Thursday, June 28, 2012

Marcus Eley Discusses CD, 'But Not Forgotten: Music by African-American Composers for Clarinet & Piano'

[But Not Forgotten: Music by African-American Composers for Clarinet & Piano; Marcus Eley, clarinet; Lucerne DeSa, piano; Sono Luminus DSL-92156 (U.S. release date July 31, 2012)]

William J. Zick interviewed Marcus Eley by phone on June 21, 2012:

Good morning!

Hello, this is Bill Zick calling for Marcus Eley.

This is he speaking. Good morning and thank you so much for your time!
Oh, it's my pleasure! This is the first opportunity I've had to write about a clarinet and piano CD. It's not an instrument combination that has come up very often.
Well, based on the repertoire and on the reviews for this recording, we hope that that will change!
I do too. A contact in the U.K. sent an email that it was coming out there a little bit earlier than it is in the U.S.?

Yes, I found that interesting myself, because, surfing the web I saw that the recording will be released July 2 in the U.K. It won't be released here until July 31. Whenever it hits this world, that's good!
Right, I certainly agree with that! I understand you grew up in  Indianapolis?

That's correct, yes. I was born in Indianapolis and attended Indianapolis Public Schools and Indiana University. From there I studied at the Hochschule fuer Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna, Austria. I did some postgraduate work with Robert Marcellus at Northwestern University. 

I read that you and your sister took part in a radio contest for school children to identify music?
That's correct. There was a competition in the Indianapolis school system. It gave students a chance to become oriented in classical music. We would hear excerpts from records. After a perfect score of identifying ten excerpts, we would progress to the radio stage. After you got a “10” on that you would hear a live orchestra performing. In this case the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra would perform snatches from the Brahms Third, or it could have been the Grieg Piano Concerto.

You got to hear them in person, right?

Yes, you would go there as the winner of this competition, hear the concert live and have a chance to guess which movement it was and the composer. I missed one, and my sister got a perfect score and she won the prize, a recording of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing the Tragic Overture, and on the same side the Brahms Third or Fourth. I was very upset with that at the age of 8 or 9!

Did it help stimulate your interest?
Yes, it did! 
Doesn't the program on this recording reflect the concept of the performance that you and Lucerne DeSa gave a few years ago?
That's correct! One of the things that I wanted to do when I received the invitation to perform at the National Arts Center Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa was to present a program that would be unique, reflecting the reason that I was invited. For the first time at the festival they wanted to focus on the diaspora. Because of the uniqueness of my program, it was something that allowed me to feature women composers, African-American women and African-American composers that had never been highlighted before at the previous festivals. I thought well, since I am going to be here, and we had rehearsed the program, and we had performed it, let's record it. Before leaving I was able to find a very fine concert hall in Stellenbosch that had the time available and allowed us to give our concert there and at the same time we were performing we would be able to record the music on the concert hall stage. 
Did you bring something back?
Yes, I did! In fact it was recorded there, I then brought it back to the United States, and I had it mastered. The biggest challenge was to start trying to find a record home for this. It took quite some time. And then I was very, very conscious about trying to find the right vehicle for this. I went, and I had written and spoken with all of the major classical record companies in this country. Can I mention the names?
Yes, certainly.
From BMG to Sony Classical to Decca, Universal, Harmonia Mundi, etc. Unfortunately, after several weeks passed, I would get a phone call or a message or email saying thank you very much, but we can't find a home for it; we don't know how to place this. Nothing critical of the performances, but in fact in all cases, very fine performances, well presented and so on but the next step was going on because, even in my previous recording, I believe that because of the nature of the recording at this point it is almost incumbent to the artist to make sure that everything has been placed...
You say the previous recording; would that be the Arabesque CD called Welcome Home?
That's correct! 
Would you like to comment briefly on that one?
Again, I wanted the recording to be a potpourri of music by American composers for clarinet and piano. It included Sonata for clarinet and piano by Alec Wilder.
David Baker?
David Baker, of course!
H.T. Burleigh?
Yes! And another good friend of mine, Thom Ritter George, I met at the Sun Valley Arts Festival years ago. These were the composers I wanted, to say that this is a panorama of American composers.
Oliver Nelson and John Price?
Yes, exactly! John Price I had met some years previous and I had the pleasure of performing a recital at Auburn University and at the time, we met and talked. I had already performed his Blues and Dance I and I said if I ever get a possibility I will record your work. The mission became possible, and then I recorded it. It's angular in its compositional technique.
I haven't heard your current recording, but someone wrote a glowing review for the American Composers Alliance...
Dorothy Rudd Moore said the performance of Night Fantasy was stunning!
Well, thank you very much!

I'm just passing on what she said! 

Oh, it was very kind of Dorothy Rudd Moore! I had performed her work at the conference in South Africa. All the works in this compilation were of African-American composers. I wanted to give an overview of what it is like, because there is nothing, to my knowledge, that has a recording of this type for this instrument and these composers. I wanted to have Undine Smith Moore's work and I wanted to make sure that women composers were represented.

The program goes on to Alvin Batiste, Episodes?
Alvin Batiste was a very good friend. We had the pleasure of working with Alvin on different occasions. This music Episodes is a part of a larger piece for clarinet, string quartet and jazz trio, which Alvin and I will perform on the next recording, which will be the music by Black composers or African American composers for chamber music setting. First you have the clarinet and piano, then you have the larger chamber music.
Then you have Clarence Cameron White, The Basque Folk Song?
Yes, that has not been recorded. That is something I think is from the middle part of his compositional life. All these pieces on the recording reflect the composer's passion for the instrument and the setting, particularly The Basque Folk Song. The same thing is true with the Romance composed by William Grant Still which I had found out was originally a dynamic piece for alto saxophone. As I listened to it as I was reading the score, I thought this would work really well with the clarinet. As I mentioned in the program notes, it is a song without words, and it has a very nice melody which is typical of William Grant Still.
I see the program goes on with another woman, Undine Smith Moore?
Undine Smith Moore has been, throughout her compositional life, someone who wanted to show her love for the spiritual, and also her work for choral writing. I remember when I first got the work from her she said this is one of my earliest pieces for clarinet, and it was Introduction, Allegro and Fugue, so one other piece if I'm not mistaken. I remember the discussion very briefly. This piece, again, is one of the pieces which work well for the instrument. It allows one to see what Undine Smith Moore has done outside of her area. Her instrumental writing is very interesting, and challenging!

A fascinating choice I haven't seen before, Samuel Akpabot?

This is from a larger piece.

Scenes from Nigeria?
Exactly! This particular excerpt from the piece features the clarinet. He rewrote this for clarinet and piano. I think I found this piece at Indiana University School of Music. It's a piece that's very melodic. Its titled Pastorale; it's a lullaby type of song which puts it in a very tranquil and relaxed mood. This is one of his pieces that I wanted to include. For an African composer, you don't see that many pieces for traditional wind instruments in Western compositional technique.

I see you go on then to Quincy Hilliard?


You chose his work Coty?

Yes, I did. A friend of mine knew Coty. He said Quincy is a very fine composer; this is a piece for clarinet you should look at. This is a friend of mine from the Indianapolis Public Schools who knew Quincy Hilliard. When I got the piece from him, I thought it was quite interesting. It is something that could definitely work well in any recital setting for clarinet. The second movement is something that I think is very interesting and yet passionate. The last movement, which is something that I remember from playing it in South Africa, reminds one of the Mission Impossible theme.

Is that right!
In the ostinato; when you listen to it you'll hear it. What makes it very interesting is what Mr. Hilliard does in the clarinet part. It's the movement that is the most virtuosic for the instrument. There are things that require a lot of technique and use of different types of control of the instrument. It's a fun piece; I think you'll enjoy it! It reminds me of that period, and it works well!
You have Scott Joplin represented here?
With Weeping Wilow, A Ragtime Two-Step?
Exactly! This piece is something that I have done many times as an encore. Not many people know this piece! It's one of the pieces that are arranged to give the clarinet a prominent voice but then still goes back to what Mr, Joplin said, that a rag should be played not very fast, and that it's much more dignified than what people frequently think of when they think of the rag. This one I wanted to have a very stately approach to a genre that many people feel should be played very quickly. The Weeping Willow was something that I felt works well on the instrument.
The piece that follows is Todd Cochran's Soul Bird?
Exactly! This was commissioned from Mr. Cochran. Todd, a good friend, lives here in the Los Angeles area, and has done much work as a jazz pianist and also as a film composer. When I approached him I said I'm going to South Africa, I really want to feature a world premiere. Would you have anything, or would you have the time to compose a piece? He graciously accepted and Soul Bird is one piece that, as I wrote in the program notes, gives one an impression of how a bird will land, a soul bird metaphorically speaking, will land and become a part of life and then flourishes and then the bird encounters the rest of his life. There are things that happen, and then he flies away before he dies.
You close the program with Amazing Grace?
Yes! This piece I have given several years ago, and and it's a great arrangement!
The arrangement by H. Stevenson?
Yes! Mr. Stevenson lives here in the Southern California area. I was able to get the piece. My friend said “Marcus, I know you can play this quite well!” I've used it as an encore. It's a composition everyone knows, but to have it performed on the clarinet gives it a different type of feeling. My hat goes off to the arrangement by Mr. Stevenson! With all these other composers, and all the works that have been played and not played, the amazing grace is that we are able to realize that there by the grace of God with all these works that the composer's art has contributed, we are able to say, that we have come, and we will survive and we will not be forgotten! 
You end with a very thoughtful and pleasant perspective!
Yes, in fact that's what I want! This is a celebration of works by composers whose voices need to be heard! They have to be heard! And they will be heard! I want in this recording to do what I can do as a performing artist to show what there is in this repertoire. Hopefully this will stir other composers, other musicians, other clarinetists to aggressively challenge the view of work. When you look at the programming of orchestral, chamber and solo recitals or concerts, you don't see this type of thing. 
You have chosen a fine record label, Sono Luminus!

Oh, thank you very much! It was a challenge trying to find a home, and I am so happy that Sono Luminus has given me this opportunity and I am sure that this will add significantly to the discography of works by African-American composers!
This is the second Sono Luminus recording that I've dealt with. The first one was the Russian Viola Sonatas of Eliesha Nelson and Glen Inanga.


Is there any concluding remark you'd like to make?
Just listen, enjoy and listen again!
Thank you very much, Marcus!
Thank you so much for allowing me to have the forum!

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