Hayes Biggs: Shadow Worlds Seeking Light
The first time that I interviewed Hayes Biggs, in 2007 for a feature in Signal to Noise Magazine (Issue #48), I was struck by his remark, “My works exist in the shadow world between tonality and atonality.” While this could also be said of much music written by his relative contemporaries, composers such as David Rakowski, Eric Moe, and Melinda Wagner, the idea of interplay between darkness and light, in tones rather than shades, particularly resonates in Biggs’s work. That interplay takes many forms on this, his debut ‘composer portrait’ recording. (Individual works have previously been recorded for the Albany, Ravello, Pro Organo, and 4Tay imprints.) What remains constant is Biggs’s tremendous musicality and singularly individual voice.
The composer has written music for traditional ensemble groupings, such as the orchestra work Symphonia brevis and string quartet O Sapientia/Steal Away. However, he often explores unorthodox ensembles too, as he does in the recording’s opening selection: Pan-fare (2007). The piece is an outgrowth of Biggs’s association with Manhattan School of Music, where he has been a long-time faculty member. Steel pan player Andy Akiho did his master’s degree in contemporary performance at MSM, and collaborated with Biggs on Pan-fare, which features steel pan as well as winds, piano, and a plethora of percussion instruments (pedal bass drum, tambourine with foot pedal, vibraslap, bongos, congas, Chinese opera gong, and marimba). A relatively brief work — clocking in at around three minutes — it is nevertheless chock-full of material: hyperkinetic rhythms buoyed by imaginative timbral combinations.
When you are reminded by the instruments (1997) is the result of one of Biggs’s most high profile awards to date: a Fromm Foundation Commission from Harvard University. The piece’s title is taken from Walt Whitman’s iconic poem Leaves of Grass; it is the second part of a line that begins, “All music is what awakes from you…” — a fertile thought for Biggs’s equally expansive imagination. Composed for the chamber ensemble Parnassus and its conductor Anthony Korf, it is scored for a septet consisting of oboe/English horn, clarinet/bass clarinet, French horn, violin, viola, cello, and contrabass. Over the years, Fromm Foundation Commissions have been given to an array of composers, but the resulting pieces have often had a modernist bent: as did the now-disbanded Parnassus. Thus, it seems fitting that When you are reminded by the instruments is not only a Whitman-inspired expansive work, but one of the most complexly structured in Biggs’s catalogue. From its very beginning, where thrumming bass lines and off-kilter string verticals are posed against angular counterpoint in the strings, one hears the ghost of late Stravinsky. This is placed alongside a Schoenbergian post-tonal sensibility, alloyed by muscular rhythms: an approach taken up by a number of composers in the wake of Schoenberg’s exodus to America. However, while Biggs willingly references such touchstones of modernity, When you are reminded by the instruments never sounds like a pastiche. Rather, it is one of the composer’s freshest sounding and most captivating works.
The most recent of the pieces programmed here, Inquieto (attraverso il rumore) (2015) is another with a labyrinthine design. The title can be translated: “Disquiet (amid the noise)”; the anxiety depicted is the noise of the restless mind. As Biggs wryly remarks in his program note, “A restless mind is a terrible thing to waste, hence this piece …”
Inquieto is somewhat reminiscent of Elliott Carter’s piano work Night Fantasies, in which Carter grapples in music with the mind’s flights during bouts of insomnia. While both pieces feature quick changes of demeanor and piquant harmonic choices, the similarities end there. Unlike the monolithic Night Fantasies, Inquieto is cast in two movements. The first, marked “Jazzy,” is dynamically explosive, filled with rolled chords in both instruments, pitting pizzicato passages and “bluesy” upper register lines in the violin against modern jazz-tinged cluster chords in the piano. This section is followed by slower music, more pensive in demeanor, featuring the violin playing a robust lower register melody that eventually gives way to altissimo harmonics. Angular piano lines then form a duet texture that halos a stratospheric yet delicate denouement, which is followed a coda echoing the opening music. The second movement, marked "Dramatic, Obsessive, Gritty, Driven,” embodies Biggs’s fondness for sixties rock. Thunderous cluster chords in the left hand eventually support right hand riffs, voiced like guitar chords. Another interlude interrupts the raucous proceedings. the piano part enacts repeated notes in counterpoint with the violin and a reconstruction that features pianissimo bell-like reminiscences of the opening jazz chords. The piece is capped off by a return of the stentorian rock piano chords, this time accompanied by brash violin multi-stops. Just as one thinks that there will be an emphatic ending, it veers back to the slower music, this time piú tranquillo (“more tranquilly”) and then placidamente (“peacefully”): the mind’s chatter has belatedly been stilled.
Many of Biggs’s compositions are formidable in construction, intricate both in terms of the pitch and rhythmic material and labyrinthine in formal design. Happily, this tendency does not exclude an affirmative affect and even, more than occasionally, touches of humor. The Trill Is Gone (2013) is dedicated to the memory of composer and inveterate punster Edwin London (1929-2013), whom Biggs knew from the 1970s. Rather than a sober homage, it has a mischievous tinge. It is likely the first composition to contain the marking, “Porta il Rumore, Porta il Funk” (“Bring in da’ Noise, Bring in da’ Funk”). At a certain point in the piece, the titular trill does indeed depart, leaving matters to altissimo register wails juxtaposed against mid-register lines marked “suave,” and a tremolando growl emitted right before an enigmatic, indeed suavely crafted, close. It is pleasing that this piece has been included on the recording, as it serves as a reminder of Biggs’s witty sense of humor, ready laugh, and generous spirit. Even when crafting a memento mori, he is capable of casting light among the shadows.
Fanfare for Brass and Percussion (1989) is not only an excellent curtain-raiser: it is also a salutary example of Biggs’s fluency with the twentieth century idioms of composers ranging from Hindemith to (once again) Stravinsky. The Fanfare displays ebullient energy with a sharply etched yet varied rhythmic profile, simultaneously rife with syncopation and strongly articulate at points of arrival. The piece also contains the rich harmonies for which Biggs is well known, with tonal reference points articulating a polychordal, chromatic pitch design.
Andy Akiho is a composer-performer; so is Biggs’s friend Eric Moe, who is a virtuoso pianist and eager commissioner and interpreter of new works. E.M. am Flügel (1992) (translation: “Eric Moe at the piano”) is a showcase tailor-made for his pianistic gifts. The piece contains a considerable amount of quotation: a Gregorian chant in the left hand of the piano, another chant, an “Amen” setting in a middle voice, in the piece’s coda. In between is a quote from one of Moe’s liturgical pieces, O Vos Omnes, in the right hand. However, no one would mistake the piece for something mushily “neo-spiritual”: the quotations form part of the piece’s contrapuntal fabric in strongly articulated fashion. The performance notes for E.M. am Flügel, like those for so many of Biggs’s compositions, are a veritable masterclass in the details necessary for accurate performance. The composer’s experience with the piano allows him to amplify Moe’s capacity for virtuosity and interpretative savvy with comprehensive remarks on pedaling, phrasing, and articulation. As with the other proficient interpretations that populate this recording, Moe obliges with a detailed and vivid rendition of E.M. am Flügel.
Biggs is, foremost, a versatile musician: a composer-performer himself. He started as a pianist, specializing in accompanying vocalists. A fine bass vocalist, he is in demand as a choral singer, performing a wide range of repertoire, from Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in Alium to Ernst Krenek’s notoriously challenging, serially constructed Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae. His love for choral music is perhaps only surpassed by the love he has for his wife Susan. These two passions, along with a third passion, Biggs’ abiding interest in Latin and English renditions of liturgical texts, are brought together in Wedding Motet (1998). A setting of some of the most famous words from Song of Songs, the work moves fluently between styles, encompassing Medieval and Renaissance reference points as well as full-throated Romanticism, all through the lens of Biggs’s variegated harmonies.
The Christian tradition looms large in Biggs’s work; as we have seen, chant and hymnody play a large role in both vocal and instrumental works. Though raised a Southern Baptist, he is not in any sense conventionally religious, yet he frequently appends the phrase “Deo Gratias” (“Thanks be to God”) alongside the precise time and location of a work’s completion. This gesture underscores the humility with which the composer views both his artistic and spiritual practices. Ecumenical in outlook, Biggs is equally at home singing in Christian churches and Jewish synagogues; in the latter he routinely participates in services during High Holy Days. He began his association with the Florilegium Chamber Choir as a vocalist, but subsequently was commissioned by the group to write Ochila laEil (1999), his first setting in Hebrew. In this text from Rosh Hashanah services, the cantor asks for permission to pray on behalf of the congregation, as Biggs puts it, “requesting fitness of speech.” Accordingly, it starts, not with confident vocal utterances, but with an extended solo for French horn, accompanied by organ chords. The horn seems to take on the role of the cantor in this setting, becoming more and more insistent, particularly with the entrance of voices in multi-hued chords, its solo increasingly emphatic and wide-ranging in its melodic contour. The voices emerge from organ chords, gradually moving from harmony to melodic lines, intoning the text with subdued eloquence. The horn takes over again in the piece’s coda. Now gentler in demeanor, seemingly beneficent as it accepts the congregation’s blessing; now, truly, “fit of speech.”
The compositions of Hayes Biggs indeed deal with interplay of shadows and light, of complexity and directness of expression. They are always eloquent and, frequently, reverent. Despite revelling in the interplay of varying shades, one hopes that the composer emerges more fully into the light of recognition. Biggs is one of contemporary classical music’s master craftsmen, as this recording amply and satisfyingly demonstrates.
- Christian Carey (www.christianbcarey.com) is a composer, performer, and musicologist specializing in contemporary music theory and American music. He is Associate Professor of Music at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and edits the website Sequenza 21 (www.sequenza21.com).
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