Perhaps you haven’t heard of him, but Frank Stemper has built an auspicious career as a composer over his 30-year residency as director of the composition program at Southern Illinois University. He dwells beyond the fashionable circles of contemporary classical music which may catch periodic attention on NPR, or the rare forays of mainstream classical ensembles into contemporary repertoire.
Well, listen up (and below), judge for yourself. Stemper carries a strong reputation in many parts of the world as well as the U.S. by following his own vision, one that’s not easily pigeonholed or even marketed.
He is good enough to have been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award, and to receive an N.E.A. Fellowship. 1 He’s received enough honors and commissions to sustain a global reputation. And yet, the annual Outside the Box Festival of New Music he has long co-directed at SIU somehow reflects his own peculiar comfort area — out on the windswept fringes, perhaps not far from the precipice lurking over the tumble into obscurity. More specifically, Stemper has worked for many years exploring the formal and sonic possibilities of through-composed music in an expressionistic post-Schoenberg/Sessions/Carter mode and sometimes with strong jazz undercurrents (He began as a jazz pianist).
Some of Stemper’s most striking and indelible music has been driven by his social and political awareness — for example, “Secrets of War,” the vividly executed George W. Bush -era piece for orchestra and voices, and the 2007 chamber orchestra work “Global Warming,” stormy, fulminating musical statement on this vast geo-political issue. This was a point when climate change had reached a crisis mode — from the melting polar caps on down — in terms of human response to this creeping, increasingly devastating phenomena. And some of his most affecting and personal works are with texts, such as “A Love Imagined” — verse written shortly after poet Herbert Scott learned of the leukemia that eventually killed him — and “The Sensation of Waking,” with an autobiographical text by the composer. Stemper started early with text setting; his PhD dissertation work was Seamaster, a cantata for soprano and chamber orchestra, for which I provided a libretto. 2
Yet nothing has move me in Stemper’s oeuvre more than the “Persistence of Honor.” Though nominally programmatic, its emotional and dramatic power derives from pure orchestral music. The 10-minute work was commissioned and premiered by Het Wagenings Orkest ‘Sonante” in The Netherlands in 2009.
I had my first opportunity to hear it performed live at a dress rehearsal for the climaxing concert of SIU’s 2014 Outside the Box Festival, which centered on a retrospective of Stemper’s music, in honor of his retiring this year from his faculty position, though he will continue to compose, as he put it “without a net.”
Stemper marks the score of The Persistence of Honor with the instruction: “Mysterious, hazy.” And his metronome marking instructs that a quarter note be played at a fairly languorous 60 per minute tempo. (See link to page one of the score:)
A mysterious legato tonality creeps in with violins sustaining a high B, against which first the oboe interposes four notes a whole step higher, and the flute inserts a B flat, then two As and two more B flats, for a distinctly warped dissonance. This icy legato glaze is immediately “out there,” recalling Gyorgy Ligeti’s space music for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then the solo cello enters to somewhat ground the music, with a mordant descending theme starting with a high flatted C (or B) 32nd note sliding into several B flats. So with the bitonal seconds (B against B flat) Stemper immediately creates a conflicted, ambiguous tonality that — by the time the cello completes its submerging line — begins to get under your skin.
And then the primary rising melody arrives, a steadily repeated motif that you seem to get to know even as it changes slightly each time it is re-articulated. The motif illustrates Stemper’s composing process because, compared to many of his scores for larger ensembles, this score is relatively simple. “Composing for me is a process of drawing out the consequences (as I perceive them) of an initial idea … Once the idea has become specific enough, it begins to generate its own continuation…The sense of the large structure becomes increasingly clear as the work progresses.” This is actually a quote Stemper has appropriated from his mentor, the late composer Andrew Imbrie, who had a philosophy “in complete parallel to my own,” Stemper has said.
But beyond the way the motif formally generates the music, you hear the melodic theme reaching, yearning, and pressing beyond itself to an outer edge that has a magnetic draw for the listener. The effect is like pulling you to an edge that may seem dangerous or uncertain as the pathway lengthens and blends into shadow.
Considered in the political context the composer wrote it, a historical framework is evident. That is, the will for freedom by America’s body politic as a whole. A sense of Jesse Jackson’s idealized “rainbow coalition” quietly animates this music. It moves persistently, though not without struggle, and its foreboding sense of both past and the future harkens to Civil War-era leader Frederick Douglass’ great declaration, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” That combination of humility and willfulness — the persistence of honor — permeates this music and drives it forward into the imagination of the listener, and ideally the greater American public. The cello’s lower theme, a descending, querulous line fighting the tonality, signifies the undercurrent of struggle, the consciousness of darker forces, and the persistent challenge of the Obama era.
President Barack Obama in a photo portrait by Pete Souza
At the six-and-a-half minute mark, “Persistence” wills itself to a new depth and breadth of intensity, and then retreats again to self-questioning. Here one senses it’s parallel to political reality in a polarized America. Troubled interior dialogue ensues, then the rising theme retraces its steps yet again in a lower, more oblique tonality leading finally to the work’s highest pitch at the end, like a signal to the future, or to a dream deferred now come to fruition, or failure. To the crux of the matter.
Stemper’s “Persistence of Honor” will measure and stand the test of time.
1 I nominated Stemper for the Pulitzer as a music critic for The Capital Times.
2 Given that collaboration and a lifelong friendship with the composer, I provide full disclosure of my connections to Stemper.
Addendum/correction: Although he was quite appreciative of my review, composer Frank Stemper wrote to make a couple of clarifications. Two of the compositions I referred to have broader thematic connotations than those I ascribed to them. Stemper notes that the correct title to his solo piano composition is “Global Warning” not “Global Warming” and that he was alluding to the pervasiveness of poverty, racism and international conflicts, as well as the human species’ selfishness and greed. He does lay great importance on the role of leaders. His program notes for the piece conclude: “Although this seems hopeless, there is at least one ideology that might lead to better conclusion for us: Art.”
“Global Warning” was written for the extraordinary Korean pianist Junghwa Lee, who performed it in Carbondale in April with electrifying power and precision.
Secondly, Stemper notes that “The Persistence of Honor” was composed before Barack Obama was elected, so the piece strives to pose musically the rhetorical question articulated by Charles Darwin: “Will honor rise above human evil, simply because it must in order for humans to continue?” Stemper is, however, profoundly impressed by what Obama has accomplished and stood for. He adds his piece does address “how our country became a complete country with his election — finally.” As such, he expresses a remarkable and rare optimism, though he says he’s cognizant of the current Republican Party’s lack of articulated ideals and obstructionism.