Fanfare reviews of Darwin's Dream CD by Elliott Schwartz, Albany Records

SCHWARTZ String Quartet No. 2. Summer’s Journey. Darwin’s Dream • Borromeo Qrt; Ithaca College W Ens • ALBANY 1266 (67:57)

Elliott Schwartz: Darwin's Dream
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Albany Records


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Elliott Schwartz was a student at Columbia University in the 1950s when the music department there was a hotbed of electronic and computer experimentation. He studied with such pioneers as Otto Luening. And yet the 2007 String Quartet that opens this program seems, at first blush, anything but modern, with Bergian expressionism at the beginning, and then consciously evoking the populist element of Aaron Copland’s career, perhaps even reaching into the 19th century. The patient listener will find the range of Schwartz’s influences by the time this CD concludes.

Summer’s Journey, a two-movement work for band, also features a sort of interesting stylistic dynamic. It begins in a kind of polytonal way, replete with complex and pleasing textures. Then, some of the individual instrumental lines begin to assert themselves. A solo flute seems to want to sound like Mozart. By the end of the second movement, the work is practically in full-blown military band swagger mode. Schwartz employs a remarkable fluidity of language, but not in a gimmicky way. The flow is natural and serves the narrative of the music.

Finally, there is Darwin’s Dream, an epic work of electronica (it runs for more than half an hour) built around a silly little ditty produced by an ARP synthesizer that reminds me of nothing so much as the annoying tunes that accompanied the video games that my children used to play incessantly. But as the piece builds up layers of complexity, the chirpy theme emerges as a familiar and even welcome signpost along a dense journey. Early in the music, Schwartz weaves the opening of Schumann’s Kinderscenen into the mix, and suddenly the electronic music becomes a variation on that sweet melody. Toward the end of the work, spoken voice is introduced, which is manipulated for rhythmic effect, à la Steve Reich. The whole listening experience is of hearing a lot of detail within a massive construction.

The sheer size of Darwin’s Dream will probably daunt some listeners, but the effect of the music, which seems to be to convey a kind of aural autobiography, depends on the broad scope. I find it fascinating and even moving, and the reflection of a brave and original musical voice.
--Peter Burwasser

This article originally appeared in Issue 35:4 (Mar/Apr 2012) of Fanfare Magazine.



Elliott Schwartz has been a significant figure on the American music scene for decades now, and I suspect that he needs little introduction to serious collectors of contemporary classical music. Schwartz is especially renowned for bringing together disparate elements and styles of music to form his compositional voice. This ability is on good display in the present CD, where tonal and atonal sections comfortably intermix to produce an interesting and arresting synthesis. The three works presented here make quite a differing impression on the auditor, but they all dip deeply into Schwartz’s pool of collage techniques. Moreover, each of the three was conceived in response to a personal experience of the composer, and each parallels an encounter with a pre-existing work of art. The similarity of the construction of each work in its multilayering of textures, Ivesian quotation of musical material by other composers (albeit only overtly in the electro-acoustic Darwin’s Dream), and the composer’s abstract manipulation of all of these materials serve to demonstrate the fact that these works are all from the pen of the same composer.

The String Quartet No. 2 is a single-movement work intended as an homage to Aaron Copland, and is based upon a 12-tone row that Copland used in an unfinished late piece. Shortly after Schwartz began the composition, he happened to attend an exhibition devoted to the work of sculptor Louise Nevelson. Impressed by the musical and textural qualities of her work, the composer eventually gave this quartet the subtitle “For Louise and Aaron” as a tribute to both of them. Also incorporated in the work are musical spellings of both artists’ names, and a lullaby that Copland used in one of his piano-teaching pieces.

The language of this work I would characterize as non-tonal rather than atonal. In some respects, in fact, it is fairly traditional. Where Schwartz’s musical personality is most felt is in the masterly way that he juxtaposes the disparate musical materials from which he draws. This is heard, for instance, in the way he combines sul ponticello writing in one instrument with modo ordinario in the others, sometimes creating an effect that resembles the sound of swarming insects punctuated by pizzicati. Other instances include glissandi on harmonics and wispy figurations that come and go in through-composed fashion. There is a brief section near the end where the performers speak. This is, I feel, the work’s only miscalculation, as the speech here just detracts from the music.

Summer’s Journey was a joint commission of 19 wind ensemble directors to commemorate the composer’s 70th birthday in 2006 (which Schwartz points out is also the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart.) The two-movement work also commemorates a car crash that nearly claimed Schwartz’s life, and one hears in it grinding metallic and motoristic sounds, and hints of the coastal area in Maine where the accident occurred. Linking the work with the Mozart anniversary, the composer has also briefly quoted portions of the overture to Die Zauberflöte, and Mozart’s flute concerto. These two works seem particularly appropriate, considering that the first movement of Summer’s Journey is essentially a one-movement flute concerto. Most of the work is fairly laid-back, but it does build up to a rather vigorous climax toward its conclusion. Making the same musical allusion in the second movement, which features a solo horn, Schwartz draws his quoted material from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. All of the musical quotations are subtle, and may well be missed entirely.

This is not the case for the CD’s third item, Darwin’s Dream, where the musical quotations from two or three movements of Schumann’s Kinderscenen are unmistakable. Why Kinderscenen? This was the work that the composer felt would have likely been among those played by Mrs. Charles Darwin, who was apparently a fine pianist, and had even studied with Chopin. Darwin’s Dream was written to accompany an exhibition of art by the composer’s wife, Dorothy, at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland, Maine, in 2009. This was, of course, the bicentennial year of Darwin’s birth, so the idea of composing a musical soundscape to commemorate this anniversary became irresistible to Schwartz. The interesting notes to the CD reveal how the composer became fascinated with the fact that Darwin’s piano had even been used in one of his experiments involving the effect of musical vibrations upon earthworms. This led to Schwartz’s imagining sounds made by worms, and writing a piece that drew on some of his archived electronic material to produce a kind of musical evolution. Thus the synthesized sounds go all the way back to the ARP 2600 synthesizer of the 1970s. A simple tune gradually evolves by the addition of increasingly more complex materials that form several dense climaxes.

Unlike the first two works, which make a very positive impression on me, I am not particularly taken with this 30-minute exercise in what to my ears is a simplistic concatenation of materials. I admit that I am not usually enthralled by pieces that quote in recognizable fashion the work of other composers. Neither the new piece nor the old is usually served by such quotation. I am by no means averse to electronic music per se. Darwin’s Dream, though, just seems to me a largely trite exercise devoid of substance and imagination.

It is consequently difficult to wholeheartedly recommend a CD for only half of its running length. Thus, I shall halfheartedly recommend this disc. Performances of the quartet and Summer’s Journey are splendid, and I have little doubt that there will be those among the readership of Fanfare who would also like Darwin’s Dream. For you, if you can figure out who you are, my recommendation will indeed be wholehearted.

--David DeBoor Canfield

This article originally appeared in Issue 35:4 (Mar/Apr 2012) of Fanfare Magazine.

Elliot Schwartz is an institution among American academic composers, with dozens of important works and many successful former students in the ranks. A number of his works have been reviewed in these pages, most notably a perceptive piece by Colin Clarke of the chamber concertos (Fanfare 33: 4), the genre for which Schwartz may be best known. This disc is a bit of grab bag, though Schwartz’s notes suggest that each was written as a response to a personal experience. Except for an abrupt acoustical shift for the middle works for wind ensemble, the transitions in medium work nicely.

The Borromeo String Quartet opens with a sensitive and finely drawn reading of the composer’s Second String Quartet from 2007. The impetus for the creation of this work is fascinating, and includes the incorporation of a 12-tone row used by Aaron Copland (!) at the end of his life in an unfinished work. A viewing of sculptures by artist Louise Nevelson provided additional inspiration, and further musical material is borrowed from a Polish-Russian lullaby that also found its way into a Copland work. Varied texture seems to be a predominant preoccupation here, and an ineffable sense of tenderness and isolation seem to flow from the most memorable sections. It is a finely crafted and ultimately moving piece, played with great sensitivity by this fine foursome.

Next up is Summer’s Journey for wind ensemble with flute soloist Elizabeth Shuhan in the first movement (“Sunrise with Seascape”) and horn player Alex Shuhan in the second (“Twilight Arrival”). Each movement brims with colorful evocations of the subject (day and night music), and once again the composer reaches beyond his own work for inspiration. Quotations from Mozart and Mahler can be heard, though the effect is rather discreet and flows seamlessly from Schwartz’s own inventions. The soloists are fine throughout, especially in some of the songlike material that emerges from time to time. Stephen Peterson leads the Ithaca College Wind Ensemble in a spirited and winning performance.

Darwin’s Dream is a fun and quirky collage work that begins with a bouncy tune from a ’70s vintage ARP synthesizer, soon joined by quotes from Schumann’s Kinderscenen from a piano. Many other jarring juxtapositions follow, and the composer treats his material more as entertaining aural doodles than hard-core intellectual exercises.

If you know and admire this composer’s music (as I do), this is must-have disc. If he hasn’t yet crossed your radar, you owe it to yourself to hear his delightful collection of works.

--Michael Cameron