Program notes for Pastorale for flute, violin, viola and cello by Rick Sowash
This piece was written in 1979, in response to a commission from Bill Dittoe, an architect who wanted to surprise his wife in just the same way that Wagner surprised Cosima with the Siegfried Idyll ... I wrote the piece, rehearsed the musicians ... meanwhile he announced a party and gathered a lot of friends in their new home (which he had designed) ... once the party was in full swing the musicians and I crept in the back door and set up stands, etc. in a side room.
At the appropriate moment, the architect called for silence and drew back a sort of partition, revealing -- to everyone's great surprise -- the musicians, seated and ready to play. They commenced playing and everyone loved it ... the wife cried, the couple embraced and the musicians were roundly toasted as was the composer, somewhat out of place at such a moment, shuffling around with his hands in his pockets ... after a while the musicians played the Pastorale a second time, once again receiving everyone's approbation.
The music is simple and tender in character, and scored in C major, “Nature’s own key.”
Program notes for “Little Suite in G” for solo cello by Rick Sowash
Any composer who attempts to write a suite for solo cello does so in the shadow of J.S. Bach. This is a given, so why fight it? When my friend Bernice Robinson asked me to write a solo cello suite I decided to try to blend some gestures from the Bach cello suites with American musical gestures. The four movements are all in G, though #3 is in g minor for contrast. The first movement is a prelude, the second a Gershwinesque, bluesy Lento, the third movement almost a minuet-and-trio and the Finale evokes American hymn traditions, ending with another brief nod toward the blues. Another cellist friend, Teresa Villani, to whom I had sent the score for comments and suggestions, immediately recorded it and sent it to me on a CD. At less than two weeks, this was the fastest turnaround time from a finished score to a recorded performance in my career!
Notes for “Harbachsichord” by Rick Sowash
Barbara Harbach is a modern American woman with a passionate commitment to an archaic European musical instrument. I wrote my harpsichord suite in C very specifically for her to play and with her personality in mind. It seemed the perfect opportunity to explore the connections and relationships between Baroque music and American popular music.
The piece opens with a prelude displaying the variety-within-repetition found in Bach’s preludes but with distinct echoes of the Blues. Then comes the opposite: unity-in-variety in a theme-and-variations movement. The variations are cast, at first exclusively, in the traditional dance forms of the baroque suite -- Allemande, Courante, Minuet, etc. As the variations progress, however, there are an increasing number of surprising “interruptions” or “outbursts” in traditional American musical forms: a Sousa-esque circus march, outright Blues, a square dance, ragtime-like gestures and angular Coplandesque canons. The final variation is again, like the Prelude, a balanced blend of baroque and American elements, with the very last measure being the same as that which opened the piece.
In addition to cyclical architectural unity, there is also a unifying motif in the disparate movements and variations -- a descending C - Bflat - G - Fsharp -- an ambiguous and richly pregant figure which, in itself, blends American and European musical traditions, suggesting as it does the flatted seventh so familiar in many American folk songs and in early jazz (the Bflat) as well as the Classical trick of pointing to the dominant key through the introduction of a raised fourth (the Fsharp).
The faint Blues echo persists throughout the whole piece, unifying it and giving it a piquant contemporary feeling -- a feeling I also get from Barbara Harbach herself.
“Suite in C” seemed a pale name for such a piece. Then it occurred to me to name the piece for Barbara herself: “Harbachsichord.” It’s a rich mix of puns. Like the suite itself, the title brings together “Harbach” and “harpsichord.” Also like the suite itself, the title is “harpsichord” with “Bach” inserted. It can be read as “Harbach’s chord” which refers to the contemporary Blues echo that pervades the piece. And it’s not far from “Hard Bach’s chord” referring to tough old J.S.B. himself and evoking the virtuosity necessary to mastery of the instrument.
Barbara’s reaction? She was amused by the title and she liked the piece enough to premiere it and record it. What more can a composer ask?
I originally wrote "A Hero's Prayer" as a piece for my son to play on the tuba with me playing the piano. The first titled was "Carenthas," a fictional character he had invented and written stories about, sort of a Conan the Barbarian type, all about muscles and swords. He was about 12 and really into that sort of stuff at the time. But he also loved his tuba. I wanted it to be a 'macho' sort of piece, but in a good way. I meant it to sound a little like the Miklos Rosza film scores from movies like King of Kings or Sinbad, sort of 'epic' in a Hollywood way, but still a legitimate piece.
He played it so well after awhile that I decided it would be fun to do in church. But the title wouldn't serve. So I changed the title to "Bible Story." I figured it sounded kind of "Biblical", maybe a little like "The Ten Commandments" filmscore, so what the heck. But then, after the service, people started asking which Bible story I had in mind. And the truth was I didn't have any particular Bible story in mind. And I was a little uncomfortable with that. What to do?
Then Bernice wanted something she and I could play in a worship service at her church and at mine. So I thought of transcribing the piece up a few steps and rewriting the tuba part to be more suitable for the cello. It seemed as if the time had come for a new title.
"A Hero's Prayer" is a title that combines all of these elements, it seems to me, without being too specific, which would have been the case if I had titled it, "Samson's Prayer" or "Conan's Prayer," (if one can imagine Conan praying!!!).
The funny thing is that the piece really does have a spiritual strength to it, more than I originally intended, as you now know. I guess my soul will find a way to express itself even when I set out to do something a 12-year-old tuba player would like to play. He did like it very much, by the way, as did Bernice later on.
American Variations on a Belorussian Folksong was completed in June, 2005. The title of the folksong can be translated as “The Sun Already Shines.” The variations are “American” in that they evoke various American musical styles, such as a Ballad, a Tango, a Sentimental Song, a Copland-like ‘Americanist’ treatment and a Ragtime finale.
The work is intended as a commentary, or a musical parable, on globalization, specifically referring to two cultures, American and Russian, formerly hostile during the Cold War, attempting to join in friendship.
The little tune starts out purely Russian-sounding and then is gradually made to sound increasingly American, climaxing in the all-out ragtime variation, as if to imply that the only way the Russian tune can be friendly with American culture is to BECOME American.
However, it turns out that the Russian tune is NOT completely Americanized after all. In the final measures of the piece the little tune re-asserts its Russian identity, as if to say, “We can be friends but we’re still retaining our individuality.”
Program Notes for “Memories of Corsica” by Rick Sowash
When Walter Verdehr, violinist in the Verdehr Trio, emailed me with the idea of my composing a work for the group to premiere and perform, I responded by asking if he had any specific thoughts about the sort of piece that would best meet their needs.
He replied, “Since our concerts have taken us around the world --to China, India, Australia, Europe, Russia and all the States in the USA -- you might find some musical inspiration from the idea of visiting some of these places. I have enjoyed your musical language and world very much and would trust your ideas and inspiration.”
Immediately I thought of Corsica, the most intruiging and one of the most beautiful places I have visited. I remembered the jagged mountains, the scrubby Arizona-like landscape, the tiny, sleepy stone villages, the crumbling Genoan watchtowers scanning the amazingly blue Mediterranean, the pristine beaches, the chestnut forests, the fierce local culture, the strong wine and cheese and salads laced with the bacon of wild boars. And I remembered the smoke and the flames of forest fires deliberately set by separatists, the mysterious prehistoric sculptures, the long, proud, sad history of the island, birthplace of the dictator Napoleon yet also of Paoli, the champion of democracy who inspired the framers of the American constitution. And I remembered the Corsicans I had met, proud and fierce, yet possessed of a good humor.
Most of all I remembered the intense, dry heat and my nearly desperate thirst when I foolishly set out on a hike from the capital city, Corte, with too little water. I've never been more thirsty than I was that day! It was getting downright scary by the time I got back to the city and found some water.
And I remembered the incredible aroma that pervades the island as the hot breezes carry the scent of herbs growing wild on the mountainsides -- oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme. They say fishermen in their boats, forty miles downwind from Corsica, can catch the smell of herbs on the wind. I believe this.
All these impressions came together in a three-movement work, the best evocation I can fashion of my very distinct memories of that strange, timeless and enchanting place.
The movements are entitled:
1. Arid Heat -- slow, almost static, jagged, "empty," and a little harsh, all of which will create a "thirst" for the refreshing second movement:
2. Aromatic Breezes -- lively, tuneful, rich, breezy, fresh, wonderful, like a drink of cool water after a hot, dry hike.
3. Ardent Souls -- the irrepressible Corsican spirit, quick to anger, quick to laugh.