Dennis Kam

Major Works 1986–2018

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

The Quartet for Strings No. 2 (1986) begins with an exposition, repeating a now familiar ascending gesture, here a minor 6th (the inversion of the equally familiar major 3rd) and quickly reaching a perfect 4th above to imply a dominant to tonic relationship. This binary “moment” is repeated and developed by transpositions and variations within a textural web of mostly rapid measured tremolo arpeggiations until slowing and thinning to a quiet recapitulation of the opening. The second movement begins with a short repeated sequence of gently descending minor thirds that will be challenged by arpeggiated tremolos, pizzicati and an assertive ascending cello. This initial statement is repeated but also extended into slower phrases, the activity leading to sustained pitch, all developing and lengthening while leaving further behind repetitions of the opening statement. The third movement is a rapid, skittish texture of alternating and overlapping pizzicati, ponticello tremolos, double-strokes, and insistent martellatos, all of which arpeggiate extended tertian harmonies.

The five Preludes for Piano span the years 1986 to 1998. The first (“rubato”) is unambiguously influenced by a favorite composer, Alexander Scriabin (whose sustained “mystic chord” may have inspired the sustained dominant 7th chord of Ad Hoc). The second (“with relentless drive and energy”) is an evolving perpetuum mobile and the third (“smooth, connected, steady: with sense of direction”) is a slow, chromatic, occasionally inflected “walking line.” The fourth (“lovingly, tenderly, hauntingly”) is perhaps the composer's most exquisite example of haiku-like brevity and refined harmonic sensibility. The fifth (“with uncompromising motion and passion”) is a blossoming of bitter-sweet extended tonality.

Triple Play (1987) for chamber ensemble is rooted in the by-now-familiar exuberant Kam style of upwardly bubbling arpeggiations and clock-like recursive bustlings.

Green by Five (1993) for three violins and two violas is a languorous essay on gentle, subtly shifting dissonance.

Quartet for Strings No. 3 (1998), notable for its breadth and depth of expression, is in five movements. The first movement (“sustained; intense; full and sonorous”) is restrained and drawn out with sporadic “awakenings” of active ascending figures. The second movement (“steady and forceful”) recursively explores scaler figures in unison. The third movement (“lyrical, free and expressive, but with motion”) seems to have attained a plateau which is interrupted several times by further scaler ascents. The fourth movement (“quick; intense/calm”) begins with active ascending figures yielding to more passive and sustained “ruminations.” The fifth movement (“forceful and relentless”) builds vigorously and confidently, an answer to what could be felt as the work's previous struggles with uncertainty.

Kam was nearly 60 when he wrote his only Symphony (2001), the sombre opening echoing the opening of favorite composer Michael Tippett's Fourth Symphony. By this time the composer's “moment” has become vastly elongated with pitches stretching darkly across the musical landscape like those mysterious shadows in paintings by Salvador Dali. In the first movement the music's mildly dissonant undulations are occasionally interrupted by an aspiring climb into a glint of flutes and piccolo. The second movement projects an iconic repeated figure which gradually modifies to bloom expectantly into a sustained (albeit “embellished”) dominant 7th harmony (again recalling Ad Hoc). The third movement is launched vigorously with a rocking major third, tense with anticipation, eventually giving way to both return of the symphony's sombre opening and a cautious sense of resolution.

The Sonata for Piano (2002), another work expressing a spirit of gravitas, opens rhetorically with a single, sustained and sonorous “A” stretching a span of six octaves (a “Behold!”) followed by a stark, scripture-like, monophonic line (“sacred”?)  which periodically erupts into propelling stretches of motoric activity (“profane”?), undergoes provocative integrations of the two and eventually ends with resonant grandeur. I hear this as an intimation of the composer's religious faith and am reminded of late Beethoven: String Quartet Op 132: 3rd movement and the two-movement Piano Sonata, Op. 111, both of which juxtapose the spiritual with the mundane. In 2005 a clarinet was added to the above to create a Sonata for Clarinet and Piano.

Lokahi (2003) for clarinet, cello and piano is a musical homage to the composer's Hawaiian roots and begins with a repeated minor 3rd, an interval associated with ancient Hawaiian chant. Typical of many of his other works it becomes the musical “object” to be modified, embellished and, here, given a tinge of jazz.

Miami Mix (II) (2003) for chamber ensemble projects a texture of rocking intervals within an attractively kaleidoscopic scoring.

Mix Five (a) (2006) for solo clarinet creates a mosaic of juxtaposed contrasts somewhat in the manner of Ditto Varianti (1974).

D-Bop: Sonata for Piano No. 2 (2010) recalls the neoclassicism of Stravinsky by pulsing lively octave displacements of “D” across the full tessitura of the keyboard, then successively introducing other pitches. Kam illustrates his mastery of pitch play in the following contrasting sections of sustained sonorities and harmonic nuance. It confirms a refined aesthetic sensibility cultivated over a lifetime of composition. 

Dennis Kam