Cindy Cox

Cindy Cox, Hierosgamos: Studies in Harmony and Resonance

I love the piano. It was my first instrument, and I’ve played since I was eight years old. The physicality of playing, the touch of the keys, and the voicing of sonorities are all really important to me. As both a percussion instrument and one that is capable of incredible resonant harmonies, the piano fires my imagination and spawns innumerable possibilities.

In 2001 I began to focus on harmony and resonance with a short work for piano, The blackbird whistling/Or just after. In this piece, the lowest octave is held in the sostenuto pedal (the middle pedal), allowing those strings to vibrate freely and creating additional sympathetic vibrations when higher pitches are played. I think of this resonance as a kind of aura surrounding the sound; when I told my husband (poet John Campion) about what I was doing, he quoted from Wallace Steven’s Thirteen Way of Looking at a Blackbird:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Pianist Sarah Cahill commissioned and premiered Blackbird for a program dedicated to the memory of composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Since then many other pianists have performed it, and I am particularly fond of this version by Oni Buchanan. This is the first recording of Blackbird.

My interest in harmony and resonance continued with a set of etudes written in 2003, Hierosgamos: Studies in Harmony and Resonance. The ancient Greek spiritual concept of the “hieros gamos” captures the Janus nature of my inspiration, an overarching principle revealing the ultimate wholeness concealed among pairs of apparent opposites. Literally meaning sacred marriage, the mysterious union of the “hieros gamos" involves a simultaneous moment of creation and dissolution between the self and the other, a coterminus spiritualization of matter and a materialization of spirit. In the language of alchemy, Carl Jung spoke of a “chemical wedding,” where the “yang and yin” of things are purified back into an original unity.

In this large work for piano, I want to show how opposing characteristics and materials ultimately derive from a single source. Two seemingly contradictory properties of the piano are very important: first, that the piano is like a huge horizontal harp, with strings under many tons of

pressure and capable of incredibly powerful resonance. Second, the piano is essentially a percussion instrument, not a sustaining instrument as many eighteenth and nineteenth century composers tried to make it. Reconciling these two aspects led me to use the harmonic series and a predominately motoric and continuous percussive texture.

The seven etudes principally address the study of harmony. The overtone series (up to the sixteenth partial) and its inverse provide the pitch material, while I use the map of the keyboard as pillars for the choice of fundamentals in the three anchoring movements: the lowest note, A0 for the first movement, the highest note, C8 for the seventh, and the middle of the keyboard, E4 for the center movement. The architecture of the piece is derived from this construction, with the first and last movements based upon the lowest and highest pitches respectively, and the middle fourth movement on the E4. The piano’s eighty-eight keys are further divided into zones of eleven half steps, and these areas are used as secondary relationships throughout the work. Movements two, three, five, and six sharply contrast with the beginning, end and middle, even though, as with the Hierosgamos, they are all created from the same originating material.

Playing a round
(2008) for two pianos is full of jokes, as you can see from the title. With lots of musical canons, the two instruments echo melodic symmetries back-andforth. The first movement, Nuts and Bolts, serves as a kind of frame and returns in the coda at the end. The second movement, Machinations, speeds along at breakneck pace like two competing machines. The third movement, Frame Switch, dialogues between a sort of embellished chorale in piano one and a strange artificial scale in piano two, and the title refers to a train switching between tracks and going off on unexpected rails. The fourth movement, A note to follow sol, plays on the idea of ringing bells and a sober sort of four and five-part counterpoint. The last movement swings on a riff initiated by piano two and punctuated by spiky chords in piano one, and lastly in the coda the music of the first movement returns, Coming back and Playing a round.

The recordings of Hierosgamos and Blackbird evolved out of years of working with pianist Oni Buchanan, and I am very grateful for her dedication to performing these. Her recording of the two was done in Hertz Hall, Berkeley. I am also very grateful to Jenny Chai and Piotr Tomasz for their performance and recording of Playing a round at the Oriental Arts Center in Shanghai, in what was my first visit to China.

And I am likewise thankful for the keen ears of sound engineer Jay Cloidt, who recorded Hierosgamos and Blackbird and mastered the overall recording.

Cindy Cox, 24 August 2016

Transparent yet complex, both radical and traditional, Cindy Cox’s music synthesizes old and new musical designs through linked strands of association, timbral fluctuation, and cyclic temporal processes. The natural world, ecological processes, and the concept of emergence inspire many of the special harmonies and textural colorations in her compositions. Many pieces feature technology developed at UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT), such as Pianos, written for keyboard sampler/piano, large ensemble and live electronics recently premiered by Gloria Cheng and the Eco Ensemble.

Cox is active as a pianist; she has performed her Sylvan pieces, Hierosgamos: Seven Studies in Harmony and Resonance, and The Blackbird whistling/Or just after. Works with text, such as Singing the lines, The Other Side of the World, and Hysteria, evolved through collaboration with her husband, poet John Campion.

She has received awards and commissions from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Fromm Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Composers Forum, ASCAP, Meet the Composer, and the Gemeinschaft der Künstlerinnen und Kunstfreunde International Competition for Women Composers. She has been a Fellow at the Tanglewood and Aspen Festivals, the MacDowell Colony, and the Civitella Ranieri and William Walton Foundations in Italy.

Recent performances have taken place at Roulette in New York City, the Oriental Arts Center in Shanghai, the Venice Biennale, the Festival de la Habana in Cuba, the Center for New Music in San Francisco, the American Academy in Rome, Carnegie and Merkin Halls in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires, and on the Los Angeles Philharmonic series. There are three other portrait recordings of Cox’s chamber music, and her scores are published through World a Tuning Fork Press ( A new recording of Cox’s string quartets by the Alexander Quartet was released in October 2015 on the Naxos label.

Cox studied composition with Harvey Sollberger, Donald Erb, Eugene O’Brien, and John Eaton at Indiana University, with additional studies at Tanglewood with John Harbison, and at Aspen with Bernard Rands and Jacob Druckman. As a pianist she studied with the famed Mozart and Schubert specialist Lili Kraus. Cindy Cox is presently a Professor and Chair of the Music Department at the University of California at Berkeley.

Oni Buchanan

Oni Buchanan is a poet, pianist, and the founder and director of the Ariel Artists management company, representing soloists and chamber ensembles, and designed for the evolving classical music landscape of the 21st century. Buchanan toured as a solo pianist for over a decade, with concert programming that was often interdisciplinary in nature, directly engaging the intimate connections between the arts. She frequently performed and commissioned new works, programming them in concert alongside canonical repertoire with the goal of illuminating the fascinating connections/conversations across time between otherwise very different stylistic works. Buchanan has released four solo piano albums. Hierosgamos is her fifth commercial release, with two additional albums still forthcoming.

As a poet, Buchanan is the author of three poetry books to date: Must a Violence (2012, Kuhl House Press), Spring (2008, winner of the National Poetry Series), and What Animal (2003, winner of the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series competition).

Jenny Chai and Piotr Tomasz

Based in both Shanghai and Paris, pianist Jenny Q Chai’s instinctive understanding of new music is complemented by a deep grounding in core repertoire, with special affinity for Schumann, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, and Ravel. She is a noted interpreter of 20th-century masters Cage, Messiaen, and Ligeti, and her career is threaded through with strong relationships and close collaborations with a range of notable contemporary composers, including Marco Stroppa, Jarosław Kapuściński, and György Kurtág. With a deft poetic touch, Chai weaves this wide-ranging repertoire into a gorgeous and lucid musical tapestry.

Other notable highlights include her Carnegie Hall debut in 2012, many performances at Le Poisson Rouge (including a 2016 Antescofo-supported program, Where’s Chopin?), lectures and recitals at the Shanghai Symphony Hall, a featured performance at the Leo Brouwer Festival in Havana, Cuba, and a performance of Philippe Manoury’s doublepiano concerto Zones de turbulences at the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music.

Chai has recorded for labels such as Deutschlandfunk, Naxos and ArpaViva. In 2010, she released her debut recording, New York Love Songs, featuring interpretations of works by Cage and Ives, Her most

recent recording, Life Sketches: Piano Music of Nils Vigeland, was released in 2014 by Naxos.

The recipient of the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust’s 2011 Pianist/Composer Commissioning Project, the DAAD Arts and Performance award in 2010, and first prize winner of the Keys to the Future Contemporary Solo Piano Festival, Jenny Q Chai has studied at the Shanghai Music Conservatory, the Curtis Institute of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, and in Cologne University of Music and Dance. Her teachers include Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Seymour Lipkin, Solomon Mikowsky, and Anthony de Mare.

Award winning Piotr Tomasz is an accomplished pianist, educator and ambassador of Polish culture on four continents. Tomasz earned Master's degrees from the Academy of Music in Krakow, studying under Dr. Andrzej Pikul, and the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, studying under Jerome Lowenthal. Afterwards he returned to his native Krakow and was appointed Vice President of the newly established Piano Classic Association, responsible for the Royal Krakow International Piano Festival and Piano Competition.

In 2010, Tomasz moved to Shanghai, China, and together with contemporary pianist Jenny Q Chai cofounded the new music center FaceArt Institute of Music, which serves as a cultural bridge connecting Shanghai to the rest of the musical world. After winning the highest honor at the Contemporary Music Competition in Warsaw, Tomasz recorded Béla Bartók's Piano Sonata for Polish Radio and TV.