TALMA: The Ambient Air / Soundshots / Full Circle
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Louise Talma (1906-96)
The Ambient Air Lament 7 Episodes Variations on 13 Ways of Looking at aBlackbird Conversations Soundshots Full Circle
Louise Talma was the foremost American neo-classicalcomposer. In her day she was highly acknowledged inthe United States and collected numerous importantawards. Among the many honours she received werethose of being the first woman to win two GuggenheimFellowships (1946 and 1947), and the first woman to beelected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters(1974). She was also the first American woman to havean opera performed at a major European opera house;the 1962 Frankfurt premi?¿re of The Alcestiad, based ona play by Thornton Wilder, received a twenty minutestanding ovation. She studied at the Institute of MusicalArts in New York from 1922 to 1930, and, having aFrench opera-singer mother, it is not surprising that shespent thirteen summers, from 1926, at theFontainebleau School of Music in France. There shestudied the piano with Isidore Philipp, and harmony,counterpoint, fugue and composition with NadiaBoulanger. She herself became a very committedteacher and taught at Hunter College, CUNY from 1928to 1979.
Louise Talma's music shows a keen intellectualmind, but she also engages listeners at a visceral leveland entertains them with her originality and quirkiness.
She frequently combines motor energy, sometimesassociated with Stravinsky, with a beautiful melancholyexpression, and often creates moments of extraordinarybeauty, such as in the Lullaby in Seven Episodes. Sheseems to have warmed to the precision of neoclassicism,the discipline of Boulanger's teaching, andFrench lightness of touch. While there are elements thatcould be connected to her time in Paris, her language isquite unique. Her output was substantial and covered awide range of genres. She wrote numerous vocal works,both choral and solo, in which she set a great variety oftexts, from the Bible and Shakespeare to Auden, John F.
Kennedy and e. e. cummings. Her piano works embracepieces for children, sonatas and the virtuoso Alleluia inForm of Toccata.
Apart from Soundshots, all the works on this discwere written in the 1980s, when Louise Talma was inher late seventies and early eighties. Her maturity givesthe music a rare, distilled quality. Her musical thinkinghas a very focussed precision; textures are generallytransparent; the atmosphere is at times ironic, strange,even bizarre, at others it has a deeply affecting sadness.
The beauty of her slow music is exceptional.
The Ambient Air, written in 1983 and scored forflute, violin, cello and piano, is in four movements,Echo Chamber, Driving Rain, Creeping Fog, andShifting Winds. Much of Talma's music is descriptive,and here we have titles to tell us her thinking. It isappropriately evocative, and she creates strikingpictures in sound. While the combination of a flute witha piano trio might suggest something light in effect, sheuses the instrumental colours with great originality topaint very atmospheric musical illustrations. The firstmovement beautifully captures the creepy quality of anecho chamber. While the rain of the second isinvigorating and energising, it performs a sardonicdance in the middle. She captures, in the third, theamorphous and elusive nature of fog. With theunpredictable nature of wind, the fourth movementrocks, sways, blows and buffets.
Talma wrote on the score of Lament that this piecewas inspired by a melody heard on a one-string fiddle inWadi Rum in Jordan. With minimal resources she hascreated a stark yet suggestive piece, redolent of a dryriver bed, and alluding to the wailing emotions of theMiddle East.
The combination of flute, viola and piano is a rarebut a beautiful one. The 7 Episodes are like a concise setof variations. They open with a doleful yet tendertheme, and journey through episodes of giocoso fun, alullaby, some beautifully lyrical sections, a march, and aswaying 9/8 section, to return to playfulness and a wittyend.
Variations on 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,written in 1979 and scored for tenor, oboe and pianowas commissioned by the American tenor Paul Sperryas a graduation gift for his oboe-playing niece JenniferSperry. They gave the premi?¿re, with Talma at thepiano, on 26th February 1980, at Temple University, inPhiladelphia. The distilled and Zen-like qualities of thewords by Wallace Stevens seem particularly suited tothe philosophical qualities in Talma's music.
Conversations was written in 1987 for PatriciaSpencer, flautist of the American chamber group, theDa Capo Players. Naturally, it is an intimate dialogue,and it is built episodically. As ever, Talma uses theinstruments in a highly expressive way. Meditativemusings are offset by dazzling flourishes, fragments ofmilitary precision by flowing lyricism.
Soundshots, written between 1944 and 1974, arecrisp and witty miniatures in a rich tradition of teachingpieces written by great composers, such as Schumann'sAlbum for the Young, and Bartok's Mikrokosmos.
Talma's fifty year stint at Hunter College shows what adedicated teacher she was. Many of the pieces aredelightful examples of musical onomatopoeia. Forstudents of all ages, the playful titles attract the learnerwith their sense of fun.
Full Circle, written in 1985 and scored for chamberorchestra, is a single movement, built as a sequence ofcontrasting episodes. The opening viola solo initiates alanguid section of expressive melancholy. After a burstof energy in a motor-driven Allegro, the plaintive moodreturns. Another taut rhythmic section introduces acryptic Pierrot-like episode for flute and piano. Anironic waltz leads to a fortissimo outburst, followed byheavy sighs. Next is a scherzo-like episode, first in 5/8and then 7/8. Further outbursts bring the music back topropelling quavers, at times dancing in three, at times asa mock march. After another outburst, there are moredoleful sighs, and another mocking waltz. Then themusic winds down to return, as the title suggests, to theatmosphere of the beginning. Talma uses theinstrumental colours to great effect; the line-up includesa piano, two flutes, a clarinet, some colourfulpercussion, and strings. Her flexible sense of rhythmcreates a wonderful freshness in the music.Diana Ambache