The Composers Curate

The Composers Curate
Rob Kapilow © Peter Schaaf

The Composers Curate is an invitation to listen-along with our composers as they handpick selections from the Wise Music catalogue: one piece of their own and one by a fellow composer. Each week, they will share pieces that challenge, inspire, comfort, or transport. Discover something new or rediscover something cherished as we listen together. 

This Week: Rob Kapilow curates Kapilow and Debussy

Dr. Seuss's Gertrude McFuzz (1995) 16'
Rob Kapilow

From Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, "Gertrude McFuzz" is a lesser-known Dr. Seuss work that tells the wonderful, story-with-a-moral of a young girl-bird named Gertrude McFuzz.

Poor Gertrude has only one, small, plain, “droopy-droop” tail feather, and she’s insanely jealous of a fancy young birdie named Lolla-Lee-Lou who has two feathers. Though her wise uncle, Uncle Dake, tells her that her “tail is just right for your kind of bird,” Gertrude is determined to outdo her rival. By gobbling up magic pill berries, she manages to get not only a second tail feather; but a third, fourth, and ultimately three dozen feathers. However, when she tries to return home to show off her new feathers to Lolla-Lee-Lou, she discovers that she now has so many feathers that she can no longer fly!

Painfully, all her new feathers are plucked out one by one, until Gertrude is left with, “that one little feather she had as a starter. But now that’s enough, because now she is smarter.”

To me this simple, lovely story is an important reminder that no matter how many “tail feathers” others might have, who we are—as composers, individuals, partners, spouses, and parents—is always enough. Even if we only have one, “droopy-droop” feather. And when we forget, as we inevitably do in the presence of our own personal Lolla-Lee-Lou’s, we have Dr. Seuss and Gertrude McFuzz to help us be smarter.

- Rob Kapilow

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Des Pas sur la Neiges from Préludes, Book 1 (1909-10) 4'
Claude Debussy

In the summer of 1908, a little more than a year before he composed his first book of piano Preludes, Debussy gave an interview to Harper’s Weekly magazine. The interviewer said he was surprised to find Debussy hard at work in Paris during the hot months of the summer, to which Debussy replied,

“I confess that I live only in my surroundings and in myself.  I can conceive of no greater pleasure than sitting in my chair at this desk and looking at the walls around me day by day and night after night.  In these pictures I do not see what you see; in the trees outside of my window I neither see nor hear what you do.  I live in a world of imagination, which is set in motion by something suggested by my intimate surroundings rather than by outside influences, which distract me and give me nothing.  I find an exquisite joy when I search deeply in the recesses of myself and if anything original is to come from me, it can only come that way.”

In this surreal, shelter-in-place moment we are living in; when we have all been, like Debussy, reduced to days of sitting in our chairs looking at the walls around us, Debussy’s quotation reminds us that the imagination does not need outside influences to create. That an entire world can be created out of the simplest everyday objects surrounding us at every moment.

Des Pas sur la Neige, (Footsteps in the Snow) is the 6th prelude from Book 1, and it is entirely based on two utterly simple “footsteps” stated in the first measure. What I call a “left foot,” D-E, and a “right foot,” E-F. These two footsteps occur over and over again, 25 times, always with the same two pitches. Never transposed. The entire dynamic range of the piece ranges only from pianississimo to piano—from incredibly soft to soft. Yet within this simple, quiet universe made out of the barest of materials, Debussy’s imagination—freed from external distractions-- discovers the rich, continually evolving sound world that lays hidden in our everyday surroundings.

Debussy’s most famous quotation reads:

“Some people wish above all to conform to the rules, I wish only to render what I can hear…There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

Though the part of this quotation that has generally received the most attention has been the idea of freeing oneself from rules and theory in favor of anarchic pleasure, what interests me most is the word “merely." “You have merely to listen.” Debussy’s remarkable aesthetic depended on a kind of sensitivity and listening that was anything but “merely." His compositional language responded with heightened awareness to every musical stimuli- a grace note, a chord, a rhythm, or simply two musical footsteps. Pieces like Des Pas sur la Neige lure us into a world in which everything has the potential for beauty--every sound, every word, every syllable, every note. It’s a world available to all of us --even in this difficult, locked-down time-- if we only learn, like Debussy, to “merely listen.”

- Rob Kapilow

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Previous Selections

Week Six: Sarah Kirkland Snider curates Snider and Dennehy

Unremembered (for 3 voices and chamber orchestra) (2017) 57'
Sarah Kirkland Snider

"The River" is a movement from Unremembered, a 2014 song cycle I wrote for vocalists Shara Nova, Padma Newsome, and D.M. Stith (plus chamber orchestra and electronics), on text by Nathaniel Bellows. A meditation on memory, innocence, and the haunted grandeur of the natural world, Unremembered recalls strange and beautiful happenings experienced during a childhood in rural Massachusetts. “A bear, a dog / A bed, a log / A child’s eyes are pure." In "The River," a young boy explores the woods alone, entranced by a sense of wonder and mystery -- until he comes upon something he can't explain or understand. Video director Dan Huiting made a gorgeous video for the movement with Andre Durand, cinematographer.

- Sarah Kirkland Snider

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The Hunger (Concert Version) (2016) 45'
Donnacha Dennehy

"Keening" is a haunting excerpt from Donnacha Dennehy's The Hunger, an oratorio for soprano, sean nós singer, and sinfonietta, on the subject of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52. "Keening," a mother's lament for her deceased child, sets Dennehy's meditation on a traditional Irish folk melody amid microtonal, sighing strings and lambent winds -- to shatteringly beautiful effect. The video, by Deborah Johnson of Candystations, is equally stunning, taking us on a trip from a moment of goodbye between mother and child to a sense of inherited, generational trauma, drawing connections between ideas of geographic and neuronal networks. It's one of the most compelling marriages of music and video I've seen.

- Sarah Kirkland Snider

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Week Five: Kirke Mechem curates Mechem and Shostakovich

The Jayhawk, Overture to a Mythical Comedy (1974) 8'
Kirke Mechem

The subtitle is listed as "Overture to a Mythical Comedy” but Maestro Kazhlayev substituted the subtitle “Magic Bird Overture.” The Russian audience had never heard of a Jayhawk, and I decided to retain the new subtitle; it appears on the cover of a commercial recording of the concert: Russian Disc CD 10 005 (formerly Angel Records). The Jayhawk is a mythical bird that has come to be associated with Kansas, my home state. It is an irreverent but sentimental bird with magic powers of transformation and disguise. It is the adopted symbol of the University of Kansas athletic teams, who at moments of dire peril are rallied by one of the best known college yells, “Rock-Chalk, Jay-hawk, K.U-u-u-u!” The Jayhawk is the most frequently performed of my orchestral works and the only one that can even loosely be compared to one by Shostakovich, namely his Festive Overture. Mine is not as good, of course, but it does share the distinction of having been written in three days, the composer laughing and chuckling. And both works are available in versions for concert band.

- Kirke Mechem

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Festive Overture (1954) 10'
Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich is known principally for his symphonies and chamber music, most of which are serious and often profound. All his life he had to fear that such works might anger Stalin enough to send the composer to Siberia. Occasionally he tried to protect himself by composing a rousing, popular work, such as the Fifth Symphony. In 1954 the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra suddenly needed a new work to celebrate the October Revolution. Shostakovich wrote it in three days, “able to talk and make jokes, laughing and chuckling with his friends while the music was being written down." But it is a work of genius “ . . . with not a trace of haste or carelessness,” as one critic wrote. I first heard the work in a private performance by the USSR Radio-Television Orchestra in their recording studio in Moscow in 1990 under its director, Murad Kazhlayev. He had asked permission to perform an all-Mechem symphonic concert the next year and first wanted me to hear the orchestra live. The jazzy overture's novelty, its brilliance and the fact that it was so unlike everything I knew of Shostakovich bowled me over. Obviously I gave permission for the Mechem concert, which I attended in the beautiful Hall of Columns the next year.

- Kirke Mechem

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Week Four: John Corigliano curates Corigliano and Barber

One Sweet Morning (2010) 28'
John Corigliano

The mezzo-soprano and orchestral song cycle One Sweet Morning, performed by Stephanie Blythe and Alan Gilbert with the New York Philharmonic, is a work that was written to remember the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The text comes from of a set of poems about the coming of war and war itself, and “One Sweet Morning” (the final song with text by Yip Harburg) about a day when war has ceased.

- John Corigliano

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Knoxville, Summer of 1915 (1947) 16'
Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 is a 20th century masterpiece, and its eloquent text paints a picture of a peaceful time in the past.

- John Corigliano

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Week Three: Matthew Aucoin curates Aucoin and Ellington

Violin Sonata: Its Own Accord (2016) 21'
Matthew Aucoin

It’s rare for a piece of mine to bring me comfort. Usually, no matter the emotional tenor of a given piece, the memory of the process of creation – the piece’s birth pangs, so to speak – is so intense that I generally can’t experience the piece in a pure way, the way I hope other listeners do experience it. Its Own Accord, my violin sonata from 2017, is an exception to this rule. The piece is in three movements, and the middle movement, in particular, can put me into a happily meditative mood; it can transport me, the way music is supposed to.
My music tends towards a certain intensity and hyperactivity, which is why I think this middle movement is a breath of fresh air. It’s slow, spacious, and meditative. I remember writing it, thinking “let’s just start with this luscious D-flat chord, and see how long it wants to stick around before it modulates.” That practice of patience, of listening to a given harmony to see how long it wanted to hang in the air, was the way the entire movement was written. It does end up somewhere rather intense by about halfway through, but it’s quite patient in how it gets there.

And besides, speaking as a pianist, in this movement the violin has all the hard stuff! So even when I perform it, I can enjoy the experience.

- Matthew Aucoin

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The Best of the Sacred Concerts (1965-1973) 1 hr 50'
Edward K. (Duke) Ellington

I have fond memories, from my high-school days playing jazz piano, of performing a huge amount of Duke Ellington's music; for young jazz musicians, studying the Duke is like studying Bach. I once played one of Ellington's Sacred Concerts with the baritone Robert Honeysucker – my first time performing with an opera singer. It was an overwhelming experience, really the best of two worlds: Honeysucker's rich operatic baritone couched in the lush, sultry world of Ellington's big-band orchestrations. Ellington thought very much like a classical composer; when it came to his orchestra, he kept his hand firmly on the steering wheel, allowing improvisation only in short, strictly circumscribed bursts. And he had good reason to: he was a sensitive, skilled, orchestrator, and the Sacred Concerts show him at the height of his mastery.

- Matthew Aucoin

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Week Two: Bright Sheng curates Sheng and Bach

The Phoenix (2004) 23'
Bright Sheng

Many cultures have a legend of the phoenix - my piece The Phoenix for soprano and orchestra is set to Hans Christian Anderson’s prose, which presents a terrific, worldly understanding of this mythical bird.

When I discovered Andersen’s telling of this ancient tale, I was attracted not only to the beautiful and beguiling narrative, but also moved by the profundity and the majestic portrayal of the mystical bird phoenix—the bird of Arabia. I found Andersen’s interpretation of the bird to be illuminating in that it went far beyond the traditional understanding of the legend. He had transformed the celebrated bird into the muse of all artistic creation—a bird of epic proportion and majestic inspiration, and the muse of all peoples.

-Bright Sheng

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Prelude and Fugue No. 13 in F-Sharp Major (1722) 4'
Johann Sebastian Bach

This prelude and fugue are one of my favorite sets from Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier; it is both beautiful and profound!

- Bright Sheng

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Week One: Missy Mazzoli curates Mazzoli and Wohl

Vespers for a New Dark Age: IV. New Dark Age (2014) 3'
Missy Mazzoli

This may seem like an obvious choice given our current situation but I’m sticking with it! This is a work performed by my ensemble Victoire, percussionist Glenn Kotche, and vocalists Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes, and Virginia Kelsey. The text in this work has become a sort of mantra for me over the last few days. It comes from a poem by Matthew Zapruder:

hello lord
sorry I woke you

because my plans
are important to me

and I need things
no one can buy

and don't even know
what they are I

know I belong
in this new dark age

- Missy Mazzoli

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Corpus (from Corps Exquis) (2012) 5'
Daniel Wohl

Daniel is a supremely gifted composer currently living and working in LA, and Corps Exquis is a work that I return to again and again. This music feels like so many things, a dance, a meditation, a ritual. Please check out the music video too!

- Missy Mazzoli

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(May 2020)