David Liptak: Brightening Air

, composer


David Liptak, longtime composition faculty member of the Eastman School of Music, releases this compilation of his music for wind ensemble, written for and inspired by the august group at his institution. Featuring soprano Tony Arnold in the four movement Folgore's Months based on 14th century Italian sonnets, Liptak's broad sources of inspiration and sensitivity to lyricism and orchestration pervade this release.


Brightening Air is composer David Liptak’s (Eastman School of Music) second release on New Focus, and stands in sharp contrast to the 2019 Dove Songs which featured intimate instrumentations. This recording celebrates Liptak’s large ensemble writing, specifically five works for wind ensemble performed by the celebrated Eastman Wind Ensemble. Throughout, we hear his brilliant orchestrational palette, complex management of layered characters, and compelling structural direction.

Soprano Tony Arnold is featured here in a powerful setting of 14th century Italian sonnets by Folgore da San Gimignano, in English translations by Daniel Gabriel Rosetti and John Thow. Liptak has chosen four months to present in Folgore’s Months: “February,” “August,” “May,” and “December.” “February” features powerful, towering chords in the brass and lively rhythms throughout the ensemble. Arnold enters with urgent, syncopated phrases that set a text that celebrates vigorous winter activity. “August” is languorous, with fluid lines in the soprano floating above a shifting harmonic foundation. Liptak creates a poignant polytonal texture as the winds obscure a diatonic brass chorale, capturing the ambiguity of late summer. “May” returns to the extroverted energy of “February,” here introduced by insistent repeated notes that crescendo in the brass, before opening up into expansive tintinnabulation under the text, “And every day be glad with joyful love.” The set closes with a shimmering setting of “December,” also shrouded in dualities. While the poetry describes “large fireplaces,” “fine carpets,” and “elegant game boards,” the undulating musical material is mysterious and foreboding, perhaps acknowledging the perils of the season ahead.

Soundings is the earliest work in the collection, originally written for the Michigan State University Wind Ensemble. In this colorful scoring, Liptak takes advantage of a hallmark of wind ensemble music, which is one to a part writing (as distinguished from concert band conventions), which creates a tapestry of soloistic features. Percussion plays a major role as well in this dramatic piece, lending support to crashing cadential moments with larger drums and adding brilliance to intricate passages with higher pitched percussion like crotales and glockenspiel.

Read More

The 2017 composition Through the Brightening Air is written in memory of composer Steven Stucky, a good friend of Liptak’s and an upstate New York colleague as a longtime faculty member at Cornell University. The first half of the work develops gradually, as swells and punctuations build accumulating sonorities before the tone takes a turn midway through, as a light hearted dance emerges. Dramatic brass chords lay the foundation for a haunting line in high winds before the work steadily distills its energy and closes with ethereal percussion.

Octet shares its instrumentation with Stravinsky’s 1922 Octet for Wind Instruments, and as such, puts itself in dialogue with the famous work, intentionally or not. The work opens with a short introduction, “It Began With a Dream,” an evocative layering of voices. Liptak seems to embrace the interaction with the canonic elephant in the room. The second movement, “Scherzo,” revels in rhythmically separated figures that dart and bounce in ways that are reminiscent of Stravinsky. “Fantasia” opens with gentle and lyrical material that grows into a coy imitative section of ascending lines. The “Finale” refers back to the staccato gestures of the scherzo, with extra boldness and urgency to lines that swell and emerge throughout the ensemble. The Octet is a wonderful opportunity to hear Liptak in a leaner context, exploring and extrapolating some focused compositional ideas with remarkable economy.

The final work on the recording, The Sacred Harp, was written in 1994 and returns to the rich landscape of the full wind ensemble. Written for the inauguration of an incoming president of the University of Rochester, Liptak draws inspiration from shape note singing, an American choral tradition which evolved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We hear a balance throughout the piece between simple folkloric material drawn from these sources and Liptak’s vibrant harmonies and orchestration.

– Dan Lippel

Producer: Mark Scatterday

Co-Producer: Kevin Holzman

Recording Engineer: John Truebger

Post Production: John Truebger

Mastering Engineer: John Truebger

All music was recorded at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY

Through the Brightening Air was recorded on 12/4/2017 in Kodak Hall

Folgore’s Months, on 12/12/2018 in Kilbourn Hall

Soundings on 9/18/2019 in Kodak Hall

The Sacred Harp on 10/18/2019 in Kodak Hall

Octet on 2/28/2021 in EEW415

Music composed by David Liptak (BMI)

Soundings published by Keiser Southern Music

Through the Brightening Air and Octet published by American Composers Edition

Folgore’s Months and The Sacred Harp published by Alfred Music/Donald Hunsberger Wind Library

Program note by David Liptak

Design by Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com

Cover photography by Kim Høltermand, Holtermand.xyz

David Liptak portrait photography by Hanna Hurwitz, hannahurwitz.com

Tony Arnold portrait photography by Claudia Hansen, claudiahansen.com

Mark Scatterday and the Eastman Wind Ensemble photographs courtesy of Eastman Communications Dept.

Support was provided by the Eastman School of Music and its department of Technology & Media Production

David Liptak

David Liptak’s music has been described as “luminous and arresting,” “richly atmospheric,” and having “transparent textures, incisive rhythms, shimmering lightness.” His compositions have been performed throughout the United States and abroad by the San Francisco Symphony, the Montreal Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Group for Contemporary Music, EARPLAY, the Ying, Cassatt, and JACK String Quartets, the Dinosaur Annex Ensemble, the New York New Music Ensemble, the 20th-Century Consort, baritone William Sharp, soprano Tony Arnold, and by many other soloists and ensembles. In 1995 David Liptak was awarded the Elise L. Stoeger Prize, given by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in recognition of distinguished achievement in the field of chamber music composition. He has received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, both in 2002, and he is the 2006 recipient of the Lillian Fairchild Award from the University of Rochester. Commissions for new music have included those supported by the Fromm Foundation, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Meet the Composer, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the California Music Center, and the Hanson Institute for American Music. Recordings of David Liptak’s music can be found on Bridge, Innova, Albany, Centaur, and other recording labels. He is President of the American Composers Alliance, and his music is published by several publishers, including Keiser Classical, Alfred Music - Donald Hunsberger Wind Ensemble Library, and American Composers Edition. Much of his music written very recently has explored the poetry and magical quality of stars and starlight, imagined and real. A dedicated teacher of composition students for the past three decades, David Liptak is Professor of Composition at the Eastman School of Music, where he has taught since 1986.



Take Effect

The veteran composer David Liptak brings us a compilation of his music for wind ensemble, where the soprano Tony Arnold and the Eastman Wind Ensemble help illuminate his strong attention to lyricism and orchestration.

“Folgore’s Months” starts the listen with 4 movements that bring tension and grace into the powerful and precise climate that showcases Arnold’s stunning soprano as well as the ensemble’s strong attention to detail.

In the middle, “Surroundings” is an atmospheric 14 minutes that alternates between cinematic, dreamy and colorful as glockenspiel and crotales make an appearance, while “Through The Brightening Air” utilizes winds in a haunting fashion that benefits much from the creative percussion.

“Octet” and “The Sacred Harp” finish the listen, where the former employs layered voices and atypical rhythm, and the latter flows with rich textures from the wind ensemble that embraces folkloric qualities.

Liptak’s music has been played all over the globe and it’s easy to see why; his glowing harmonies, sharp balance and absorbing version of chamber sounds makes for a very appealing listening experience.

— Tom Haugen, 5.28.2022



These five works for winds represent the elite of their genre. Composer David Liptak (b. 1949) wrote all but one for the acclaimed Eastman Wind Ensemble, which gives performances fully up to their past standard. The culture of American wind ensembles embraces a wide network of music schools and universities. The last time most of us encountered wind music, aside from famous classical works like Mozart’s wind serenades, was in the context of marching bands. But the emergence of sophisticated wind ensembles and orchestras across the country has engendered music of serious interest for decades now.

Liptak, who is professor of composition at the Eastman School, didn’t write the earliest work here, Soundings from 1982, for the Eastman Wind Ensemble, but did so with its specific sound in mind. Having heard them play during his student years at Eastman, he was aware for the first time of wind music written not for massed instruments but with individual solo parts. His own style continues in that vein, most markedly in his Octet, which uses the same unique instrumentation as Stravinsky’s Octet of 1923: pairs of trumpets, trombones, and bassoons, a flute and clarinet. Stravinsky’s score marked his turn to Neoclassicism, and Liptak may have picked up on Stravinsky’s spiky austerity, dryness, and angularity while assimilating these qualities into his own syntax. (The subtitle “It Began with a Dream” refers to a dream in which Stravinsky first envisioned the makeup of his piece—he found himself in a small room with the same eight instruments playing pleasant music.)

In Liptak’s score there is also the close harmonization one associates with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which has the effect of suspending time. Hunting for clues and associations is common in the context of today’s musical eclecticism, which draws from the entire panoply of music history. Like everything else on this disc, Liptak’s Octet exemplifies a major strength, his imaginative use of instrumental color. Whether we notice it or not, wind ensembles remind our ears of what isn’t there, namely, the string section. By their nature strings are the emotional core of a symphony orchestra, while the woodwinds and brass add color, accent, and character. Remove this emotional core, and it is a considerable challenge to make winds take over the same role. To help out, modern wind-band composers tend to lean on tonality, often recalling notable American predecessors, neo-Romantic and otherwise, like Dello Joio, Persichetti, Flagella, and Hanson. If the tonalism is too backward-looking, it can sound like foot-dragging. Liptak adroitly inserts dissonance, often in sharp, angular accents, and employs the wide-spaced intervals that replace melody in contemporary music. But he allies dissonant gestures with a dedication to melody at the same time—this is another hallmark of his personal expression.

To me, the most striking and successful example of his style comes in Folgore’s Months, the only vocal work here. In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Early Italian Poets (1861) there are translations of sonnets by the 14th-century Tuscan poet Folgóre de San Gimignano. As the composer’s helpful program notes inform us, “The twelve sonnets describe scenes associated with each of the twelve months, portraying hunting, games and sports, feasting, and other pastimes of Sienese youths of the nobility.” The texts provide a glimpse into the courtly elegance (and ample leisure hours) of medieval life among the rich. The four months selected here—February, August, May, and December—aren’t vehicles for quasi-early music pastiche on Liptak’s part. He employs the intense, high-flying vocal writing that spans from Schoenberg’s Ewartung to Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. The brass writing here can be as sonorous as a Gabrieli canzone or as raucous as Messiaen. The stratospheric vocal range demanded by the work fits the talents of Tony Arnold, a soprano who specializes in contemporary chamber music; she is closely associated with George Crumb but has recorded extensively across the map of thorny vocal works of the past century.

Liptak’s four songs are as challenging as anything in the genre, and yet Folgore’s Months is strikingly original and absorbing. The soundstage is expanded with percussion, particularly mallet instruments, to create an arresting atmosphere. What one loses, almost inevitably, is an emotional connection with the original medieval texts, because the vocal line is so hard to enunciate and the musical idiom so divorced from subject matter like hunting, horse racing, and banqueting. Fortunately, the musical rewards are rich enough to overcome this drawback, and complete texts are provided to make it easy to follow the singer.

Within the space limitations of this review I can’t detail the other works on the program, which span from 1982 to 2017, but I don’t intend a backhanded compliment when I say that Liptak’s sophistication surprised me coming from a wind ensemble—these pieces easily compare with the best contemporary American composers, and attesting to that, Liptak has many prestigious commissions to his credit, from the Fromm and Koussevitzky Foundations, for example, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Rounding everything out, the conducting by Mark Scatterday is exemplary and the recorded sound very fine. Nothing here is fiercely atonal, and a good deal falls easily on the ear if you are accustomed to the music of Peter Maxwell Davies and Oliver Knussen. There is the same authentic feeling and willingness to communicate to the listener. In short, this release builds a bridge to contemporary music that all are welcome to cross.

— Huntley Dent, 7.15.2022


Vital Weekly

David Liptak is a US American composer and teacher, faculty member of the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, NY. As always, the question arises whether a teacher of composition can actually compose. At least something that is listenable.

The answer here is 'yes, but, Liptak's music is decidedly orchestral. This CD compiles a number of his wind instrument works. The Eastman Wind Ensemble that performs here is renowned for its quality and performances, and it craftily supplies the necessary pressure and orchestral quality to Liptak's work. As with many US American composers, the music is somewhat un-modern. That is to say, it owes little to the last 70 years of contemporary classical music and is more rooted in the later parts of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Luckily, the slightly film-score attributes of much of the early 20th century US American composers are largely (see below) lacking here. And due to the concentration on wind instruments, it is hard to link to composers of maybe similar approaches such as Tippett. It is more Elgar that comes to mind or Shostakovich in the more symphonic passages. Not exactly, as Liptak's work has a very own character, but it gives you an idea of the mood of his music.

The recordings start with 'Folgore's Month', apparently an adaptation of sonnets of 14th-century Italian poet Folgore da San Gimignano in four movements depicting four months of the year. As always, it remains the composer's secret why these are relevant today. They are performed by soprano singer Tony Arnold, whom Liptak has worked before. Although the soprano would not normally persist against the might of the wind ensemble (mind, this is not a chamber quartet, but a full orchestra), and the opening of the first movement is a full-blast orchestra, the music can give the voice the space it needs. Moreover, the voice, being a wind instrument in itself, does blend surprisingly well with the score.

The following pieces, 'Soundings' and the title track 'Through the brightening air' explore the sound possibilities of the wind ensemble to the full, never boring and using the wind instruments and accompanying percussion to best result. They are followed by the 4-movement 'Octet', which reduces the ensemble to chamber size. This results in more emphasis on the single instruments and the sound qualities now replacing the orchestral (super-)power. The four movements make good use of different moods and sound colours.

The final take, 'The sacred harp,' finally does fall into the pit of film score music. Why is the harp 'sacred', and why do we speak of a 'harp' when this is a wind ensemble. Puzzles. The music unnecessarily drives towards the apocalyptic scenes of an apocalypse movie, proving my point above. This
release would have been better off without this last track.

— Robert Steinberger, 2.15.2022



Winds are used very differently by David Liptak of the Eastman School of Music on a (+++) New Focus Recordings CD featuring five of his works as played by the school’s justly renowned wind ensemble. Liptak’s interest in these pieces is primarily in massed sound and combinatorial sonorities that are far from intimate and, although expressive in their own way, are quite distant from the intimate emotion conveyed by Brahms. Folgore’s Months (2008) is based on four 14th-century sonnets by Folgore da San Gimignano, each intended to illustrate a specific month and all combining massed winds with words sung by soprano Tony Arnold. The vocal writing is pointed, melismatic, and rather self-consciously “contemporary” in its alternation of smooth passages with angular, almost screechy ones. The ensemble is treated differently in each movement: in February it is brassy, chordal and rhythmic; in August it is milder, although scarcely lyrical; in May it is impulsive and driven; in December it is on the quiet, even mysterious side. The remaining works on the disc do not have a vocal component. Soundings (1982) is dominated not by winds but by percussion: individual winds are contrasted with massed percussive exclamations. Through the Brightening Air (2017) is especially effective in its use of winds to establish an atmospheric opening, and its lighter, dancelike middle section is effective, although Liptak’s penchant for chordal exclamations is prominent here too from time to time. Octet (2005/2015) is the most-interesting piece on the disc, a short four-movement suite that starts by creating layers of sound, continues with bouncy rhythmic sections separated by full-ensemble pauses, moves to a quieter place with more lyricism than Liptak usually offers, and concludes with a movement that mixes stop-and-start elements with massed sound in the way that Liptak clearly favors throughout the works on this CD. The recording ends with The Sacred Harp (1994), an occasional piece for an academic ceremony that eschews, or rather disguises, the inevitable fanfare-like celebratory elements expected under such circumstances in favor of Liptak’s preferred massed sonorities and, somewhat surprisingly, some melodic material that is more-straightforward than he usually presents. All the pieces are very well played by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under Mark Scatterday, and the CD will certainly be of interest to wind performers. But its determined abandonment of wind instruments’ more-lyrical, more-expressive elements makes it less than fully effective for a general audience.

Related Albums