From its beginnings in the 1920s, American twelve-tone composition has been a field traversed by individual, and sometimes quite idiosyncratic, pathways. Ursula Mamlok, the German-born composer who spent most of her career in New York and who died on 4 May at age 93, traced her own path through that field—a path that sometimes took a spiral shape, bending both back to and away from her beginnings as a tonal composer.
Mamlok (1923-2016) was born in Germany and spent her first sixteen years in Berlin. In 1940 she and her family came to New York to stay, after having fled to Ecuador from Germany in 1938. She lived in New York until moving back to Berlin a few years before her death.
Mamlok had already begun composing and studying music before the move out of Germany. In New York, she studied under George Szell and Vittorio Giannini and then later with Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe and Ralph Shapey. Where her earlier compositions were rooted in conventional tonality, her studies in the early 1960s with Wolpe and Shapey introduced her to twelve-tone methods, albeit of an unconventional sort. As is characteristic of many American twelve-tone composers, Mamlok took the dodecaphonic series as a more or less flexible starting point rather than as a set of unvarying elements to be subjected to rigid operations. Like Wolpe, she used serial ordering in a sometimes loose and partial manner, frequently abstaining from setting out the row in a sequential statement; several of her compositions traced helical rather than linear patterns through the 12×12 grid laying out the series and its transpositions. Despite her absorption of serial techniques, she continued to think of her music as being fundamentally tonal, albeit highly chromatic. Her textures, particularly in later work, tended to favor a less complex surface and an almost airy openness.
In 2014, Naxos as part of its American Classics series issued a monograph set of six of Mamlok’s chamber works composed between 1962 and 2001. Included are works for solo instruments, small ensembles, and one string quartet. The compositions were recorded in Berlin in 2013, in celebration of Mamlok’s 90th birthday.
String Quartet No. 1, dating to 1962, is one of Mamlok’s earliest works to draw on serial methods. The three-movement work, performed here by the Armida Quartet is, except for its quietly sparse third movement, a densely layered contrapuntal piece with long, continuous lines. In many respects it recalls the more expressionistic twelve-tone compositions of earlier in the century. In her later work Mamlok moved away from the kind of density found in her first string quartet. And in fact the textures of Confluences (2001), the most recent composition included in the set, are markedly lighter than in the quartet. The piece, for piano, violin, cello and clarinet, is built on a juxtaposition of pointillist fragmentation and melodic continuity. The strings’ legato lines contrast with the piano’s constellations of chords and notes, the abrupt dissonances of which are softened by the lyrical phrasing of the strings and clarinet. Polyphony I (1968) for solo clarinet—given a lucid performance by Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer—is a four-movement work that in its earlier stages exploits dramatic leaps of intervals and dynamics while setting up apparent harmonic motion through the use of quasi-leading tones; the reflective final movement takes it all back in a sense, by turning to linked long lines occasionally broken by a startling trill. Two middle-period works, 1983’s From My Garden for solo viola and 1989’s Rhapsody for piano, viola and clarinet, both hint at tonality—albeit an expanded, modernist tonality—through slowly unfolding lines stretched over accommodating, if restless, chords.