Virko Baley (b. 1938)
by Ken Smith
Profound changes often occur when a creative voice borne of a rich tradition gains the perspective of distance. Few countries feel this effect more prominently than America, a nation of immigrants that still continues to find vitality in cultural infusions from abroad. It is at this intersection of ideals where you will find the Ukrainian-born American composer Virko Baley, whose diverse influences both musical and cultural have converged in one of the most colorful voices composing in the United States today.
In musical terms, that voice stems from what Baley himself calls "full acceptance, then rejection of, different musical styles." His early works, filled with an unsettling expressionism, sit alongside later works embracing frankly folkloric materials. Examining his output-solo and chamber music, opera and orchestral pieces-one may first notice the stylistic differences, but clearly these varied pieces are all part of a single artistic vision. Following Baley's output over time, one sees not only individual ideas from one work resurface in a new instrumentation or style, but also a larger sweep in the composer's merging of two distinct cultures into a coherent personal statement.
Much of Baley's development as a mature artist has been shaped by his life as performing musician both as a pianist and conductor, by his life in Las Vegas, where since 1970 he has been a professor of music at the University of Nevada and until 1995 served as founding music director of the Nevada Symphony Orchestra, and also to some extent by his returns to his homeland as an adult, where his musical activities have included an appointment as principal guest conductor of the Kiev Camerata.
Grants and commissions have come from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Winnipeg Symphony, the California E.A.R. Unit, Continuum, the Juilliard New Music Ensemble, the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra and the Nevada State Council on the Arts. In Las Vegas, an environment known more for high stakes than high culture, Baley has been able to let his compositional voice grow freely, unencumbered by the claques and stylistic factions that divide musical life on either coast.
Early Life and works
Much of Baley's personal voice is inextricably rooted to his childhood amid the turmoil in mid-20th century Europe. Born in Radekhiv, Ukraine in 1938, the young Baley's father was sent to Auschwitz following the German invasion and Baley, his mother, aunts and grandmother received permission to move to Slovakia to work as farm laborers. The family was reunited on a farm in Germany near the end of the war, after which they relocated to Munich.
It was during the family's slow "return to normalcy" that Baley began his early music studies with Roman Sawycky, a fellow Ukrainian of considerable reputation at home whom Baley recalls fondly today. But childhood sickness and a transient home life kept him from progressing rapidly; all schooling ceased for six months during a particularly bad bout of illness, and the Baleys did not own a piano in the Displaced Persons camp where they moved in 1947.
Two years later, the family emigrated to the United States, where the young Virko found himself in Los Angeles with his first piano, studying with a retired opera conductor who introduced him to the world of opera. In 1952 he began studying with Earle C. Voorhies, head of the piano faculty at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Arts, and from there, Baley progressed rapidly. After devoting a semester after high school to practice, he entered the Conservatory, where he received both his bachelors and masters degrees, majoring in music and composition.
Although Baley had been composing throughout his teens (as well as writing stories and attempting a play) he only began to compose seriously by age 20. The few pieces that remain from those years-the mostly neo-Romantic Two Songs in Olden Style for soprano and piano (1960), Two Dumas for piano (1959), and the expressionistic Nocturnal No. 1 (1958)-show that the pull between tonality and atonality was already in place. Also in place was his ability to sketch ideas that would bear further development in future works. The second of the two songs later became the basis of the coda section in the second movement of his Piano Concerto No. 1 (1991-93), and the work's expressionistic materials later surfaced, after much reshaping, in his Nocturnal No. 6 (1988) [SAMPLE].
Later life and works (1963-1987)
In 1963, Baley was drafted into the US Army and stationed in Fulda, Germany. There he became assistant conductor and house composer/arranger for an army band. There, Baley also met his first wife Karin Koch, and upon his discharge in 1965, the two left for Los Angeles.
Between 1965 and 1969, Baley essentially stopped composing to concentrate on performing and teaching. In 1967, he gave up his private piano studio to teach full time at his alma mater, now named California Institute of the Arts, where his course load also included teaching classes in music history and theory.
Two events in 1970 marked a change in Baley's artistic life: first, his move to Las Vegas, where he became head of the piano faculty at the University of Nevada and organized both the Las Vegas Chamber Players and the Annual Contemporary Music Festival, and second, his return to composing with two completed works. His Nocturnal No. 3 for three pianos and his Partita No. 1 (first version) for three trombones and three pianos inaugurated several elements- including a non-linear concept of time, the use of memory as a structural device, and the use of two or more events (or tempos) simultaneously-that Baley still uses today. "My interest is to say profound things, but with a graceful and light touch," says Baley. "Or to put it another way, to create enough space around each metaphor so it can grow and turn on its own in the listener's ear."
"Graceful and light" does not necessarily apply to the physical demands of the Partita, however, whose sonic explorations require a certain athleticism on the part of the performers (the first movement has the trombones playing into the soundboards of the pianos, stimulating sympathetic vibrations from the strings [SAMPLE]. Although the piece at first made extensive use of improvisational codes and graphic notation, a subsequent version of the work from 1976 was fully notated. Both versions are now printed in the score [SHOW SCORE].
Baley's four-movement Partita is performed by a central piano-trombone duo, flanked similar duos to the left and right that both "whisper into the ear of the central group," the composer writes, "sometimes mimicking and sometimes anticipating a future event." It is in the "Variations" movement that Baley's non-linear concepts become most apparent, with several of the variations being played at the same time, from different locations. Originally written for trombonist Glen Johnson and performed at the inaugural Contemporary Music Festival, the Partita was revised in 1976 for trombonist Miles Anderson, who played all three trombone parts, with two prerecorded. A third version was later arranged as a concerto grosso for orchestra and Anderson's trombone trio, Caravan, and published as a separate piece.
Although Baley maintains that he has never forsaken tonality, the Partita does stretch that definition to its limits. A true sonic exploration where physical space plays as much of a role pitches and rhythms, the austere Partita is a piece difficult to love, yet even more difficult to sit through unaffected.
Likewise, Sculptured Birds for clarinet and piano presents an equally austere face, as well as equally stringent technical demands. A musical metaphor for flight, its first movement, "Jurassic Bird," recalls the precursor of flight, quoting fragments of the Dies Irae in the piano. In "The Eagle," a clarinet's florid vocal line explores technical and timbral extremes before falling into a slow remembrance. "Bird in Glide" is a study in proportions where the piano determines its character and direction of the clarinet by means of 13 separate chords, each containing the melodic kernel of a new section. "The Chinese Nightingale," inspired in equal parts by the Max Ernst collage and the mechanical bird in Fellini's film Casanova, is an isorhythmic parody of a 15th century rondeau. The piece's first movement was written for Felix Viscuglia, a member of the Las Vegas Chamber Players, and was later completed for his replacement in that ensemble, William Powell.
From his home in Las Vegas, Baley has forged ongoing collaborations with a number of musicians, including pianists Laura Spitzer and Elissa Stutz, who has recorded the composer's Nocturnal No. 6. The Nocturnal No. 4 (1971) is a big, moody piece that the Los Angeles Times found "reminiscent of the nocturnes and night music of Crumb, [although] it has a strong sense of individuated identity and direction." The New York Times' Bernard Holland found its piano sonority used in "sophisticated yet highly dramatic ways. In its center are 13 delicate 'Interludes' - delicate aphorisms each with its own flavor."
The Nocturnal No. 5 (1980) is a fiendishly difficult study in non-imitative counterpoint. Taking his cue from Akutagawa Ryunosuke's story "In a Grove" (filmed as Kurasawa's Rashomon), where the same central event is described in four wildly divergent first-hand accounts, Baley spins a pitch ordering into our separate identities in counterpoint. A cantus-firmus bass line holds the dominate rhythmic pulse around which the other voices swirl and dance in what critic Will Crutchfield described in The New York Times as "the filigree of Chopin and the nature noises of Bartok's night music in a flittering, dissonant idiom." The lines gradually begin to resemble one another as they approach the climax.
Later Works (from 1987)
Baley's works took a more obvious tonal turn beginning with his Violin Concerto No. 1, quasi una fantasia (1987). Having wanted for some time to use folk figures as melodic building blocks, Baley found the opportunity in this 25-minute reflection on death for solo violin and orchestra. Shaped as a requiem in sonata-allegro form, the Lacrymosa serves as exposition, the Dies Irae as development, the Lux aterna as recapitulation, and the final Agon stands apart as a festive wake [SAMPLE FROM AGON]. The solo part is plaintive through much of the piece, opening up only near the end, as folk figures fly with abandon toward the cathartic wake.
Also in its revised version for chamber orchestra, the Violin Concerto No. 1 resembles the mystic minimalism of Henryk Gorecki and Arvo Part, although the work has much less actual repetition than either of those two composers. Despite its folklike nature, tonality for Baley becomes merely an overt part of a modernist palette.
That same lyrical feeling stretches deeper into Orpheus Singing (1994) for oboe and string quartet, a single movement instrumental work in the Italian recitative-aria-cabaletta form. True to its title, the demands on the oboe call for lyrical playing, with some added spice from glissandi, double trills and harmonics. Its third section, entitled "Cabaletta-Kolomyikas," borrows a Western Ukrainian strophic song form, and the oboist must play at times with the reed entirely in the mouth, rather than on the lips, mimicking the rustic tones of double-reed folk instruments [SAMPLE FROM III. KOLOMYIKA]. The work exists in two additional versions, for oboe and string orchestra and oboe and piano.
The Duo Concertante (1971; 1990) for cello and piano seems in retrospect a lending library for Baley's future violin concertos. Withdrawn in its original version, the first movement "Intrada" reappeared whole in Baley's Concerto No. 2 (1988), the second, "Aria," reworks the Lux Aeterna from the Concerto No. 1, and the third, "Mobile: Dances," has its roots in the First Concerto's finale "Agon." After writing both concertos, Baley revised the Duo in 1990 and returned it to circulation.
With Dreamtime (1993-95), Baley's work achieved a new level, both in scope and in its reworking of previous material. Written for the California E.A.R Unit, the work's 19 movements spread out over nearly 80 minutes of musical narrative, its series of "tales" woven together so that the outcome seems unavoidable without being obvious. Rather than using rhetorical fillers, Baley explains, "each strand of the [musical] web exists as long as it fascinated me, until I found it to double back on itself, In other words, when I said everything I wanted to say, I stopped." There is no development as such in Dreamtime, where a similar effect of contrast and conflict resolution arises by moving from one movement to the next.
Baley cites Boccaccio's Decameron as a literary comparison, but given its recycling of material Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales would be equally valid. Parts of the work rely on previous sources (one movement, "Adam's Apple," is a reworking of his prelude for orchestra of the same name from 1991, which in turn is a reworking of a wind quintet from 1989), and his chamber epic has spawned two shorter works, Dreamtime Suites No. 1 (1993-4) for clarinet, violin and piano, and No. 2 (1996) for violin, cello and piano, each culling movements from the original and reassembling them in different contexts to offer a much different flavor.
Taken as a whole, Dreamtime is a sprawling epic. Not just its length, but its masterful handling of individual instruments suggests an orchestral rather than a chamber work. Certain instruments double and echo each other's material (the clarinet and cello in some sections, the flute and violin in others) in a way that attracts more immediate attention to its refined surface, rather than its sturdy structure. Baley's sense of the epic has continued to shape his musical conceptions, no matter how many forces any particular piece may require. His Symphony No. 1, "Sacred Monuments" (1985; 1997-1999) pushes the sonic limits of what constitutes a chamber orchestra, requiring an augmented battery of percussion and keyboards. Treny (1996-1999; rev. 2002), by contrast, shows to what structural dimensions the composer can push a piece initially conceived for solo cello.
Although the First Symphony continues Dreamtime's duality of the earthy and ethereal, its material again reaches back nearly 15 years to his original version of Duma, a soliloquy (now the second movement of the Symphony), a tribute to the Ukrainian composer Artem Vedel (1770-1808) using quotes from his music. Each movement of Baley's Symphony extends its commemorations to other composers, with the first movement, entitled "The Hour of the Wolf," honoring Maxym Berezovsky (1745-1777), the third, entitled "Agnus Dei," concerning Dmitri Bortniansky (1751-1825) and the fourth, a "Postludium," devoted to Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968). Despite these inspirations, there is little programmatic or overtly Ukrainian influence in this music. Nor is there an overly intellectual bent of western formulism, despite the piece's willful structure. Instead, Baley's symphony unfolds in a densely layered sound world where the composer's Slavic roots and Western existence find peaceful coexistence in the music's depths rather than its surface.
The Symphony's opening solo lament also foreshadows the Baley's Treny (literally, "Laments"), a series of four interrelated works, two of which (Treny I and Treny III) are for solo cello interspersed with movements for two cellos (Treny II) and two cellos with soprano (Treny IV). The instrumentation is but mere detail: as a grand conception, Treny is a powerfully unified musical work spun from a single instrumental sonority.
Although Baley makes extensive use of scordatura, few of his modernist touches stray far from their folk roots. None of the techniques here get in the way of the piece's highly emotional content - this is yet another extended rumination about death, with movements devoted to Baley's mother, a close friend, and the wife of his Ukrainian composer-colleague Valentin Silverstrov - and yet Baley manages to arrive at catharsis as effectively as his Symphony with only two cellos and a vocal line (albeit singing a text reconciling itself to human mortality).
Baley's use of the voice takes on a more poetic sensibility in A Journey after Loves, a song cycle for baritone and piano clearly inspired by Leos Janacek's Diary of One Who Vanished. For his first song cycle, Baley turned once again to texts by the Ukrainian-American poet Bohdan Boychuck, who previously wrote the libretto for Baley's as-yet unproduced opera, The Hunger. Although Baley's Journey uses an English translation, the setting reflects much of the text's original character, or as the composer explains, "resonating a Slavic soundscape in English." With the piano as a guide, the soloist steadily navigates several abrupt transitions in the text-a linguistic display which fully matches Baley's music in charting bleak emotional landscapes in a language of folkloric modernism.
A more frankly dramatic approach to the voice comes in Klytemnestra (2003), a scene-aria for mezzo-soprano that currently exists in two chamber versions (one for clarinet, violin, cello and piano; the other replacing the cello with a second pianist) as well as an additional version for full orchestra. Baley says that he conceived this setting of a poem by Oksana Zabuzhko as a scene from a full opera, and that the poet has agreed to complete a full libretto. This initial scene, in which Klytemnestra proves less than ecstatic about Agamemnon's return home, will come either at the beginning or at the end.
In Uniforms of Snow (2002-03), for soprano and chamber orchestra, Baley has turned away from his Slavic roots toward the poetry of America, specifically the work of Emily Dickinson. "I was particularly struck by her poetry's tonal intricacies and complex juxtaposition of opposed or perhaps even irreconcilable feelings," he admits. As with Boychuck, Baley matches Dickinson's emotional juxtapositions with musical ones, moving between coolly modernist sonorities and warmly emotional lines [SAMPLE]. The piece, written for soprano Lucy Shelton, was premiered in January 2003 by the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra.
One of those initial warm musical lines in Baley's Uniforms is indicated in the score as a "Song Without Words" - a rather ironic label in light of the composer's Songs Without Words (2001), themselves instrumental renditions of his earlier set of Dickinson songs. The simplicity of these three initial songs -"Love can do all but raise the Dead," "Oh, honey of the hour" and "There is a solitude of space"-came to Baley as a natural corrective to the epic scope of works like Dreamtime and his Symphony No. 1. "I wanted to write shorter works that would allow a more direct connection to an emotional center," he says. "Each song is composed around a central musical metaphor, usually stated in the piano (often in the form of an ostinato figure of some sort). The vocal line is both part of it and separate."
If all music, as the late composer Lou Harrison was fond of saying, is nothing but a song and a dance, Baley finds the second part of the equation in his Partita No. 3 (1999) for solo violin and piano. Much more than his First Partita for three trombones and three pianos and continued with the Second Partita for bassoon and piano (from his Dreamtime Suite No. 2), Baley here offers a five-movement work that generally keeps itself content with one idea at a time. There is plenty of "stylistic gene splicing," the composer admits, but the result is a "sound compost that nevertheless uses a very consistent language and lexicon." Although the piece is not programmatic, it contains many potent elements that take on new lives of their own after their initial introduction. The Partita No. 3 was written for the Ukrainian violinist Oleh Krysa and his wife and partner, the pianist Tatiana Tchekina.
Although Baley's output has seen several contrasts in styles and musical forces, his works for solo instruments arguably offer the most concise overview of his development. Like his Six Nocturnals for solo piano (1958-1988), Baley's ...figments for solo violin (1981-92) span several contrasting periods, as well as much material heard elsewhere in other forms. Whether ideas are merely transcribed for the violin (as in the first movement's recycling of Nocturnal No. 5), provide sketches later worked out in other pieces (as the second movement's resurfacing in Symphony No. 1), or are reworked beyond recognition (the third movement's reconception of the Fifth Nocturnal), ...figments is Baley's personal testament to the universal malleability of musical ideas, as well as the age-old tradition of composers getting as much mileage out of their material as possible.