Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lukas Foss

Lukas Foss died last week. He probably wasn't much of a household name. Foss spent years as the conductor of the Buffalo Symphony Orhestra, where he championed and recorded a lot of 20th century music. I suspect a lot of composers' only commercial recordings--many for Naxos--were done by Foss. He himself was a composer of note. Like a lot of his contemporaries, his early work was very out there in terms of tonality or the lack thereof. As time went on, Foss apparently embraced more mainstream style, even writing an opera based on Twain's The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

Personally, I knew him from one piece. Years ago, and I have no idea why I bought it, I had a cassette (that's how long ago it was) of his Baroque Variations (1967). This was a clever little thing, very 60s, that consisted of three movements, each based on a classic composer of the period. So the first movement was "On a Handel Larghetto," the second "on a Scarlatti Sonata," and the third "On a Bach Prelude 'Phorion'."

Baroque Variations is the sort of mid-century classical that feels old in newness, if that makes any sense. It sounds very time specific. Like a lot of science fiction, you could probably guess its creation date within a year or two. Foss took the scores of each one of these small classical works and sort of played with them. For instance, with the Handel, he went through and simply erased some of the notes. Writing that sounds ridiculous, but the result is that the music, which would normally gather a narrative drive isn't allowed to do so. It has a weird start and stop to it, the music seems to drift in and out. In the liner notes (remember those?), Foss said simply: "I composed the holes."

The movement derived from the Bach is just outrageous. Again, the familiar underlying music is there, but it jitters in and out of the foreground, loud then soft, while all around it are out of place snaps and bangs of percussion instruments, an organ providing bottom at the end. The liner notes quote a New Yorker review of the original performance: "The thing reminded me of Marcel Duchamp's celebrated gesture of painting a mustache on Leonardo's 'Mona Lisa'. Shortly after that, Mr. Duchamp stopped creating art altogether and devoted himself to chess. A similar move by Mr. Foss might benefit the future of the art of music."

That's the sort of review you dream of getting. All I know is that I found Baroque Variations compelling. To the point that I still had the cassette years after I no longer had a cassette player and would think about it now and then hoping that it might come out on CD. As far as I can tell, it never did. About a month ago, I was thinking about the music, went on eBay and bought an old copy of the record. Baroque Variations is side 2. Side 1 and no doubt the big draw at the time was John Cage's Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra. I got the record a day or so before reading that Foss had died.

You have no doubt been looking for a link to Baroque Variations or some of Foss' music. Sorry, I tried but I couldn't find any online. And I don't have one of those newfangled space age USB turntables that would let me create an audio clip. But to give you a taste of a similarly Duchampian piece of the era, here's a link for some of John Cage's 4'33''

1 comment:

steve cavrak said...

A performance of Lukas Foss conducting the Orchestre National de l'ORTF in Baroque Variations can be found at ... aka ...