Sacred Transitions: A Song Cycle Based on Meditations by Harold M. Schulweis
The texts from these songs are selections from mediations in Finding Each Other In Judaism by Harold M. Schulweis. With these meditations, Rabbi Schulweis revitalizes rites of passage as sacred moments in our lives using simple, clear, and beautiful language to focus us to a higher awareness. In reading them, I find a personal, intimate quality to these meditations, as if one person is speaking to another with deep love, compassion, and awareness. That is why I've set the texts as arts songs, the most intimate form of chamber music.
Sacred Transitions focuses on the four primary life passages—birth, marriage, sickness/age, death—(however, Rabbi Schulweis's book also embraces bris, coming of age (bar/bat mitzvah), conversion, and even divorce as important life transitions that require consecration). The songs of the four parts are as follows:
1. From Where Did You Come?
2. Touch My Heart
3. Whose Am I?
4. Mirror Eyes
6. Playing With Three Strings
7. Holding On And Letting Go
8. It Is Never Too Late
BRIM A BREW
These songs speak of simple things: the magic of wind whistling through empty glass bottles, an aged maid representing the harvest of a simple bountiful life, a lullaby to ward off the great darkness, and winter galloping on a stallion followed by snowy hosts. Juliana Gondek sent me home one day with an extensive folder filled to the brim with poetry of her belated friend Ray Underwood. Ray’s poems got under my skin with their simplicity, elegance, Americana quality—and beneath all that, a mighty darkness. This collection sets five of his poems in musical language that tries to tap into that sense of simple and elegant American identity, with resonances of Copland and Barber.
Brim a Brew: Five Songs on Poetry of Ray Underwood
by Russell Steinberg
1. Clear Glass Bottles
2. White Shoes
4. Winter Comes A-Riding
5. Do Not Abandon Me My Angels
Stories From My Favorite Planet: A Musical Tribute to Journalist Daniel Pearl
Duration: 44 Minutes complete (7 movements and 6 narrated articles)
Instrumentation: Violin, Piano, and Narrator
Commissioned By: The Daniel Pearl Foundation
On an intuitive hunch, filmmaker Aviva Kempner urged me to meet Daniel Pearl’s parents. During a wonderful impromptu evening together, the Pearls captivated me with stories of Danny’s humor and insight. I had already known that both of us had grown up in Encino and attended Birmingham High School. What I didn’t know was that Danny himself was an accomplished violinist and that his passion to play music helped him establish networks of friends wherever he went. How fascinating that Danny’s curiosity and brilliant journalism led him from humble Encino to the central nexus of world politics. The result of our meeting was “Stories From My Favorite Planet,” The piece intertwines readings from five articles published in At Home in the World, into a musical tapestry that portray Danny’s compassion as well as his sense of the ridiculous.
We begin with a musical overture that represents Danny’s drive from California to Massachusetts for his first job at the North Adams Transcript. In the first article, a young Danny delivers a hilarious indictment against the bureaucracy of the Registry of Motor Vehicles. A melancholy violin soliloquy precedes the next article, a powerful Wall Street Journal story set in Kosovo where Danny tries to discover if any Serb and Albanian friendships still remain amidst the war. Perhaps Danny’s most humorous article concerns the rediscovery of a UCLA-owned Stradivarius violin that fell off the roof of someone’s car, but whose new owner is loathe to return it! Musically, I couldn’t resist setting this movement as a tango. The climax of the piece is a musical tarantella that prepares one of Danny’s darkest stories detailing Osama Bin Laden’s gem smuggling trade in Africa. Here Danny discovers how strongly Islamic fundamentalists desire to kill Americans, eerily anticipating his own fate. In the musical elegy that follows, I composed a ‘ghost’ version of the earlier tango.
Danny Pearl’s wit would not stand for a depressing conclusion, so we end as we began, with a sequel to the first article in Massachusetts. Danny gloats that he has outlasted his “tormentor,” the chief of the Motor Vehicle Registry, only to learn that you can’t beat City Hall! “
Stories From My Favorite Planet” was commissioned by the Daniel Pearl Foundation for the second annual worldwide Daniel Pearl Music Day.
ARIA FOR A CALMER WORLD
Meditative instrumental song to provide serenity in our stressful world. Makes a satisfying concert opener. I notice audiences tend to sigh collectively at the end.
HEART OF THE WORLD (Violin and piano version)
Fantasy for Flute and Piano
The flute chants inside the piano, creating an aural resonance whose overtones unfold the harmonies of a mysterious chromatic landscape that ultimately evolves and pushes through to a world of tonal serenity. That is essentially the journey of my Flute Fantasy.
Well known Los Angeles flutist and UCLA faculty member Sheridan Stokes commissioned this sonata for flute and piano. Written in three movements, the piece traces an emotional arc from darkness to light. The opening movement establishes a moody improvisatory world with dramatic chromatic harmonies and long yearning flute lines. Special expressive devices include pitch bends, key clicks, harmonic overblowing, and a concluding multiphonic that evokes a distant train whistle.
The atmosphere of the middle movement lightens to a quieter, nostalgic world. A gentle repeating figure echoes between flute and piano like ripples in a pond, set against a descending figuration of arpeggios. Sweet sadness gives way to a joyful finale bristling with jagged rhythms and polymeters, in the key of G sharp Minor no less. Several high C sharps and D sharps may earn me the ire of flutists, but they lend the piece a powerful ringing and unmistakable energy.
String Quartet No. 1
My string quartet was premiered by the New World String Quartet in Boston and ultimately became my doctoral thesis at Harvard University. Though written as only a single movement, the quartet journeys and converses together through many different worlds of texture and tempo. I was particularly influenced by the sonorities of Alban Berg’s String Quartet op. 3 and Lyric Suite, as well as Bartok’s haunting String Quartet No. 2. My original title was “Nightmares,” but several professors protested saying the music was far too sweet for such a description. You be the judge.
String Quartet No. 2
This second string quartet marks my first intentional sequel. Like my first quartet, the second brings together four virtuoso string players who have to play at the top of their game in a single movement of continuous motion and energy. And yes! I’ve doubled the special effects this time around. This quartet has even more pizzicati (string plucking) and anxiety-inducing sul ponticello (bowing on the bridge to create an eerie electronic sound) than the first. It even raises the ante by adding glissandi (slides down the strings).
Rings of Saturn
Influenced by impressionism and a growing fascination with delicate tone colors, Rings of Saturn is a gentle, introspective work written for the rather unusual combination of flute, violin, and piano. Composer Donald Martino once remarked about a special aural haze that seems to hover throughout the piece, partially due to the piano's use of pedal and plucking inside the instrument. The title is reference to photos taken by the Voyager spacecraft revealing an almost infinite series of colorful rings surrounding Saturn.
TRIO FOR CLARINET, CELLO, AND PIANO
Clarinet Trio is a one movement work with three distinct sections. A high, furious trill initiates and propels the energetic first section. As the pace becomes more frenzied, the instruments race out of control and abruptly rest. The following middle section, at a slower tempo, reviews previous ideas in a distant and fragmented context. The instruments use special effects (key clicking, multiphonics, bowing behind the bridge, string plucking, etc.) and play out of time with each other. A cello cadenza connects the material to a quiet recapitulation which is more a remembrance than a restatement of the opening textures. The primary theme now is reflective and lyrical (it was harsh and jagged initially). The piece ends distantly with a high trill-like figuration in the piano.
The intense quartet centers around the note E. So many pieces of classical music use this subtle code. One great example is Beethoven's 7th Symphony, particularly the slow movement. Even contemporary composers, like William Kraft, use the pitch 'E' as an organizing force. The first movement begins with diatonic triads but quickly becomes complex. Orbit E was commissioned by Michelle Stanley and the Sonora Chamber Ensemble.
MULHOLLAND FANTASIES (PIANO QUARTET)
Mulholland Fantasies was commissioned by Pacific Serenades and performed by Joanne Pearce Martin (piano), Roger Wilkie (violin), Roland Kato (viola), and David Speltz (cello). Dedicated to Mark Carlson, composer and founder of Pacific Serenades. The piece is an interior journey inspired by Mulholland Drive and the way it divides through the city of Los Angeles. The first 3 movements form a set, where the end of one movement repeats as the beginning of the next. The fourth movement is a slow movement with a high expressive cello solo. The finale is an exuberant piece reflecting my love for the lyricism in Schubert's chamber music.
Six Violin Duos (after Bartok)
The point of departure for my six violin duos was a performance I heard of Bartok’s work in the same genre. The sheer sound of just two violins achieving an orchestral depth and variety of color long remained in my ears. I composed each duo with a specific tone color in mind. The first emphasizes the percussive energy of rosined bows digging into the strings. The second is a gentle lullaby with harmonics (bell tones produced by gently touching the string). The third uses mutes and obsessively, almost desperately, explores the inside of a repeated figure. Eventually the anxiety intensifies to the point of noise as the violins play behind the bridges of their instruments. The fourth duo is a light dance of arpeggios produced by the violins gliding the bows over all the strings. The fifth is a more complicated, mysterious study that exploits the special rasp of the bow played on or near the violin bridge. A gruff and energetic dance—my version of a Hungarian Hoedown—completes the set. It’s a kind of mad combination of Hungarian folk dance and country fiddlin’.
This one movement sonata-allegro was composed in the senior year of my Bachelor's degree at UCLA. It's a lush and virtuosic piece in the late Romantic style in G minor structured in a chromatic ascending scale so that the section go harmonically G-Ab-A-Bb-B-C-C#-D. The piece was premiered in Boston quite successfully, but has yet to be performed again. The Boston Globe wrote:
To be present was to be reminded again that today's music speaks in many different voices, some of them intent on sounding like yesterday's. Russell Steinberg's lush and warmly romantic Violin Sonata could have come right out of the mid to late-19th century; its expressive vocabulary, which manages to avoid anachornism or camp, might have appealed to such virtuosi as Jan Kubelik or Eugene Ysaye.
Subterranean Dance is a 7 minute chamber piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, marimba and vibraphone. A high energy texture with rapid pulse and arabesques eventually subsides to a quiet contrapuntal nocturne, first lyrical, then mysterious (i.e. 'subterranean'). Momentum picks up and the music returns to the initial fast tempo. But this second fast section also spends itself, dying away into a sad, eerie slow dance and eventually a skeletal violin solo. Defying the tendency for a 'big finish," the lyrical nocturne returns to complete the piece, this time adorned in a hazy halo of high ornaments that waft the music upwards.
War Piece is a 3 movement work for string quartet, flute, and trumpet. The first movement is "Battle," the second movement is "Funeral Plain," and the third movement is "Crows and Flies." It is written in a neoclassic style. It was premiered at Harvard University where the audience and performers cheered, while the faculty took me aside the next day and threatened to essentially kick me out of the PhD program for writing such a "backward" tonal piece. That was life in the 1980s.
FANFARES FOR THREE TRUMPETS
The first trumpet fanfare was commissioned for a groundbreaking ceremony on a commercial building in Boston. The cranes nearly smashed the balcony where the trumpets were playing during their performance. The piece is inspired by my love of Medieval composer Perotin's gorgeous diatonic but contrapuntal harmonies.
This is my most ambitious composition, placing a classical string quartet and a world music trio in artistic confrontation. The term strange attractors is borrowed from Chaos Theory, suggesting a hidden order to turbulent events. That hidden order reveals symmetries that occur at various scales or frames of reference. In this music, the perspective of Western music embodied by the string quartet, with its classical rhythms, melodies, and harmonies, grapples with the global perspective embodied by the world music trio called MANY AXES, a group that specializes in primitive, ethnic, and original instruments, producing sounds that often lie outside the Western canon of scales and phrasing. As the piece unfolds, both groups start to respond to each other and experiment with the other's way of making music. This work marks a new direction in my music that shows my “strange attraction” to unusual sonority and improvisation created within a structured musical articulation.
Six Movements Played Without Pause
I. Proximity (Full Ensemble)
II. Tonal Attractor (String Quartet)
III. World Attractor (World Music Trio)
IV. Fractals and Chaos (Pairings)
V. Switched Polarity (Full Ensemble)
VI. Universality (Full Ensemble)
Change of heart