neglected works by ralph shapey

I’ve recently been listening to a lot of music by Ralph Shapey, including music I have had in my collection for over two decades. At this point, I probably have most of his works that are available on CD. Which isn’t much; despite a pretty hefty output, a lot of Shapey’s music either has gone out of print or else has never been recorded at all.

And that’s a shame. As much as his music is usually described as thorny and incredibly difficult to play, much of it is amazing stuff. I say this having had some less than optimal encounters with Shapey personally in Chicago during the early 80’s. I had a new music show on the university radio station (WHPK-FM, all 10 watts of it), and at that time minimalism was especially taboo in academic music centers. And the U of Chicago was as academic as they come; the music dept. struck me as more about musicology than anything else. I avoided taking any music courses, and took two art history classes for my music/art requirement instead. Still, I was very aware of what was going on in the Music Department, and Shapey was certainly the most noteworthy composer there. So when I would go to various University-wide functions and social events and see Shapey, I would reach out to him and talk with him.

I usually came away feeling like that was a very dumb decision on my part.

Shapey was, with the possible exception of one of my biophysics professors (who started out as a surgeon and had the nasty habit of throwing chalk across the room and having meltdowns during class), the angriest, most bitter person I’ve ever met. Those “bitter” folks in Western PA whom Obama mentioned during the primaries have nothing on Shapey. He cursed worse than me. He was outright nasty. He had enemies, and seemed proud of that fact. I was known for being a purveyor of minimalist and other progressive musics on campus, and he detested this stuff.

That said, while we probably only had a handful of encounters during my eight years there, he made a lasting impression on me. I knew a lot of his works, mostly from scores that were available in the Regenstein Library on campus. Virtually all of these were handwritten scores, almost illegible. The notation was extremely complex, with nested tuplets all over the place. I had no idea how any performer could play his stuff, and indeed, some go nuts trying to deal with intricacies and errors in his metric notation. I heard a live performance in Mandel Hall (I think it might have been the premiere) of Shapey’s oratorio The Covenant and was also at the premiere of Shapey’s Fromm Variations in NYC. The Covenant struck me as an extremely overly long and self-indulgent work. The Fromm Variations, on the other hand, are amazing.

Shapey, despite my sense of him as an academic wannabe who really wanted the trappings of academia (the awards, commissions, fame, etc), really wasn’t an academic composer. It’s probably more correct to think of him as a contemporary of Morton Feldman; they both studied with Wolpe, hung out in NY with a lot of abstract expressionist painters, and wrote music that is distinctly their own. They also had very individual notation preferences. But there are many differences. Feldman’s music draws me in and blows me away every time; I don’t think it’s inappropriate to consider him the greatest composer of the second half of the 20th century. Shapey’s music is angry. And not all of it is engaging; some of his works are outright boring. Feldman also strove to take himself out of his own music, so that his later works are actually divorced from a lot of sentimentality. Shapey’s music is all about him. That’s not a value judgment, but it is how I feel when I listen to most of his music.

Anyway, last week I finally got around to digitizing my LP of Shapey’s oratorio Praise. It was the first work he allowed to be performed after declaring a several year moratorium on performances of his music. Like much of his music, it seems overlong at times and self indulgent. But it also contains moments that still amaze me after all these years. I don’t know of any performances of this work other than the out of print CRI LP. The same is also true of Shapey’s Evocation for violin, Piano and Percussion. That work dates from the early 60’s and, while it starts and ends pretty angry and complex (from studying the score back in my college days, it seemed just as notationally complex as anything of Feldman’s), it also contains a fairly sarcastic middle section. I love the piece, and wish it were performed more often.

SInce both LPs are long out of print, and it doesn’t look like they will be reissued anytime in the near future, I’m going to make them available. If anyone knows that these will be reissued soon, let me know in the comments section and I will be happy to remove the download links. But it seems a shame that these two works are not more widely heard. These are AAC files, and contain the appropriate tags and album art, so I won’t reiterate the specs here.