John Patrick Thomas was born in Denver, Colorado in 1941. His music studies began as a member of the American Boychoir in Princeton, New Jersey. At the age of 16, he became a composition student of Darius Milhaud and Charles Jones at the Aspen Music School in Colorado and later studied with Andrew Imbrie and Seymour Shifrin at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1971, he began a concert and opera career as a countertenor with a special interest in New Music, which brought him into contact with composers such as David Del Tredici, Michael Finnissy, Lukas Foss, Mauricio Kagel, Elisabeth Lutyens, and Krysztof Penderecki. He was also a founding member of The Five Centuries Ensemble, which pioneered the juxtaposition of early music and contemporary music in concert programs. Thomas has taught at the State University of New York in Buffalo, the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, the Stage School in Hamburg, and the Schule für Schauspiel Hamburg. For several years, he was a vocal coach for the Hamburg production of Cats. He currently divides his time between private voice teaching, translation projects, and composing
All music comes from somewhere. My first musical experiences were centered around singing and playing the piano. My maternal great-grandfather was a professional band director in Berlin before becoming a farmer in North Dakota, one of my aunts was a talented pianist, and my mother was encouraged to pursue a singing career before she became my mother. The first instrument I remember is my grandparents' large, upright player-piano where, at the age of three, with my hands, I pedaled my way through piano rolls of early 20th-century popular songs, opera transcriptions, and also an original roll of Gershwin playing "Whispering". As a student, I was always more interested in improvisation than practicing. Because of this, my own piano technique is limited, but I think those hours of exploration and experimentation developed my passion for the sound of the instrument. This recording, suggested by Pi-hsien Chen, to whom I'm profoundly grateful, contains the larger pieces I've written for the instrument since the mid-1960's. Each of them seems to represent the distillation of a particular moment in life. I note there is an elegiac quality to all these pieces, but, given that, I think they still contain a fairly broad spectrum of expressive and technical intentions. I like music with a physical impulse, an awareness of the past, and hope for music of the future. I've written other solo pieces and works for two pianos and piano four-hands, but I've saved them for another day.
Pi-hsien Chen was born in 1950 in Taiwan. At the age of nine she moved to Cologne, Germany, where, a year later, she joined the piano class of Hans-Otto Schmidt-Neuhaus. She won the first prize at the international ARD competition in Munich when she was 21. Later she won the Schönberg competition in Rotterdam and the Bach competition in Washington, D.C. She has performed in the major concert halls of Europe, Asia, and America and is one of the foremost proponents of new piano music in Europe. Her recordings include music by Bach (the Goldberg Variations and the Art of the Fugue), Barraqué, Boulez, and Schönberg’s complete works for piano. She has been a professor of piano at the music universities in Cologne and Freiburg.
Why harpsichord? Various reasons. From the practical standpoint, in my career as a countertenor I worked with a number of excellent Early Music harpsichordists who also had a keen interest in New Music. Over the years, a number of these players, beginning with William Christie, liked the music I’d written and asked me to write something for them. I also got to know a number of instrument builders, such as William Dowd and Reinhard von Nagel in Paris, who encouraged me. In this connection, I must say the players on this recording have been particularly faithful advocates of New Music for their instrument. I love the sound of classical harpsichords and am continually amazed at the variety of colors available. Sounds with which we are familiar in certain musical contexts take on a special tension and vitality when we hear them in others. I also like the freedom of maneuver which permits abstract material (as in Pages) as well as material which is more referential in character. Perhaps it’s an American thing not to feel threatened by or in competition with the past. In fact, a number of these pieces were conceived as companions for works from the instrument’s great repertoire. Frankly, I’m not very interested in historicisms. I think The Music of Our Time is all the music available in our global culture. It’s a unique historical position which I feel no need to resist. On the contrary, I think it’s an important part of my life which I hope appears in this music and may give it a sense of vitality and moment. Of course, if I’d had an equivalent access to an electronic studio, I’d have happily written a great deal of music using new media and technologies. But my fate has led me to do something else.
Christine Daxelhofer studied in Bern and with Huguette Dreyfus in France as well as with Gustav Leonhardt and Kenneth Gilbert. She is active as a soloist, as a partner in the ensemble “For Two to Play”, and as a continuo player in various chamber ensembles in Europe and South America; her special interests in New Music have encouraged a number of composers to write for her. She directs the cembalo class and the Studio für Alte Musik at the Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe and is often invited to lecture and teach as well as perform in Europe and abroad.
Irene Müller-Glasewald began her studies in Mannheim and later studied with Christine Daxelhofer in Switzerland and at the Basel Schola Cantorum. She teaches both at the Conservatory in Biel, Switzerland, and the Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe. She has done special research into continuo notation and has special interests in the literature for cembalo duo and New Music.
Kristian Nyquist began his studies with violin and piano lessons, and at 15 developed an interest in the harpsichord. He has studied with Christine Daxelhofer in Karlsruhe, with Huguette Dreyfus in Paris, and with Colin Tilney, Bob van Asperen, and Gustav Leonhardt. He currently teaches at the Hochschule für Musik in Mannheim and at that in Karlsruhe, as well as giving workshops in interpretation and performance practice for advanced students.
I have an extreme opinion concerning singing: I think it’s a profound human need, one of the most personal means we have to reach the deepest parts of our psychological and emotional beings and to express these feelings to others. At least that is the case in my life and in the lives of many people I’ve met. What do we really sing about most of the time? Love, grief, joy, spiritual conviction, hope? The physical sensations we experience when we sing or just listen to music have long been recognized as healthy phenomena. Of course, there are many kinds of singing, and we react to them with differing degrees of identification. My own interests are directed toward a way of singing which makes possible the broadest stylistic and coloristic spectrum, singing which strengthens and frees the vocal mechanism enabling the singer to fulfill her or his musical and expressive intentions with the utmost flexibility and endurance, singing which enables the singer to tell The Truth inherent in the music, whatever the piece may be. For this recording, I had the great good fortune to work with artists who brought to my music a degree of conviction and identification which no composer can presume, but which we all hope for.
The music on this recording seems to me different from that on another recording of my piano music (Lost Landscapes, played by Pi-hsien Chen). Perhaps the music here is mellower, with a different ambition. While the earlier recording seemed to be involved with places, the music here has more to do with particular people. I have always written music out of an immediate impulse, a need on my part to memorialize experiences, to make time stand still, to hold on in some way to those people and places in my life that are slipping away as I grow older.
Pascal Schweren, pianist, was born in Cologne, Germany in 1969. He studied classical piano at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen.
His major teachers have been Andy Lumpp and Thomas Rückert (for jazz) and Andreas Woyke, Jelica Graf, Peter Orth, and Ludger Maxsein (for classical repertoire). He is a much sought-after piano accompanist for concerts throughout Germany with numerous singers and instrumentalists. His performance of the Schubert "Winterreise" with tenor Arno Bovensmann has been a particular high point in his career. Schweren is also an accomplished saxophone player and active as a teacher of both piano and saxophone at the Music School in Nordhorn, Germany. Following work with the Raschér Saxophone Quartet, he has collaborated on a realization of Bach's "Art of the Fugue" for the saxophone Ensemble "Art of Sax". He is also active in duo concerts with the Israeli clarinetist Gil Shaked Agabada and the Bulgarian violinist Eli Georgieva-Milkov, Schweren lives now in Essen-Werden, Germany.
Church organs have always seemed apocalyptic to me. The range and variety of their sounds, the sounds' textural density, and the overlapping in their acoustical resonance create a gloriously ominous atmosphere - which may be one reason why the organ is so often used to dramatic effect on the stage and in film, and why its sound is do present in churches around the world. The title of the CD is taken from the last line of the AUS MATTHÄUS text. It can mean the destination of a journey or allude to the inevitable end we all face, the cataclysmic final moments of our planet. It is, however, comforting to know that astronomers estimate our sun has yet millions of years to burn before anything so unconditional occurs.
Because I don't play the organ myself with facility, I come to it with a certain innocence. I was raised a Protestant in a small town in the American West, so my experience with organs primarily involved electric instruments: Hammonds and Wurlitzers. Gregorian Chant, the music of the Renaissance and Early Baroque, and Protestant hymns were important early musical experiences.
I admire the organ works of J.S. Bach, but from a distance (the final piece AUS MATTHÄUS is a direct reference to one of his choral preludes). The organ music of Messaien and works such as Milhaud's SACRED SERVICE have also impressed me. Beyond that, it's hard for me to trace influences for the music in this recording. The organ's capacity to sustain sound (as in FOUND MUSIC) intrigues me, as it rings in in the architecture of great churches. There is drama in a sound that goes on and on, though we know it will eventually end, like the universe. Of course, there is an alternate view of the ultimate end taken by Samuel Beckett, for one. When he was told the end of the world was far off in the future, he said, "We were born too soon".
In 2016, I decided to write something that went against all my habits and learned tendencies, something distanced from what people have said about my music so far. In the “...Paintings” pieces, I wanted to write a music with no direction, no tonal influences, no counterpoint, no functional harmony, no historicism, no improvisational devices, no dance rhythms, and in fact, nothing particularly “beautiful” or poetic. I wanted to work in a way I’ve mostly avoided in the past.
BLACK PAINTINGS (2017) relates to the black pictures of Kasimir Malevich, Ad Reinhardt, and Agnes Martin. It uses 7-note diatonic and 5-note pentatonic clusters that slowly move in alternation up and down the keyboard.
LATE NIGHT BAR MUSIC (2001) is an instrumental “song without words” in the long tradition of such solo piano pieces. It consists of a “blues” chord progression somewhat like a classic chaconne. Given the reduced and abstract nature of the other music on this CD, it seems to provide a nice contrast. The title refers to circumstances in which time is often forgotten.
WHITE PAINTINGS (2016) was underway as an untitled study when I thought of Rauschenberg’s white paintings from the late 1940s and early 1950s. In this piece, an 8-chord progression moves in alternation up and down the keyboard, rigorously systematized in forward and retrograde patterns. Though the piece was conceived as endless, it is abbreviated for this recording.
PASCAL SCHWEREN (pianist) was born in Cologne in 1969. His work combines teaching and concertizing as both a classical and jazz musician. He lives in Essen-Werden, Germany. www.pascal-schweren.de
SVEN TREEß (sound design) was born in Hamburg in 1964 and is active as a sound technician throughout Germany. He lives in Hamburg.
and Other Works for Organ
v Notes on the music
vi Notes for performance
vi Biographical note
Works for Organ
1 Found Music
2 Black Paintings
19 Beth-El 1
22 Beth-El 2
34 Beth-El 3
43 Elegy No. 4
[optional sung preludes]
67 The biblical texts
68 Vorgesang zu Peniel
70 Vorgesang zu Beth-El 1
71 Vorgesang zu Beth-El 2
72 Vorgesang zu Beth-El 3
73 Vorgesang zu Machpela
Even before I was born I had heard organ music, for my mother sang in the choir at the First Methodist Church in Denver, Colorado. As a result, I developed a passion for the blur of harmonies and instrumental colors created by the echoing acoustics in churches.
As a student at the University of California in Berkeley, I wrote incidental music for a production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. The score included a pre-recorded cluster effect achieved by four people depressing the keys of all three manuals and the pedal register of the large organ in Hertz Hall. While recording a second take of the passage, we blew a fuse, ending the session with an enormous, slow, descending glissando.
My next opportunity to write for organ occurred in 1968 when I was a chaplain’s assistant in the US Army stationed in Fort Dix, New Jersey. In the base’s main chapel, I had access to a small pipe organ. Two fellow chaplain’s assistants who were accomplished organists offered me their expertise. Peniel was written there.
While preparing her Raumwerk FOUND ( 2012), a spatial work for Berlin’s Matthäuskirche, the visual aritst Ann Holyoke Lehmann asked whether I had composed any works for organ that might be played at her artist’s talk there. I was living in Hamburg by then (having come to Europe in 1971); I thought of Peniel, but I had moved nine times through three different countries over several decades and had no idea where to find a score. The very next day, however, I received an unexpected email from Thomas Holcombe, one of my Fort Dix colleagues, in which he recalled my “very dissonant” organ piece—in fact, he had a score salvaged from the original performance lying before him as he wrote. I replied immediately, asking him to send me a copy. The piece Found Music was written especially for the Berlin project.
At about the same time, my Elegy No. 4 for piano was played at a house concert in Hamburg. The organist Constanze Kowalski was present and afterwards asked whether the piece might be played on the organ. I believed that it could be and—not being an organist myself—gave her the piano score, from which she devised a version that she has since performed many times.
Beth-El was composed in 2017 for Constanze Kowalski, and Machpela was written during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, when preparation for this volume was already well underway. I felt, however, that a third piece based on an incident from Jacob’s life should be added to create a trilogy with Peniel and Beth-El. This newest piece is dedicated to Dominik Susteck.
It is thanks to Constanze Kowalski’s interest in my music that the present volume includes as much music as it does. I also want to thank Diane and Jan Williams, as well as Ann Holyoke Lehmann and Richard Rieves, for their invaluable help in preparing the scores for publication. And I am, of course, indebted to Dominik Susteck—composer, organist, and the publisher of this collection—who proposed that the music in it be made more readily available to musicians and their audiences.
CDs in Progress
Solitary Singing (four song cycles for voice and piano)
Julia Henning, soprano
Isabel Gabbe, piano
Music for flute, saxophone, and clarinet quartets
John Patrick Thomas