Composer and conductor Ralph Shapey died in 2002; he was a figurehead of new music in Chicago, teaching at the University of Chicago and serving as director for the Contemporary Chamber Players. Shapey was, along with Conlon Nancarrow, the first recipient of the MacArthur "genius" fellowship in 1982, enjoyed a publishing contract with Theodore Presser, frequent commissions, and numerous recordings of his work, most of them appearing on labels such as CRI and New World Records. Despite his traction in the world of academic modernism and the strong sense of relevance his reputation exuded during his lifetime, none of this has helped Shapey's continued relevance in posterity. New World Records' two-disc Ralph Shapey: Radical Traditionalism compiles some of the best of the CRI recordings in a carefully chosen program with the intention of hitting the high points in Shapey's recorded catalog and thereby reacquainting the public with his work; it also includes an excellent appreciation of Shapey by composer and teacher Robert Carl.
For contemporary music audiences weaned on post-modernism, minimalism, and polystylism, Ralph Shapey: Radical Traditionalism is going to be an uphill battle. While it doesn't rely 100 percent on techniques derived from serialism, Shapey's music sounds serially derived in a superficial way, requires a lot of patience, and is tough, uncompromising, harsh, and unyielding. At 52 minutes, the Fromm Variations of 1966, revised 1972-1973, is a lot to take, sounds overworked, and capitulates its "essential moments" only amid long thickets of thorny developmental material. Three for Six (1979) contains some elements that are attractive owing to the sense of atmosphere and space, especially performed as well as it is here by the New York Music Ensemble under Robert Black. Both string quartets have the same bleak, angry, and seemingly frustrated outlook, yet in such music we are expected to set aside subjectivity and listen to the music as music, without connecting it to emotion. Okay -- as music, overall it seems tortured, congested, and there are plenty of ear-piercing high register pitches and passages; once in awhile you hear something that sounds intriguing, the rest is like plowing through dense undergrowth.
One risks a lot by saying so: there are academics and musicians alike who will go for blood at the first hint of the lack of understanding such music as it is, for not recognizing its genius and "essentiality." Yet, for every one of these academics and musicians there are thousands of readers who will not be able to distinguish Shapey's densely populated stars from a black hole from which nothing escapes. Ralph Shapey: Radical Traditionalism is for listeners with fast ears, long attention spans, and a taste for highly dissonant music conceived along architectonic lines. If you are not one of them, then likely, it is not for you.