“Burning Questions” is a panorama of composer Richard Cameron-Wolfe’s more than-60-year quest – through music – for the best questions with which to live. This recording brings together seven chamber works written between 1972 and 2010 - seven psycho-spiritual journeys: seeking refuge, summoning a higher power, reveling in nostalgia, channeling a great performer, exploring alternate realities, contemplating infinity, and honoring eternal friendship.
Utilizing traditional classical instruments with a limited application of extended techniques, Cameron-Wolfe’s chamber works traverse a broad territory of emotional expression, from neo-romantic sentimentality to violent, dissonant explosiveness, triangulated with meditative, abstract sound-art. A specific “style” would be hard to define, given the composer’s near-schizophrenic array of compositional processes, including prime-number numerology, total serialism, intuitive post-romanticism, structural/rhetorical silences, performer dramaturgy, and rhythmically innovative time-shaping on both the micro- and macro-levels.
This recording features a stellar array of performers – all specialists in the field of contemporary music performance, including pianist Gayle Blankenburg, violinist Mark Menzies, and cellist Paula Fehrenbach (Southwest Chamber Music, feHrmEnbuRg Trio, Ensemble Inauthentica, pierrot+plus, Ensemble Sospeso, etc.); flutists Stefani Starin, Patricia Spencer, and Jayn Rosenfeld (NewBand, Da Capo Chamber Players, New York New Music Ensemble, Quicksilver, etc.); cellist Lawrence Zoernig (Vista Lirica, Goliard Ensemble, etc.); violinist David Fulmer, with pianists Molly Morkoski and Vicky Chow (Second Instrumental Unit, Speculum Musicae, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Group for Contemporary Music, Bang on a Can All-Stars, etc.).
Cameron-Wolfe's works have been performed throughout the USA, western and eastern Europe, and most recently in New York City, Los Angeles, China, Russia (including Siberia), the Ukraine, and Latvia. His full-evening multi-media event “Portal” highlighted the “White Nights” Festival in Riga on September 8, 2012, and his micro-opera “Heretic” was featured on the “Days of New Music” Festival in Kharkov on December 18, 2012.
Composing doesn’t come easily for me. I’ve always admired Haydn for his prolificity. Imagine: month after month, issuing forth uniquely imaginative works – ah, the flow of it! On the contrary, replacing that water metaphor with its opposite, it seems that each of my forays into the realm of composition has been an “ordeal by fire”.
Always exasperated by the inevitable question, “Why do you compose?”, I eventually settled on the following reply: “There becomes something that I need to hear. If someone else would compose it, I wouldn’t have to go through this.” If I’m being truthful in asserting this, then I conclude that what I need to hear is either the answer to a question or the consequence of tossing that question onto the fire – maybe replacing it with a better one, as Ramana Maharshi taught.
In 1972, with little previous experience, I petitioned to be accepted into the Indiana University Master’s degree program in composition. Part of the entrance requirement was as follows: on a Friday afternoon one is given an envelope containing an instrument-specific “commission”, the work to be completed and delivered by Monday noon. Mine turned out to be trumpet, viola, and harp – a combination not having any historical precedent (and perhaps for good reason!). My first thought for an appropriate title was “Fresh-Squeezed”, but my concerned, coffee-supplying friends persuaded me to opt for something less facetious. Completed in the time allotted, it entered the world as “Phoenix-Flight”.
I’ll leave it to the listener to conclude whether any of these seven works, produced over a period of 40 years, is worthy of having “risen from the ashes”.
ARQ: Region III - Refuge
for violin and piano-4-hands (2008)
This is another example of a composition developed from an ambitious, larger work-in-progress. ARQ is an orchestra piece, inspired by the Noah story and the Book of Revelation, the architecture of which visually resembles a space ship – departing from the known, moving toward an imagined but ultimately unknowable future, challenged in its journey from within and without. Region I is populated by reminiscences and characterized by a reluctant “letting go”. Region II is the scene of conflict between “passengers” optimistic and pessimistic about the journey. Region III provides a refuge from the conflict.
Eager to hear the material I was developing for the orchestral piece, I created this “study” based upon it, scored for violin and piano 4-hands. One pianist remains at the keyboard, while the other occasionally plays directly on the strings. In the form of variations, the extended violin cadenza (contrary to the traditional model) deconstructs, becoming less and less complex. The work opens in conflict (derived from Region II), and there are some “aftershocks” as it moves toward a peaceful stasis.
Kyrie (Mantra) for flute trio (1972/1976)
This work was inspired by my association with the Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, with whom I trained in the practice of chanting mantras. He taught me the Gregorian chant upon which this work is based —- and then Carl Jung’s synchronicity manifested, in the form of a month-long workshop for composers conducted by master flutist James Pellerite, who had just published a book on extended flute techniques.
Applying this newly-acquired understanding of the sonic potential of the instrument, my Gregorian chant became transformed through a fragmentation/collage process, as though “seen” through a kaleidoscope, manifesting in multiphonics, microtones, vocalization, and an extended timbre vocabulary. A version also exists for solo flute and prepared piano, titled Kyrie (Mantra) II. (A version for flute and guitar is long-overdue for major revision.)
Roerich Rhapsody for ‘cello and piano (2010)
I have been fascinated with the painter-philosopher-explorer Nicholas Roerich since finding a copy of his Altai Himalaya in a yard sale back in the 1980s. In 2008 my cantata A Measure of Love and Silence (its bilingual Russian/English poem-libretto composed by Tatiana Apraksina and James Manteith) was premiered at the St. Petersburg Spring Festival. I was so impressed by the ensemble’s soprano, Elena Antonenko-Igotti, that I decided to write a chamber opera for her, its working title Liaison, with Roses.
The scenario: A singer of Russian “romances” in an elegant restaurant, upon learning that the painter Roerich had been present on the evening when a rose mysteriously appeared on the piano, develops a fantasy about him, soon reflected in the lyrics of her songs. Subsequent roses fuel her fantasy, and he begins to appear to the audience, though in his own separate realm, as a mime.
Alas, realization of the opera met with practical and philosophical obstacles, and I suspended composing it. The musical material I had developed refused to be shelved, however, and from it I wrote the Roerich Rhapsody. Its two characters, singer and artist, are reflected in the Rhapsody through the juxtaposition and interaction of contrasting musical vocabularies: lyrical writing in the spirit of the Russian “romances” and abstract, modernist gestures.
Toccata: “In Memoriam William Kapell”
for piano solo (1983)
During my teens, a neighbor gave me a stack of 78RPM records, including the great American pianist William Kapell’s 1951 performance of Liszt’s 11th Hungarian Rhapsody. One evening, as I slipped it out of its sleeve, it fell to the floor and shattered. I was so emotionally distraught - as one might be at the loss of a beloved pet. I missed three days of school, not exactly “feigning” illness.
Forty-five years later, my Toccata was commissioned by the William Kapell Foundation. It is an evocation of the spirit of Kapell’s playing – not precisely through allusions to his repertory, but rather by emulation of his unique way of playing the piano through that repertory. The work is “bi-modal”, each hand responsible for a separate 6-tone scale. Its rhythm is “strictly” elastic, based on durations derived from the prime number series. Its central Passacaglia (adagio) is a potentially-infinite spiral of subtly-transforming repetition.
Labyrinths – a cycle of songs on poems of W. S. Merwin for high voice, cello, and piano (1980/1990)
In 1977, I discovered the poetry of W. S. Merwin, attracted by the title of his 1973 collection, Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment. Commissioned to write a song cycle for a tenor and his pianist wife soon thereafter, I selected three poems from this volume, adding a ‘cello to the texture, functioning as either an “objective observer” or a “compassionate mediator”.
I – “Memory of the Loss of Wings” is a short text, and the song serves as a sort of prelude, its central image that of passing through a door – from day to night. It is set for voice and piano only.
II – “The Search”, as I utilize it here, chronicles the journey into night-reality. It opens with a muted musical quotation from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, in fact the very first phrase of the opera’s Scene 1, as sung by a young sailor from above, on the mast-head. (He mocks the abducted Isolde, who gazes back toward her homeland as the ship travels eastward.) Scored for the full trio, with a ‘cello interlude in the middle, this song is a complex ensemble tour de force.
III – “A Door” (there’s that image again) is thematically related to the first song, “Memory”, its ‘cello “introduction” derived from the opening piano material and its final page recalling the piano accompaniment of the first song’s vocal part. This door opens into —- a life lost? A life regained? A life discovered?
Lapis Lazuli for flute and piano (1996/2000)
In 1996 I had the honor of residing in the summer house of Johannes Brahms, which had been dedicated as an artists’ retreat, offering one-month residencies to composers, pianists, and Brahms-focused musicologists. After a misguided train journey, at one point boarding a northbound instead of southbound train, I arrived in Baden-Baden around midnight. I quickly learned that the Brahmshaus was not actually in Baden-Baden, but was in Lichtental, a nearby village. With no taxis to be found, I completed my journey on foot. The caretaker, who had been expecting me several hours earlier, had gone home for the night, and the house was locked. Nevertheless, it was an honor to spend my first night sleeping on the porch of Johannes Brahms!
Admitted to the house early the next morning, my first concern was coffee, to which I was at the time, let’s say, “devoted”. The Brahms kitchen offered a jar of instant, and I launched into my first Brahmshaus day properly fueled – or so I thought, until a caffeine-withdrawal migraine materialized in the early afternoon (the demon Decaf!). After an agonizing, sleepless night, I staggered into town, where “real” coffee restored me.
I retained an image from that night: the image of a mysterious stone situated in the center of my mind – not a solid, inert stone, but one I could see into – into a region of many distances, some beyond the dimensions of the stone itself, in which forces moved like clouds of varying densities. A composition catalyst.
I began composing that stone, the “seed” for my composition - to be situated in the center of the work - next working my way back to the beginning and then moving forward from the “seed” to the conclusion. Lapis Lazuli was essentially completed in the first 24 hours, then refined in the next few days, and ‘touched up” shortly after its premiere.
Burning Questions – in memory of my father
for violin, ‘cello, and piano (2004)
The title of this work has a double meaning. First, it refers to those important, urgent questions one wants to ask a loved one, but which somehow never get asked. What then does one do with them after the loved one dies? This is what I did: I wrote each question on a piece of paper and then – one by one – I lit a match and burned them, released them. Out of their ashes came this music.
There are five sections, each with a title. These titles are not meant to be descriptive, and they definitely don’t represent the “burning questions”. Rather, they are offered to the performers and listeners as suggestions of certain qualities or states of being. Part I: “A light goes out inside me…” (the sense of loss of the Light); Part II: Tarantu(el)la (the dance, but also the spider); Part III: Eclipse (the Light is not gone, only hidden); Part IV: Fleur de volonte (literally, “will-flower” - a pun on “wall-flower”); Part V**: Crown of Light (the Light is restored).
** Note on Part V: This final section contains 17 “themes” - derived [by a unique transmutation of the letters of the alphabet into music pitches] from the names of loved ones who had (by 2004) departed from the composer’s life. Each may be considered as a jewel in the Crown.