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A Collection of Reflections
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A Collection of Reflections
Elizabeth Bell

Stephen Drake, cello
Elizabeth Farnum, soprano
Max Lifchitz, piano
The North/South Consonance Ensemble

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Elizabeth Bell was born in 1928 in Cincinnati, Ohio. She graduated from Wellesley College and The Juilliard School; married and raised three children; was divorced and later remarried; and now, in 2005, lives in New York's Westchester County with her husband and their Siamese cat.

Her music--for voice, solo instruments, chamber ensembles, and orchestra--has been performed worldwide. She has two previous all-Bell recordings, the first available on the Master Musicians Collective label (MMC CD#2082); and the second issued by the North/South Recordings label (N/S R #1029).

Her creative efforts have been supported by grants from Meet the Composer, Inc. and the New York State Council on the Arts. Ms. Bell was also awarded the Grand Prize in the 1996 Utah Composers' Guild Competition for her large chamber ensemble composition Spectra, which was written in 1990 to celebrate North/South's tenth anniversary season.

Ms. Bell was one of the founders and officers of New York Women Composers, Inc., and also served for five years on the Board of Governors of American Composers Alliance. She is a member of the Society of Composers, Inc., the International Alliance of Women in Music, the American Music Center and other professional organizations.

"A nice release of works by one of our country's leading composers" is how the American Record Guide greeted her Snows of Yesteryear compact disc album (North/South Recordings No. 1029) released in 2002. John Story, reviewing the same album for Fanfare Magazine stated: "Elizabeth Bell is a fine composer and the instrumental music heard here is particularly striking. She has a vivid, highly entertaining sense of instrumental color." The New Music Connoisseur declared: "For sheer craft and sonic sensuousness, there is Ms. Bell's impressionistic, dreamy violin and piano sonata Les Neiges d'Antan which has some of the most exquisite lines we've heard in a while (perhaps fifty years)."

About her music and stylistic choices, Elizabeth Bell writes: "One of my highest priorities as a composer is the "architecture" that can be inherent in all art. I strive for formal integrity, balance, and interest; a unity within each piece, achieved by drama and contrast which are balanced by consistency. Some of the building blocks of this architecture are energy--even in slow music one should feel the urgency to move on--and rhythmic interest; harmonic piquancy; and a sense of direction. My harmonic style is dissonant and mostly atonal without usually adhering to any serial organization. I strive for sensuality without sentimentality, for freshness consistent with inevitability. I try to make my music as perfect as I can in as many ways as I can. Partly because of this I compose slowly, and my oeuvre is small; but each piece is multi-layered and rich, hopefully appealing to many on first hearing, but growing in meaning, for those who take the time, over the course of repeated listenings."

In the early 1980's, when I had recently experienced a divorce and the departure of all three of my sons for the Big World, I decided to write a song cycle on the subject of loss. I picked poems from some of my favorite twentieth century poets, and filled them out with a few of my own. Some of the poems are tragic, some bitter, some merely wistful: all had resonance for me, and I hope I brought them some new resonance for their listeners.

The first song, Sheep in Fog, to a poem by Sylvia Plath, explores the desolation of her life without her beloved father. The second and third, Loss (John Berryman) and my own Pyre, both describe the shock of finding a love betrayed. My poem Amabile was written shortly before my eldest son Steve, who was studying to become a professional cellist, turned twenty-one. Revisions (originally titled "Epilogue") by Denise Levertov tells of a love that turns out not to be love at all. Looking at Your Face (Galway Kinnell) is a brief meditation on the mortality of someone beloved. That Could Assuage Us is only two stanzas from the long poem of the same name by Hilda Morley, about the death of her husband, composer Stefan Wolpe.

The cycle had its première performance on a concert of my music in Cincinnati in 1985. It is dedicated to my husband, Robert E. Friou.

In the late '60's and early 70's my children were all in school, so I resumed composing (after a 10-year hiatus during which I was a full-time mom) with great energy. One of the products was this Fantasy-Sonata for cello and piano, which started life as a small sonata until it showed signs of being more like a fantasy.

It was premiered, at a concert of my music at Cornell University in 1973, by Einar Holm on cello and the late Ann Silsbee at the piano.

This piece, completed in 1991, is the most recent on this CD. Its genesis was a year or two earlier, when I was visiting my late mother, who was then in her nineties. We watched The African Queen, I for the third or fourth time. Since I knew the plot very well, I paid more attention to the form: I was struck by its almost "musical" structure. My mother said, "Why don't you write some music about that?"--So I did, and dedicated it to her.

The piece was almost called The African Queen, but I decided that it really had too many separate musical qualities to be limited in that way. It was not meant to be strictly program music, but you may be able to catch some references to the movie: the chaos of the fire at the mission, the boat chugging along, etc. It employs quartertones, which are meant to suggest a fairy-tale, movie-like atmosphere.

It begins with a wildly chaotic section based on a tone cluster; after that there are three "movements" (played without pause), each one starting slow and ending fast. The materials of each of the slow sections are entirely different; however the fast sections share some ingredients with each other, as well as with their own slow sections. The piece ends with a "backward" return of the tone-cluster music, followed by a brief suggestion of music from several of the slow sections.

The piece, scored for flute, violin, viola and cello, was first heard as part of a North/South Consonance concert devoted entirely to my music held at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City on October 21, 1991.

The pianist--now exclusively a fortepianist, and famous for it--Malcolm Bilson was, in 1972, chairman of the music department at Cornell University, and a good friend.Ê

I asked him whether, if I should write a sonata for him he would play it at an upcoming concert of my music; he agreed. Later, while lining up a hall for the concert, I asked the administration whether I could use Cornell's chief chamber music hall for the concert. When I told them the program, they said "If Malcolm is playing we can hardly keep him out of his own hall, can we?" So it wasÉ.

The four-movement sonata has often been called the most classical of my works, and it probably is, formally; but the language is my own. The first movement is angry, declamatory, desolate--a prelude, almost a "mood piece"--which introduces my harmonic thinking--dissonant, atonal, yet always moving forward. Movement II is contrastingly happy and buoyant, with a lyric "second theme". It is in clear sonata-allegro form. The slow movement is a short set of variations, contemplative with periodic bursts of bombast. The finale is a rollicking scherzo, with a darkly passionate middle section.

Camille Budarz made an excellent LP recording of it for CRS in 1985.ÊSince that is now out of print, Max Lifchitz offered to make this fine new recording in 2004.

Soon after separating from my husband of 22 years, I needed to write some music that would express the sadness within me. As I went on I realized that my feelings were more complex than sheer sadness: there was anger and bitterness, but also joy for a new beginning, and for the good things I had. So there are many moods in this piece, which is subtitled "A Collection of Reflections"--reflections implying both those in a mirror, or in slightly disturbed water, and those that occur in one's thoughts while daydreaming.

It explores the range and scope of the solo cello, using a twelve-tone row mainly as a unifying device. The row is not used strictly, and is unusual in being almost entirely scalar; it is presented in its downward version in the first twelve notes of the piece.

I wrote Soliloquy for my oldest son, a cello student at Oberlin at that time, who gave it its première in Richmond, Virginia in 1980. He has played it on many occasions since then, including the performance recorded here.

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