Wisconsinite Frank Stemper goes Euro on us with a new orchestral piece, “Protest.”

 

Composer-pianist Frank Stemper. Courtesy frankstemper.com

Pound-it-out-piano player? Erstwhile composer? Slightly obsessive golfer with a chip shot on his shoulder? Whatever he is, Frank Stemper’s done gone Euro on us, proving his composer’s erst is a while around now, or ‘Round Midnight, or whatever time it is in Austria.

Best known recently in Milwaukee as a jazz pianist, most often with the brilliant bassist Hal Miller, Frank Stemper is actually a longtime composer of “legit” music, heavy on the quotation marks. That’s not because he’s not really a legit composer, as he’s highly honored in that realm. It’s because, since returning to his hometown, Stemper reclaimed jazz as his personal “classical” music, thus we look at his history in the “modern” Euro-classical tradition a tad more from the vernacular perspective.

But no doubt about it. When Beethoven hit his muse — like a musical linebacker crashing head-on — in the 1970s, Stemper was sent reeling, but soon steadied himself with a composer’s pen in hand. 1

Here’s the Beethoven bobble head Stemper received recently from your blogger for a milestone birthday. Look at that middle linebacker’s mug. Plus, Beethoven is one “middle linebacker” who, in his later years, never would’ve been drawn offside by an Aaron Rodgers “hard count,” as he was stone deaf! How he composed his late-career masterworks remains one of the miracles of the ages. Courtesy eBay 2

A Stemper friend since grade school, I wrote the poetry libretto for his doctoral dissertation work, for soprano and chamber orchestra, Seamaster, premiered in Milwaukee by Marlee Sabo and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra.

But Stemper has ventured oe’r rough seas to far reaches of orchestral tidal waves and islandic chamber work, since then. He spent several decades as professor of composition at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he first hooked up with bassist Miller, who spent a residency there, some years ago.

Stemper’s composing style, generally speaking, is post-Schoenberg expressionistic, often with almost compulsive modulations, and extreme dynamic ambushes.

He tries to harness sound, broken free from tonality, and flying. It’s usually bracing stuff and can be stimulating fun for those in the grappling mood. Among his most impressive works was a vividly-imagined piece called Secrets of War, written in response to the Illegitimate Iraq War, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

A cursory look at the score of Symphony Number 4 (Protest), shared by the composer, suggests, amid muscular scoring, plenty of space, or grace notes, with small chamber-like details and interplays. This may reflect Mahler’s influence, though his model (such as it may remain), The Second Viennese school, employed plenty of chamber-like moments in larger orchestral scores. Beethoven’s propulsive dynamics and tempi seem inherent to Stemper’s language. Characteristically he’s more concerned with ensemble players arriving at the end of phrases or passages in rhythmic unison, rather than on pitch, allowing for freedom and ambiguity of tonality. Swift sequences of tonally chromatic sharps and flats abound, and improvised moments are invited.

Similarly, bass clef passages seem to work more for dramatic effect, than tonal grounding. One extended passage of bass clarinet and clarinet tangling with each another amidst similar byplay from bass trombone and trombone promises quasi-comical (or dangerous?) effect. Ah, such squabbling occurs in social-movement protests, certainly on the left, and most certainly on live battle lines of opposing political camps, as I’ve personally witnessed.

(The program also included Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Smetana’s woozy, stirring and nationalistic Le Moldau, two pieces which faintly befit Stemper’s influences and American-oriented programmatics.)

Stemper’s oeuvre amounts to ultimately a personal, and original style of new music. sometimes delving into wit-leavened, honest sentiment, mined from his remarkable memory for historical details and contours. 

By the way, his scored piano music reveals jazz influences yet often super-charged in intensity or with harmonic density and piston-like rhythms akin to Dave Brubeck, but in concentrated samples. It’s powerfully realized in the latest recording of his music, Blue 13: The Complete Piano Music of Frank Stemper, by Junghwa Lee.

The new piece, an orchestral work titled “Protest” reviewed below, also shares some qualities with “Secrets,” i.e. extra-musical sounds, bumps-in-the-night, rattles, and vocal-isms from orchestra players.

Stemper had been coy about the programmatic aspects of “Protest,” having referred to it as simply “Symphony No. 4” to his golfing buddies, perhaps fearing it might not live up to explanations even to himself, before the piece was born in performance.

As a score, the 16-minute piece seems subversive of classical symphonic notions of sonata-allegro form, based on major-minor key interplay and traditional three-part, long form. But I’ve hardly studied it extensively. The score includes instructions for ensemble players to “whisper” even at the very end. This might conveniently obscure the possibility of distracted audience members doing same, by then. But I doubt you’ll find Stemper’s music boring, though perhaps provocative of instant comment. So it goes. 3

Slaughterhouse Five: Book Analysis | bulb

However, the piece hardly bombed. Stemper claims it received four or five curtain calls. Nevertheless, I was told by a semi-reliable concert witness to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” (opening and closing it with convenient alacrity).

Before departing overseas, Stemper betrayed natural, if comical, anxiety about the trip, since he hadn’t had an orchestral piece premiered in quite some time. So I can’t wait to actually hear it, and/or protest it.

Stemper’s music has found happy homes (though perhaps as a “problem child”) in a number of European and other foreign orchestras, including previously with conductor Guntram Simma, who commissioned this work (with funding from the city of Dornbirn) and debuted it with the Collegium Instrumentale Dornbirn.

American composer Frank Stemper (right) confers with conductor Guntram Simma during rehearsal for Stemper’s Symphony No. 4 (Protest), in Dornbirn, Austria. Photo by Nancy Stemper.

For now, we have a substantially appreciative and not overly judgmental review, by a German critic. Stemper is pictured after the performance in the bottom photo of the review layout.

If this review page opens in a German text, a mouse right click should allow you a translation function: https://www.kulturzeitschrift.at/kritiken/musik-konzert/guntram-simma-und-das-collegium-instrumentale-verstroemten-bei-dornbirn-klassik-viel-energie-und-aussagekraft

p.s. Qualifiers aside, I really do like most Stemper music that I’ve heard over the years. I’m not sure whether it likes me as much.

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1 The rough-and-tumble analogy to demanding modern music holds true in that pianist Stemper — a high school footballer and amateur rugby player — once badly injured one of his hands playing the “impossible” piano part of Schoenberg’s song cycle Pierrot Lunaire. Old Schoenberg clearly won that arm-wrestling match — from his grave.

2. However, I did not purchase the Beethoven bobble head from eBay, rather it came from Art Smart’s Dart Mart and Juggling Emporium, on Brady Street. in Milwaukee.

3. The Kurt Vonnegut reference above, to his famous philosophical phrase “So It goes,” from the novel Slaughterhouse Five is quoted in hopes that at least part of the implicit “protest” evoked in Stemper’s piece is anti-war, and especially meaningful for Europeans who still honor the allied D-Day invasion that turned WWII. After the performance, composer Stemper and his spouse Nancy visited Normandy Beach, France, site of D-Day in World War II. The visit to Omaha Beach prompted these reflections by composer Frank Stemper:

“I cannot imagine what it was like to be part of something so grotesque, and I am glad that I cannot imagine it.  And thankful.  I had to go there, I guess to thank those that had to do it. Nancy’s dad was in the Pacific building air fields on islands. The CBs.  My dad was in rural Georgia taking care of German POWs – he never made it to any war zone.  He was scheduled to go to serve as a shrink at the Nuremberg trials, but his points ran out and he was discharged…Gus (Valent) paid at (Guadalcanal)  

Anyway, it’s life.  It’s our flawed species…Link below to one of the many D-Day videos – although this is mostly just the old soldiers remembering.  
The bad news is that D-Day and war in Europe was the so-called “Conventional War,” by the rules – as absurd as that sounds.  But it does have some validity and meaning when compared to the war in the Pacific.  The Japanese didn’t know the rules, and, I’m afraid, that THAT part of WWII made D-Day look like a picnic.  Damnit.”

The Stempers also provided these photos, including of another artist’s work, honoring that occasion (footnote photos by Nancy Stemper, unless otherwise indicated):

 

Omaha Beach, Normandy. 

“Les Braves” Normandy beach memorial sculpture, to the fallen and the victorious, by Anilore Banon.

 

 

 

NPR American Masters question: What single work of art changed your life?

This is the colorized cover of the Kindle edition of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” as illustrated by Rockwell Kent for the 1930 edition, but with the author’s name added. (see below) 
Well, I gotta right to sing the blues, Or to sing praises, like a fool, to the earthly heavens where art might come from. And if it is the blues, it’s the kind that inspires you rather than keeps your head just above water.
You see, my song sort of went on and on (by Facebook comment standards), spilling over the 12-bar blues form like water in a sinking ship. But the editors at PBS American Masters Facebook page didn’t jettison any of my load of responses to the provocative question: What single work of art changed your life?
They’ve received 247 responses and counting. Here’s my response. I couldn’t quite help myself. I have even expanded on it here, with a bit more text and imagery.
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As a long-time generalist arts journalist, I’ve encountered so much extraordinary art in all its forms. How to pick one? I might say seeing Picasso’s “Guernica,” but it was an oddly truncated experience, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art closed before I could see all of it. I’d literally been stopped in my tracks on the staircase for long minutes because the center of Guernica filled the doorway view at the top. Then the doors closed. It moved to Spain a short time later, in 1981. So, I live with a reproduction of it, and that oddly but profoundly unfulfilled experience. 1
Imagine seeing, through a doorway, the middle of this astonishing political mural by Picasso, being stopped in your tracks by it on a museum staircase — and then the gallery doors closing on you at 5 p.m. That’s my sadly truncated but unforgettable experience of seeing the mighty “Guernica.” Courtesy Magazine Artsper
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“Guernica,” of course was named for the Spanish town bombed in 1937 by Nazi planes, complicit with Fascist dictator Franco  — the first act of modern war terrorism on a civilian population of nascent World War II.
And then, seeing Arshile Gorky’s often-gorgeous metamorphosis from surrealism to abstract-expressionism — closely reflecting my own artistic sensibilities — at the Guggenheim Museum of Art is another life-changing moment.
The plow and the song - Digital Remastered Edition Painting by Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky’s 1946 painting “The Plow and the Song,” (above) lyrically transmutes his memories of homeland Armenia to the modernist present. The memories were rooted in his long, desperate childhood escape, by foot, with his sister Vartoosh and mother, from the Armenian holocaust conducted by the Ottoman Empire. Their mother, Sushan der Marderosian pictured below — in this wrenchingly poignant Gorky painting from about 1926, with the artist at the age of their exodus — died of starvation in 1918. (Courtesy pixels.)
Pleased with my Milwaukee Journal review of the Guggenheim show, Gorky’s nephew Karlen Mooradian contacted me. I was fortunate enough to obtain an in-person interview with him and Gorky’s sister Vartoosh Adoian Mooradian (Gorky’s original name was Vosdanig Adoian) in Chicago, but I was never able to publish anything from the interview. I did glean great insight from Mooradian’s 1980 book The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky, about his artist uncle, who committed suicide in 1948. He profoundly influenced many abstract expressionists, none more than Willem de Kooning. 2
The Artist and His Mother, 1926 - 1936 - Arshile Gorky - WikiArt.org
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Then, music vibrates on and on in my life, where the single transforming moment could be the Butterfield Blues Band’s ground-breaking East-West album, or first hearing John Coltrane’s achingly eloquent and exalting A Love Supreme suite, or his searing Live at Birdland, and imaging being there, in that fire.
John Coltrane “Live at Birdland.” Courtesy deep groove mono
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Or, by contrast to such earnest passion, the lacerating sneer of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” which helped pinpoint the existential waywardness of the freedom my generation declared from bourgeois convention and responsibility. Or, by another contrast, Dylan’s affirmatively flashing “Chimes of Freedom,” here now, poetry aflame in music
Or, hearing Beethoven or Mahler in fearless, heaving performances, in Milwaukee and Madison. Grammy-winning conductor John DeMain especially unlocked much of Mahler’s glorious might with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in a full Mahler symphonic cycle in the 1990s and 2000s.
In theater, a darkly, full-chested staging of Macbeth at American Platers Theater, and a thunderbolt-raging King Lear at UW-Milwaukee. So, yes, the commonality here seems an appetite for grand gestures, of many sorts.
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That’s why I finally must land on the experience of reading Moby-Dick for the first time (as some might’ve guessed). I was already in my ‘40s and, knowing its reputation and having seen Huston’s movie version, I remained unprepared for how inexorably the book swept me away, even though many understandably turn back to the shore. And yet, there’s so much you’d miss. Even the cetology, I gobbled up like so much krill going down a cavernous throat.
Yet the haunting had begun several decades earlier when I found a copy of the 1930 Random House edition which brought the book to widespread readership.
My plastic-covered copy of the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick, what I still believe is the definitive version of an illustrated edition of the book, with art by Rockwell Kent. Photo by Kevin Lynch
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The visual artist in me responded to this powerfully. I knew then, my day of reckoning with the book loomed somewhere in the future. There have been many illustrated editions of this book since, and some are steeped in their own fiery inspiration. But none so eloquently captures the spirit of the book as it manifest itself in the Depression era, as does that 1930 edition.
Rockwell Kent, in his way, approaches Melville’s genius in his numerous woodblock prints. The black and white Deco-influenced imagery is proto-noir, capturing the sense of lost-at-sea and impending doom and, in deft knife strokes, the essence of characters lurking inside their ravaged, or mortally infected, souls. 3
Infected by what? The blood-lust fervor of Ahab, akin to a demagogue manufacturing an enemy, in the whale that took his leg. The expansively stentorian Ahab, recalling Lear, captivates the whole crew in his questing rage — except for first mate Starbuck and, to a degree, Ishmael, who remains somewhat remote, and “aloft.”
Alas, Random House jumped on their perceived marketing coup with the new edition so strongly that they failed to put Melville’s name anywhere on the cover, only including “Illustrated by Rockwell Kent” on the spine. It was yet another of countless insults to the great and long-forsaken writer, right at the emergence of his genius to broader acceptance. The current Kindle version (at top), at least, corrects that “oversight” with the original cover (colorized though it is).
Captain Ahab — Rockwell Kent – Biblioklept
Here’s a brooding but burning portrait of Captain Ahab, by Rockwell Kent. 
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So, back to Melville’s text:
The extraordinarily antiphonal voices of Ishmael and Ahab echoed through my head and psyche, across the oceanic expanses of poetic writing, gritty details, and surprising humor, which might make some virtually sea-sick, but hang onto the horizon as the crow’s nest sways!
It was indeed postmodern in 1851, in how Melville strangely constructed it, and summed up his own creation as well as anyone: “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”
History of Art: Masterpieces of World Literature-Herman Melville
“Thar she blows!” from “Moby Dick,” 1930, illustrated by Kent. 
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Yet it stays afloat as a metaphor and allegory for America, in the tall, creaking bones of The Pequod, manned by people from many races. And what else did it all mean? Defying fate? Or God? Or nature? Or Nature? Hubris as delusion, or the destiny of grace embraced, one storyteller’s backward glance into timelessness?
Rockwell Kent Ishmael Going Abroad Giclee Art Print | Etsy
Here, Pequod first harpoonist Queequeg, who deeply befriends Ishmael early in the novel, remains vigilant for the White Whale, even while down in the forecastle where the crew bunks. Illustration by Kent. Courtesy Etsy.
Rockwell Kent does Moby Dick – Dimdays
Ahab’s covert mercenary harpoonist Fedallah suffers a terrible fate in the novel, here illustrated by Kent. The John Huston movie version of “Moby-Dick” inaccurately makes this scene out as Ahab so affixed to the whale, to melodramatic effect. 
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From childhood, oceanic depths had always scared me. In time, Melville’s mounting whorl of words, and his own extraordinary life story, compelled me to begin writing a novel about its author.
These days, people critique the book’s scarcity of women characters. Yet, as Saschaa squeeze of the hand Morrell comments. “On the other hand, the novel makes numerous appeals to the maternal forces of nature. It also breaks down gender norms and boundaries, from Ishmael’s surrender to Queequeg’s ‘bridegroom clasp,’ to Ahab’s boasting of his ‘queenly personality’ to the ambiguous mingling of ‘milk and sperm’ in the infamously erotic chapter ‘A Squeeze of the Hand.’”
Another she doesn’t mention is one of my favorite chapters, the stunning awe of gigantic maternal nursing in “The Grand Armada.” For that matter, tell (the late) Elizabeth Hardwick, author of a brilliantly concise and empathetic Melville biography, how much it lacks for a human female presence. Or Laurie Robertson-Lorant, author of a comprehensive Melville biography. Or Elizabeth Schultz, the doyenne of visual art about “The Great American Novel.”
Moby Dick breaches like a god reaching for the stars, (or to “kiss the sky,” as Jimi Hendrix would exult in the 1960s). in this image by Kent from 1930.
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On the other hand, one could quote any number of astute observers on the book’s magnificence: Hardwick, F. O. Matthiessen, Harold Bloom, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, and Lewis Mumford all come to mind, worth looking up. Most recently, I revisited D.H. Lawrence on Moby-Dick and he says: “A wonderful, wonderful voyage. And a beauty that is so surpassing only because of the author’s awful flounderings in mystical waters. He wanted to get metaphysically deep. And he got deeper than metaphysics. It is a surpassingly beautiful book, with an awful meaning, and bad jolts.” Read his essay in Studies in Classic American Literature for more. 4
So, living on the Heartland edge of a Great Lake, I remain haunted by this and more, by Saint Elmo’s Fire and the diabolical blood ritual, by Pip’s foot on the treadle of the loom, by the Catskill Eagle emerging from the woe that is madness, by Ahab’s burning obsession, by the massive will and long, mysterious memory – is it consciousness? — of the white whale and, of course, by Queequeg’s coffin, a miraculous, sacred offering from a brotherly friend, somehow rising, just free of the hellish vortex.
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf…”
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1 Picasso was adamant that Guernica remain at the Met until Spain re-established a democratic republic. It would not be until 1981, after both the artist’s and Franco’s deaths, that Spanish negotiators were finally able to bring the mural home.
2 Mooradian’s The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky includes 70 illustrations, a Q& A interview with Willem DeKooning about Gorky, as well as interviews with Alexander Calder, Lee Krasner Pollock, Malcolm Cowley, Reuben Nakian, Barnett Newman, Peter Blume, Meyer Schapiro, Saul Steinberg and other important figures in modern art and criticism.
3 The edition of Moby-Dick with Kent’s illustrations remains in print. I recommend the version with an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, published by The Modern Library, in paperback 2000.
4. Studies in Classic American Literature, DH Lawrence, Penguin, 1923, 1977, 159