Lejaren Hiller:

details of selected works


An Apotheosis of Archaeopteryx

Ponteach

Suite from The Birds

Computer Cantata

Seven Artifacts

Suite from "Time of the Heathen"

Fantasy for 3 Pianos

Six Easy Pieces for Violin and Piano

Tetrahedron

Minuet and Trio (the Music Lesson)

Staircase Tango

Two Theater Pieces for Piano


Hiller: An Apotheosis of Archaeopteryx (1979)

The composer writes:

An Apotheosis of Archaeopteryx was written in 1979 for Lawrence Trott, who had asked me to compose a short work as part of a continuing series of commissions he has given to contemporary composers to build up the literature for solo piccolo. He asked that it be about birds.

I had just taken a brief trip to Brazil, where I became intrigued with Brazilian folk instruments, notably those used in Afro-Bahian music and dance, such as the capoeira. I acquired a berimbau, which consists of an iron wire stretched between the ends of a bow made of bamboo, a gourd which can be pressed against the body, an iron washer to stop the string, and a caxixi, a small rattle held in the right hand. It occurred to me to combine this instrument and the piccolo since the contrast would be very bright, and to write a duo consisting of a short series of dances preceded by a prelude and followed by a development and coda. I chose the primitive, reptilian pre-bird Archaeopteryx as my subject&emdash;a bit primitive and tropical, and thus not inappropriate... Many of the rhythms derive from Afro-Bahian dance rhythms, but never literally, since there is little point in writing pseudo-folk music; I prefer the original.

"There was a sense of timelessness in this piece, of ages past come to call, intensely exotic and mystical." ~~Buffalo Evening News

"A fine showpiece for the piccolo." ~~Fanfare

Recording: SPECTRUM SR-131

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Hiller: Computer Cantata (1963)

"This Computer Cantata is the first of a proposed series of compositions prepared by means of a generalized programming procedure which we have called MUSICOMP and which was written for an IBM digital computer such as the one installed in the University of Illinois Digital Computer Laboratory..."

Lejaren Hiller's Computer Cantata was one of the very Þrst compositions to be created with digital assistance. At a time when all computers were slow, bulky, low-powered mainframes, and software had to be created from scratch using awkward computer languages designed for the physical sciences, Hiller and his assistant Robert Baker created a musical tour-de-force in which a computer not only selected all the notes, but also created the singer's text and generated the sounds for an electronic tape.

The score to this unique work has been in print for many years, and most libraries now have it in their collections. Performance materials, however, have previously been available only on rental. Kallisti Music Press is pleased now to offer them for sale in addition to the score, which remains available separately. At reasonable cost we provide parts for vocal soloist and eighteen instruments, as well as the tape for the electronic cues, newly prepared from Hiller's digital original and transferred to CD.

Duration: 22'

Instrumentation: Soprano voice plus flute, bass clarinet, B-flat trumpet, horn, violin, viola, amplified guitar, theremin [ondes martenot, trautonium], 10 percussion (snare drum, cymbal, tambourine, castanets, tabor, maracas, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone), tape

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Hiller: Fantasy for Three Pianos (1951)

"One day early in 1951, three young Venezuelan pianists asked me to write a composition for them and thus contribute to a very limited repertoire. I did so, but by the time I had finished it, their group had broken apart and that ended immediate performance possibilities.

"The problem, as I saw it, was justifying the presence on a stage of three pianos and keeping the pianists busy doing things other than just playing doublings for sonority. Consequently, the composition is busy and full of counterpoint and multiple theme combinations. It is in sonata form in B flat minor with a coda in G major, but is often also quite modal in cast (flattened leading tones, and so forth).

"I composed much of this score in the fall of 1951, in a cabin in the woods above Stuart's Draft, VA. The cabin had in it an antique square piano, wildly out of tune and with numerous broken strings; however, it served my needs. Our neighbors were raccoons, a bear, a copperhead snake in the kitchen cupboard, moonshiners down the hill and an old lady who would visit and sing classic Appalachian ballads."

Recording: SPECTRUM SR-190

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Hiller: Minuet and Trio (1980)

One of the most easily mounted of Hiller's many "theater pieces"--what we now call performance art. Here a German music professor attempts to give a lecture-demonstration on the minuet but is constantly subverted by "students" (soprano, piccolo, cello, percussion and piano) who insist on playing New Music instead. For the trio section, in contrast, they perform a hilariously bathetic torch song. The professor is horrified, but takes comfort in the fact that at least the music has the proper, classical A-B-A form, and so the whole opening section is repeated exactly as before--including the professor's remarks.

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Hiller: Ponteach (1977)

A Melodrama for Narrator and Piano

Better to die than see my country ruined,/ Myself, my sons, my friends reduced to famine,/ Expelled from hence to barren rocks and mountains,/ To curse our wretched fate and pine in want...

Ponteach (Pontiac in the modern spelling) was the famous Ottawa Indian chief who organized "Pontiac's Conspiracy" in 1764 soon after the close of the French and Indian war. The British proved even more callous than the French in their treatment of the Indians and it wasn't long before they rebelled under Pontiac's leadership. Robert Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian war who was sent to Detroit to lift Pontiac's siege, was so impressed by Pontiac and so disgusted with his own side that he later wrote a five act play (Ponteach, or the Savages of America, a Tragedy), remarkable for its "modern" understanding of British/Indian relations.

From this play Hiller excerpted two of Ponteach's soliloquies and five other speeches displaying the attitudes of characteristic English types: the Trader, the Hunter, the Colonel, the Governor, and the Priest. The narrator of Hiller's melodrama speaks all these roles, donning different hats to differentiate them, while for each of the villainous English a motto (also drawn from Rogers' play) is displayed on a placard or flashed on a screen.

The music accompanying all this is no mere background, but a powerfully focused passacaglia based on the Ojibway war song "Scarlet is its Head." Other Ojibway and Ottawa music is quoted throughout, as are such contemporary British tunes as "The British Grenadiers" and "Do You Know the Muffin Man"~~all in service of the dramatic conception, yet totally integrated into a complex and independent musical structure. One of Hiller's finest works, Ponteach is both a musical tour de force and a powerful dramatic experience.

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Hiller: Seven Artifacts (1948/73/84)

This knuckle-busting, 23' piano suite is Hiller's "masterpiece" in the original sense of the term: the work by which an artist, demonstrating an original style and total command of craft, asserts the right to be considered the professional equal of those already established in the field. For Hiller, whose résumé in 1948 was entirely that of a chemist, this ancient ritual surely held more than usual importance, and perhaps that is why the resulting piece is a masterpiece in the ordinary sense as well.

The seven movements with their deceptively offhand titles reveal a whole world of music, immense in its variety, strength, and depth. Note, for example, that the odd-numbered movements correspond to the four movements of a sonata; indeed the weight and dimensions of much of the piece far exceeds what one expects from a suite. Hiller revised Seven Artifacts in 1973, and touched it up further in 1984. Both these versions are now published, but the 1948 original seems to be lost.

I. String of Pearls

This title refers not to jewelry, but to the "string of pearls" octotonic (whole-step, half-step) scale in which the movement it is written. A somber and dramatic piece, full of hidden menace, it has the heft (though not quite the form) of a sonata-form movement.

Listen to this movement via MIDI.

II. Palindrome

Not just one mirror, but a whole hall of mirrors as phrases, motives, and subsections endlessly reflect back on themselves. The central turning point is disguised by a transpostition: the second half of the movement is not merely backwards, but a fourth higher than the first half.

III. Plinth

A point of quiet, almost of stasis~~yet the structure reveals connections to both the preceding movements.

IV. Filigree

A long, relaxed melody and irregular, poke-in-the-eye accents are both heard through a lattice of continuous, 16th-note arpeggiation.

V. Clockwork

A humorous sendup of classical minuets, complete with exaggerated cross-hand work; but in the end, oddly touching.

VI. Blue Triangle

That's blue as in jazz. Hiller's intimate familiarity with the big-band idiom here makes itself felt. The "triangle" refers to the elaborate chord scheme on which this slow movement is built.

VII. Ormolu

Ormolu is brass made to look like gold, so here we have "trash with flash"~~at least on the surface. Underneath the high-speed clowning lies a complicated theme-and-variations in which the ear is continually fooled by recurrences that don't correspond to the variation structure.

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Hiller: Six Easy Pieces for Violin and Piano (1974)

Hiller wrote two works for young performers, and this, the later of the two, mirrors in many ways the much earlier Children's Suite for Piano, especially in its folk-like melodies. Each movement is exactly 32 measures long, and Hiller creates an amazing variety of musical moods within this constraint through the use of varied tempos and forms. The violin part has a difficulty level of about 3, and includes simple, entertaining introductions to a variety of 20th-century techniques such as col legno and snapped pizzicato. The piano part is also fairly easy (level 4) but requires an adult-size hand. The movement titles are as follows:

I. Cowboy Song

II. Rainy Day

III. Soda Pop

IV. Wadzl's Catnap

V. The Tin Man

VI. Time To Go

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Hiller: Staircase Tango (1984)

One of the most popular of Hiller's late works, this tango was commissioned by the pianist Yvar Mikhashoff as part of The Tango Project--an collection of tangos by numerous contemporary composers.

Hiller writes: "The structure of this tango is an anagram on the word itself, the five letters symbolizing:

T = Theme on Two Tritones.
A = Answer on an Augmented Fifth.
N = Nearly There on a Neapolitan Sixth.
G = G Major, the Goal Gained.
O= Overtones, the Objective Obtained.

The thematic material throughout constantly changes and provokes frequent changes of mood--from lyrical to strenuous to affected."

There is also a recurring reference to the First Piano Concerto of Liszt, and a number of other sly quotations, less obvious.

Because the music shifts irregularly back and forth within the structure outlined above, Hiller likened it to a tango danced up and down on a staircase in some imagined Hollywood scene from the '30s.

 

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Hiller: Suite from The Birds (1958/84)

In 1984 Hiller extracted this concert suite from his 1958 Music for The Birds, a complete setting of Aristophanes' play. The style is Broadway pit-band, spiced with the composer's usual eclecticism in the form of palindromes and touches of serialism and dissonant counterpoint. The influence of Harry Partch, who was in residence at the University of Illinois while Hiller was working on The Birds there, can also be detected.

I. Overture

II. Entrance of the Birds

III. The Basket of Wings

IV. Festival March

 

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Hiller: Suite from "Time of the Heathen" (1961)

The music composed by Lejaren Hiller for Peter Kass's "underground" film, Time of the Heathen, in 1961 is one of the hidden treasures of American music. One of the finest American orchestral scores of the 1960s, Hiller's suite fully embodies the contradictions and turmoil of that turbulent decade in music of amazing diversity and stunning emotional power.

Here can be found strict serialism alongside folksy modality, Ivesian chaos yielding to strict Renaissance counterpoint, a six-voice atonal fugue&emdash;but also pure Hollywood schmaltz. The music's emotional world is equally varied, from scalding anger to casual bonhomie, joky good humor, bleak despair, and high solemnity, with much of its power deriving from the unexpected ways in which it turns from one extreme to another, often without any warning.

The Suite from "Time of the Heathen" was performed only two or three times during Hiller's lifetime (only once in its final form), and very few people have had a chance to hear this remarkable music. Kallisti Music Press is pleased to be able to make it available now to the musical public at large.

We are also making available the purely electronic Nightmare Music, another part of the film score to which Hiller assigned a separate opus number. It makes an excellent mood-setting prelude when played before the orchestral suite, and increases the musical diversity of the whole even further.

The Suite from "Time of the Heathen" is scored for the following instruments: flute doubling piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, 2 percussion, violas, cellos, and contrabasses. Its five movements are:

Gaunt and Jessie

The Murder

By the Stream

Flight Fugue

Death of Gaunt

 

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Hiller: Tetrahedron (1983)

Hiller writes: "One might call this a rather surrealistic impression of Baroque style. The forms are there, but all else is alien, especially the harmony which veers in and out of recognizable chords and melodic fragments.

"All four movements have the precise same length of 120 bars. Writing compositions with all movements the same length has intrigued me for some time; there is something challenging to me making structures fit pre-defined work spaces. I think this also reflects my years of experience writing theater music that must conform to time limitations imposed by an author's script.

"The method of composition was partly based upon what I call templates. This is not graphical composition as normally understood, because only the boundary conditions within which each note must fall is a template, an external mold, a silhouette. In other compositions these silhouettes have had various sources; here, the template was discarded computer printout."

I. Overture

II. Minuet

III. Chaconne

IV. Gigue

Listen to a sample from this work.

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Hiller: Two Theater Pieces for Piano (1956)

"These two very brief piano pieces, now a miniature piano suite, were written for productions of plays by Pirandello and Ibsen at the Univeristy of Illinois. Pirandello asks that one of his characters play an aria in the style of Paisiello on a piano in an off-stage room. Hedda Gabler also plays a piano in an off-stage room (a neat coincidence), just before shooting herself at the climax of the drama. These simple bits of incidental music, written in period styles appropriate to the two dramas in question, are the first examples of what has since become a substantial catalog of theater music."

I. Aria for Pirandello's "Right You Are If You Think You Are"

Not "in the style of Paisiello," but of Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words~~with just a hint of Satie.

II. Chords and Wild Dance for Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler"

A tour-de-force of dramatic instrumental writing, crammed into less than a minute as Hedda idly fingers the keys, plunges into a distraught tarantella, then breaks off with a crash.

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