Yehuda Yannay

Music from now and almost yesterday


Yehuda Yannay has always been a traveler.  Born in 1937, he hails from Timisoara, a provincial capital in a Hungarian-speaking region (Banat) of western Romania, an area noted for a multi-ethnic (Romanian, Hungarian, German, Slav, and Roma) presence.  This part of Romania also is the birthplace of several important composers, namely Béla Bartók, György Ligeti, and György Kurtág.  While this section of the country was relatively untouched by the horrific ravages of World War II, when the Communists took over it was time to leave.  Yannay’s family emigrated to Israel in 1951, and he began his musical studies at a time when modern music hardly existed there.  Fortunately, his early compositional studies were with the Paris-trained composer, Alexander Uriyah Boskovich (1907-1964), who imbued Yannay with an international understanding of music composition.  The techniques Yannay acquired placed rhythm and counterpoint as the fount of musical gesture, and the spoken language (Hebrew in Yannay’s case) as the prime generator of rhythmic shaping.


Throughout European musical history, composers have gone to Italy to nourish their inherited creative impulses.  Yannay, ever his own man, chose America instead of Italy, becoming the first Israeli Fulbright Fellow in music.  He established permanent residence in the U.S. in 1968.  His timing was propitious, as new music in the U.S. was then undergoing a radical transformation and there was an immediate resonance for the new immigrant.  It would be fourteen years before Yannay returned to central Europe, and by then he was an American composer through and through.


One of Yannay’s formative experiences in the U.S. was his detailed study of the music of Edgard Varèse and György Ligeti, which gave the composer a gravitational center heretofore missing.  Yannay devoted his doctoral dissertation to these composers.  Through these studies, he developed an open–ended approach to musical analysis which lead him to approach the act of composition in the same “experimental and intuitive” manner.


The composer recently said this about himself:  “I am less concerned about a long-term agenda, a cohesive continuity in my oeuvre from one piece to the next.  Of greater importance is the need to recapture, if just for a moment, a youthful and perhaps näive impulse of creation: the making of something ‘new’.  My greatest challenge is how to avoid writing the ‘same piece’ over and over, how to avoid reiterating the same compositional gestures and routines.”


The montaging of various recent popular styles (such as rock), late 19th- and early 20th-century Romantic styles, and certain Third World musics is usually given the unfortunate appellation “post–modern.”  Musical collaging is nonetheless the most influential and pervasive compositional praxis now in vogue. This utilitarianism has proven to be an effective antidote for some of the aesthetic discomfort composers and listeners have experienced from certain 20th-century musical styles.  It is to Yannay’s credit that while he partakes of the musical currency of montage, he retains an unmistakable freshness.  His music, while not always immediately easy to understand, may nevertheless evoke the feel of familiar styles. His musical voice is marked by complete stylistic integration, passing beyond mere pastiche.  Speaking with the voice of a unique musical pragmatic, he does not simply montage, but finds and employs the most useful, and expressive musical means. The four compositions on this CD, which clearly exemplify this achievement, span eighteen years of creative work, from a 1973 solo piano composition, showing clear echoes of what he learned from Varèse, to the stunning Duo of 1991.


For the composer, Nine Branches of the Olive Tree is “music of a Mediterranean brightness embracing the ancient olive trees of the region and the sound of the Middle Eastern bamboo flute.”  Commissioned by the recorder virtuoso Edward Gogolak, who gave the first performance, the music struts a veritable dictionary of new, virtuosic techniques for the family of recorders employed in the work.  The first four sections present a dazzling array of instrumental textures, topped off with virtuosic fireworks of the recorders.  After a meditative solo for bass recorder, the remaining five sections form a continuous series of infectious dance rhythms, clearly evocative of the Middle East Yannay knows so well.


Seven Late Spring Pieces for piano, from 1973, exhibit two stylistic features common to much of Yannay’s music.  First, there are the “sound forms” which undergo continuous subtle transformations and, second, there is the use of the ostinato as in the fourth piece.  These two facets often exist simultaneously, as in the first and last pieces.  The music shows the influence of Varèse, presenting such non-thematic sound forms as pure expression.  The simple arch form involving the four outer sections helps clarify these compositional features.


Duo (1991), dedicated to the important Brazilian composer Gilberto Mendes and his wife Eliane, utilizes two quotes from a Mendes work for piano. The music was composed with the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa in mind.  Yannay says of the opening theme that it is like “a splashing broken wave on a windy beach near Lisbon.” Frequent subtle tempo changes trace the thematic play of the changing waves, and the dreamy Latino jazz mood, which occasionally floats by, adds local color to a musical lazy afternoon.


Trio (1982), originally written for Yannay’s Milwaukee new-music ensemble, Music From Almost Yesterday, had its first complete performance in 1983 in Stuttgart.  Like the first composition on this CD, the energy of the music derives from the free counterpoint so characteristic of Yannay.  Each instrument is given individualistic sound forms which are recursively recombined.  The first movement, in its joyous outpouring, recalls the exuberance of Charles Ives.  Still atmospherics, with inserted melismas, comprise the substance of the middle movement with the last movement resolving the opposing expressions of the first two.


Composing in Milwaukee, WI on the shores of Lake Michigan, Yannay continues his original musical pragmatic style, a style for the “Third Coast” of the United States.  He is Professor of Composition and Music Theory at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he founded and directs the “Music From Almost Yesterday” contemporary music series. ­— Burt J. Levy, composer


This recording was supported in part by the School of Fine Arts and the Graduate School of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with additional support from the American Composers Forum with funds provided by the McKnight Foundation.



Tray Card



 Music Now and From Almost Yesterday



1 – 9     Nine Branches of the Olive Tree  (1983-84)       AAD     26’ 24”

Edward Gogolak, recorders

John Holmquist, guitar

William Helmers, bass clarinet

Martin Shadd, percussion

Recorded and edited by Jon Welstead


10 – 15  Seven Late Spring Pieces  (1973)        AAD     10’47”

Steven Herbert Smith, piano

Recorded by John Thomas; Edited by Daniel C. Gnader


16        Duo for flute and cello  (1991)             DDD      10’14”

James Grine, flute

David Cowley, cello

Recorded and edited by Daniel C. Gnader


17         Trio for clarinet, cello and piano  (1982) ADD      18’42”

William Helmers, clarinet

Paul Gmeinder, cello

Jayne Latva, piano

Recorded and edited by Jon Welstead


TOTAL TIME:         66’05”


Digital Mastering: Daniel C. Gnader

Mastered at DANGER! pre/post?  Milwaukee, Wisconsin


Seven Late Spring Pieces is published by Israel Music Institute

Balance of works are published Levana Music Publications (BMI)


Photography and art work:  Marie Mellott

Liner Notes: Burt J. Levy

Art Direction: Adam Kapel

Executive Producer: Homer G. Lambrecht


© 1996 innova Recordings

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