to blend the instruments, and I wanted to connect those blended sounds with human feeling. I suppose that using a unison note to link all the sections together is another kind of blending.
The Quintet has several movements, all connected to form an excursion of about 25 minutes. (On this CD’s cover we listed the movements to make them easier to locate, but nowadays I recommend that concert programs leave out the movement titles, so that listeners can enjoy the unfolding events without having to keep track of them.)
The Quintet’s first perfomances were by the Mladi Wind Quintet (Lisa Edelstein, Kathleen Robinson, Stephen Piazza, William Alsup, and myself) and by the Apple Hill faculty quintet (Diva Goodfriend-Koven, Mark Hill, John Laughton, Deb Poole, and myself). To my surprise, the piece has been widely performed by touring groups, faculty quintets, college ensembles, and even some high school quintets. This is the third recording. I wouldn’t have imagined any of that.
Fits and Starts (2014)
for flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon
3. Six Duets
4. Letting Go
Commissioned by Gary Gray for the UCLA woodwind faculty
Clarinetist Gary Gray has helped to develop the repertoire for his instrument, commissioning new solo pieces and chamber music, sometimes with the aim of performing or recording with particular musicians. Gary had the idea to commission a woodwind quartet for our annual faculty woodwind concert at UCLA. I liked this idea for a lot of reasons. For one thing, I had noticed that the literature for woodwind quartet is rather small.
I asked Gary what kind of piece he’d like, and he proposed including duets for all the pairs in the quartet, and to incorporate some improvisation (he is a terrific jazz player as well as a prominent classical clarinetist). I liked both ideas, and I used them.
There are four movements. The first, second, and fourth include short improvisations, one for each instrument. I tried to create settings in which even inexperienced improvisers can sound good. The third movement has all the duets, six of them, each in a different style. Some of the duets overlap. Only after the movement was finished did I realize that all the duets have one thing in common: each duet finds a different way to share a single musical line.
UCLA faculty woodwinds gave the first performance on February 27, 2014: Sheridon Stokes, flute; Jonathan Davis, oboe; Gary Gray, clarinet; and myself.
Three Pieces (2013) for ten winds
1. What the Birds Said
Commissioned by a consortium of ensembles, organizations, and individuals
The instrumentation for this piece is a double wind quintet. I composed it for five pairs of instruments rather than for dueling quintets. The piece has no story or program, but I had lots of different things in mind: sounds, moods, energy patters, and especially visionaries’ experiences of spaciousness, of feeling part of a vast pattern, of connectedness with everybody and everything.
Like many other people, I have been worrying about human effects on our planet. It has been painful to realize that the way of life I grew up with and took for granted, even though it seemed normal to me, has been harming the Earth, creating trouble for ourselves and for other species. That concern affected the music and moods of Three Pieces.
The first movement starts with an evocation of bird song. The instruments don’t imitate real birdcalls; rather they suggest the effect of many birds singing at the same time. This birdlike music, always exuberant, alternates with other music, which seems to me to carry darkness or sadness. Eventually yet another kind of music emerges, taking the piece in a new direction. The movement is called “What the Birds Said.” (I think they may be saying, “Wake up!”)
The second movement, “Visions,” also has different kinds of music, but this time the changes are more gradual, and the music is continuous.
The third movement is called “Dance.” I don’t mean this as a victory dance—it’s not as though anxiety, fear, and worry have been defeated. But I hope that praising what’s good in the world might help. Sometimes I imagine a great dance, vast in scope, linking everybody and everything in the world.
In this dance, the instruments play a melody, but nobody plays the whole thing. The melody passes between instruments, changing its sound. Some of its notes extend to form long notes that ring in the background, so that the melody creates its own accompaniment.
Eric Stumacher had the idea to commission a new piece for double wind quintet, and he assembled twenty-two co-commissioners from around the country (see list below). This kind of collaborative project, a terrific development of recent years, makes it possible for people to join together to commission new pieces. A co-commissioned piece gets a life right away, with multiple premieres. Three Pieces premiered in Keene and Marlborough (NH), in Portland (OR) and Stockton (CA), and in Memphis, Little Rock, Ann Arbor, Bennington, San Francisco, and New York.
Three Pieces was jointly commissioned by
Blair Woodwind Quintet, Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University
Philip Dikeman, Jared Hauser, Bil Jackson, Peter Kolkay, Leslie Norton
The CalArts Winds
Through the Mel Powell Fund at California Institute of the Arts
Chamber Music Northwest
Colby College Wind Ensemble
Steven Dibner and Steven Braunstein
EastWind Quintet, University of North Carolina — Greensboro
Deborah Egekvist, flute; Mary Ashley Barret oboe; Kelly Burke and Anthony Taylor, clarinet;
Michael Burns, bassoon; Abigail Pack, horn
Etesian Winds of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra
Diane McVinney, Beth Wheeler, Kelly Johnson, David Renfro, Susan Leon
Catherine Gerhart and the Chinook Winds double wind Quintet
Karen Greif and Rebecca Sayles
Keene Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Winds
David Shostac, Allan Vogel, Joshua Ranz, Kenneth Munday, Richard Todd
Musique du Bois and friends
Ellen Rondina, Jonathan Tefft, Richard Young, Susan Williams,
Rick Shepard, Janet Polk, Robert Sinclair, Duane Bateman, Jennifer Larson
New York Woodwind Quintet
Pacific Arts Woodwind Quintet, University of the Pacific, Conservatory of Music
Mathew Krejci, flute; Thomas Nugent, oboe; Patricia Shands, clarinet;
Jennie Blomster, horn; Nicolasa Kuster, bassoon
Philadelphia Chamber Music Society
Matthew Shubin and Richard Killmer
Tulsa Symphony Orchestra
on behalf of the woodwind section
University of Michigan Wind Faculty
Chad Burrow, clarinet; Dan Gilbert, clarinet; Nancy Ambrose King, oboe;
Jeffrey Lyman, bassoon; Amy Porter, flute; Adam Unsworth, horn
Jeannine B. Webber and Renee Redman
Abby N. Wells
The Woodwind Faculty of Rice University
Leone Buyse, flute; Robert Atherholt, oboe;
Richie Hawley, clarinet; Benjamin Kamins, bassoon
John Steinmetz has become fascinated by music’s ability to cross boundaries. He traveled to Jordan to hear his piece Together performed by the Amman Symphony Orchestra joined by sixty beginning string players and by soloists on classical Arabic instruments. He visited Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza for performances of his One and Many for chamber ensemble, community musicians, and children. On Mothers’ Day in Keene, NH, he heard the premiere of his On My Way for string orchestra and children’s choir. His Sorrow and Celebration and A Small Ceremony include the audience in making the music. Some of his compositions cross musical boundaries between periods and cultures: Common Ground, a trio for oboes and English horns, premiered in Little Rock; A Little Traveling Music for clarinet, horn, and piano premiered in New York.
John’s compositions appear on a dozen CDs from nine different labels. His War Scrap for piano trio and percussion is the title piece on a Pacific Serenades album. His Suite from an Imaginary Opera appears on a Crystal CD from L.A. Philharmonic English hornist Carolyn Hove; the bassoon version of the piece was recorded for MSR Classics by University of Iowa bassoonist Benjamin Coelho. Andrew Malloy commissioned John’s Fourteen Prayers for solo trombone for his album on Navona.
John’s Sonata (1981) for bassoon and piano has become a staple at music schools; Michael Burns recorded it for Mark Masters. Of John’s many comic pieces, Trevco has published The Monster that Devoured Cleveland for bassoons; Off the Deep End for contrabassoon, double bass, and bass drum; Fish Phase for two contrabassoons and goldfish; and What’s Your Musical I.Q.? (A Quiz) for narrator and any ensemble.
For decades John worked as a freelance bassoonist in Los Angeles, playing episodes of “Family Guy,” sing-alongs of Messiah, famous movies like Jurassic Park and forgotten films like My Stepmother is an Alien, video game soundtracks, operas, chamber music, orchestra concerts, and new music. At UCLA he teaches bassoon, chamber music, and the occasional class.
Orchestras and chamber music series use John’s pamphlet How to Enjoy a Live Concert; his article Resuscitating Art Music has been widely reprinted, fueling discussion among musicians and enthusiasts. He has written articles and book reviews for Chamber Music magazine, and he wrote the text for Tacet Art, Dave Riddles’ book of cartoons of studio musicians. John has given keynote speeches for the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, Chamber Music America, and Americans for the Arts, and has served as a facilitator at conferences of the Network of Music Career Development Officers. He enjoys writing about himself in the third person.
John lives in Altadena, California, a quiet corner of Los Angeles, with his wife, Kazi Pitelka, along with various animals, vegetables, flowers, and fruit trees. They have two children. For more information, please visit www.johnsteinmetz.org.