Dennis Kam

Major Works 1974–1985

A Guide to Dennis Kam's Music.
By John Van der Slice.

Ad Hoc (1974) for ensemble signals the arrival of a mature and compelling Kam style. Here the minimalist “moment” expands beyond simple repetition into the fraught anticipation felt in a dominant 7th harmony, one which undergoes “interferences” but without ever being fully resolved. It is elaborated by means of rhythm, bouncy arpeggiated contrapuntal textures, ostinati, repetitions, sustained crescendos and colorful scoring. It is diversity within the focal point of a single suspenseful harmony. Inspiration for the piece might be traced to another of Kam's favorite composers, Alexander Scriabin, who based many of his works on elaboration of a sustained altered dominant harmony, his “mystic chord.”

Ditto Varianti  (1974) for orchestra, which shares affinities with Ad Hoc, derives in part from a form used in Michael Tippett's Piano Sonata No. 2  (a work which fascinated Dennis) in which sections of contrasting character are juxtaposed successively into a mosaic of recursions. The form provides a novel extension of the rondo idea to achieve its unity within variety. Ditto Varianti expands to become a neckless-like string of returning (and thus familiarizing) differentiated “moments.” By this time the composer had enthusiastically embraced Fibonacci proportions, which he uses to establish a progressive framework of durations which always hovered around the "Golden Mean." The resulting piece is formally both elegant and effectively scored as well as emotionally affecting.

The Number 216 (Bach Variations I) (1975) for two pianos takes as a subject the music of J. S. Bach, most prominently the choral, Es Ist Genug, which was famously quoted by Alban Berg in his Violin Concerto. These aural “found objects” are examined from a variety of perspectives, in the manner of a cubistic painting, with “moments” of fragmentation flanked by pregnant silences which ably transmute the familiar into mystery.

Alleluia (1979) for mixed chorus achieves with an economy of means an ecstatic, richly sonorous expression of spiritual transcendence with its cumulation of ascending, overlapping melodic figures within harmonic shifts and inflections, all of which finally peak on a faith-affirming tonic pitch.

In Music for Celebration (1981), an exuberant piece originally for two pianos and later scored for orchestra as well as concert band, echoes of Ad Hoc (at the beginning) and Ditto Varianti can be heard. Ad Hoc's sustained and suspenseful harmony is here expanded and elaborated. The texture is richly active and the celebratory brass with timpani help deliver a rousing ending.

The Fantasy Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1981) has all the hallmarks of the classic “Kam style”: seductive harmonic sonorities, iconic figurations, nervously persistent staccato motion, proportional “rightness,” and a restless play of self-referencing detail. The first movement reiterates a ringing piano figure like an aural ideogram offset by sustained clarinet. The second movement begins with the composer's familiar rocking interval of a major 3rd which rises to a single repeated pitch, a repeated gestural “moment,” which outlines the dominant 7th chord of Ad Hoc and functions similarly to freeze that which is usually unstable into stability. This is interrupted by a jauntily contrasting section, a return to the opening, then an abbreviated second interruption followed by the ending. The third movement elaborates figures which expand purposefully upwards and which highlight a major/minor harmonic clash, a sound anticipating the opening of the Symphony to be composed twenty years later.

The three Ontologies (Pre-Socratic Etudes) (1981) for piano further recall Stravinsky and also reflect Dennis Kam's interest in philosophy. In Heraclitus (“All is change”) pulsing octave displacements playfully juxtapose a restriction of pitches.  In Democritus (“All is made of atoms”) a punctuative chord successively serves to announce unfoldings of a melodic figure in a manner suggestive of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. In Parmenides (“All is one”)  halting gestures and rhythms again suggest Stravinsky.

The Epistemology of Delicate Time in Blue Three (1982) is for either one piano or piano duo. Always sensitive to the effect of titles, Kam created here one of his most beautiful and worthy of its subject. The work can seem an extended timeless “moment” defined by sonorously ringing iconic chordal figures, in turn harmonically stable, unstable, forceful, yielding or etherial, and all initially sounded with leisurely wind-chime rhythms. The reiterated but inevitably ebbing sound of the piano can be poignantly suggestive of the music's beauty being swallowed by the silence of eternity. Eventually a motoric impulse sustains and swells the texture to a crest after which it gently subsides against the lingering of tolling octaves. (The piece was the third of five works for piano comprising Piano Epic, the others, composed in 1986, being shorter.)

The Sonata for Cello and Piano (1985) introduces greater diversity of expression while still retaining motoric pulse and emphasis on 3rds. The first movement hints at sonata form, with an “exposition” pitting hesitating scurries of quiet pizzicatos against a punctuating piano. After a formal repeat it continues into a “development” beginning with the piano's sonorously domineering, widely spaced major triads in dramatic juxtapositions within which the cello struggles to survive. The latter scurries toward the end pursued by the piano until it is overtaken, yet manages, after an expressive cadenza, to ascend to a high E (a tonal center) before its termination by the piano. The second movement, Variations, is slow and reflective and is asymmetrically partitioned according to Fibonacci proportions (as is much of Kam's music). The piano introduces an iconic motive: a ringing drop of a major 3rd in descending iterations. The interval of a perfect 5th is also emphasized and allowed to resonate, sometime with portamento inflection. These basic intervals once again focus attention on the profound beauty of the consonant aural “moment.” An obbligato of pulsing repetitions is added but eventually yields to a quiet ending. The vivace third movement, Toccata Rondo, displays a familiar consistency of nervous contrapuntal texture based on the piano's pulsing arpeggiated staccatos.

The Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1985) begins its first movement in a manner similar to the second movement of the Fantasy Sonata, only here the repeated pitch is the upper leading tone of an altered tonic-containing dominant chord. Rocking intervals and staccato repetitions are interrupted several times by more quiet and leisurely arching legato arpeggiations, which eventually swell into a rich sonority before motoric marcatos push to the sustained resonance of a final chord. The sweetness of this movement's legatos carries into the slow, quiet second movement. It begins with a choral-like piano, a rising cello pizzicati and a violin expressively sketching rocking arpeggiations and double stops. The piano then introduces a wistful music-box-like melody, touched upon by the other two instruments. There follows a return to the manner of the first section which blossoms into a resonant richness and then returns once more to the piano's innocent melody, finally echoed by a brief passage on the violin before the piano signals a quiet close. In the third movement three textures are contrasted and then integrated: a swift, upward arpeggiated scrambling, a slower chordal shifting and a revived bouncy activity.

Dennis Kam