• Fanfare Prayers Remain Forever review by Robert Carl
  • Prayers Remain Forever review by NewMusicBuff
  • Lucid Culture review of Prayers Remain Forever
  • New Music Toronto review from Paolo Griffin
  • Review of "My Friend's Story" from Chris Arnott
  • Preview of "My Friend's Story" from The New Yorker
  • Review from Canberra City News, Music Festival: Americans set a challenge - Judith Crispin
  • Review of Pan Penseroso, Washington Post - STEPHEN BROOKES
  • Review of "Everything Must Go," ArtsWatch - GARY FERRINGTON
  • Scott Cmiel, All Hail Benjamin Verdery, review of Joaquin is Dreaming performance
  • Martin Buzzacott, The Australian, review of Caprichos Enfaticos performance in Brisbane
  • Signal to Noise volume #63, by Kurt Gottschalk
  • review from Charlie Pitt of Caprichos Enfaticos
  • Mike Maguire review of Caprichos Enfaticos
  • Notable in 2011: So Percussion and Lisa Moore play Bresnick by Christian Carey in CD Review
  • Sacramento Bee 'Caprichos Enfaticos' review, Edward Ortiz
  • Allmusic Review, by Stephen Eddins
  • Ignorant Armies Go Bump in the Night [Bresnick: Caprichos Enfaticos] - from
  • CD review: Martin Bresnick, 'Caprichos Enfáticos', Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle
  • "Caprichos Enfaticos" review on
  • Two Intriguing Albums by So Percussion, from Lucid Culture
  • Jeremy Howard Beck review of Caprichos Enfaticos
  • Everything Must Go review by Michael Cameron
  • Everything Must Go review by Robert Carl
  • My Twentieth Century review by John Schaeffer
  • Phillip Ratliff, Birmingham News
  • The Yale Alumni Magazine, Anne Midgette, March/April 2007
  • Joshua Kosman, Gramophone, February 2007
  • Alex Ross, The New Yorker, Critic's Notebook - Rags to Riches
  • George Robinson, The Jewish Week
  • Anthony Tommasini, review of 'The Essential Martin Bresnick,' New York Times
  • Steve Smith, Happy Jazzy, Operatic, Symphonic Birthday, Dear Teacher
  • Rodney Lister, Tempo Magazine: review of My Twentieth Century
  • Robert Carl, Fanfare: review of My Twentieth Century
  • American Record Guide review of My Twentieth Century
  • Frank Oteri, NewMusicBox
  • Javier Palacio, Diverdi (review of My Twentieth Century)
  • Allan Kozinn, New York Times
  • Robert Carl, Fanfare
  • Kyle Gann, Village Voice
  • Joshua Kosman, SF Chronicle
  • Robert Curry, The Australian
  • Lynette Lancini, RealTime Online Magazine
  • Dan Tucker, Chicago Tribune
  • Carla Rees, International Music Web
  • Just Time Review from Rovi Joseph Stevenson


    BRESNICK Going Home-Vysoke, My Jerusalem1. Ishi’s Song2. Josephine the Mouse Singer 3. Strange Devotion 2. A Message From the Emperor 4,5. Prayers Remain Forever.,2,6? 1Double Entendre; 2Lisa Moore (pn); 3Sarita Kwok (vn); 4Michael Compitello (perc & speaker); 5Ian Rosenblum (perc & speaker) ; Ahley Bathgate (vc) 6 ? STARKLAND (60:38)

                I’ve reviewed the work of Martin Bresnick (b.1946) several times now, and each one has been a great satisfaction. Bresnick has spent most of his creative life based at Yale (which I once heard him amusedly call “my Esterházy”), where he has reigned as one of the most influential teachers of his craft to at least a couple of generations of leading composers. It’s clear (to me at least) that Bresnick’s music holds the key to what makes him a great teacher: more than almost any living composer I know of, he is able to take the most basic, plain materials and spin them out into compelling dramatic structures. In this sense he is very “Beethovenian”.  His great cycle Opere Della una Musica Povera (Works of a Poor Music, referring to the postwar Italian visual art movement Arte Povera) is a “summa” of this approach. He also had the great fortune to come of age at a time when the boundary between movements called modernism and minimalism were collapsing. As a result, he is able to combine a rich harmonic palette and often disruptive or highly contrasting gestures with compulsive repetition. He’s able to blend high dissonance with bread-and-butter triads into a personal mix where all seem part of a natural continuum. Add to this his studies with Ligeti, and the recipe for substantive music is complete.
                All the works on the program share these qualities. Going Home-Vysoke, My Jerusalem (2010) starts with high sustained, keening tones on open and violin; then the same pitch emerges an octave lower in the remaining strings. Such a simple shift, yet full of power and poignancy. Ishi’s Song (2012) is a solo piano work based on a recorded fragment of the last of California’s Yani-Yani Indians singing in a 1916 recording. Its hypnotic pentatonic riff slowly opens up registrally, discovering beauty in its mourning. Pianist Lisa Moore is also featured in Strange Devotion (2010), one of my favorite pieces by the composer. Based on a gnomic etching from Goya’s Caprichos, it’s a dark and unrelenting processional.
                Josephine the Mouse Singer (2011) is the first of two Kafka-based works on the program. For solo violin, it begins as a series of expected high shaking tones, rather like squeaks, but develops into a virtuosic sustained bariolage (arpeggiations across the four strings). The climax is Bachian without sounding like a cop from that source. A Message to the Emperor (2010) is for two mallet percussionists who narrate as they play. Bresnick has done this periodically in his music, and an earlier such piece My Twentieth Century, was a little problematic for me in its word-music mix. This piece though is an unqualified success. An essay on a Sisyphean mission given a messenger from a distant king (and equally impossible for the recipient), the setting of the text seems ideal as it develops into furious repetition, insistent, unyielding, and ultimately exasperated.
                And finally, Prayers Remain Forever is a powerful musical freight-train; both instruments have sections of unrelenting drive, where each refuses to acquiesce to any will than its own. Both dig deeply into their material, and the piece feels like an “emotional excavation”, building to a rock-solid conclusion as it brings back the opening material in a new light. It’s written for TwoSense, a duo of Moore and Ashley Bathgate, the current cellist for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Like all the performers on this program, they give a powerhouse rendition. (For the record, Double Entendre is Christa Robinson, oboe; Caleb Burhans, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; and Brian Snow, cello).  Powerful music by one of the great voices of his generation.  Robert Carl

    Maybe Music Remains Forever, A New Martin Bresnick Disc
    Nov10 by perkustooth

    This latest release from Starkland adds significantly to the discography of the Yale based composer Martin Bresnick. Born in 1946 in the Bronx, New York, he studied at the University of Hartford (B.A., 1967), Stanford (M.A., 1968; DMA, 1972) where he studied with electronic music pioneer John Chowning and Györgi Ligeti. He also studied with Gottfried von Einem in Vienna (1969-70). He has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Stanford University and Yale where he is now a professor of composition. Bresnick is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been the recipient of numerous prizes and awards. His wife is the wonderful new music pianist Lisa Moore whose work with Bang on a Can as well as her solo efforts have made many valuable additions to new music recordings.

    I had heard of Bresnick but had not yet sampled his music so the opportunity to review this disc prompted me to follow-up on my long-planned intent to investigate the work of this American composer. Not wanting to judge him just from this disc alone, I obtained for comparison the CRI recording which contains his second and third string quartets and a couple of other chamber pieces for strings which range from 1973 to 1994 in their composition dates. As I listened to both that disc and the one which is the subject of this review I found myself increasingly intrigued with this unique musical voice.

    As it turns out the unsuspecting consumer may have already been exposed to this man’s work in one of several film scores including two of the Cadillac Desert series, The Day After Trinity and an Academy Award nominated short from 1975, Arthur and Lillie. The most recent film score listed on his site was for The Botany of Desire, after Michael Pollan’s best-selling book on human interactions with food. I must confess that I don’t really recall the music from these films but I will be listening closely next time I screen them.

    The CRI disc consists of Bresnick’s earlier works for strings. It is an enjoyable if more an academic musical experience. But the present disc, Prayers Remain Forever consists of more recent compositions ranging from the 2010 Going Home to the 2012 Ishi‘s Song. These are much freer compositions concerned more with expression than form. David Lang, who wrote the liner notes on the inside of the gatefold, describes them as being “deeper and more personal.”

    A look at Bresnick’s starting places for these pieces gives a clue as to their nature. The composer, writing in the booklet that comes with the disc, cites Kafka, Goya, Ishi (the last of the Yahi-Yani Indian tribe), mortality, religion and his own emotional response to having visited his ancestral home in Belarus. All in all a somber, elegiac set of pieces that deal with deeply personal emotions and memories.

    Tracks 1, 3, 5 and 6 were recorded at the Morse Recital Hall, Sprague Hall at Yale University by Eugene Kimball. Tracks 2 and 4 were recorded at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT by Nick Lloyd who also mastered this disc.

    The first piece on the disc, Going Home-Vysoke, My Jerusalem (2010) is scored for oboe, violin, viola and cello. It was inspired by the composer’s experiences having visited the ancestral home of his family. He speaks of remembering the stories he heard from his grandparents of the “alte heym” (Yiddish for old home) and the suffering they endured, the murder of his great grandparents, the destruction of the town. Bresnick, who is himself a trained oboe player, weaves a beautiful, though painful, picture here. This could conceivably be a film score to the images that are in the composer’s memories. It is, for this writer the most poignant and personal of the pieces on this recording. It is beautifully played by an ensemble who call themselves “Double Entendre” with Christa Robinson, oboe; Caleb Burhans, violin; John Pickford, viola and Brian Snow, cello.

    Ishi (ca. 1860-1916)
    Ishi (ca. 1860-1916)
    The second track, Ishi’s Song, was inspired by an actual recording of Ishi, thought to have been the last of his tribe of Yahi-Yani Indians of Northern California. Ishi lived out his life at the University of California at Berkeley under the care of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and remains a beloved figure to many especially in the San Francisco bay area . Ishi recorded a song he that he had been taught and it is this song that forms the basis (or cantus firmus according to the composer) of this piece for singing pianist. Lisa Moore is no stranger to the repertoire for speaking or singing pianist having recorded Frederic Rzewski’s masterful De Profundis (1992). Her talents are put to good use here in this virtuosic set of variations on the haunting tune.

    Kafka at the age of five
    Kafka at the age of five (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
    Josephine, the Singer (2011) is perhaps the most unusual piece here. It is inspired by the Kafka story of the same name which is about a mouse that can sing. This piece is a significant contribution to the solo violin repertoire. It is an expressive piece in a single movement which is played with an easy sense of virtuosity and expression by violinist Sarita Kwok.

    Strange Devotion (2010) is a lyrical piano piece sensitively played by Lisa Moore. Bresnick’s inspiration, according to his notes in the accompanying booklet, state that he is here depicting a one scene from Goya’s horrific set of etchings, Disasters of War in which a donkey pulls a cart holding a coffin as people kneel by the roadside while it passes. The “strange devotion” to which he refers is the devotion to religion. The mood here is not one of cynicism it is more like a lament.

    A Message from the Emperor (2010) is another piece based on Kafka. This piece is scored for two speaking percussionists who play marimba, vibraphone and small tuned drums. This little narrative follows in the same basic tradition as the speaking pianist piece. The musicians speak sometimes separately, sometimes together coordinating their substantial duties on their instruments as well. The story tells of an important message that, as is characteristic in Kafka’s absurdist world, can never actually be communicated. It’s not clear if this (or, for that matter, the other tracks on this disc) is intended as political protest music but the analogies are certainly there if the listener chooses to apply them..

    Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)
    The last work here is inspired by “Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever”, a poem by famed Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000). One line of the poem, “Tombstones crumble” provides the inspiration for the appropriately somber cover art while the music at hand, Prayers Remain Forever (2011) chooses perhaps a more optimistic line from the poem. Again we have a deeply felt emotional expression here expertly interpreted by TwoSense (Lisa Moore, piano and Ashley Bathgate, cello).

    Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever

    I saw in the street on a summer evening
    I saw a woman writing words
    On a paper spread on a locked wooden door,
    She folded it and slipped it between the door and the doorpost
    And went off.

    I didn’t see her face or the face of the man
    Who will read the writing and not the words.

    On my desk lies a rock with the inscription “Amen,”
    Piece of a tombstone, remnant of a Jewish graveyard
    Ruined a thousand years ago in the city of my birth.

    One word, “Amen” carved deep in the stone,
    Hard and final, Amen to all that was and will not return,
    Soft Amen: chanting like a prayer,
    Amen, Amen, may it be His will.

    Tombstones crumble, words come and go, words are forgotten,
    The lips that uttered them turn to dust,
    Tongues die like people, other tongues come to life,
    Gods in the sky change, gods come and go,
    Prayers remain forever.

    Perhaps these non-literal musical expressions here can be said to be poetic and, like the prayers of Amichai’s poem may even last forever. At least that seems to be the optimistic point Bresnick seems to make here. This is a beautiful recording with talented and dedicated musicians that will continue to make it to my playlists. And I am now compelled to seek out more by this wonderful composer.

    From "Lucid Culture"

    "The following work, Besnick’s Prayers Remain Forever was performed by by TwoSense (Bathgate and Moore). Introducing the composer, Julia Wolfe reminded that he taught all three of the BOAC founders, and that his Yale School of Music ensemble Sheep’s Clothing was the prototype for BOAC. “At a certain point in life existential questions become extremely important,” he explained – the title of the work is from the last line of the Yehuda Amichai poem Gods Come and Go. A plaintively elegaic, part mininalist, part neoromantic work, as it expanded from a simple chromatic motif, a sense of longing became anguish and then descended to a brooding, defeated atmosphere, the cello and piano switching roles back and forth from murky hypnotics to bitterly rising phrases, with a particularly haunting solo passage from Bathgate. Yet what was even more impressive about her playing is how closely she communicates with her bandmates, Moore especially: the duo played as a singleminded voice."

    New Music Toronto Dec 3, 2013 (review)

    American Martin Bresnick also had a work on the program. The poignant My Twentieth Century (2002) for six players, and incorporating a bit of acting and narration.
    My favourite work of the afternoon belongs to Bresnick. A very passionate piece, written in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the work at first made me lower my guard with its pleasant tonalities and catchy rhythms, reminiscent of Reich, mixed with Glass, and tossed around in a bowl of something else thoroughly American in style. Each of the musicians in turn, as the piece was being played, would come up to a pair of microphones in front of the audience, and recite a line of poetry about an event that occurred. Each line ended with “….in the twentieth century”. A very passionate piece that had more depth than one would be able to hear in one listening, this is a piece I would very much like to hear again.

    Paolo Griffin

    Arts & Ideas: The My Friend’s Story Review
    Posted by Christopher Arnott on June 20, 2013

    My Friend’s Story

    Presented by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas “in collaboration with the Yale School of Music and the Yale Office of the Provost, with the support of the Yale School of Drama.” 8 p.m. June 19 & 20 at Yale’s Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel Street, New Haven.

    Music by Martin Bresnick. Libretto by J.D. McClatchy. Directed by David Chambers. Conducted by Julian Pellicano. Prodcued by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Performed by Jonathan Hays (Narrator), Abigail Nims (Milena), Ryan Allen (Jacob) and Claire Coolen (Hannah).

    For a modern-music, modern-dress, scaled-down new work by a maverick multi-styled composer and a pithy American poet, given a robust and theatrical staging, My Friend’s Story is startlingly and wonderfully old-school. Clear and accessible and lovely, gentle yet powerful, with a suspense romantic plotline that’s both realistic and lush, My Friend’s Story reminds you what opera is good for.

    Composer Martin Bresnick, librettist J.D. McClatchy and director David Chambers (all of whom happen to be longtime faculty members at Yale) aren’t slavishly following the accepted rules of the opera art form here. If you’ve followed their respective careers you know this is not in their nature. But by following their own astute artistic instincts, and bringing in personal passions such as lyrical narrative devices, Russian theater practices and jazz music, they’ve constructed a surehanded, confident and rousing romantic drama.

    When these intense yet credibly real-world characters burst into song, they have important things to convey. They tell stories, they share secrets, they express worry about strange intruders who enter the story.

    Bresnick’s sweetly shifting score has moments of pure songcraft, jazz interludes (with sax and bass solos), dramatic build-ups and a drawn-out tension. The singers don’t sell themselves short on their arias, or on some extraordinary duets and trios, but they also know how to act, and to underplay scenes so they convey realism and not melodrama. This is a chamber opera that’s actually set mostly in a chamber—a parlor, to be precise. It’s staged intimately. The musicians are situated behind a backdrop of mismatched windows. That metaphorical windows-of-the-soul, with music wafting from beyond, is ideal for such an ethereal drama.

    This is a touching, in-the-moment, classy and credible new musical theater piece about real characters with real emotions that are best expressed through transcendent classical singing. My Friend’s Story works so well because it respects tradition yet exists in the present-day world of naturalism, shorter attention spans and new musical expressions.

    This confident work not only serves its source material, a story by the genius writer Chekhov, it also is well suited to the aims of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The festival has long supported new classical works, especially those with theatrical trappings and strong narrative elements. Opening night of My Friend’s Story, which is technically a “preview” run as the work undergoes further development, was sold out. There were sincere ovations and gasps of admiration heard throughout the performance, and the sort of curtain-call reception which any theater creator would hope for. You felt part of something special just by showing up. Among friends, you could say.


    Also Chris Arnott:

    At night, I was present at the world premiere of a new chamber opera, My Friend’s Story, by some very distinguished yet modernist and down-to-earth Yale profs: composer Martin Bresnick (pictured in the photo alongside this article), writer J.D. McClatchy and director David Chambers. This was a triumphant performance—fresh and sharp and easy to follow. Bresnick’s score shifts from jazz to neo-musicky to melodic without any jarring transitions. The eclecticism suits the tense realities and romantic dreams of the show’s characters. My Friend’s Story is based on a Chekhov short story called “Terror,” and it concerns very common fears about getting about in society and in life, and how we relate to our friends and neighbors. Just as Chekhov finds suspense and irony in everyday life, Bresnick and McClatchy and Chambers find the high drama and operatic grandeur in a simply told relationship story. The cast—Ryan Allen, Claire Cooolen, Jonathan Hays, Abigail Nimes and Christian Reinert—understand the creative team’s desire to build the piece from a believable base into a stirring, transcendent emotional outpouring. The opera doesn’t just succeed on its own terms, it’s economically produced—five singers, seven musicians, a simple and effective backdrop of windows for a set and costumes which are basically streetclothes. Expect this riveting new work to be produced elsewhere in the future—that’s not something you can safely predict about a lot of new operatic works.

    All A&I info is at

    Preview of "My Friend's Story" from the New Yorker:

    Martin Bresnick, the Yale professor who taught the brilliant composers who would form the Bang on a Can collective, writes a sober and soft-grained form of modernist music that is lit from within by a literate and indomitable humanism. (His miniature tone poem after Kafka’s story “The Bucket Rider” is a melancholy classic.) Collaborating with the lauded librettist J. D. McClatchy and the director David Chambers, he has written a chamber opera based on Chekhov’s story “Terror”; it receives two preview performances at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

    Music Festival: Americans set a challenge

    Canberra International Music Festival
    “Double Duo and Friends” (Concert 24)
    Albert Hall, May 18
    Review and photos by Judith Crispin

    Martin Bresnick charmed the audience with his “Ishi’s Song”, based on a recording of the last Yahi Indian. The work began sweetly, with pianist Lisa Moore singing the little song upon which this work is based, the piano then picking up the tune for the first few bars. Bresnick achieves a wind chime effect with his clever use of sostenuto pedal, building up layers of harmonic colour beneath delicate rhythmic patterns. Moore brought out lovely bell-tones from the Steinway and maintained a chant-like character throughout the work. Intricate passages become gradually sparser, until “Ishi’s Song” was reduced finally to a single repeated note – a poignant metaphor for the last Yahi singer. (read full article)


    Review of Pan Penseroso, Washington Post

    The afternoon closed with Martin Bresnick’s flute concerto “Pan Penseroso” (performed here in a new version for two flutes and piano), a rich, stunningly beautiful work that seems destined to become a classic in the 21st-century flute repertoire. (read full article)

    - Stephen Brookes, Washington Post, Monday, March 25, 2013


Review of "Everything Must Go," ArtsWatch - GARY FERRINGTON

Festival guest artists PRISM Saxophone Quartet held a master class on Wednesday in which it performed new works by students in the University of Oregon’s composition program. The quartet (Timothy McAllister, soprano saxophone, Zachary Shemon, alto, David Wegehaupt, tenor, and Taimur Sullivan baritone) surprised composers Noah Jenkins and Matt Zavortink when it included their master class compositions for the quartet in Thursday’s public concert.

That concert ended with the touching “Every Thing Must Go” by veteran American composer and music educator Martin Bresnick composed in three sections, “Andante,” “G.L. In memoriam,” and ‘Pensoso, con sobrio esperessione.” If anyone ever doubted the power and beauty of a saxophone quartet, PRISM’s presentation of this work would quickly
change their mind. It left me speechless.


Review of Joaquin is Dreaming, San Francisco Classical Voice
All Hail Benjamin Verdery: FESTIVAL OF NEW AMERICAN MUSIC, BY SCOTT CMIEL, November 6, 2012

The guitar is sometimes faulted for having a repertoire that fails to include the most important voices in contemporary composition, but Verdery began the concert with music written for him by three widely acclaimed living composers, Martin Bresnick, Ezra Laderman, and Ingram Marshall. Bresnick's Joaquin Is Dreaming is dedicated to the composer's newly born grandson and explores the child's wonderfully complex human inheritance (American, Ecuadorean, Jewish, Catholic, Russian, German, Spanish, native South American, and more). Bresnick's inspired score reflects, in a musical way, on this wonderful new person and his intricate place in a brave new world. Verdery's expressive performance of the three-movement work perfectly captured the depth of Joaquin's rich family legacy, the exciting possibilities of his future life, and his incontestably beautiful and poetic present. (read full article)

Reviews of Caprichos Enfaticos

Performance Review, Brisbane, Australia, from "The Australian" newspaper, May 31, 2012

The first half was given over to American composer Martin Bresnick's Caprichos Enfaticos for piano and percussion quartet, based upon etchings of Goya. With close-ups of the anguished faces of the suffering and dead projected behind the performers, it can be harrowing to look at, but Bresnick constantly injects reminders of humanity.

The third movement in particular, Ravages of War, has a percussive barrage constantly punctuated by Lisa Moore's gentle piano, as if reminding that, amid the inflamed passions of war, we must never lose the capacity for rational thought, nor human compassion and decency.

The sixth movement, Strange Devotion, is painfully sad, while the one that follows makes devastating use of the barest minimum of notes possible.

It is a moving and considered engagement with Goya's message, and has a great, indeed symbolic, opening where each performer arrives in turn, taking over their predecessor's part, a visible demonstration of shared burdens and common aspiration.
Martin Buzzacott

Signal to Noise volume #63, by Kurt Gottschalk

It's a shame that Charles Bukowski's book Play the Piano Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed didn't contain a poem bearing the same title so that we could have a description of the event. Did it involve wild abandon or just the fierceness of deep commitment? Was it like Irene Schweizer's intense duets with Pierre Favre or was it more akin to Tom Waits, whose piano used to drink with out him? We can only imagine, and even once we're imagining it's hard to imagine a more thorough investigation of the piano as a percussion instrument than in composer Martin Bresnick's half-hour suite Caprichos Enfaticos. Inspired by Goya's horrific painting Disasters of War it's understandably not Bukowski and Waits in funtime mode. But to focus on military ravages would be too narrow as well: the piece is too carefully scripted and varied to be categorized as only a death march or protest noise song. It's nine parts run from quiet contemplation to tight polyrhythms to heavy pounding and even interpolate a Spanish ballroom dance tune. The piece was given it's premiere by pianist Lisa Moore and the quartet So Percussion at the World Financial Center in New York City in 2007, and the same players reunite here for a recording of striking beauty. review from Charlie Pitt
Bresnick: Caprichos Enfaticos (MP3 Download)

Cantaloupe Music has done it again. This CD label, created by the founders of the 'Bang on a Can' series that was such a presence and center of contemporary classical and experimental music in the 20th Century, doesn't disappoint. It challenges for sure, yet I think that our ears, much like that of our ancestors hearing Beethoven, Bach or Brahms for the first time, have evolved over time as well. Caprichos Enfaticos, composed by Martin Bresnick, and performed by pianist Lisa Moore and percussion quartet So Percussion, is a journey through the darkness of Goyas artwork - specifically his book of etchings that are Los Destastres de la Guerra, The Disasters of War. In more than 80 plates/etchings Goya captures the horror of war informed by Spain's War of Independence against Napoleon's forces.

According to art currator Peter Blum, "The original set of 85 etchings was most likely completed by Goya between 1810 and 1820, and entitled Fatales consequencias de la sangrienta guerra en España con Buonaparte. Y otros caprichos enfáticos. (Fatal consequences of Spain's bloody war with Buonaparte. And other emphatic caprices). The set of proofs was bound and given to his friend Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez to review, and is currently located in the British Museum. The prints were not published in Goya's lifetime. In 1863, the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando published the first edition of 80 etchings as Los Desastres de la Guerra, bound as a book."

Ironically, Goya was likely deaf by the time he completed these etchings, yet the testiment to his work is made in this powerfully dark, introspective musical work of Martin Bresnick. The piece stands on its own merit although it was originally performed in a multi-media setting with slides of the etchings projected from DVD. So Percussion have become one of my favorite percussion ensembles and they are a brilliant combination of skill and resonance. As a percussionist myself I can appreciate the choices they made in selecting one instrument over another, with a sincere attention to the qualit of the sound and how it was prduced in combination with the other instruments. And pianist Lisa Moore shines in this and her other Cantaloupe recordings...

Percussion and piano seems so stark and perhaps that is the point. The etchings are stark and graphic and the simplicity of a small ensemble allows the listener to be surrounded at once and yet be present in the midst of the performance / recording itself. I highly recommend this recording and any of the Cantaloupe Music CDs - great quality recordings and performances, and a reminder of the importance of the music that came out of Meet the Composer grants...

Charlie Pitt is the pen name of Mitch Gordon, percussionist, mediator, conductor and radio host - Mitch is a host for ClassiCollage, heard Monday nights 9pm-midnight at nonprofit, noncommercial, WCUW 91.3 FM in Worcester, MA and streaming live around the world at [...]

Dec 29 2011
Notable in 2011: So Percussion and Lisa Moore play Bresnick
Posted by Christian Carey in CD Review, Downtown, File Under?, chamber music, contemporary classical

Caprichos Enfaticos
by Martin Bresnick
So Percussion; Lisa Moore, piano
Cantaloupe Music CD

It takes chutzpah to base a musical composition around an iconic piece of visual art. Francisco Goya's Los Destastres de la Guerra ("The Disasters of War") is a book of etchings that captures the human toll of combat (as well as its toll on the rest of creation) with a visceral impact that has seldom been equaled. Using it as the basis for a musical piece, even going so far as to use Goya's own phrases for movement titles? A composer who does so better bring the goods or they will likely be dwarfed by comparison. Fortunately, Martin Bresnick's Caprichos Enfaticos is eminently capable of complementing its powerful source material. Indeed, it's one of his most affecting pieces to date, one in which there is a fluid progression from traditionally inspired material to more dissonant and abstract expression.

A particular reference point is a chain dance that originated in Provence, called the farandula, or farandole. Its 6/8 phrases are juxtaposed with bellicose marches played on snare drums and interspersed with ruminative and achingly piteous interludes for piano and pitched percussion.

Cast in eight movements, the piece mirrors the trajectory of Goya's etchings from a semblance of order and civilization to chthonic brutality. In successive iterations, the gestural language of the farandole and folk-like thematic material is overwhelmed by a noisier environment: populated with a diverse battery of percussion instruments and a correspondingly chaotic phraseology.

In live performances, Caprichos Enfaticos is accompanied by video projections created by Johanna Bresnick and based on the Goya works. So Percussion and pianist Lisa Moore inhabit the music with a persuasive, commanding, and detailed performance on record: one can only imagine its powerful impact coupled with Goya's artworks in a live setting.

Not only was chutzpah an ingredient of this project, but so was a seamless collaborative spirit. Meet the Composer commissioned this piece for So Percussion and Moore, and it is a truly inspired partnership. One hopes that it is merely the beginning of a long musical relationship.


Martin Bresnick/ Caprichos Enfaticos/Canataloupe, December 28, 2011
By Mike Maguire

This review is from: Caprichos Enfaticos (Audio CD)

If Caprichos Enfaticos is representative of Mr. Bresnick's work, he's a fascinating combination of three composers. On one side he's an east coaster, obsessed with working out the structure abstractions of music. On another side, he falls sometimes into post minimalist grooves and relaxed repetition. And finally, he has the ability to suddenly flip to a very quirky, whimsical, highly unpredictable, Dadaist side.

The CD is inspired by a series of Goya's hyper-expressionistic, macabre paintings which were part of the original multi-media performance. There is a pent-up violence in some of Bresnick's gestures that easily capture Goya's explosiveness. Meanwhile, the work's music language revolves mostly around the Spanish dance, the Farandula. Here the dance periodically returns in various guises and tempi, and is always skillfully woven into the more abstract elements of the music.

The first cut opens with this dance and takes it through various post-minimalist processes as well as a lot of fugal-like entries while the toms keep an insistent groove underneath. In the second movement, the piano enters with the same rhythmic material, only simpler and more lyrical. The piano writing is reminiscent of de Falla (mostly because of the insistent b6) but even more so of Bartok, in the use of octaves to articulate the main pitch structure. The third moment consists of militaristic toms with the piano giving quiet plaintive responses/cries for peace.The 4th cut is the whole ensemble again in another dance, featuring a piano section with interesting octave transfers. The fifth is another dance but each time it returns it is more abstracted, cannibalized, or blown to pieces in a Goya/Webernesque way.
The 6th cut has ritualistic percussion accompany a kind of fugal dirge (reminiscent again of Bartok) with a lot of fresh harmonic turns and some beautiful voice leading from the pianist. Movement 7 further strips the dance down to sheds of its former self, to the point it goes into Crumb/Bartok night music territory which is occasional interrupted by the most Dadaist of interruption ; a telephone ringing. The final cut returns to the tom groove of the opening, the piano dancing in ¾ while the toms attack overtop.

So Percussion and Lisa Moore (the pianist) does an excellent job of conveying all the delicate intricacies and often-brutal violence of the piece. Worth checking out!

Sacramento Bee - CD picks for the classical music adventurer

Martin Bresnick
Cantaloupe Music
The pairing of keyboard and percussion defines this stark but poetic eight-movement concerto, which Bresnick based on Francisco Goya's book of etchings "Los Desastres de la Guerra." Like the etchings, there is something bold and unapologetic about the 30 minutes of music that make up this concerto. Bresnick's concise and George Crumb-like music is performed with urbane brilliance by pianist Lisa Moore, who adds much light and lyricism. The So Percussion ensemble plays with fire and drive, and what is wrought is painterly music that grows on you with every listen.


Allmusic Review, by Stephen Eddins

The title and subtitle of Martin Bresnick's Caprichos Enfáticos: Los Desastres de la Guerra refer to a series of prints by Francisco Goya made between 1810 and 1820 and are translated as Emphatic Caprices: The Disasters of War. Goya's work plays on the ironic juxtaposition between a caprice, or capriccio -- usually defined as a whimsical, freeform musical work -- and wartime devastation, and Bresnick's music exploits the implications of such a terrible irony. (In its original conception, the presentation of the music was to be accompanied by DVD projections of Goya's images; the added visual dimension would undoubtedly affect the perception of the music and could add considerably to its impact.) The work, a concerto for keyboard and percussion quartet, was commissioned by Meet the Composer for pianist Lisa Moore and So Percussion, who perform it here. Even as a purely audio experience, the work conveys the strangeness and terror of Goya's often casually shocking imagery. Six of the eight movements take as their basis the farandole, a popular 6/8 Spanish dance. Some movements use primarily drums to create a martial, brutal atmosphere. Others, adhering more closely to the dance roots of the farandole, use an assortment of keyboard percussion to establish a bitterly ironic whimsicality, as in "Farándula de politicos -- Contra el bien general." Moore and So Percussion perform the music with energy and commitment. Canteloupe Music's sound is clear and appropriately resonant.

Ignorant Armies Go Bump in the Night [Bresnick: Caprichos Enfaticos]
A Fool in the Forest - The personal & cultural web journal of George M. Wallace, an attorney practicing in Pasadena, California.

All right, then: time for a snap quiz. Ready?

Name a piece of "classical" music explicitly inspired by the visual arts that is not either Pictures at an Exhibition or Rothko Chapel.

Yes? Mathis der Maler? Cheeky: get out.

Right: there are surprisingly few of them. Really surprisingly few. As in: so many fewer than one would expect, that it is surprising. I am surprised, even if you are not.

However short the list of VizArt-inspired music may be, it has now grown, impressively, by one.

Martin Bresnick's Caprichos Enfaticos—recently released through Bang on a Can's Cantaloupe label in a recording with pianist Lisa Moore and percussion quartet S? Percussion—is a direct musical offshoot of Goya's Disasters of War (Los desastres de la guerra), the suite of 80 etchings derived from the experience of the Napoleonic wars in Spain. Shot through with horror and despair, for Spain and for humankind generally, individual segments of the Disasters can also surprise with their mordant humor or Goya's penchant for supernatural grotesquery. Simultaneously bleak and bumptious, Caprichos Enfaticos is a fitting descendant of those harrowing, brilliant pictures.

The composer describes his Caprichos as a piano concerto, with the role of the orchestra played by the dizzying battery of percussion, tuned and otherwise, at the command of Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting. In eight movements and running just a shade over thirty brisk minutes, the structure of the piece derives from references to specific etchings from Los desastres and to phrases or ideas used by Goya, and from the farándula, or farandole, "a chain dance [says Bresnick's program note] popular in Provence, . . . often in 6/8 time, with a moderate to fast tempo. In modern Spanish, a farándula is a company of actors." There is an antic air of the commedia dell'arte around this piece, though it may more appropriately be thought of as commedia della morte.

It all begins innocently enough, almost childishly, with a "Farándula simple" played on marimba, xylophone and the like. Simple it may be, but it soon lurches with increasing urgency toward the macabre. The piano enters in the second movement, "Farándula de charlatanes – No saben el camino (Farandole of charlatans – They don't know the way)", strutting its self-importance as the percussion continues to caper skeletally about. The military arrives in "Estragos de la guerra (Ravages of war)", as the piano's attempts to play a sombre Satiesque theme are repeatedly crushed beneath the martial discipline of large drums.

Next on the scene: the worthless politicians, boisterously hopping and chattering, pointlessly pointing every which way in their "Farándula de políticos – Contra el bien general (Farandole of politicians – Against the common good)." The large drums return for "Farándula de populacho (Farandole of the rabble)," sounding now less like well-drilled marchers and more like cascades of cannon fire. Appropriately, given how little the surrounding forces are concerned for them, the general population's movement is the shortest in the piece.

Goya's most eery qualities come to the fore in the final three movements. "¡Extraña Devoción! (Strange devotion!)" (illustrated above) is fitted out with the trappings of 19th century Gothic romance: muttering voices, bells, the clanking of chains down seemingly empty corridors, the piano wandering lost in the sepulchral haze. The approach to the tomb seems complete with the "Farándula de creyentes – Nada. Ello dirá (Farandole of believers – Nothing. It will say)," the pictorial namesake of which adorns the CD jacket: the listener is left in a cavernous dark, water dripping from the ceiling, a harmonium musing mournfully. When it seems there can be no further descent, and with a suddenness reminiscent of the last-moment rescue in Poe's "Pit and the Pendulum," the concluding "Farándula doble (Farandole double)" bursts in, as the entire ensemble reprises the skewed dance tune with which the piece began, its false bonhomie recognizable now as a sort of Iberian totentanz.

From hopelessness and misery, Goya was able to derive great and frightful art. From Goya, Martin Bresnick has derived a pocket concerto that honors its source while resonating in our own more mechanized but no less brutalized age.

CD review: Martin Bresnick, 'Caprichos Enfáticos'
Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, November 20, 2011
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New Music
Martin Bresnick's fierce instrumental cycle for piano and percussion ensemble takes its inspiration from Goya's etchings of the ravages of war - not only in its movement titles and subject matter but also in its dexterous combination of folk strains and dark, almost expressionist howls of outrage. The undercurrent that runs through the music is the farandole, a popular dance in 6/8 time, which stands in for the rhythms of everyday life disrupted by war. Bresnick's pictorialism can be a bit literal - the use of loud martial drumbeats is evocative to a fault - but much of the score weaves its two strains together in subtle and aptly disturbing ways, and there is beauty and tenderness nestled amid the explosions. "Caprichos Enfáticos" is designed to be heard along with video projections of the Goya etchings, and there are passages that seem to cry out for the missing visuals. But the force and inventiveness of the music carries the day, and the performance, by the extraordinary pianist Lisa Moore and the splendid So Quartet, is first-rate.

Read more:
Martin Bresnick, "Caprichos Enfaticos" for Piano and Percussion Quartet

The 30-minute work Caprichos Enfaticos: Los Disastres de la Guerra (Cantaloupe 21075) is a meditation on the famed anti-war etchings of Francisco Goya. DVD projections of the Goya imagery are to be introduced in the course of a live performance of the eight movements of this work. Pianist/keyboardist Lisa Moore and So Percussion as a quartet give us a stirring performance, sans projections, of course. But though this may be somewhat programmatic music, it is music to hear, first and foremost, so the lack of visual correspondence is not a major factor.

There is an episodic, literary quality to the work which reminds me a little of some of George Crumb's chamber music. For example, there is a movement where the drums pound out the rhythmic ostinato from Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War," but it becomes disjointed and disrupted as the piano interjects expressive chordal rejoiners as if to represent the forces that do not directly engage in the battles, those who perhaps do not whole heartedly approve of the carnage, or perhaps the victims?

It is well performed and well staged for the CD medium. Ms. Moore plays spiritedly and the rhythmic versus a-rhythmic elements balance nicely in her hands. She doubles on a harmonium in the later movements and gives out with a kind of earthy chorale folksiness. Similary the So Percussion Quartet provides a commanding performance of their part.

It is music as sound painting, a sort of "Pictures at an Exhibition" narrative style transposed to the post-modernist present. It is a work of power and a meditation on war and its horrors. If the music does not quite convey the macabre imagery and indignent disgust of the Goya etchings, I suppose we should not expect a literal correspondence.

What it is certainly bears hearing. Martin Bresnick writes music that stands out, that speaks with a grammar and syntax much his own. At this juncture in our history the subject matter is as timely as ever.

By Grego Gapplegate Edwards

Two Intriguing Albums by So Percussion, from Lucid Culture
So Percussion has a couple of enjoyable, extremely diverse new albums out on Cantaloupe (the Bang on a Can peeps). Their first is a performance of Steve Mackey's 2010 composition It Is Time, an entertaining, often absolutely hypnotic, somewhat minimalist but imaginatively orchestrated 36-minute suite which begins simply with a triplet rhythm commonly used in Malian desert blues. On one hand, this is a playful exercise in counting; on the other, the hypnotic quality of the music makes it tempting to simply leave the timing to the musicians and get lost in it. The concept is to feature each member of the group in turn: Eric Beach is first on metronome, pump organ, bells and china cymbal. From there it branches out cleverly with a series of steel drum interludes played by Josh Quillen, followed by Adam Sliwinski on marimba, both players using bowed and sustain techniques to achieve ambient textures typically not found in music for percussion sometimes atmospherically, sometimes adding a jarring, atonal and eventually microtonal edge laced with overtones. The final segment, played by Jason Treuting on drums, introduces an anthemic element: a rudimentary march, a descending riff on the steel pans which is the most distinctive melody here, gradually winding down to airy, sustained notes. Meant to alter the perception of time, it's a subtly shifting journey from one rhythm to the next, sometimes utilizing polyrhythms.

The second, with reliably intense, incisive pianist Lisa Moore, is a recording of Martin Bresnick's Caprichos Enfanticos: Los Desastres de la Guerra. An eight-movement suite meant to illustrate Goya's satirical antiwar etchings, it follows a similarly caricaturish, sometimes cruelly mocking trajectory. A hypnotic marimba riff runs over and over to introduce it, followed by a twisted formal introduction, a "look who's here" motif into a distantly flamenco-tinged piano-and-drums march, reaching for but never achieving resolution either melodically or rhythmically. Onward from there: a sarcastic tug-of-war between drums and piano (guess who wins); a bully and his sycophant; what might be a coldhearted bombing mission; an eerie, starlit, strolling piano/vibraphone duet and eventually a children's dance under fire – or amidst a firefight. As evocative antiwar music, it doesn't waste notes, literally or figuratively.


10 Nov 2011
Posted by Jeremy Howard Beck
Tags: Cantaloupe Music, Francisco Goya, Lisa Moore, Martin Bresnick, So Percussion

Lisa Moore & So Percussion: Martin Bresnick’s “Caprichos Enfáticos” on Cantaloupe

Francisco Goya’s famous series of prints Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) were created between 1810 and 1820, though not actually published until 35 years after Goya’s death, in 1863.  There are 82 prints in all, each highly critical of both Spanish and French rulers during the conflicts between the two countries in the early 19th century, and they are shockingly graphic: realistic depictions of mutilated corpses in the aftermath of battle and the effects of famine, and gross mockeries of the ruling classes and the clergy.  They are less high art and more a sort of proto-photojournalism.

Martin Bresnick’s Caprichos Enfáticos: Los Desastres de la Guerra, an 8-movement concerto for pianist Lisa Moore and S? Percussion, begins with, of all things, a farandole/farándula––a popular, jaunty 6/8 chain dance.  In live performance, Lisa Moore plays the opening line of the farandúla on xylophone, alone on stage.  A percussionist enters behind her and seamlessly takes over the line, and Moore continues to the second line.  A second percussionist enters, taking over the first line, and the first percussionist moves to the second line, and Moore moves to the next layer, etc.  It’s torturous to try and describe the effect in words, especially since it’s been three years since I saw it live at the 2008 Canberra International Music Festival in Australia, but it really does look and feel like a musical chain dance.  It’s also just really cool to watch Lisa Moore play toms.

Eventually, of course, she does end up at the piano.  Farándula De Charlatanes, No Saben El Camino (Farandole Of Charlatans – They Don’t Know The Way) alternates between harsh dissonance and strange timbres (flexatone!) and a kind of offbeat march.  Estragos de la Guerra (Ravages of War) makes an overt reference to Mars, from Holst’s Planets suite, with all four percussionists playing in unison on large drums.  As that famous rhythm grows and morphs into a torrent of martial outbursts and machine-gun barrages, the piano embeds a simple tune, starting on an open fifth and growing along with the drum-rhythm to a virtuosic and wild peak.  Farándula De Políticos, Contra El Bien General (Farandole Of Politicians, Against The Common Good) is all gallows humor: long silences, a dog barking (actually a cuíca), huge shifts in register and tone, musical sarcasm.  Farándula De Populacho (Farandole Of The Rabble) contrasts a low-rumbling, dissonant piano with tick-tick-boom percussion blasts (on various high unpitched pieces of wood and a large bass drum) in multiple tempos, and ends with a burst of, yes, applause: this is bread and circuses, reality TV, a monster truck rally.  Church bells and whispered prayers begin ¡Extraña Devoción! (Strange Devotion!); a simple, descending scalar melody in the piano gives way to something almost hymnal, but distorted, haunted.  

Farándula De Creyentes, Nada. Ello Lo Dice (Farandole Of Believers, Nothing. That Is What It Says) is the dark heart of Caprichos Enfáticos, a sparse, ambient soundscape built from non-pitched percussion and lots of silence.  A hymn appears briefly (that’s Lisa Moore again, this time on melodica) before being cut off by the loud, obnoxious ring of an old telephone, which itself ends abruptly, returning us to the soundscape.  The hymn appears again, is cut off again by the telephone.  It appears a third time, playing through and under the ringing telephone, swelling into the final movement, Farándula Doble (Farandole Double), in which the first movement’s dance music reappears on piano with the Mars-esque brutal drums and ever-increasing chaos: police whistles! cowbells!  The cuíca, of course, gets the last, groaning word.
If that description sounds kitchen-sink maximalist, I promise you it’s not.  Bresnick’s music always has a thrilling economy of means––not minimalist, but concise, efficient––and he is a true master of guiding a listener’s attention through long spans of time (this work is around a half-hour, but feels shorter).  He does manage to cram a whole ton of instruments onto that stage, but each one has such a clear role (yes, even the cuíca) that it never becomes cluttered or overwhelming.  Caprichos Enfáticos works slightly less well on CD than it does live, but only because you lose Johanna Bresnick’s video projections (based on the Goya prints) and the theatrical element of the performance.  That said, couldn’t the DVD projections have been included on the CD as bonus material?  The CD itself is pretty bare-bones, and doesn’t include the Goya prints the movements are based on, either.  They’re readily available on Google Images, but it would have been nice to have them on the disc itself.

The recording itself sounds great, though the piano can sometimes sound a little distant when up against a battery of drums.  There is a beautiful acoustic bloom on those drums, so it might just be one of the inevitable trade-offs of the recording style.  I’m also not entirely convinced that that recording style (the recording as document of a live performance) was right for this piece, and wondering what a different recording style would have produced.  Certain musical elements––that ringing telephone in Nada. Ello Lo Dice, the jangling metal and whispering in ¡Extraña Devoción!, and a few other small things might have actually benefited from being recorded separately and multi-tracked into the mix.  It would be less “accurate,” but paradoxically more true to how those things actually worked in live performance.
I do have one other gripe.  In the program note, on the inside of the CD jacket, there are two big-ol’ typos: a misspelling (“Destastres” [sic] for “Desastres”) and a grammatical error (amazingly, “it’s” for “its”).  Does nobody hire proofreaders* anymore?  Those are pretty easy typos to spot––I caught them at first glance––and there’s really no reason why they shouldn’t have been caught, especially given how little text there is in the packaging.

Despite all that, the performances are as amazing as you’d expect from these players, and the piece is fun, darkly funny, witty, and unexpectedly moving (as you’d expect from this composer).
*Shameless self-promotion: I’m a proofreader. I’ll do it.

Martin Bresnick, Lisa Moore, So Percussion Caprichos Enfaticos (Cantaloupe, released October 25, 2011)

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Jeremy Howard Beck is a New York-based composer, as well as an active trombonist. Follow him on Twitter: @jeremyhowardboo

Caprichos Enfáticos
Martin Bresnick, composer; Lisa Moore, piano; So Percussion (Cantaloupe Music)

Inspired by Francisco Goya’s “Los Destastres de la Guerra,” Martin Bresnick’s “Caprichos Enfáticos” (“Emphatic Caprices”) illustrate the horrors of war. Most draw on the farándula, a dance associated with Provence, with traces of minimalism and jazz. There are more incisive pieces on similar topics but these are creative and perceptive — and superbly executed. (Fans of So Percussion may want to also look for the recently released “It Is Time.”)

The first selection, “Farándula Simple,” begins with childlike innocence, vacillating between a few notes. It grows thicker and more frenzied as other voices join in, with a tribal beat marking a change in tenor.
Others evoke the circular chattering of ineffectual politicians; the hushed, barely there hope of the religious; and disintegrated chaos among charlatans (perhaps Goya’s prisoners) who have lost their way. Bresnick depicts destruction in brash, militant drumming that only grows more insistent as Moore on the piano feebly chimes in, able to say less and less as the percussionists steamroll her. The mystical “Strange Devotion” is an aptly named standout.

— Ronni Reich

Amazon page:
5.0 out of 5 stars A very dramatic new work evokes its inspiration, November 7, 2011  
By Daniel R. Coombs "Contemporary clarinet guy" (Mesa, AZ United States) -
This review is from: Caprichos Enfaticos (Audio CD)
The artwork of Francisco Goya is bold, stark and frequently very sombre. The artist had to live through the atrocities of the nineteenth century and Napoleonic conquest and, like Picasso's "Guernica". his art is often a reflection of the brutality of wartimes. Goya's sketchbook, "Los Desastres de la Guerra" (the Disasters of War)" provides the imagery that composer Martin Bresnick used for this new work for piano and percussion and the resulting music is dramatic, bold and a bit disturbing, as is the source material. Each of the movements to this eight movement concerto, Caprichos Enfaticos (Emphatic Capriccios)" is titled after one of the sketches in the Goya collection. Bresnick uses the provincial Spanish dance, the farandole, as the form for six of the movements. The farandole is typically in 6/8 meter and ranges in tempo from an accented moderato to a highly propulsive allegro. As conceived by Bresnick, this work is intended to be performed in a mutli-media way, with projections of sketches by Johanna Bresnick, the composer's daughter, inspired by the Goya originals. I imagine that seeing the visuals projected during performance helps the symbolism and imagery intended by the music, however, Bresnick's score stands very well on its own as a very powerful listening experience. The music is wonderfully written to run a range of emotion from the darkly mysterious (as in mvt. 7 "Strange Devotion") to the violent and chaotic (as in mvt. 2 "Farandole of the charlatans - they don't know the way"). The combination of piano and percussion is not a new form but is a very appealing and inherently dramatic one (the Bartok "Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion" being what for most people is the best known example Caprichos Enfaticos makes a very solid addition to this genre and credit the performers here for helping to give this piece a very weighty, attention getting interpretation. Pianist Lisa Moore performs with great technique and a moody sensitivity when called for and the percussion ensemble is the renowned new music ensemble, So Percussion; whose work I enjoy every time I hear it. Martin Bresnick is a name you should know. The multiple award winning New Yorker has been composer in residence at an impressive array of colleges, universities and foreign arts festivals and is presently serving as such at Mannes College of Music. He has worked with Cantaloupe Records and the Band on a Can group before. I admit that my exposure to his music is limited, being familiar with his saxophone quartet work Everything Must Go, but this piece absolutely makes me want to go explore more. Caprichos Enfaticos is picturesque and compelling. The music succeeds in peaking one's interest for Goya as well. I recommend this disc highly for anyone fan of So Percussion, anyone who likes piano and percussion and anyone who wants to hear an excellent example of visual art interpreted in sound.

BRESNICK Willie’s Way.1 Falling.2 Ballade.3 Three Choral Songs.4 Every Thing Must Go5 • 1, 3Lisa Moore (pn); 2Abigail Nims (sop); 2Wei-yi Yang (pn); 3Ashley Bathgate (vc); 4Marguerite Brooks, cond; 4Yale Camerata; 5Prism Saxophone Quartet • ALBANY TROY1184 (59:39)

If Martin Bresnick’s reputation as a leading American composer hasn’t quite reached the lofty heights of an Adams or Corigliano, among performers he is widely regarded as one of the best. He has produced music at a high level for many years, and is sought out by many a performer eager to add engaging, durable works to their repertoire.

His new disc on Albany is exhibit A: five superb pieces that span nearly two decades and give a fine picture of the consistency of his output. He isn’t exactly a “pan-stylist,” but his palette is broad and inclusive, and listeners are likely to pick up references to minimalism, smatters of dense chromaticism, consonant harmonies, and hints of rock, among others. The title work, Every Thing Must Go for saxophone quartet (the most recent on the disc, from 2007), is a good example, beginning with open harmonies that quickly fill it with sober minor-key sonorities and move soon to roving, good-natured ramblings. The second of three movements is a scherzo of sorts, bubbling, effervescent, and motoric, but with lyrical gestures that soar above the bustle. Consonant harmonies occasionally surrender to brief dissonance, and the movement ends with a slow, hair-raising ascension. There is a program of sorts that involves gestures of farewell to musicians the composer has known, and the elegiac strains of the last movement are genuinely touching.

For all of the observations critics make regarding new trends in compositional style, skilled and imaginative development of minimal materials always seems to remain relevant. The 10-minute piano piece Willy’s Way from 2006 is a fine example of Bresnick’s keen developmental prowess. Much of the piece revolves around variations on two traditional alternating chords, often in rather bravura, even romantic style, derived from a Willie Dixon blues tune. I’m not entirely convinced about the value of percussive and vocal interruptions that intervene late in the piece, but as a whole it is a terrific vehicle for the splendid pianist Lisa Moore.

Ballade is aptly described by the composer as a “song without words” for cello and piano that is “intended to evoke the austere, autumnal world of Brahms.” There is both a peculiar blend of lyricism and cragginess to the cello line as well as a thickness in the left hand of the piano that make the homage quite clear and compelling. Three Choral Songs and song cycle Falling show him to be equally at home with the voice as he is with instrumental forces. The texts are rendered with exceptional emotional resonance and poetic clarity.

The performances are of the highest rank. The Prism Quartet continues to build an impressive repertoire for saxophone foursome. Cellist Ashley Bathgate, pianist Wei-yi Yang, and mezzo Abigail Nims render Bresnick’s music with skill and conviction. The Yale Camerata under Marguerite Brooks sings with clarity, lyrical grace, and finely tuned dynamic differentiation.

- Michael Cameron
This article originally appeared in Issue 34:1 (Sept/Oct 2010) of Fanfare Magazine.


BRESNICK Willie’s Way.1 Falling.2 Ballade.3 Three Choral Songs.4 Every Thing Must Go5 • 1, 3Lisa Moore (pn); 2Abigail Nims (sop); 2Wei-yi Yang (pn); 3Ashley Bathgate (vc); 4Marguerite Brooks, cond; 4Yale Camerata; 5Prism Saxophone Quartet • ALBANY TROY1184 (59:39)

Martin Bresnick (b. 1946) by now is no stranger to these pages. He’s one of the most substantial composers of his generation, and he also has the distinction through his teaching gig at Yale of having mentored and launched a host of young composers who have moved on to brilliant careers. Aside from his own music, the history of late 20th/early 21st-century American music may well single him out as the Boulanger of the era.

But as said, to his own work, this disc is a collection of old and new works, in a sense a gathering of pieces that don’t fall into any single easy category (unlike the still-impressive Opere della Music Povera, a cycle by which the composer planted his aesthetic flag firmly for all to see). Willie’s Way (2006) is a solo piano work based on the blues song Spoonful by Willie Dixon. It’s a reworking of the Fantasia on a Theme of Willie Dixon from 2001 (released on New World 80635-2, and which I reviewed in Fanfare 20:3). I like this version better. The piece is an artful blend of Brahms and the blues, and Bresnick subjects the changes to every twist possible to wrest as much harmonic richness and diversity as possible. At first I thought it perhaps a little too long for its materials, but I changed my mind by the second listening. The piece also feels like an homage to Rzewski, in both its popular source and the extended techniques (clapping, stomping, singing) at the end. The composer’s muse, collaborator, and life partner, Lisa Moore, is magisterial in her interpretation.

There’s another blues-tinged work on the program, and it’s a knockout. Falling is a much earlier work from 1993, a song cycle based on poems by Southerners David Bottoms and Katherine Stripling Byer. Its subject is the failings of the human heart, filtered through the experience of poor white folk that are usually relegated to talk-show mockery, and not given their proper dignity. This work does them justice, and more. The “bluesiness” is always powerful, dramatic, and never cheap. (One regret in this release is that there are no texts provided for either this work or the choral one. Abigail Nims’s enunciation is excellent, but it still helps to have a text at hand to get a sense of its “globality,” rather than trying to hold onto the words in memory alone.)

The 2004 Ballade for cello and piano is also Brahmsian in its tone and sound, and with what sounds like an underlying passacaglia structure. The 1988 Three Choral Songs (on Poems of Amichai) are scrupulously crafted a cappella miniatures, but they didn’t speak as deeply to me as the other works on the disc. But the 2007 Every Thing Must Go for saxophone quartet is fresh, playful, and moving at once. It seems something of a new avenue for the composer, as I hear a lot of “spectral” elements (i.e., overtone-based harmonies), most evident in the middle memorial movement to Bresnick’s teacher György Ligeti. It’s in three short movements, only about 13 minutes total; the Prism matches its demands with a marvelous purity of color and intonation.

Highly recommended, though again, there’s a slight feeling of a “sweeping up” of pieces not yet recorded, old and new. But nothing wrong with that, especially when it’s all so good. It does make me hungry, though, for a work or series of works comparable to the Opere. And I can’t help but regret there’s not more orchestral music out there from the composer. While this is probably partly choice—Bresnick has a very original sense of how to write grandly for chamber groupings—I also can’t help but think it’s also an index of the bone-headedness of so much of the American orchestral establishment. For meaty music of a Beethovenian or Brahmsian cast, without pandering pastiche, this is the man. Why don’t I know more than one piece in the Opere cycle? Maybe I’ve missed something out there?

- Robert Carl
This article originally appeared in Issue 34:1 (Sept/Oct 2010) of Fanfare Magazine.

Three Intermezzi: Music From the American Academy in Rome
Bridge records

Martin Bresnick's Three Intermezzi for solo cello are expertly performed by Ole Akahoshi. Returning to a more contemporary style, the short pieces are dramatic and demonstrate an array of sounds and timbral contrasts. The first piece is intense and somewhat aggressive, while the second takes on the form of a melodic dialogue which develops with the sense of a well-formed improvisation and a hint of jazz. Here the cello has a distinct voice; one which demands to be heard. The final movement is a virtuoso display, with impressive pizzicato effects and a wonderful sense of direction through the work. For me this is one of the highlights of the disc.

- Carla Rees, International Music Web

Composer Martin Bresnick brings unique brand of spirituality to Birmingham-Southern College
February 16, 2008

For the Birmingham News

The ever-scrappy and ambitious music department at Birmingham-Southern College has brought several iconic composers and their music to Birmingham in recent years. On Friday night, BSC presented Martin Bresnick, a profoundly spiritual composer from New Haven, Conn. He was in Birmingham to oversee rehearsals, lead a master class and explain his music to the small but tuned-in audience.

Bresnick's particular brand of spirituality, with its emphasis on the beauty and connectedness of the natural world, recalls the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau. The music of Charles Ives repeatedly came to mind throughout the nearly two-hour concert, although the surface of Bresnick's music is very different. It integrated diverse elements, including birdsong, American vernacular music, video derived from William Blake's eccentric poetry and engravings, and lots and lots of noise.

He complemented the regional underpinning with several references to southern creative traditions, including blues from the Mississippi Delta via the rock band, Cream, and texts by Georgia poets transformed into a mysterious song cycle for mezzo-soprano.

The vocal ensemble Sursum Corda sang two Sacred Harp-inspired Psalm settings. Despite the subtitles -- New Haven and Woodstock -- local audiences would surely place the craggy stylistic origins of the two choral works squarely in North Alabama.

Bresnick's musical materials include nods to minimalism and, through the occasional musical quote, post-modernism. Bresnick is undaunted by major and minor triads, pounding rhythmic repetitions and extended stays in a limited tonal realm. While this description suggests minimalists such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Bresnick's emphasis on transformation of material and, perhaps more significantly, of mood, distinguishes him from those composers. His repeated and varied musical aphorisms recall Beethoven and his descendants. Indeed, the manner in which Bresnick marries musical gesture with spiritual content often brought the music of Gustav Mahler to mind, especially during the song cycle.

The roster of excellent performers included violinist Karen Bentley Pollick, who navigated brilliantly between sumptuous melodies and timbral noodlings, and mezzo-soprano Nadine Whitney, for whom Bresnick composed the cycle. Most impressive was Australian pianist and would-be contortionist Lisa Moore, who, while engaged in traditional ivory tickling, also slapped, stomped, vocalized and narrated.

A Maestro from the Bronx What influences have shaped Martin Bresnick's music? Just for starters: Melville, Blake, Rimsky-Korsakov, socialism, and Elvis.

March/April 2007 by Anne Midgette '86, for The Yale Alumni Magazine
Anne Midgette '86 covers classical music for the New York Times.

A whiff of the pejorative floats around the term "academic composer." This mythical individual is held responsible for many of the musical ills of the late 20th century: safely isolated in an ivory tower, forcing serialism on unwilling students, and smugly writing compositions that appeal only to a handful of other like-minded academics.

And Martin Bresnick is an "academic composer" in the most literal sense. He has been ensconced at the Yale School of Music for nearly 30 years and has taught generations of students. He has won just about every significant award that can be won by a composer, from the Rome Prize to a Guggenheim to the American Academy of Arts and Letters's first-ever Charles Ives Living award -- which frees a composer, for a span of three years' time, to concentrate exclusively on composing.

Where can this august figure be found when he's at home? Naturally, he frequents the place that best epitomizes the spirit of the academy with which he is affiliated.

That would be Naples Pizza.

Amid the dark tables, their rutted surfaces bearing the acne-like scars of generations of student carvings, before the fluorescent-lit display counter with its salads and pastries, in the pre-holiday half-emptiness of a December afternoon, Bresnick, 60, gray-haired, voracious, and utterly unaffected, holds court with the informal comfort of a student prince. He is voluble; he is boyish. He offers a visitor the bounty of Naples as if the restaurant belonged to him (regretfully noting the absence, this afternoon, of its signature rice pudding), ordering, for himself, "the usual" (antipasto). His large head is placed slightly forward on a strong upper body, with a hint of stiffness veiled beneath pure affability. He puts down his tray, sits, and uncorks a stream of conversation swirling with ideas and anecdotes, diverting into tributaries when a passing colleague greets him or when a student (knowing where to find him) comes in to confer about the library's inability to locate parts for one of Bresnick's string quartets.

A cell phone call. The parts are found. The student leaves. Refocus. Bresnick eats another pimiento and talks about Camille Pisarro, Harold Bloom, William Blake, Arte Povera, with a kind of down-to-earth enthusiasm that carries ideas from the realm of the intellectual elysium into the shirtsleeves world of real life. It's rare, among the nation-states of the academic world, to find someone with so much active, unpretentious interest in fields other than his own.


"The greatest pleasure in life is learning things I don't know."

"I'm not a Renaissance man, but I am a Renaissance boy," Bresnick jokes. "A Renaissance kid; let's not give it a gender. The greatest pleasure in life is learning things I don't know. It's one of the judgments I make about music, too. If I go to a concert and listen, I want to learn something that I don't know. I have a lot of regard for quality and craft. But if I hear something that teaches me something that I could not have thought, something I hadn't imagined could be: that's the greatest pleasure I know."

Classical music -- elitist? Think again.

In the music world, Bresnick has conventionally been known as a teacher. His name is often invoked like a biblical patriarch's, followed by a string of "begats": the long list of former students who have gone on to significant careers, writing music in a rainbow of dissimilar styles. Among them: Kevin Puts '96MusM, Marc Mellits '91MusM, Michael Torke '86Mus, Christopher Theofanidis '97MusAD, David Lang '83MusAM, Julie Wolfe '86MusM, and Michael Gordon '82MusM.

Bresnick is perhaps most often mentioned as the teacher of Lang, Wolfe, and Gordon, founders of a composers collective called Bang on a Can, which has become a pivotal force in New York's music scene. Breaking away from accepted academic tradition, mingling musical styles in a hip melange, the group has spawned a performing arm, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, that has helped redefine the chamber ensemble as something that can include a Javanese gamelan and an electric guitar, as well as a crackling energy that has young audiences practically dancing in the aisles. Many academic composers still regard Bang on a Can as too funky, too playful, too unserious. Not Bresnick.

"We do look at him as our guru," says Lang of his former teacher. "He's a really inspiring person."

But the label of "teacher" may have helped obscure Bresnick's significance as a composer. So it seemed, at least, when a few events around his 60th birthday last November propelled him into the spotlight.


For Bresnick's 60th birthday, the Yale School of Music presented a concert of his music.

First, Bang on a Can's recording label, Cantaloupe Music, issued a double-disc tribute, The Essential Martin Bresnick, that includes both a CD of assorted works and a DVD of his multimedia piece For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, a setting of a work by William Blake. (Bresnick wrote it for his wife, the pianist Lisa Moore, who is a former member of the All-Stars.) The album's cover bears a picture of a glass of water. It's a fine illustration for music that is clear, unadorned, and refreshing. What it doesn't get across, though, is the richness of the content, the levels of meaning and allusion worked into the solid architecture of Bresnick's pieces. A better metaphor might be a Shaker chair made of mahogany: something whose unassuming exterior belies both skilled craftsmanship and considerable, unexpected substance.

And the Yale School of Music's birthday present to Bresnick in December -- a concert of his music at Carnegie Hall's underground outpost, Zankel Hall -- opened many people's ears to his importance.

"What good music!" said the New York Times's chief critic, Anthony Tommasini '70, '72MM, happily, at intermission. His subsequent review called the pieces "vibrant," "varied," "wondrous," and "inspired." The concert, he said, "made clear that Mr. Bresnick is a major voice."

Its creator is happy at all the attention, and a little perplexed at the idea that he's somehow been laboring in obscurity all these years. "I won the Rome Prize when I was 29 years old," he points out. "I also won the Berlin Prize; I've won just about every prize that anybody out there was giving! What more do I do?" He lapses into Catskills-comic mode, throwing up his hands, thickening the New York accent: "Where did I go wrong?"

In the same joking vein, one could say that Bresnick's very beginnings in classical music were the result of a misunderstanding. As a boy, inflamed by the music of Elvis Presley, he pestered his parents for guitar lessons. For Russian immigrants in a housing cooperative in the Bronx, finding a guitar teacher wasn't simple; but his parents finally managed to locate one and set their son up with lessons. The young Bresnick learned to read music, mastered fingerings, and waited, every week, for the lesson in which he would learn how to play like Elvis. Instead, he learned Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and other highlights of the nineteenth-century symphonic repertory, which his teacher, also Russian, had transcribed for guitar. Bresnick was ultimately recruited to fill in as a member of his teacher's balalaika orchestra. You could say that his earliest musical ambitions were lost in translation.


Bresnick is very much a product of a certain period in New York.

Bresnick is very much a product of a certain period in New York. He attended the High School of Music and Art (of Fame fame), where his contemporaries included a host of people who went on to notable careers in music, from Leon Botstein, the conductor and president of Bard College, to Mark Snow (then Marty Fulterman), the film composer who wrote the music for The X-Files.

There were different influences at home. The Amalgamated Housing Cooperative, where he grew up, was an example of socialism in its purest form: a community where the grocery store was cooperatively owned and residents ran the day care, schools, and small businesses. Politics were expressed through lifestyle rather than party affiliation: one could defray one's living expenses by working at the grocery store. The ideology, as Bresnick describes it, was "basically kind of socialist anarchist, with cultural pretensions." (The cooperative, founded in 1927, still exists.)

"The nature of the socialism in my family, which had a strong political component, is part of who I am," Bresnick continues. "They were never members of the Communist Party; they weren't the red-diaper babies. They were always this independent group."

It's not hard to see the parallels in Bresnick's subsequent musical career. As a composer, Bresnick has remained independent of compositional schools and styles, following his own path. In liner notes to the CD Opere della Musica Povera (CRI Records), John Halle, a former Yale colleague who now teaches at Bard, observed that "his painstakingly engineered and elegantly constructed works represent a species of homage -- the selfless dedication of the master craftsman to his calling and its traditions, a Marxian commitment to value derived from labor over market-determined price."


"If I feel that someone is potentially interesting, I will make my way to them."

As a citizen of the music world, Bresnick has consistently played an active role in the communities of which he's a part. At Yale, this has meant encouraging his students and guiding undergraduate ensembles like "Sheep's Clothing," an eclectic group that mounted everything from chamber concerts to avant-garde performance happenings. It has also meant actively cultivating relationships with professors in other fields, such as historian Henry Louis Gates '73 (now at Harvard) and art historian Robert Farris Thompson '55, '65PhD. Bresnick is a frequent member of the Whitney Humanities Center, through which a rotating group of scholars from different fields meets regularly to exchange ideas. "If I feel that someone is potentially interesting, I will make my way to them," he says.

Seeing Harold Bloom walking down the street near Naples one afternoon, Bresnick accosted the English professor to tell him about the Blake project, which he was working on at the time. Bloom was sufficiently intrigued to listen to the piece and get involved. The DVD of "For the Sexes," in which Moore plays, speaks, and sings while images from Blake's book move across a screen behind her piano, also includes a 12-minute video clip of Bloom discussing Blake's work.

Another example of Bresnick's extra-musical frame of reference is his seminal Opere della Musica Povera, a cycle of 12 pieces that range in length from two minutes to twenty, in style from near-minimalism to choral harmony, and in scale from full orchestra to a trio of clarinet, viola, and piano. (The trio is the enigmatically named "***," one of Bresnick's best pieces.) The title of the works as a whole is a nod to the Arte Povera school in Italy, a group of artists who turned to elemental, simple materials to explore the relation between "art" and "reality."

"One of my favorite unknown Arte Povera works was by a guy I knew, named Paolo Icaro, in Italy," Bresnick says. "One day he saw that a little building of the tribunal was kind of falling down, so he went off and got his plaster and fixed this thing; and that was his piece [of art]. I thought, That's what I want my music to be. Make the community whole again. Instead of marble and bronze, how about using concrete and grass and sand. That's what I'm after in many of those pieces; they start from principles of a kind of music that is materially graspable, though in the piece it happens to be very complicated. Open the door: my house has many mansions. You come in that door, you may find a lot to do. I'm not going to put up a barrier. All I ask is that you pay attention."


Bresnick began composing while still in high school.

Bresnick began composing while still in high school. Matriculating at 16 at Hunter College, he transferred the next year to the University of Hartford. He was so active at the affiliated Hartt School of Music that, he says, the Hartford administrators lost track of him; when he returned to get an honorary award later in life, the institution seemed to believe he was a Hartt graduate. Yet a teacher at Hartt nearly got him to quit composing altogether: Arnold Franchetti, the resident eminence grise, whom Bresnick was finally allowed to study with his senior year.

"He was a teacher of the old school," Bresnick says: "very repressive. The first time I came in to his studio with my music, he clucked, 'Bresnick, Bresnick, what are you doing?' The second time: 'No, Bresnick, this is not right.' The next time, he erased my music and wrote in his own music. One of the next times, he said, 'Bresnick, how dare you bring me this abortion!' and he threw it on the floor. I was staggered by the hostility to what I was trying to do; I was ready to throw myself off a bridge. But a wonderful teacher named Edward Miller took me aside and said, 'Don't worry, don't lose heart; keep going; you've got something.'"

Years later, in the early '80s, Bresnick was at a concert where a piece of his and of Franchetti's were on the program. "I liked his music," he explains. "It was always lyrical, charming. I sought him out in the lobby and said, 'Maestro Franchetti, it's wonderful to see you again and I really enjoyed your piece.' He was very old; he could hardly see. He peered up at me and said, 'Bresnick, Bresnick, I hate your music; it's terrible!'"

Franchetti "was a very good example of the teacher I decided never to be," Bresnick said. The teacher he wanted to be appeared after he got to Stanford for graduate school, where John Chowning introduced him to computer music and to the works of the composer who was to become his towering idol -- and later his teacher -- the Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti (best known to many for "Lux Aeterna" and other pieces that were used on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey).


At Yale, almost every composition student works with every teacher.

Though Bresnick's music sounds nothing like Ligeti's, they share an awareness of the importance of tradition, and both seek to synthesize the musical past and a unique voice of the present. "He was probably the greatest composer of the era," Bresnick says. "And as a teacher he set a standard that was bracing." After a first failed attempt -- Bresnick won a Fulbright to work with Ligeti in Vienna, only to arrive there and find that Ligeti had won a grant to go work somewhere else -- Bresnick was able to study with him after Chowning managed to lure him to California for a year. Bresnick's identification with Ligeti speaks to the bond between teacher and student -- a bond, avers David Lang, Bresnick's student, that has special strength in the field of music. "Like medieval stone carvers, you can tell which guild you belong to," Lang says. "We trace our lineage back."

At Yale, almost every composition student works with every teacher, so Bresnick by default works with nearly every composer who comes through the School of Music; it's not altogether surprising that he's had some successful proteges. But few teachers enjoy such widespread admiration for their pedagogic abilities.

"The thing that's great about Martin is that he really wants you to be better than you are," Lang says, "no matter where you are or what you are doing. If you are writing beautiful music, he wants it to be better beautiful music. His view is that 'If I ask the right question, your eyes will open a little and you will do something one inch smarter.' He found a way to make lots of different people think lots of different kinds of things. Like a good psychoanalyst, he wants the little things that you do to be examined. I think that's the reason his approach works on so many different kinds of music and people."

Of course, Bresnick has had a very good practical reason to keep his teaching skills in good shape. The Yale School of Music, like Yale's other art schools, doesn't offer tenure. After all these years, and even with his recent promotion to an endowed chair -- Bresnick is now the Charles T. Wilson Professor of Music -- he is still an adjunct professor on a five-year contract.

Yet an advantage of Yale's music school is that, unlike Stanford or Harvard, there is a whole pool of performers the composition department can draw on. "Over the years, I've gotten to know some incredible students, whom I not only teach in classes, but then they play the pieces," he says. "One of the great things about working here is it's like Esterhazy," the summer castle of Haydn's patron, where the composer's new works were played by the house orchestra. "I get to try things with the students who are not jaded; they're not burned out yet."

Burnout is an oft-cited ailment of academic composers, too. But Bresnick appears to have staved it off -- not least by continuing to focus, at least part of the time, on creating vital new work. "Pine Eyes," a two-act puppet version of "Pinocchio." "Grace," a double concerto for two marimbas inspired by a Kleist essay. "My Twentieth Century," a poignant work in which the musicians take turns speaking aloud the verses of a simple poem citing a range of specific, personal events from a century now over.

"I feel it's more important to be ambitious for your music," says the composer, "than to be ambitious for yourself."

Joshua Kosman, Gramophone, February 2007

Martin Bresnick has devoted his career to two complementary and intertwined pursuits: composing music of wiry, tender-hearted eloquence, and training a younger generation to write brilliant music that sounds nothing like it. But because his success as a teacher has been so pronounced – the roster of his students includes some of the most prominent composers now in their 30s and 40s, most notably the founding directors of New York’s influential Bang on a Can Festival – the scope of his own achievement as a composer has been unfairly obscured.

Now that imbalance is beginning to right itself. A few weeks after his 60th birthday in November, Bresnick was feted with a retrospective concert of his music at Zankel Hall in New York. And Cantaloupe Records, Bang on a Can’s recording label, has issued “The Essential Martin Bresnick,” a captivating CD/DVD set that offers a concise glimpse of some of his most characteristic and telling chamber music.

The cumulative effect of all this activity is to shine a spotlight on a composer whose importance is all too easy to misjudge. His music is almost impossible to pigeonhole stylistically: It can be knotty and atonal at one juncture, lushly harmonic the next. Romantic melody, minimalist phase patterns and gritty rhythmic explosions coexist or make way for one another as the demands of a given work dictate.

And the range of students who have come under his wing at Yale, where he has taught since 1976 – first in the undergraduate music department and for the last 25 years in the School of Music – is just as multifold. In addition to Bang on a Can founders David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, they include Evan Ziporyn, Michael Torke, Christopher Theofanidis, Kevin Puts and many more. If there is no very obvious Bresnick style, there is no Bresnick school either.

What binds all these disparate strands together is Bresnick’s own combination of intellectual depth and cheerful practicality. An expansive thinker with a wide knowledge of both Western and non-Western art, literature and philosophy, he thrives in the heady atmosphere of an Ivy League university. But at the same time, he takes a pragmatic view of the nuts and bolts of composing. With his warm, avuncular demeanor and bushy hair and beard, he’s like some kind of Jewish-anarchist Hans Sachs – at once a scholar and a cobbler – exploring the techniques of creation and passing them along to a new generation.

“A composer,” he says with the tone of someone delivering a credo, “is someone who takes the problems that are cast up, and solves those problems.”

That ad-hoc approach to composition – craftsmanlike, sensible, free of dogma or doctrine – is a legacy of the late György Ligeti, who taught Bresnick during his student days in Vienna and became a powerful role model.

“Ligeti saw every ism, every stylistic trend or fashion, as a cage,” Bresnick says. “He tried very hard to find an individual response to each situation from his own imagination. He rejected being a modernist or even post-modernist avatar.”

Bresnick also attributes his flexibility to his experience as a composer of film scores, including the sound track for the 1980 documentary “The Day After Trinity.”

“When you work on a film score, you have to quickly characterize in music something you see on screen. You have to surrender the prudishness of stylistic restraint: If you feel like you can only write music that reflects some stylistic twitch or quirk, you quickly learn to let that go.

“So I’m intrigued by the challenge of dealing with particular compositional circumstances. But I believe to my roots that when and if anyone wants to look back over my work, they will find a very consistent approach in the interior of the work. If I have to fight a fire, I wear a red jacket and a fireman’s hat; if I’m walking a picket line I wear jeans and carry a sign; and if I’m going to a party I wear a suit. But I’m still the same guy.”

Among the common threads underlying much of Bresnick’s work are a lean, sinewy approach to form and a directness of expression that grows out of his economical language.

“He builds structures the way Bartók did, with rigor and simplicity,” says Lang. “His music has no ornament, by which I mean that you never get to a moment where there’s a beautiful flute trill and you think, ‘That’s only there because it’s so nice to hear a beautiful flute trill.’ Everything is there to further the argument.”

“Behind the music is this Beethovenian rigor,” says Theofanidis. “You struggle to get where you’re going, and although unexpected moments of grace come up, it’s the struggle itself that is fundamental.”

The music on the Cantaloupe set bears out these observations. The String Quartet No. 2, named “Bucephalus” after the steed ridden into battle by Alexander the Great, gets an athletic, edgy rendition by the Flux Quartet, balanced by the tenderer, more translucent Piano Trio as performed by the Jupiter Trio. Two instrumental works inspired by Kafka – the plangent “Bucket Rider” and the ferocious “Be Just!” – sound unusually vibrant as performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. On the DVD is “For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise,” Bresnick’s incantational setting of the poetry of William Blake, in a riveting performance by his wife, the pianist and speaker Lisa Moore.

Practical responsiveness to the situation at hand is part of what makes Bresnick such a skillful teacher as well.

“Studying with Martin isn’t like the European modernist teachers, where there’s one way to compose and they show you what it is,” says Lang. “It’s more like therapy, in that he’ll listen to you and then ask you the question that makes you think one inch farther than you’ve thought so far. He’s not telling you what to write, but asking you to think more carefully about what you were doing already.”

Bresnick is philosophical about the fact that he is better known as an educator than as a composer.

“Teaching was originally something I had to do to earn a living,” he says. “When I was emerging, the idea of an independent composer who didn’t have a trust fund was hard to imagine, and given my background and my parents’ concerns about music, I had to convince everyone that I could make a living. Teaching came more naturally to me than being an insurance executive.

“And now that these people have become well known and are claiming me as their teacher, what am I going to say, No? Should I get petulant and push it away and try to deny what everyone can see?”

Still, he declines to be classed with such non-composing pedagogues as Nadia Boulanger. His model, he says, is the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, who was an important influence on a younger coterie of artists, including Gauguin, Degas and van Gogh, while continuing to produce his own work – and, Bresnick notes with glee, a Jewish anarchist to boot.

Bresnick was born and raised in a union-based cooperative housing project in the Bronx, the child of working-class Yiddish speakers. His father was an accountant for a beer distributor, his mother a Russian-born garment worker who took in needlework to help make ends meet. Left-wing politics was a natural part of his birthright, and it remains evident in the titles and themes of many of his works today – most notably “Opere della Musica Povera” (“Works of a Poor Music”), an umbrella title for a cycle of some dozen works characterized by deliberately restricted means.

“The composer Robert Beaser once said that it wouldn’t be a piece of Bresnick’s without the word ‘work’ or ‘worker’ in the title,” he says with a laugh. “And it’s true that my music is often concerned with the insulted, the oppressed, the downtrodden – the Sancho Panzas rather than the Don Quixotes, the horse of Alexander the Great rather than Alexander himself.”

Music was not a prominent part of the household, but there were a few records around, and Martin gravitated to them right away.

“My parents noticed early on that was I memorizing things like the ‘Nutcracker’ Suite, and I would sing along with the records. As soon as the music started, I’d be wandering around like a Sufi in a trance; they figured out that that was the way to shut me up.”

He began taking guitar lessons at 7, hoping to emulate Elvis Presley. But his parents had unwittingly entrusted him to a local teacher whose goal was to enlist him in a guitar and balalaika orchestra; instead of learning to play “Hound Dog” and “Johnny B. Goode,” he says, he kept winding up with “Sheherazade.” Still, he forged on, learning to play piano, flute and oboe, and entering New York’s High School of Music and Art at 13. Before that, though, he’d already felt composition beckoning to him.

“I must have been about 11 years old, and I remember one day listening to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, and thinking, ‘I know what this is about, I know what this means.’ I didn’t need Leonard Bernstein to explain things to me. I just felt that I got it – and then I felt a sense of profound responsibility that if I get it, I should do it. And so I began writing things down.”

After studies at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and in Vienna, Bresnick enrolled in the graduate program at Stanford, where he studied with the electronic music pioneer John Chowning. He arrived in California in the fall of 1967 – just after the Summer of Love.

“The world was exploding – the computer, the politics, everything. I was playing guitar in a rock band that used to get called in to play whenever they occupied a building. In the daytime I was a responsible graduate student, and at night I was listening to Jimi Hendrix and Cream, and experimenting with whatever drug I could get my hands on.”

Bresnick taught at Stanford for a few years before relocating to Yale, where he tried to recreate some of that aura of excitement on a musical landscape that at the time was fairly constrained. He helped found Sheep’s Clothing, an undergraduate ensemble that staged all-night marathons to perform works by Messiaen, Terry Riley and Frederic Rzewski. He inspired countless music students (including me) with curiosity about new and unusual fare. Except for the years between 1998 and 2001, when he was the first recipient of the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has been there ever since.

At 60, Bresnick takes a more philosophical view of music and its role in the world than he did as young man. “I think it’s very helpful to know that you cannot do everything. You cannot remake the history of the world or of music. You can make some beautiful things and leave them for people to take consolation from, but the world will go how it will go.

“Last month I was teaching an analysis seminar on Schumann’s ‘Mondnacht,’ and I thought how privileged we are to live in a world that has such a piece in it. And my hope is that maybe someday someone will be able to say that about my work.”

Joshua Kosman is the classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Critic's Notebook by Alex Ross

The New Yorker | Goings on About Town
Issue of 2006-12-11

Martin Bresnick is one of the great pragmatists in contemporary music, a composer who will use any sound as long as it speaks vividly and makes narrative sense. He is also a great teacher of composition, able to guide students who are moving in directions different from his own. Over many years at Yale, he has taught the members of the pop-inflected Bang on a Can collective—Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe—and a hundred or more others of all persuasions. Bresnick just turned sixty, and a mini-festival is in progress. The Cantaloupe label, Bang on a Can’s boutique operation, has released “The Essential Martin Bresnick”; Yale musicians are presenting an all-Bresnick concert at Zankel Hall on Saturday night; and two pieces from “Opere della Musica Povera” (“Works of a Poor Music”), his dazzlingly varied evening-length cycle of vocal and instrumental works, will appear on a Bang on a Can All-Stars program at Zankel on Tuesday. The last title has an ironic ring: Bresnick creates a rich world in even the humblest forms.


The Jewish Week 12/08/2006
The Teacher Appears: Tribute to Martin Bresnick by his students marks not only his 60th birthday but also 25 years of ‘giving back’ through teaching.
by George Robinson - Special To The Jewish Week

Please don’t think that Martin Bresnick is having a “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” moment.

Sure, the acclaimed composer and teacher is celebrating his 60th birthday this month with a series of concerts and the release of a new CD of his music, performed by a gang of his former students, centered on the Bang on a Can All-Stars and his long-time academic home, the Yale School of Music.

But he’s not the “grand old man” nearing retirement and taking a retrospective look back at a parade of his students through a Vaseline-coated lens of memories.

“Well, there is a little bit of that,” Bresnick says, leaning back in the booth in a midtown diner where he has been sampling the apple pie. “But I don’t think of myself in that role. For most of my teaching career I haven’t been that much older than my students. It’s only recently that students stopped calling me Martin. I’m not an authority figure, and our work revolves around a sense of communal discovery.”

Bresnick, who has been on the Yale faculty for 25 years, likes to cite a famous Zen koan about teaching: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” But he is also highly attuned to the teacher-student interplay. He cites as an example his own studies with the great composer György Ligeti (coincidentally, also a Jew).

“He was one of the greatest composers of our era,” Bresnick says. “You learn from what he said about things, but also from what he did. I had that as an example. It’s a way of saying, ‘I am a real composer and people who study with me know that.’”

And it is as a composer that Bresnick wants to be known. He doesn’t downplay the importance of teaching. On the contrary, it is an integral part of the ethos in which his Yiddishist, socialist family raised him.

“Teaching for me has always had a strong social component,” he says. “It’s part of giving back. I came out of a working-class family in the Bronx and was given a tremendous opportunity by others. I had it ingrained in me that you serve and have to share.”

That’s a lesson he was taught growing up in the Amalgamated Co-ops.

“I had a very devoted secular Jewish upbringing,” Bresnick says. “My family were dedicated Yiddishists, I was sent to the Arbeiter Ring [Workmen’s Circle] elementary school. My family ran the gamut politically from anarchist to liberal Democrats. I can still read Yiddish, and my aunt, Phylis Berk, is a well-known Yiddish singer. My mother, at 85, is still a professional storyteller who travels around the country talking about life in the shtetl.”

It was a wonderful milieu in which to grow up, but not so hot for learning classical music, he admits.

“When I was little my parents had very few classical records,” Bresnick recalls. “I could memorize very quickly. Somewhere out there is a disc with me singing snippets of ‘Barber of Seville’ and ‘The Nutcracker,’ which were the two classical records they had at first. But they recognized that I had a talent, and they got me a couple of records when they could. The first time I ever heard a woodwind quintet was when I saw one live at the age of nine on a school trip. I was completely dumbfounded by the bouquet of timbres.”

It was the beginning of a career and a calling.

“I would listen to a Beethoven symphony when I was 7 and felt that I understood what was intended,” he says. “I had some comprehension of the point of [writing] a symphony. And I felt, ‘I can do it too.’ I think I understood that it had something to do with what it means to be a human being.

“Music for many people at that age is a wonderful refuge. It offers them an ordered world. As a composer, you are making a world.”

On the other hand, Bresnick was also participating in the world around him. As a teenager, he played rock guitar, graduated from the High School of Music and Art at 16 “as the youngest beatnik ever,” he adds, laughing, and was in grad school on the West Coast by 20. He saw Jimi Hendrix live, still admires Cream as “a great chamber-music group,” and gigged as a working musician.

Even today, Bresnick “listens to everything,” and his own compositions have a uniquely American eclecticism.

“It’s Ivesian,” he says, citing the great American maverick, Charles Ives. “It’s totally democratic; everybody’s got a right to belly up to the table and contribute.”

Bresnick is a composer who can juxtapose the repetitive structures of minimalism with Stravinskian harmonies, who can use a Willie Dixon blues riff as the jumping-off point for a Brahmsian chamber piece, who can write movingly for marimba and orchestra.

If you ask him if there is any musical style that he would reject out of hand, he smiles and says, “I’m ready to accept almost any influence into my domain. My ‘border guards’ may ask them to show their passport first, though.”

He admits to excluding only one major late-20th-century movement.

“I’m not that interested in conceptual art,” he says. “Most of it has revealed itself to be poorer conceptually than any physically-based art. I believe in the line from William Carlos Williams, ‘No ideas but in things.’ I like the pleasures of the physical world, and if I can embody something in the world of music, that’s good enough.”

Above all, he wants to be known as a composer first and foremost.

“No question about it,” he says emphatically. “I’ve never thought of myself any other way. I love teaching and I’m glad to be well-regarded as a teacher, but I have no doubt of my own self-identity.”

Anyone who hears Bresnick’s music, live or on disc, will agree. n

“Martin Bresnick at 60: Yale School of Music Celebrates the Composer and Beloved Pedagogue,” a concert of Bresnick’s work will take place on Dec. 9 at 7:30 p.m. at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall (57th St. and Seventh Ave.). For information call CarnegieCharge at (212) 247-7800 or go to

“The Essential Martin Bresnick” featuring the Bang on a Can All-Stars, is available on the Cantaloupe Records label.


The New York Times, December 12, 2006
Music Review | 'The Essential Martin Bresnick': Yale Steps Beyond the Campus to Pay Tribute to a Composition Professor


Having a teaching post at a major university can provide security and collegial stimulation for a composer. Martin Bresnick has used his position as a composition professor at the Yale School of Music to good benefit, nurturing hundreds of students who have moved in all directions, while finding time and space to create a catalog of vibrant, varied and respected works.

The downside of being based at a university is that a composer can become a little sequestered from the larger public. So for New York concertgoers “The Essential Martin Bresnick: A 60th Birthday Retrospective” at Zankel Hall on Saturday night was long overdue. The program was presented by the Yale School of Music.

Mr. Bresnick has had his share of successes in New York, with pieces played by, among other ensembles, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and, just last Tuesday, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But the concert Saturday night, with performances of six inspired works lovingly played by students and faculty from Yale, made clear that Mr. Bresnick is a major voice.

In “B.’s Garlands,” for eight cellos, the acuteness of Mr. Bresnick’s ear for modernistic harmony and texture was unmistakable. The piece, which he conducted, begins with a quietly organic mass of tremulous sound. Yet shards of color, strands of counterpoint and precisely spaced harmonies come shooting through the mists of sound. After this, the Yale Camerata, a choir of about 65 voices, gave a sensitive performance of Three Choral Songs, mystical yet harmonically astringent settings of texts on themes of pain, comfort and war by the 20th-century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

Mr. Bresnick has kept the title of his 1997 trio for clarinet (David Shifrin), viola (Jesse Levine) and piano (Lisa Moore) a secret. He calls it ***. True to its cryptic nontitle, the mood of the work is deceptively stately. Even when things turn agitated, and descending cascades of piano sonorities play against fidgety duos for viola and clarinet, the elusive music somehow remains eerily calm.

In “Grace,” a 20-minute concerto for two marimbas (Robert van Sice and James Deitz) and chamber orchestra, extended passages of halting rhythms and quizzical restraint are broken up with bursts of precise and telling gestures.

“For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise” was a tour de force for Ms. Moore, the pianist for whom it was written. As she played music of unnervingly repetitive chords, staggered rhythms and delicate filigrees, Ms. Moore also spoke and sometimes sang lines from the poet William Blake about a man’s progress through life. The music precisely accompanied powerfully simple computer animations of Blake’s drawings prepared by Puppetsweat Theater. (A DVD of a performance of this work is available on “The Essential Martin Bresnick,” a two-disc recording recently released on the Cantaloupe Music label.)

In “My Twentieth Century” Mr. Bresnick again asks musicians to do more than play their instruments. As this wondrous chamber sextet proceeds, with music of melodic riffs and pungent harmonies, the players by turn put aside their instruments to recite a wistfully reflective poem by Tom Andrews with lines like: “I wasted three years on geometry in the twentieth century”; and “My brother died in the twentieth century.” That even the musicians with foreign accents entered so readily into the performance was a testimony to their trust in their teacher’s artistry.


Happy Jazzy, Operatic, Symphonic Birthday, Dear Teacher
By STEVE SMITH, New York Times, December 3, 2006

CONSIDER this list of prominent American composers: Michael Torke, Stewart Wallace, Daniel Kellogg, David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, Christopher Theofanidis. On the surface they seem to have little in common apart from nationality; their music ranges from plush symphonic works and operas to rock-infused post-Minimalist pieces.

Add to that list Marco Beltrami, who has provided scores for lucrative feature films like “I, Robot” and the “Scream” series, and Jack Perla, who won the Thelonious Monk competition for jazz composers in 1997. Now add literally dozens more.

What all these composers share is a teacher: Martin Bresnick, the coordinator of the composition department at Yale, where he has taught since 1976. That extraordinary roster of successful former pupils sometimes overshadows Mr. Bresnick’s own reputation as a composer, with noteworthy commissions and estimable awards to show for his efforts. A calendar on his Web site ( documents the many performances his work receives.

Mr. Bresnick turned 60 last month, and the occasion will be commemorated this week by two concerts at Zankel Hall.

On Tuesday evening two of his works will be included in a program by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the house band of the eclectic collective Bang on a Can, founded by his former students Mr. Gordon, Mr. Lang and Ms. Wolfe. Both works appear on a new CD, “The Essential Martin Bresnick,” recently issued on Bang on a Can’s label, Cantaloupe.

On Saturday the Yale School of Music will devote an entire evening at Zankel to Mr. Bresnick’s music, including choral songs, a concerto for two marimbas, a multimedia piece for solo pianist and other works less easily categorized.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a composer who teaches,” Mr. Bresnick said recently from Kalamazoo, Mich., where he had just supervised the recording of one of his works. “I never thought of it any other way. The tail has been pinned on me because I do it pretty well, so I certainly wouldn’t step back from it. But from the very beginning I formulated my life as a composer, and this was just one way of sustaining my abilities to work as a composer, because I didn’t have any other sources of money.”

Mr. Bresnick grew up in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers housing project in the Bronx. His musical proficiency became evident at a startlingly early age: he still owns recordings, made on the Atlantic City boardwalk, in which he sang Rossini’s aria “Largo al Factotum” and selections by Tchaikovsky at 2.

After graduating from the High School of Music and Art in New York and the University of Hartford, he came under the wing of John Chowning, a pioneer in computer music at Stanford. Mr. Chowning introduced him to music of the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, an encounter that made a lasting impression.

Mr. Bresnick obtained a Fulbright fellowship to study with Ligeti in Vienna. On arrival he learned that Ligeti was departing for a fellowship of his own in Berlin. Instead Mr. Bresnick studied with Gottfried von Einem, a more conservative Austrian composer. But when he returned to Stanford as a graduate student, he arranged for Ligeti to serve there as a visiting professor in 1972.

“I ended up getting to know him in a personal and very direct way,” Mr. Bresnick said. “His remarkable insights into music and his nonideological approach to making new music were absolutely infectious.”

In Ligeti he had a working model for what he hoped to achieve in his own work.

“Ligeti said that he was interested in having a music that was neither modern nor postmodern,” Mr. Bresnick recalled. “It liberated me to think about a music which would not take up the cudgels of modernism, nor would it be a music that would use tonality in some kind of dreamlike collage system. I had to develop a method of composition that would be sufficiently free but also sufficiently integrally made so that it could support anywhere I wanted to go.”

“Opere Della Musica Povera,” a heterogeneous 12-part cycle that consumed Mr. Bresnick throughout the ’90s, suggests that what unites his works, regardless of idiom or duration, is an interest in exploring the evocative qualities of sound in music governed by rigorous structural rules.

Somehow formality and concision failed to constrain his potent imagination, especially when he treated subjects drawn from visual art, poetry and literature. On Tuesday the All-Stars will present two of those works, “The Bucket Rider” and “Be Just!,” both based on stories by Kafka.

“The beginning of ‘Bucket Rider’ is a solo melody on bass clarinet, written in such a way that it’s basically out of range,” said Evan Ziporyn, who plays clarinet in the All-Stars. In placing the melody at the highest extreme of the low-pitched instrument, he explained, Mr. Bresnick was evoking the essence of a wan character in the Kafka story of the same name.

“Because of where it is, there’s no way for it to not be fragile,” Mr. Ziporyn added. “It’s always going to feel like it’s right on the edge of disappearing.”

Mr. Ziporyn, 47, studied composition with Mr. Bresnick as a Yale undergraduate in 1980. He had earlier played clarinet in Mr. Bresnick’s new-music ensemble Sheep’s Clothing, whose occasional all-night concerts were precursors of Bang on a Can’s daylong marathons.

“There is no Bresnick sound other than in his music,” said Mr. Ziporyn, who now teaches composition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But somehow he’s found a way to make people as aesthetically diverse as Michael Gordon on the one hand and Robert Beaser on the other, and a million miles in between, find their voice.”

A teacher’s mission, Mr. Ziporyn said, is to look at a young composer’s work and determine how best to improve the skills required to achieve it.

Kevin Puts, 34, a composer increasingly well known for his symphonic music, said, “I had come from a background of writing pieces in an intuitive, improvisatory way, where I’d sit at the piano and do whatever I thought should come next.” Mr. Bresnick, he said, emphasized the need for discipline, asserting that everything in a piece had to be logically justified.

“I remember my head spinning after my first lesson with him,” Mr. Puts said, “literally overwhelmed with the possibilities of what I could be doing with my piece.”

Mr. Bresnick credited Ligeti with providing an example in this pursuit as well.

“He was open to just about anything if it could be made with excellence and originality,” Mr. Bresnick said.

He laughed at the suggestion that he might be a late-20th-century equivalent to Nadia Boulanger, the French pedagogue who trained an earlier generation of American composers, including Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson and Elliott Carter. Instead Mr. Bresnick likened himself to Camille Pissarro, the 19th-century Impressionist painter who supported the work of a succeeding generation, including Monet and Manet, and was also influenced by them.

“Even after all these years I don’t see myself as somebody on a mountaintop with a bunch of tablets,” he said. “I see myself as one of the chosen, wandering in the desert. I’ve just been out there longer. When people come to me for teaching, I think they see that this is a person who has blood on his clothes and has been torn up a bit in his struggle, just as they struggle to achieve something.”

Record Review: The Essential Martin Bresnick
by Michael Brodeur

The Weekly Dig, Issue 8.47, Wed, November 22, 2006

The music of Martin Bresnick means the world to a lot of people—and absolutely nothing to even more. So smugly sits the irony of an “Essential” collection from a composer colossal enough to be invisible altogether. Kudos to Canteloupe for reining together such a powerful hour; this doesn’t feel like the standard hubris-fueled hype-horse that anyone who regularly receives press releases has grown used to. Bresnick’s music, evident even in this small sampling, is remarkably and entirely its own. Skewed and ordered, most beautiful when it seems to be tearing at its own body. The neighing entrance of the Bucephalus suite (1984), stirringly performed by the Flux Quartet, charges and rears, and strains against composure. The allure is that Bresnick may or may not be Alexander. The Jupiter Trio elegantly channels the fluid Trio for piano, violin and violoncello (1988)—even when it surges onto its own banks. The Bang on a Can All-Stars handle the often goofy BE JUST! (1995) and the eerie textures of The Bucket Rider (1995)

Time Out Chicago / Issue 91: Nov 23–Nov 29, 2006
Album review: The Essential Martin Bresnick (Cantaloupe)

From his perch at the Yale University School of Music, Bresnick taught the three artistic directors of Bang on a Can, the chamber ensemble that helped many composers unafraid of writing for electric guitar. They honor their prof here, whose wide range of expression and keen sense of structure will never go out of style.

The Chicago-based Jupiter Trio gives a kinetic reading of Bresnick’s Piano Trio. The descending lines of the final movement (marked “Ardently, Lost”) crash down with greater and greater force before splintering away. Eventually, violin, cello and piano are stabbing each other with chords, and sound truly lost.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars play two selections from Bresnick’s 12-part Opere della Musica Povera (Works of a Poor Music). These Kafka-inspired tales feature music marked by a poverty of spirit, as Bresnick calls it, taken as they are from tales of cruelty and woe. A doleful cello, vibraphone and clarinet conjure up the poor soul of The Bucket Rider, and the ghastly repetitions of BE JUST! represent pain-inducing needles.

A bonus DVD features pianist BoaC All-Star Lisa Moore (Bresnick’s wife) playing the captivating, baroque-dance–inspired For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise. BoaC even got Harold Bloom to discuss Blake for 15 minutes, and his droll commentary elucidates Blake’s poetry. The adventurous Flux Quartet whispers and sighs through Bresnick’s Second String Quartet, too. —Marc Geelhoed

Time Out New York / Issue 584: December 7–13, 2006
Album review
Martin Bresnick: The Essential Martin Bresnick
Flux String Quartet; Jupiter Trio; Bang on a Can All-Stars, Lisa Moore (Cantaloupe)

The arrival of the holiday season brings with it the overwhelming gluttony of boxed sets. A paired-down “essential” package, such as this two-disc sampling of Martin Bresnick’s oeuvre, comes as sweet relief. Though he was a student of Ligeti and teacher to a whole roster of compelling musical minds, Bresnick’s own work has flown largely under the radar. This release provides a neat catch-up package, dangled on the hook of the composer’s 60th birthday.

In a raw, tearing performance by the Flux String Quartet, Bresnick’s String Quartet No. 2, “Bucephalus,” exemplifies the power formal craftsmanship can have to ensnare the ear and make a visceral emotional connection. That impression is echoed, if more abstractly, in the Jupiter Trio’s reading of his Trio for piano, violin and cello, particularly in the relentless chords of the final movement. Taken together, these provide a satisfying if exhausting listening experience, one that raises the question of why Bresnick has not garnered greater attention.

The CD concludes with two selections from Bresnick’s Opere della Musica Povera, performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Inspired by Kafka stories, both pieces conjure the twisted intellectual landscape one might expect. The second disc, a DVD, features For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, a Blake setting for speaking pianist and projections, performed by Lisa Moore. —Molly Sheridan Pick

What's so essential about Martin Bresnick? Well, for starters he's impacted a few decades worth of composition students at Yale. If you subscribe to the old adage that those who can't do teach, let The Essential Martin Bresnick change your mind. The composer's String Quartet No. 2, here performed by the Flux Quartet, explores an idiosyncratic take on the medium. Harsh intervals morph into strange aggregates which, in turn, do an ugly-duckling-turning-into-the-swan routine. Bresnick manages to acculturate quite a few alien attributes into the traditional setting, making a hybrid weird enough to standout in the crowd—they never taught us that in school. - RN


Contemporary Classical from New World Records
by John Schaeffer

Martin Bresnick: My Twentieth Century
Artist: Various Artists Release Date: 2005

This is a very important record. Bresnick's reputation as a composition teacher has soared in recent years, following the startling success of his students, who include all three of Bang on a Can's founders. Bresnick's legacy as a teacher is secure, but it has threatened to overshadow the fact that Bresnick can just flat-out write. For proof, listen to his "Fantasia on a Theme by Willie Dixon," inspired by Cream's recording of the great American bluesman's "Spoonful." Using rock instruments like electric organ and guitar, as well as drum kit, it is evidence of an American composer whose ears are wide open -- and evidently have been for quite some time. Or, "Tent of Miracles," which uses overdubbed sax to wild effect -- but which is structured very much along the lines of an Indonesian gamelan's interlocking rhythms. The biggest piece is "Grace," essentially a double concerto for two marimbas, which simply should not work as well as it does.


My Twentieth Century review in Tempo Magazine, Autumn 2006

Martin Bresnick, professor of composition at the Yale School of Music, is well known as one of the major teachers of composition in the United States at the present, but his music, which is concentrated, elegant, rigorous, and quietly apollonian, is not as widely known as it should be.  Unlike his Trio and his wind quintet Just Time, which are abstract, absolute music, all of the works on this disc have important extra-musical connections; the majority have connections to various demotic sources and evoke, in one way or another, Bresnick’s family’s connection with politically progressive philosophies and movements early on in the twentieth century.  Grace, a concerto for two marimbas and orchestra, has a scenario related to the discussion in Heinrich Kleist’s essay “The Puppet Theatre” of consciousness, volition, and control in relation to mind and body.  The manner of the work is close to those mentioned above in its development of its compelling form out of clearly audible palindromic and inversional symmetries.  Tentof Miracles, for saxophone and recorded saxophones (the work can also be performed by four saxophones; in this performance the distinction between the “live” soloist and the pre-recording is imperceptible) portrays the futile and eventually abandoned efforts, by continual repainting, of a master artist in a novel by Brazilian author Jorge Amado to remove the smile from the face of a deadly jaguar in one of his paintings. Songs of the Mouse People for ‘cello and percussion evokes in five brief “arias” Kafka’s Josephine, the mouse diva.  Fantasia on a Theme by Willie Dixon, recalling a moment in Bresnick’s life in Palo Alto, California, in 1968, when “a recording I had never heard before...gradually invaded every neuron of my not so slowly blowing mind,” is a composed-out Jazz improvisation of ever increasing fantasy, complexity, and grandeur for piano and amplified instruments.  My Twentieth Century, a setting of a valedictory poem by Tom Andrews, written in his memory, in which the text is spoken by different players in the ensemble to the audience and to each other.  Although it begins as though it might be some sort of minimalist piece, and proceeds in that way for a while, it develops into something completely different, nostalgic, deep, and beautiful, and having a very specific relationship to its text.

Rodney Lister, Tempo, Autumn 2006


My Twentieth Century in Fanfare Jan / Feb 06
CD Review by RobertCarl

BRESNICK Grace.1 Tent of Miracles. 2 Songs of the Mouse People. 3 Fantasia on a Theme of Willie Dixon. 4 My Twentieth Century 5 • Robert van Sice (mmb); Kunihiko Kumori (mmb); Norichika Iimori, cond;6 Izumi Sinfonietta, Osaka;7 Taimur Sullivan (bar sax);8 Maya Beiser (vc);3 Steven Schick (perc);9 Povera Players10• NEW WORLD 80635 (62:02)

In Fanfare 24:5, I reviewed MartinBresnick’s magnificent cycle Opere della musica povera, a two-disc set (on the now defunct CRI) that witnessed the composer on a persistent and rigorous hunt—in search of his own voice. That project was successful; Bresnick (b. 1946) moved from shorter works that suggested etudes toward a practice to a set of full-blown masterpieces in the 1990s. Bresnick isn’t just one of the best composers of his generation, he’s one of the best we have right now of any age or style. The power of his music rests in the way he wrestles with primal materials to extract the maximum information and expression from them. This willingness, indeed desire, to work with the “poorest” (most basic) materials gives his work a Beethovenian heft.

This new release is a sort of appendix to that earlier release, encompassing works from 1984 to 2002. All the music is strong and engaging, but the results are a little more mixed in my view than in the cycle. Two works stand out as unqualified successes. Grace (2000) is a concerto for two marimbas and orchestra, and its distinguishing quality is that of weight. Just as the image and sound of the falling mallet shape the gestures of the work, so its sound is dominated by musical ideas that seem to fall into place. The work, like much of Bresnick’s, is a natural blend of the open harmonies and repetitive structures of minimalism, countered by the more formalistic and complex development one expects from modernist practice. Interestingly enough, it has a rather Coplandesque sound that never sounds facile or unduly imitative. Songs of the Mouse People (1999) is one of several works Bresnick has written inspired by Kafka (in this case the great story “Josephine the Mouse Singer”). This series of five cryptic movements for cello and percussion conveys the great mysterious and seething subterranean anguish of the source, on the verge of breaking forth even in the quietest moments (and when it does, as in Schick’s extraordinary vibraphone solo in the third movement, it’s an explosion indeed).

Only one work leaves me mostly cold, Tent of Miracles (1984) for saxophone with pre-recorded multiples of itself. It’s the earliest on the program, and while its composite sound of multiple baritone saxes is stunning, and it has a marvelous section in its middle made entirely of key-clicks, gathering momentum like a percussion parade at Carnival, nevertheless it has less drive and the sense of rock-solid form that distinguishes the best of Bresnick’s music.

The two other works are fascinating, in some ways wonderful, but each has one aspect which jostles my pleasure. Fantasia on a Theme of Willie Dixon (2001) is the sort of crossover work more commonly associated with Bresnick’s students of Bang on a Can (Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang). It takes an urban blues lick from Dixon’s great tune Spoonful (there’s an arrangement of the same piece for the Kronos Quartet, incidentally, by Steve Mackey on Nonesuch 79310) and subjects it to a classical treatment that’s anything but fussy—in fact, Bresnick discovers a real connection between the blues and Brahms, especially in the meaty piano-writing. The piece is rich and memorable, and my only reservation is its instrumentation. The more “popular” (drums, keyboard, and electric guitar) and “classical” (violin, bass clarinet, and vibraphone) instruments don’t seem to me quite from the same world; when they share material, it sounds jarringly different in the hands of each. That, of course, may be the point, but it still feels a little unbalanced. The confrontation of musical languages is already dramatic enough, and I rather wish I could hear either a pure R&B or chamber group playing the music.

Then there’s My Twentieth Century (2002), a setting for sextet of the eponymous poem by Tom Andrews. It begins with a driving Pétrouchka-like lick on the piano, and from there it never stops, rather like its title subject. The original aspect of the piece is the manner of the text’s delivery: the players declaim it as they are playing. There’s a great humor here, underlying many of the charming and funny lines in the poem (as well as the sad ones). It’s as though the voice of Everyman is speaking, just in different accents and genders. My only complaint is in the piece’s recorded presentation. The players’ voices have been recorded separately and then are mixed in. The result is a little like a video piece where individual faces fade in and out over the performance to speak. With headphones, it’s quite distracting; over loudspeakers, it still sounds artificial to me. I’m assuming that the actual performance practice requires the players to speak in real time, and even though there are inherent acoustical problems with this, somehow I feel it would add to the music’s wit and humanism to record it this way, even if there were more rough edges or even less audible passages. But others can legitimately see this from exactly the opposite viewpoint, I think.

Even if I have some reservations, I’d rather listen to Bresnick on an off day than most composers on a good one. And in fact, anything I find problematic about this music comes from one of its great strengths—its willingness to take risks. Bresnick is not content to write music in its hermetic chamber. Even though his craft is scrupulous, he wants music to get out into the rough-and-tumble of life, and if it gets mussed up, so be it. One would expect no less of a composer who references in this disc Heinrich von Kleist, Franz Kafka, Jorge Amado, Willie Dixon, and Tom Anderson for each of its respective pieces! Bresnick is an intellectual composer, but not a cerebral one; he values the visceral too much. And in this mix lies the strength of his music.

This remains a highly recommended disc, even if it is something of an appendix to the Musica povera cycle. The sound is clean and immediate. All the performances are superb; that of Beiser and Schick beggars description. The excellent Povera Players are an assemblage of the composer’s friends and colleagues, and since our headnote policy doesn’t allow for listing the individuals of a named ensemble, here they are. In Fantasia on a Theme of Willie Dixon: Lisa Moore piano; Meighan Stoops, bass clarinet; John Ferrari, drum set; Jason Treuting, vibraphone; Marija Ilic, keyboard; Mark Stewart, electric guitar; and Jeanine Wynton, violin. In My Twentieth Century: Patti Monson, flute; Jo-Ann Sternberg, clarinet; Lisa Moore, piano; Timothy Fain, violin; Marka Gustavsson, viola, Ole Akahoshi, cello; and Ransom Wilson, conductor.

- Robert Carl, Fanfare


American Record Guide Jan / Feb 06
Review of My Twentieth Century

BRESNICK: Grace; Tent of Miracles; Songs of the Mouse People; Willie Dixon Fantasia; My 20th Century
Maya Beiser, vc; Taimur Sullivan, sax; Robert von Sice, Kunihiko Komori, marimba; Steven Schick, perc; Izumi Sinfonietta Osaka / Norichicka Iimuri; Povera Players/ Ransom Wilson
New World 80625 – 62 minutes

This is a collection of chamber works by influential Yale professor Martin Bresnick (b 1946). Bresnick is probably best known as the teacher of Bang on a Can founders Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, along with many of their colleagues; there is a striking mutual influence to be found in much of the music of this engaging release. (Bresnick himself studied with Ligeti in Germany in the 60s, but there isn’t much of Ligeti here, at least in the most recent pieces.)

The program opens with Grace  (2000), a double concerto for two marimbas and chamber orchestra inspired by the essay ‘The Puppet Theater’ by Heinrich von Kleist. The essay deals with the mind-body dialectic through the metaphor of marionettes, which depend on human intervention for their illusory volition. Human intervention notwithstanding, the puppets possess an innate grace, and it’s proposed that artists (dancers in this case) should strive to emulate the puppet’s passive but willing demeanor.

The three-movement concerto casts the wooden puppets as marimbas, expressing their thoughts the best they can using the limited vocabulary at their disposal, here restricted to the intervallic gene of the minor third. The outer movements of the piece are jazzy, laid-back mechanical dances, with the orchestra commenting on and sometimes becoming one with the players. The romantic middle movement brings to mind Copland: mellow, bluesy, and unashamedly tonal in its warmly expressive melodies. The work is friendly and absorbing, and it’s no surprise that it would appeal to Asian performers in its refined sensibility (a group from Osaka performs it here). Unmistakably American in its dialect, it’s still not hard to hear Stravinsky (or at least Nadia Boulanger) hovering approvingly in the background.

The earlier (and less appealing) Tent of Miracles (1984), for multi-tracked baritone saxophone, takes as its point of departure a story by Brazilian writer Jorge Amado where a painter, attempting to portray a jaguar’s ferocious nature, is only able to reveal the inner natural bond between it and the child it’s about to devour – instead of open gaping jaws, the painter can only produce a smile on his picture of the animal. Bresnick likewise transforms the ferocious baritone sax into an agent of smooth velvety licks, funny growls, head-bobbing paw taps, and minimalist ostinato purrs. The artist’s tent, expressed in concert by a pyramid of speakers surrounding the listener, cannot be duplicated on CD. The piece’s influences include Terry Riley, jazz, American avant-gardism, and not a little Evan Ziporyn, the virtuoso bass clarinetist who studied with Bresnick in the 70s.

Next is Songs of the Mouse People (1999), a set of five encounters with Kafka’s mouse Josephine, for cello and percussion. We get quiet feminine mouse whining, some soulful cantabile, a bit of scurrying (for percussion solo), and a barriolage-laden Bach-type prelude (I don’t quite get this part). Soloist Maya Beiser and cohort Steven Schick put these across with appropriate charm.

Thirds return in Fantasia on a Theme by Willie Dixon (2001), here as blues intervals inspired by Cream’s (actually Willie Dixon’s) ‘Spoonful’. (Bresnick is an aging boomer gaining sustenance through compositional jamming with his Bang on a Can Yale students, who play the septet affectionately.)

The program closes with the title track, My 20th Century (2002), a sextet for flute, clarinet, string trio, and piano supporting a poem by the late Tom Andrews, whom the composer met during a Rome Academy residency in 1999. The poem, describing some of the poet’s memorable life experiences over the century’s course, is read by various voices over a pulsating diatonic, polymetric minimalism (with effect more akin to Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together or Attica than the Copland, Schoenberg, Beethoven, or Honegger works mentioned in the notes). The piece is a very compelling bit of end-of-century Americana, and, like everything else on this collection, deserves to be heard.

- Gimbel


Martin Bresnick, Album: My Twentieth Century
New World Records, 80635 | Buy this CD

A few years back, in the final days of CRI, I wrote the booklet notes for Martin Bresnick's Opere della Musica Povera. The more I listened to his music, the more excited I became about the whole process of music and composing. It actually got me out of a major creative slump. Part of why Bresnick is such a successful teacher is because his own music is simultaneously so open minded and so intoxicating. The pieces on this latest disc equally fascinate, and grow more and more interesting the more you hear them. I admit that the first time I heard Songs of the Mouse People, in a live concert performance, I was somewhat disappointed. But I was blown away when I heard it again on this CD and like it more each time I hear it, especially how the cello and vibraphone seamlessly switch roles in a chain of modulations in the penultimate movement, "A Thousand Shoulders Tremble (under a burden actually meant for one)." This time, I don't have to listen to the disc again and again for any particular reason I just want to. But what's more even exciting is how much inspirational fuel is in here as well. Put it on for an hour, and then go write your own next masterpiece!

- Frank Oteri, NewMusicBox


DIVERDI Marzo 2006
B O L E T  Í N D E I N F O R M A C I Ó N  D I S C O G R Á F I C A

Martin Bresnick (Nueva York, 1946) aprendió quizá del último Ligeti, de quien fuera alumno, que la verdadera creatividad y originalidad musical no sabe en nuestro tiempo de recetas, plantillas ni moldes mil veces probados, quecada pieza plantea problemas diferentes precisando, por tanto, de soluciones en cada caso también diferentes. Bresnick, radical en su compromiso con la libertad, lleva hasta el extremo tal ideario, y de este modo podemos encontrar en su repertorio un poco de todo, desde influencias minimalistas hasta sonoridades cercanas al rock, desde el fervor por las vanguardias del siglo XX hasta unafijación por el eclecticismo postmoderno, desde composiciones sinfónicas hastatrabajos electrónicos; todo un amante de la variedad y la amalgama, vaya. Pero lo cierto es que este poliestilismo se traduce, al menos en las obras incluidas en esta grabación, en un gran cuidado por la coherencia constructiva y en un sugestivo refinamiento tímbrico. La pieza central de este programa, al que datítulo, es My Twentieth Century, contenida letanía en donde la voz de una narradora rememora de modo fragmentario y poético hechos significativos para el compositor, en especial la muerte de su hermano. Se trata de una música (para violín, viola, violonchelo, piano, flauta y clarinete) de clara adscripción minimalista, no demasiado excitante pero bien concebida. Más interesantes resultan, en mi opinión, Grace, donde dos marimbas elaboran sinuosos motivos que se enhebran con los cadenciales fondos creados por la Izumi Sinfonietta Osaka; Tent of Miracles, para varios saxofones interpretados por el graninstrumentista Taimur Sullivan, que extrae amplias posibilidades sonoras de los mismos; la serie Songs of the Mouse People para violonchelo y percusión, basada en el relato de Kafka Josefina la cantante, de atractiva concepción armónica y elevado refinamiento; y, para terminar, Fantasía sobre un tema de Willie Dixon, músico country-rock que funciona aquí como perfecta excusa para confeccionar una atmósférica composición en donde la guitarra de Mark Stewart juega un papel privilegiado.

- Javier Palacio

English Translation:

Diverdi  March 2006
Bulletin of Recorded Disc Information  146

The fascinating music of a practitioner of  synthesis
Bresnick, the poly-stylist

Martin Bresnick, (NY, 1946) perhaps learned from the great Ligeti, of whom he was a student, that true creativity and originality in the music of our time cannot be found in a recipe, cast from molds, tested a thousand times, and that each piece proposes different precise problems, resulting in different solutions in each case. Bresnick, radical in his commitment to freedom, has brought this ideal to the extreme, and in this way we find a little of everything in his repertory, from minimalist influences to rock styles, from the fervor of the vanguards of the 20th Century, to a fixation with eclectic postmodernism, from symphonic compositions to electronic works, all pursued with a love of variety and synthesis. But it is certain that this poly-stylism reveals, at least in the works included in this recording, great care for coherent construction and a suggestive refinement of timbre.

The central piece in this program, My Twentieth Century, which gives the album its title, contains a litany where the voice of a narrator gives tribute in a poetic and fragmentary way to significant experiences of the composer, especially the death of his brother. This music (for violin, viola, violoncello, piano, flute, and clarinet), is based on a clear minimalist character, not extremely exciting but well made. More interesting things result, in my opinion, in Grace, where marimbas elaborate sinuous motives that thread together the background responses created by the Izumi Sinfonietta Osaka; Tent of Miracles, for various saxophones interpreted by the great performer Taimur Sullivan, that extracts ample sonorous possibilities from the saxophone source; the series Songs of the Mouse People for violoncello and percussion, based on a Kafka story “Josephine the Singer”, of attractive harmonic conception and elevated refinement; and finally, Fantasia on a Theme by Willie Dixon, county-rock music that functions here as a perfect excuse to create the compositional atmosphere in which the guitar of Mark Stewart plays a key role.

-Javier Palacio (Translation by Johanna Bresnick & Dimitri Arias)



In Martin Bresnick's "Tent of Miracles" (1984), the tape presented three baritone saxophone lines, to which Mr. Sacawa added a fourth live. Some of the work's chunky chordal figures called to mind the late-1990's rock band Morphine, which also relied heavily on baritone saxes. But Mr. Bresnick composed his work long before Morphine came and went, and he moves in other directions as well. Kaleidoscopic bursts, multiphonics, vocalizations and a lengthy section in which the sound of rattling keys creates a hypnotic rhythm keep this changeable work fresh and surprising.

- Allan Kozinn, New York Times


"The program closed with a specially commissioned 'encore' by the gifted and inventive American composer Martin Bresnick. This morsel -- appropriately titled 'Encore!' -- is a charmer, sounding rather like some half-remembered warhorse played backward."

— Tim Page, The Washington Post


"We felt that there was a certain range that we were looking for. His music is formally clear, and it has a combination of a direct expressivity and a rigorous method, as well as a real sense of sonic immediacy. "

— John Harbison, on the occasion of the Ives Living Award from the
American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York Times.


"Martin Bresnick has not become nearly so well known as the quality of his music deserves; no other recent uptown composer possesses a style so elegantly smooth or can say so much with so few notes. Bresnick's works are marked by an economy of materials and lyrical intensity. The secret of Bresnick's language is that he has developed an intervallic way of working with tonality that allows for a smooth continuum between tonality and atonality."

— Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, Schirmer Books


"With the Bresnick Quartet (#3) the ensemble (Harrington String Quartet) seemed to grow by several sizes. This is a complex, challenging work - not because the composer invented difficulties, as composers today seem to like doing, but because its musical ideas need a language of their own.

As a framework to his piece, Bresnick took the opening lines from Canto II of Dante's "Inferno," a scene of deepening gloom as the poet begins his grim journey.

The three movement quartet opens with a series of chords like a November fog-clouds of tones that sort themselves out, a note or two at a time, into a somber, slow-paced chant.

All through the work we hear themes that are not melodies so much as events, combinations of sound that have a character of their own: pizzicatos with the random sound of droplets in a pond (but they seem to be the right notes); harsh chords blurting excitedly over soft long-breathed ones; and, at the close, a high, icy haze of harmonics like distant cirrus clouds.

Bresnick has a way of giving his hearers a guide rope: the rhythmic pattern is clear where the harmonic texture is complex, or the other way around, so we stay more or less on track through all these sonic adventures. An impressive work, superbly played."

— Dan Tucker, Chicago Tribune

Fanfare Magazine
P.O. Box 720, Tenafly, NJ 07670
May/June 2001:

"A Major Event in American Music"

BRESNICK Opere Della Music Povera: Tucket. Follow Your Leader. Pigs & Fishes. New Haven. Woodstock. Angelus Novus. The Bucket Rider. BE JUST! ***. The Dream of the Lost Traveler. Pine Eyes. Bird As Prophet. Jesse Levine, cond; Yale Philharmonia; Povera Players; Marguerite L. Brooks, cond; Yale Pro Musica; Lawrence Leighton Smith, cond; Yale Philharominia; Bang On A Can All-Stars; Da Capo Chamber Players; Lisa Moore (pn); Zeitgeist. CRI 868 (2 CD 1:31:46 TT)

This release is a major event in American music. Martin Bresnick (b.1946) came to national prominence in 1998, when he received the first Charles Ives Living, a stipend from the composerís estate administered by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which supports a composer for three years, on the condition that s/he quit any "day job". Bresnick sensibly agreed to this proposition, and left (temporarily) his teaching position at the Yale School of Music, where he had been coordinating the composition program for over two decades. The pieces on this recording were written over the decade of the 90's, the last one or two during the period of the grant. What makes this collection remarkable, however, is not just its quality but its cohesion. These pieces are conceived explicitly as a series, even though they work in a wide range of media and forms. The result is a cycle which grows throughout its course in cumulative mastery of technique, expression, and vision.

Bresnick has been one of the most influential teachers of composition in the US, though his profile has previously been that of an eminence grise to some of the more successful younger composers around. He is perhaps best known as the teacher to the troika of directors of the Bang On A Can Festival (Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe), and his concert group at Yale, Sheep's Clothing, and its attendant annual all-night concert, was the inspiration for BOAC. But more substantively, Bresnick is a champion synthesizer of disparate materials. In this sense he mirrors his teacher Ligeti, who also delights in reconciling the seemingly irreconciable. Bresnick brings together in his music repetitive gestures derived from minimalism, a harmonic taste that encompasses both highly chromatic sounds and more open, consonant harmonies, and a raw power at times reminiscent of rock.

Yet these elements never form a disjointed pastiche---rather, what makes Bresnick's music particularly successful in the way he so thoroughly absorbs them and them produces a seamless product. The title of the cycle comes from the Italian arte povera movement, which made art from the most humble or "poor" materials. In Bresnick's case, the poverty implied is that of simple, mundane materials, authentic in their direct unpretentiousness. That sense of music made from hardscrabble sources (and made on the fly, between endless commitments of his job, as the composer says I his notes) also has a very real political import. And while the nature of Bresnick's politics is crystal-clear, the music never descends into agitprop; one gains the meaning by the way it works on its own terms.

If I can characterize this music with any single word, it would be strong. All the pieces, whether loud or soft, fast or slow, dense or spare, project an intensity of rigorously conceived utterance. This is not aggressive or abusive music. Its rhetoric is confident and powerful, but as a listener one doesn't feel assaulted. Rather, one is exhilarated to hear music that is so concisely wrought, yet also open-spirited. It's like experiencing a bracing natural phenomenon, like a sea-wave crashing over you; you emerge from the onslaught overwhelmed but invigorated.

The series consists of twelve pieces, composed between 1990 and 1999. Each is centered around a particular "home pitch", a type of tonic. And every piece has a "mate", a work conceived to be complementary in harmonic structure and overall character. (A chart by the composer shows a circle of minor seconds, with axial tritone relations between the outer pairs, for those who want to know such things.) The early pieces are very short, usually no more than 3-4 minutes, and one has the sense that they are somewhat like sketches for the longer pieces to come. One hears emerging techniques, such as cycling harmonic progressions in Pigs & Fishes, which will become the full-blown passacaglias of The Dream of the Lost Traveller (1998) and Bird As Prophet (1999). It is at about the halfway point in the cycle that one senses Bresnick really beginning to take off. In the 1995 pair The Bucket Rider and BE JUST!, written for the spectacular Bang On A Can All Stars, the music reaches a level of fullness which has previously been suggested (and somewhat ironically, as The Bucket Rider is an exceptionally quiet and fragile piece, a very poignant portrait of a beaten character from a Kafka story).

From this point on, it almost seems as though Bresnick can do no wrong. The trio *** (1997), the aforementioned The Dream of the Lost Traveller, and Bird As Prophet all have an expansive yet concentrated power of expression. Their harmonic language also becomes far more rich and varied. One can't quite call the music tonal, but the chord progressions that underlie these works are memorable and often ringingly consonant. One composer who comes to mind as a referent for this sound-world is Janacek. But also, the insistence with which ideas are reiterated and developed, and the tautness of the motives which organize the music, all suggest a Beethovenian approach. I don't make this comparison lightly.

Do I have any criticisms? Well, the 1997 Pine Eyes, a theater piece for narrator and trio (with the composer in the speaking part) is a deliberately unsentimental but still deeply affecting retelling of the Pinocchio story. Having said that, the music somehow seems more "incidental" in this piece than in any of the others, i.e. the musical events seem so closely tied to the words as not do develop the sort of autonomous logic I hear in the other works. Thus, it may be more successful in live performance, as a theatrical experience, than it can be on disc. All the performances are first rate, but one seems slightly flawed, i.e. the 1992 Angelus Novus for orchestra. The Yale Philharmonia is the school's graduate orchestra, and it plays with spirit, but in the more exposed chamber sections of the work, the playing seems tentative, and momentum flags. (Happily it returns for a rousing ending; the piece is framed by music of great sweep and vigor, which sounds like a updated trope of the first movement of the Brahms first piano concerto. In a just world, this would be the sort of concert opener that orchestras would play the same way they would play a piece like the Coriolan overture, instead of the neo-pop confections we so often have nowadays.)

In the end, one can hopefully see how much I admire this music. I believe Bresnick stands with John Adams as one of the two leading composers of his generation. His music will inevitably be a bit more "chewy" for listeners than the latter's, and Bresnick does not play with American populist elements to anything near the same degree. But if it is uncompromising, neither is it condescending, and it is certainly never dull. This is a rich feast offered by an artist at the height of his powers, though based on the creative curve of this cycle, I suspect the best from Bresnick is yet to come. A must for my next Want List.

Consumer Guide
by Kyle Gann

Posted May 21st, 2001 7:00 PM

Skimmed Cream

Almost two years have elapsed since my last guide, there's no way to encompass the stacks of new discs rising like diminutive office buildings around my desk. I can offer some of the cream I skimmed, and note that, more and more, the most interesting music is on tiny little labels available from (a metaphor, not a real Web site). The traditional new-music labels should be ashamed at the amount of great stuff they turn down.

Opere della Musica Povera (CRI)
Bresnick's music is tough, thorny, clear, elegant, thoughtful, and difficult to pin down. So it's an overdue luxury to have such a sumptuous two-disc set devoted to 12 different works of his for different ensembles, though the pieces are unified and linked by cross-referenced pitch relationships. His gestures can be murky at the same time that his pitch logic, often couched Brahmslike in hovering thirds and sixths, can be luminously transparent. Some timbres suit him better than others: The Coplandy piano sonorities of The Dream of the Lost Traveller (played by Lisa Moore) and the massed winds of "Follow Your Leader" are strikingly unusual, the orchestra pieces more modernistically conventional. In short, this is music not to sum up in a few words, but to sink your teeth into and reflect upon at length. A MINUS


Poor but provocative
by Joshua Kosman

Sunday, July 1, 2001

Opere della Musica Povera (Works of a Poor Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars; Da Capo Chamber Players; Lisa Moore, piano; Zeitgeist; Yale Philharmonia; Yale Pro Musica CRI (two CDs), $33.98

For the past decade or so, composer Martin Bresnick has been accumulating chamber and orchestral pieces under the rubric "Opere della Musica Povera" ("Works of a Poor Music"). Now the collection is complete, a fascinating and varied grab bag of a dozen compositions that reflect the emotional and structural concerns of this important artist.

The title refers to Bresnick's determination to work with limited artistic resources -- restricted melodic materials, small performing forces and so on. Yet there's nothing remotely minimalist about the result. Bresnick studied with the Hungarian master Gyorgy Ligeti, but his main influence has always been Schumann, and the lush, dark-hued expressiveness that runs through his music is in evidence here.

It shows up, naturally, in the more overtly Romantic works, such as an alluring trio with the Schumannesque title " " or "The Dream of the Lost Traveller," a gorgeous piano solo inspired by Blake (and given a radiant performance by Lisa Moore). But Bresnick's deeply humanist approach is evident, too, in his more aggressive modernist and postmodernist guises -- particularly "The Bucket Rider" and "BE JUST!," two fiercely enthralling meditations on Kafka's writing.

Not all of the set is equally rewarding. The point of "Angelus Novus," a gloomily portentous orchestral work a la Shostakovich, eluded me, and "Pine Eyes," a word-heavy piece of chamber theater based on "Pinocchio," must work better live than on disc. But the cumulative effect of the set is endlessly provocative.

Robert Curry
The Australian

July 30, 2001

Less aggressively emotive and more profound artistically than the De Profundis was Martin Bresnick's touchingly eloquent For The Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, on texts and engravings by William Blake. Against the despairing motto of the Rzewski/Wilde: "Look where the artistic life leads a man" came the hopeful injunction of the Bresnick/Blake: "Mutual Forgiveness of each Vice / Such are the Gates of Paradise."

Integral to this piece are the projections behind the piano of 17 of Blakes engravings, which have been subtly manipulated and sequenced by video artist Leslie Weinberg.

The recurrent image is that of The Traveller and indeed, Bresnick's piece takes one on a journey of recollection and reflection. The steadily paced video imagery is held in sync and animated by tableaux of disctinctive keyboard passage work which are themselves organised around several clear tonal axes...

Lynette Lancini
RealTime online Magazine

July 28,2001

...Moore returns to introduces us to the complementary work on the program, the Australian premiere of American composer Martin Bresnick's For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise (2001). A musical take on the William Blake poem and 21 illuminated line engravings of the same name (1818), Bresnick' composition has its antecedent in the composer's solo piano piece The Dream of the Lost Traveller (1997) which acts as an Epilogue to the larger work, and contains much of the musical DNA for this "piano concerto movie" (composer's appellation). Directed by Robert Bresnick (the composer's brother), video artist Leslie Weinberg's DVD projections consist of simple animations and manipulations of Blake's black & white and illuminated emblems, enlarged onto an on-stage screen above the piano.

Blake's poem and drawings, says the preface to the score, "depict the life of man from birth to death: passage through the four elements, hatching as a child encountering women, reaching for the moon of love, falling into Time's Ocean", and eventually arriving at Death's Door. The concluding verses are addressed to "the Accuser who is the God of this World." And Moore's role was again that of pianist and speaker, this time delivering the entire text of Blake's poem.

As Moore starts to play the pulsing, determined Prologue, we meet the Lost Traveller, our Everyman companion for this 30 minute piece. He zooms on-screen cane in hand, and hurriedly moves through time and space while trees pan right, sky pans left. Musically this world is built from colouristic expressive recitative, intersticed with pulsing sections of relatively static harmonies which rock unevenly, restlessly. Moore again commands a counterpoint of voice and fingers, sometimes speaking the text to a rhythm; sometimes freer; and sometimes sung, as in the Epilogue's slow and gentle jig addressed to Satan.

Weinberg superimposes many of Blake's emblems onto high grain pixilated backgrounds. A child-faced caterpillar rotates, reminding us of a baby free-floating in the womb. A black & white image of worms or unweaving threads swirl like computer-generated 'eye-candy.' The final projection of a starry night sky above the piece's concluding and life-affirming reiterating major 3rds dissolves to rapt applause from the audience, multiple curtain calls for Moore and the welcome appearance of composer Martin Bresnick who was in the audience.

In an era of the supremacy of visual literacy, Bresnick's collaboration with Weinberg in For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise is an example of evolution in action, as is the creation of the Stuart piano. A coherent multi-sensorial work, it invites sustained attention from a far wider audience than 'pure' concert music can hope to do. The proliferation of buzzwords such as cross art form and multi-media has been used to describe many mediocre efforts. This is not one of them. And regarding the Stuart, in this concert the wealth of artistic stimulus given life by Moore's outstanding performances was so compelling, that awareness of the tool slipped from consciousness as the creations were built.


Just Time Review from Rovi Joseph Stevenson

This a successful effort to bring the just intonation movement to the woodwind quintet.

Martin Bresnick, born in New York in 1946 and a faculty member of Yale University, wrote Just Time for the Norfolk Festival, where it received its premiere in 1985 by the Taft Quintet.

Bresnick indicates that the title of the work has several levels of meaning. Most important is its reference to the tuning system of "just intonation." This is the concept (going back to Pythagoras) that all notes in a scale should correspond to the natural overtone series of the key pitch. Just intonation produces the purest, most consonant intervals and chords; equal temperament, the system to which our keyboards and most keyed instruments are tuned, sacrifices this purity in the interest of ready modulation among the 12 standard keys and produces intervals and chords that are " out of tune "a little bit in any one key to prevent the same notes from being badly out of tune in certain keys.

Bresnick in this work applies just intonation to the medium of the woodwind quintet. This is a tonal work - it is in B flat - that does not use microtones as such; his scale is a seven-note diatonic scale, although some of those notes are often different from the notes that would be found in a piano scale in B flat.

The French horn is the key to the intonation of Just Time. From its deep fundamental note of B flat the horn naturally "wants" to play only natural-overtone pitches. In Just Time the hornist usually plays these naturally just intoned notes, and the four woodwinds must bend their pitches up or down from their usual notes (or use different key combinations to produce notes outside the equal-tempered scale). Bresnick indicates these "retunings" in the score by arrows attached to accidentals.

The audible result of all this is an unusually resonant sound, warmer and less "tart" than that usually heard in wind quintets. Bresnick adds to this effect by sometimes calling on the use of the auxiliary instruments - the alto flute, the English horn, and the bass clarinet - of the top three woodwinds. The music is tonal, with slow-moving harmonic motion that allows one to savor the purity of the resulting chords.

On the other hand, the pulse of the music varies widely, as does its texture. It opens and closes in a sort of music on the overtone series, and then moves into action with rapidly repeated chords. Its rhythms are tightly organized into 24 cycles of 121 sixteenth notes. (An example of the subdivision of one of these cycles is nine measures of 3/4 time plus one of 13/16.) There is a copious use of polyrhythms, such as five notes against six or eight against three, for instance. (Bresnick usually uses polyrhythmic relationships whose ratios add up to 11.)

Notwithstanding all this theoretical complexity, Just Time is a very listenable, if somewhat abstruse, piece of music. ~ Joseph Stevenson, Rovi

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