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In pursuit of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

[Ellen Taaffe Zwilich - Passages / String Trio]

I’m not sure how to explain my fascination with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

It’s not fandom. I’ve reviewed her work before, but I don’t follow her the way I do Steve Reich or John Adams. Nor have I internalized any of her pieces the way I have Lou Harrison or Meredith Monk.

But in the last six months, every time I run into a Zwilich album, I end up buying it. Tonight, it was a CRI vinyl album of her Chamber Symphony, String Quartet and Sonatina for violin and piano. During the winter, it was a New World CD of Symphony No. 1, and at the Austin Record Convention back in October 2013, I bought a sealed vinyl album of a vocal work, Passages, and a String Trio.

I first learned about Zwilich back in high school. My piano teacher introduced me to modern classical music, hoping to capitalize on my 10-key finger span. I also began relying on the rock music press than pop music radio to find new artists.

On my way to campus one morning, I tuned the car radio to the local public station. A piece was playing that was vaguely melodic but not entirely atonal. It ended, and the announcers piped up to talk about the piece. I couldn’t really stop the car to jot down the name of the composer, but I made sure to note the composer was a woman.

A few weeks later, I ran across a magazine article about Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and I realized she created that piece I heard on that drive.

Today, I can point my phone at some music playing in the air and have it tell me what it is. If streaming services were available in my high school days, I would have looked up Zwilich’s music and given it a go.

But as the final decade of the 20th Century began to unfold, my resources were thin. I had a name. I had a text description of some music. And I had a fleeting encounter with said music in the terrestrial air. But I had little to no cash, and shops in Honolulu weren’t clamoring to stock modern classical music.

Zwilich’s name would pop up now and again as time passed, but my priorities always seemed to be stationed elsewhere.

So it’s a quarter of a century later, and I find myself chasing Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. But what am I really pursuing?

A resolution to a thwarted discovery, that’s what. I heard something I wanted to pursue, but circumstances stood in the way. Time eventually blunted the urgency.

I wonder now what would have happened had I delved into Zwilich’s work when my tastes were most malleable.

Would her Chamber Symphony occupy my listening memory the way Lou Harrison’s gamelan works do? Would I have sought the score for her String Quartet the way I did with George Crumb’s Black Angels?

It’s a far different experience listening to a piece of music as an adult than as a teenager. I wouldn’t have known how to listen to her music, and I would have used my instinct to make a judgment.

Conversely, I may have ended up missing something I could have only caught with a better grasp of the Western music canon.

In a way, Zwilich remains elusive. Search for her music on the streaming services, and a you get those same recordings I pursued two decades ago. Not much has been recorded since.

 

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