Oct/Nov 2001

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

The Elegance of the Ungraspable

Dlugoszewski, Lucia. Disparate Stairway Radical Other (1995)
Dedicated to Mikhail Baryshnikov,
Erick Hawkins (in memoriam),
And Mary Norton Dorazio (in memoriam).
Commissioned by The White Oak Dance Project for the dance Journey of a Poet by Erick Hawkins.
Performed by The White Oak Ensemble
Exacerbated Subtlety Concert (Why Does A woman Love A Man?) (1997, rev.2000)
Lucia Dlgoszewski, timber piano
Tender Theater Flight Nageire (1971, rev. 1978)
Gerard Schwarz, Edward Carroll, Norman Smith, trumpets
Robert Routch, horn
David Langlitz, tenor trombone
David Taylor, bass trombone
Lucia Dlugoszewski, Percussion
Gerard Schwarz, conductor
Space Is A Diamond (1970)
Gerard Schwarz, trumpet
CRI CD 859


Lucia Dlugoszewski was born in Detroit in 1934 and died in New York in 2000. Beginning in the early 1950s, she was an influential figure in the Greenwich Village and East Village counter-establishment scenes of loft performances, happenings, and experimentation. Early LP recordings on Candide, Nonesuch and Folkways have long been out of pint, so this CRI issue is not only a posthumous tribute, but a retrospective, for it includes works from the CRI archives recorded in the 1970s as well two work conceived during her final years when she was in her mid 60s. One hopes that CRI and/or other labels will follow with further recordings, because these four works have a freshness and exhilarating charm that commands respect and commends further exploration.

It may be unfair to bill Dlugoszewski as a musical primitive or naïf as reviewers during her life typically did. They present her as a child who with great abandon plays in a garden of sound invented from traditional instruments, altered instruments, invented instruments (during the 1950s, she designed over 100 percussion instruments for her performances), and found objects. Unfair or not, the music engages one on an instinctive level that recalls child-like exuberance and raptness.

As I hear and re-hear these works, I have tried to figure out what sustains them beyond the immediacy of their improvisation-like charm, for indeed, they bear up will with repeated listenings. I am sure that Dlugoszewski engages in formal and structural moves that hold her ideas together, but whatever these are they do not present themselves to the auditor with ready reference to traditional western concert forms, nor do they recall the riffing and variation structures of jazz. Dlugoszewski is a composer of timbre-perhaps the composer of timbre par excellence-and the pallet of sounds that defines each work, as exhilaratingly diverse and astonishing as each might be, becomes the feature that gives each work its coherence and direction.

Disparate Stairway Radical Other is a string quartet in effect and even though Dlugoszewski draws, pounds, thumps, glides and sirens sounds from the venerable string grouping of violins, viola and cello, that grouping determines both a vast garden of sound-play and invention but also its containing boundaries. The work's seven short movements define a particular pallet of colors and motivic and rhythmical gestures so that the listener traverses a vibrant landscape of changing moods. The composer's comment on her title may or may not illuminate the work: "When you have immediacy, you're again deeply in aliveness, you've shed the nonalive past as well as the nonalive future for the very alive immediate. I remember seeing a Japanese architecture where, for no reason, there was off to the side a stairway. It was just there. And I always call it the disparate stairway" (note 11).

By contrast, Exacerbated Subtlety Concert (Why Does A Woman Love A Man?) is for solo timbre piano, the revision being one of the last projects the composer worked on before her death and the recording of her performance being her last recording. She says: "In 1992 I began to think of something totally different. I found myself saying, 'I want to love and will and otherize and also subtilize the world.' This concept of subtlety! I think music is capable of more subtlety than any other art: it just blows past your ear, it's elusive, it's ungraspable. I think the height of elegance is what is ungraspable; I call it the elegance of the ungraspable" (note 13).

The four part 17 minute work fulfills its title's promise and its composer's manifesto. When one thinks musical subtlety, Mozart's melodic lifts and swerves in which a tender sadness frolics with garish cheeriness, or a smile erupts from a terse drama might come to mind, or the impressionists with their seductively nuanced harmonies. Dlogoszewski's subtlety like her disparate stairway is an experience of immediacy and nowness, what she calls "aliveness." As one listens to the wondrous sounds of her prepared piano, the ungraspableness of the elusive brushings on the ear are alive both because they are ungraspable and because they seem to offer themselves to be grasped. This is quite different from the Mozartean elusiveness that emerges from ambiguity, or the impressionist elusiveness that comes from indeterminate and unresolved harmonies.

Dlugoszewski's quest into subtlety is original and genuine, and in Exacerbated Subtlety brings to full fruition a problematic that she dates back to 1992, but that as one turns to the works from the 1970s that round off this CD, has always been part of her compositional project. Tender Theater Flight Nageire and Space Is A Diamond explore brass timbres. The first work is for a brass ensemble with percussion, the second for solo trombone. She is fortunate to have Gerard Schwarz as conductor/performer of both, for he is devoted to this music and performs with great élan.

The 10 minute Space Is a Diamond is an ears' banquet, quite astonishingly served up by the trombone alone. While it dazzlingly seems to cut facets of aural space to reveal the lights and lusters of the trombone standing in as a diamond, it simultaneously carves facets from silence to glory in the aliveness and elusiveness and ungraspableness of sound itself.

In this, Dlugoszewski seems to me to be one of the most faithful followers of John Cage and in some ways to trump her mentor. Cage's project, in part at least, was to break down the dichotomies of sound and silence, music and noise, randomness and design. But the works in which he most ardently asserts these ideas are often intellectual projects more than auditory revelations. Dlugoszweski's works, like Space Is a Diamond, are auditory revelations, alive to the moments of their expression. When I leave from listening to this CD and go into my yard, I hear the sound-world in a delighted fullness that Cage had promised but, I believe, Dlugoszweski more fully delivers.


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