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The Unusual Life and Astonishing Music of a Pioneering Modernist.

NYT Syndicate "In Europe one can work!" the young composer Ruth Crawford declared with excitement. Travelling abroad on a Guggenheim fellowship " the first woman to receive one " she had arrived in Berlin in 1930 planning to write her first orchestral piece. Though mostly oblivious to the political upheaval in Germany at the time, she paid close attention to the latest in European musical trends, if only to dismiss them. French Neo-Classicism was"sickeningly sweet inanity," she wrote to her teacher and lover Charles Seeger back in New York. Although residing in the same city as Arnold Schoenberg, she avoided studying with the master of 12-tone composition. "To work alone: I am convinced this is what I should do, to discover what I really want," she decided. But the intended symphony never appeared."I began to write down all my fears and was rather appalled," she wrote to Seeger a few months later."Fear of having nothing to say musically, fear of not being able to say it, fear, fear, a whole web of it." A different sound emerged:"It insisted on becoming a string quartet." With that new direction, she wrote,"the music came more easily, and after these six months of almost complete silence, it is such a relief." Crawford's String Quartet 1931, which the JACK Quartet played on October 21 at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, was a significant contribution to the canon of American modernism, a hyper-refined and densely dissonant work that foreshadowed the postwar avant-garde. But shortly after its completion, Crawford returned to the United States and married Seeger. In short succession, she became a wife, a mother, a leftist and a folk revivalist. And for the next two decades, before she died at 52 in 1953, she wrote only a handful of works. The JACK's performance, offered an opportunity to revisit her unusual life and astonishing music. The players have situated Crawford's piece within a broader traversal of the American string quartet, connecting her work to later giants like Elliott Carter and contemporary composers including Erin Gee and Natacha Diels. "As a woman of that generation, she wrote this piece that's so ahead of its time," Austin Wulliman, one of the JACK violinists, marvelled in a recent interview."You see people dealing with these same musical ideas still, to this day." Crawford found her compositional voice just as modernism was emerging in American music. A previous generation of composers had developed a symphonic sound steeped in that of Antonin Dvorak, who famously visited the United States in 1892. But upstart vanguardists like Charles Ives and Henry Cowell instead took an idiosyncratic and disharmonious approach that shirked European models. Crawford had a stint as a disciple of the cultish composer-philosopher Dane Rudhyar, and her first mature pieces, a series of searching and austere piano preludes, take the mystical chromaticism of Scriabin as a point of departure. She was soon heralded by ultramodernists like Cowell, who praised her as a"completely natural dissonant composer." He suggested she study in New York with his former teacher Charles Seeger, who had begun to develop a model for avant-garde composition. This theory of dissonant counterpoint would invert traditional rules of harmonic writing and, Seeger believed, create a musical language at once radically discordant and uniquely American. A paternalistic figure who once said that"women can't write symphonies," Seeger was initially sceptical of Crawford, but their first lesson lasted hours. She became indispensable to his work, helping draft his counterpoint treatise and enacting its musical principles in her new scores by"dissonating" melodies into disjunct figures and refracting rhythms in wilfully independent lines. In her thrillingly compact Piano Study in Mixed Accents, a sinewy, rapid-fire melody bursts from the keyboard with shifting inflections. And her grittily angular Diaphonic Suites, written for unusual pairings of instruments like oboe and cello, weave stratified contrapuntal textures that point forward to Elliott Carter's music of 30 years later. Crawford and Seeger, who was an unhappily married father of three when they met, fell in love as she prepared to leave for her Guggenheim-funded trip to Europe. While abroad, she wrote a small body of astoundingly inventive music, including ethereal choral works, pulverising songs and the String Quartet 1931. The quartet helped secure her musical legacy, especially when it was rediscovered by mid-century composers like George Perle and Carter, who acknowledged the work as a major influence. Each movement is a miniature essay, bringing to visceral musical life the ideas of dissonant counterpoint. The Andante, her most famous piece, consists of a fierce litany of minuscule swells attaining such expressive energy that the music becomes a kind of discordant version of Barber's Adagio for Strings. But the quartet was more end than beginning. Crawford returned to New York, married Seeger and stepped eagerly into the role of stepmother to his children, and then mother of four of their own. (She also added Seeger to her name and is widely known to posterity as Ruth Crawford Seeger.) And then came folk music. In 1935, the family moved to Washington, where Seeger took a job in the government. Vernacular art was increasingly important to the American left, and the couple became closely acquainted with the father-and-son folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who had been travelling the country capturing traditional songs on phonograph. John Lomax asked Crawford to help prepare an anthology of written arrangements of his field recordings, and she quickly became a fastidious transcriptionist. Subsequent collections of folk arrangements published under Crawford's name gave her national prominence, and the Seeger clan " which included her children Mike and Peggy and her stepson Pete " became a crucial force in the American folk revival. But the children, who called her"Dio," had little knowledge of their mother's former life as a beacon of American ultramodernism. "I only knew her folk music persona, her classical piano playing, her attempts to cook," Peggy writes in a new memoir, First Time Ever, coming in November from Faber & Faber."Dio the Composer virtually did not exist in my growing up." Crawford tried to reconcile her folk present and her dissonant past with a second quartet, but no sketches for it survive."Will I ever write really simple music?" she wondered in a letter to Seeger. The only evidence of such a synthesis comes in her sole orchestral work, the all-too-short Rissolty Rossolty. It was a 1939 commission from Alan Lomax's CBS radio show and spins folk tunes into an exuberant clangour. In 1948, Crawford penned a letter to the composer Edgard Var'e8se outlining the principles of her style, including an emphasis on clear melodic lines, independent rhythmic parts, musical cohesion and dissonance."I still feel strongly about them," she wrote."I believe when I write more music these elements will still be there." And in 1952, Crawford did return to writing, with a compact and forceful wind quintet composed for a competition, which she won."I believe I'm going to work again " more," she wrote."If I live to be 99 as my grandfather did, that gives me 48 more years." A new creative confidence began to take hold. But it was quickly followed by a cancer diagnosis, and this pathbreaking American modernist died the following year.

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Publication:Qatar Tribune (Doha, Qatar)
Date:Oct 22, 2017
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