dlugoszewski abyss caress col legno

Lucia Dlugoszewski (1925-2000) 
Abyss and Caress
Peter Evans (trumpet) 
Klangforum Wien/Ilan Volkov, Johannes Kalitzke & Tim Anderson 
rec. 2022/23, Vienna and Mitteretzbach, Austria 
Col Legno WWE2CD20460 [2 CDs: 102] 

In recent years, there has been a reawakening of interest in the music of Lucia Dlugoszewski, a composer, percussionist, choreographer and inventor who was born in Detroit in 1925 to Polish emigrant parents. To my shame, I had never heard of her until a couple of weeks ago when I noticed the present release mentioned in the release schedules. By coincidence, the very next day I encountered (a mangled variant of) her name in The Selected Letters of John Cage, a thoroughly entertaining compendium edited by Laura Kuhn; significantly, this proves to be the sole, tiny reference to her in 600 or more pages. 

I don’t think applying the word ‘polymath’ to her would be an exaggeration in Dlugoszewski’s case; having played the piano from an early age, she studied piano and composition at the Detroit Conservatory as well as physics and mathematics at the local Wayne State University. She pursued an interest in philosophy which would prove to be lifelong, wrote poetry and opted for music as a profession only when her application to study medicine was rejected. Her name is frequently linked to the New York School of poets, artists, dancers and composers (specifically Cage, Feldman, Wolff and Brown) but I feel this is a bit of an oversimplification. In the light of her academic disappointment, she relocated to New York at the age of 23 to study piano with Grete Sultan, through whom she met both Cage and Erick Hawkins, the dancer and choreographer who at the time was married to the first lady of American ballet Martha Graham. At some point she certainly studied with Cage but when Hawkins announced he was looking for a regular musical collaborator Dlugoszewski obliged. By 1954 Hawkins had divorced Graham and duly married Dlugoszewski. Their partnership lasted until his death in 1994.  

Dlugoszewski herself played down Cage’s influence upon her work over time while amplifying the aesthetic debt she owed to another of her teachers, Edgard Varèse. Some writers have proposed that her loyalty to Hawkins created inevitable tension with Cage, given that the latter’s long-term partner was the choreographer Merce Cunningham, a potential (or even actual) artistic rival with whom Hawkins had formerly regularly danced for Graham. It has also emerged that the large body of dedicated music Dlugoszewski wrote for Hawkins was never published (unlike Cage’s for Cunningham). This would doubtless have saved her husband a tidy sum each time his ballets were performed. An interesting page on the culture.pl website refers to a review of Amy C Beal’s biography of Dlugoszewski by Michał Mendyk (who also contributed the notes for this album) which suggests Hawkins was rather manipulative in this regard, “…not always encouraging the development of her autonomous career….” in fact.  

Can the influence of Cage or the other New York school composers be readily perceived in the works collated together in this fine Col Legno conspectus? In my view the answer is a qualified ‘just one’. This is the earliest, Ritual of the Descent(not ‘ ….Decent’, as misprinted in the notes and on the sleeve) which constitutes the third movement of Dlugoszewski’s forty minute ballet Openings of the (Eye) from 1951-52 (The entire ballet has been vividly recorded by the Hashtag Ensemble for the Dux imprint Bôłt – on DUX1652/BR 1066- I heartily recommend this disc, too). In this atmospherically recorded rite, the stately percussion, eerie sustained flute and mysterious piano interjections certainly invoke aspects of Cage’s aesthetic, most obviously in the sense that the composer intricately arranges her sounds about and around what Mendyk describes in his detailed (but rather approximately translated) booklet essay as a ‘fetishisation of silence’. Whilst this decidedly strange and deeply immersive piece is also the only example of music specifically made for dance on the album, the importance of underlying pulse to Dlugoszewski also seems very evident in the half dozen ‘concert pieces’ included on this release. 

If the influence of Varèse is at least detectable in Ritual of the Descent(not least in the emergent vertical ‘blocks’ of instrumental sound), it is arguably more obvious in these other works, but at no point does Dlugoszewski ever simply parrot him. Key structural and colouristic features of his technique have been fully absorbed into a style which is certainly distinctive and possibly unique. These outstanding performances by the players of Klangforum Wien draw out a lightness of touch in Dlugoszewski’s output which is most unusual, given the austerity of much of the music produced during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Perhaps this is a characteristic she shares with Cage – and certainly with Ligeti whose music intermittently came to mind when I listened to this album. Dlugoszewski’s music is similarly refreshing and consistently stimulating. 

The evolution of her unique voice becomes clear when considering the remaining works in chronological order of composition. The brief brass quintet Angels of the Inmost Heaven  (1971) and the exciting half-hour trumpet concerto Abyss and Caress(1975) were patently cut from the same cloth. The quintet is dominated by the contrasting of rapid whirling tutti runs with pungent solo commentaries which seem to be imparted (through the imaginative deployment of mutes) from ever varying distances, an effect which creates an illusion of enormous space. Whilst I found the work a bit fierce at first hearing, repetition confirms playfulness rather than confrontation. The spirit of free jazz somehow seems to be straining to escape from the bottle. 

Abyss and Caress is a big piece. That Dlugoszewski was something of a contender back in the day is confirmed by the fact that Gerald Schwarz was the trumpet soloist at its premiere with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Boulez (in fact three years earlier Schwarz had recorded her solo trumpet piece Space is a Diamond for a Nonesuch LP). A piercing, sustained woodwind discord lays down the gauntlet before the work finds its feet. Those characteristic Dlugoszewski swirling figures again predominate in the winds, swept along by  rustling percussion and assertive calls to attention from the soloist. A backdrop of interlocking glissandi oscillates between scrubbing strings and yet more fervent interjections from the soloist. There is a decidedly urban feel to this music, suggesting a casual jam session between Iannis Xenakis and Don Cherry – yet I don’t find these grooves remotely harsh; edges are somehow smoothed whilst the work’s unfolding unpredictability charms rather than frustrates. I’d be fascinated to know what Boulez made of it. Peter Evans makes light work of a solo part which sounds extremely challenging, and the enthused virtuosity of Klangforum Wien (here under the baton of the tireless Ilan Volkov) is truly startling. There are periods of respite from the general hyperactivity which enable the patient listener to regroup but there’s an enormous amount to absorb and Abyss and Caress requires three or four listens to add up. It’s worth the time because the palpable momentum and clear direction of Dlugoszewski’s multicoloured music makes getting to know it a real joy. Her instrumental modifications register most powerfully in Col Legno’s detailed recording. Quite frankly just on the evidence of this single work it is difficult for innocent enthusiasts like myself to comprehend the obscurity in which Dlugoszewski has languished for the last half century. Raymond Ericson of the New York Times reviewed the premiere in these glowing terms:  

“The result is quite unlike anything. A good many of the sounds are extreme, in pitch, timbre and dynamics. They are common enough in contemporary music, it is true, but the composer has put them through a cycle of white ‐hot intensity” 

In between two works, Dlugoszewski composed Fire Fragile Flight (1973) for chamber orchestra; it’s regarded by many of those who’ve kept Dlugoszewski’s flame flickering since her passing as the composer’s masterpiece.  An ethereal opening belies the hyperactivity of what’s to come: yet more spiralling shapes duel with effervescing string and woodwind glissandi, Ligetian rustlings, clickings and ringings and a kind of strummed bass which provides a signpost for the listener, easing their voyage along the current of this novel, dazzling, tactile offering. It shimmers, glitters and pops appealingly in its closing bars. The increasing predominance of the typically soft percussion (some commentators have identified a uniquely ‘feminine’ essence in Dlugoszewski’s entire approach to percussion) put me in mind of the contemporary stylings of Czech provocateur Ondřej Adámek. Fire Fragile Flight is effortlessly engaging. It was the first piece of Dlugoszewski’s to be commercially recorded (by the enigmatic CRI label almost half a century ago); it was widely admired and secured for its composer the Koussevitzky International Recording award in 1977 

The short and sweet ensemble piece Avanti(1980) evolves from a tintinnabulation which duly entwines with a doodling solo violin in a stratospheric register. The rest of the band join in the fun after about a minute of controlled Nancarrovian chaos. The percussion (again presumably ‘prepared’ to Dlugoszewski’s own specifications) intermittently fools the listener into believing that the work is being performed underwater – the whole embodies a sonic equivalent of the sequential disorder familiar to those of us who still adore the productions of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.. 

Similarly cartoonish is Each Time you Carry me this Way (aka Radical Narrowness Concert, Sections 1-6 – Dlugoszewski’s weird titles really do trip off the tongue…), one of two pieces in this collection drawn from Dlugoszewski’s final decade. It’s a kaleidoscopic offering for a small ensemble which sounds much larger than it is.  It makes free with a driving pulse not unlike that found in the scherzo of Beethoven’s 9th. A noisy side drum acts as a wilfully disruptive element, the trumpet is muted at times to mimic verbal language, whilst the single woodwinds surf around à la Ligeti’s Melodien. A loosely strung fiddle (I think) evokes a mandolin. Each Time….skitters along delightfully and subversively.  

Dlugoszewski was pushing 70 by the time her string quartet Disparate Stairway Radical Other emerged in 1995, a year after her husband’s passing. By this point, the percussive and pianistic inventions and adaptations were being applied to stringed instruments, too, so the very sound of the quartet here becomes something consistently strange. After a bracing opening gesture, the quartet takes flight. Strings intermittently seem to have been loosened again and evoke tuned rubber-bands. Weirdly thin glissandi and buzzing harmonics mimic materials other than strings. The pluckings, scrapings and strikings that ensue could appear aggressive, random and tokenistic in others’ hands, but Dlugoszewski retains an extraordinarily tight rein over the fabulous miscellany of sonics that emerge over the work’s 22 minute span. Pulses may fracture or blend but they remain identifiable as pulses. This is the most joyful, refreshing kind of contemporary quartet. It is as light as air and magnificently rendered by Klangforum’s in-house quartet. 

The Col Legno team have fashioned a beautifully packaged double album with largely excellent documentation. I alluded earlier to issues with the English translation of Michał Mendyk’s booklet essay but I suspect this really relates to the quirky language Dlugoszewski applied both to her philosophy and the titles of her works – any confusion is understandable and forgivable given that the composer’s first language was English and the Mendyk’s text appears to have been translated back from Polish.  

The performances and recordings are predictably outstanding. Many of the instrumental combinations featured here could easily sound harsh, but they emerge here as anything but. Warmth and clarity of projection are a given in all these performances. This reflects outstanding preparation on the part of the Col Legno engineers as well as the extraordinary musicianship of the players.  

The booklet is graced by a number of monochrome photographs of Lucia Dlugoszewski. In contrast to composers who like to project unswerving seriousness, these images of her playing percussion and tinkering with a keyboard suggest she was a real ‘character’, an artist who perhaps took neither herself nor her music too seriously. That perception certainly tallies with the seven absorbing and genuinely novel works presented in this outstanding survey. Music as playful, colourful and original as Lucia Dlugoszewski’s demands to be heard – long may the current wave of interest in her work be sustained. I urgently commend this fine issue to anybody else who has hitherto been similarly unaware of this composer’s output; on this evidence her oeuvre is unquestionably significant.  

Richard Hanlon 

Availability: Col Legno

Abyss and Caress (for trumpet and orchestra) (1975) 
Peter Evans (trumpet)  
conducted by Ilan Volkov 
Fire Fragile Flight (for chamber orchestra) (1973) 
conducted by Johannes Kalitzke 
Each Time You Carry Me This Way  – Radical Narrowness Concert, Sections 1-6: (1993) 
conducted by Tim Anderson 
Ritual of the Descent: (third movement of the ballet ‘Openings of The (Eye)’)(1952) 
Angels of the Inmost Heaven (for brass quintet) (1971) 
Disparate Stairway Radical Other (for string quartet) (1990) 
(Annette Bik, Gunde Jäch-Micko (violins); Paul Beckett (viola), Andreas Lindenbaum (cello)) 
Avanti (for ensemble) (1980)  
conducted by Ilan Volkov 
All selections feature the members of Klangforum Wien