William Robin is a musicologist whose credentials (nicely enumerated on his web site) are more than adequate to the task at hand. This is a socioeconomic and political perspective on the seminal Bang on a Can organization. At its core, Bang on a Can is the foundational work of three people now recognized as major American composers: Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon, all of whom met as students at Yale University.
This is the (much needed) first book on the history of the collaboration of these composers and how their work helped transform and move ahead the new music scene. First in New York, then nationally, and now internationally these individuals experimented and embraced innovative ideas while navigating the labyrinth of of social, political and economic hurdles involved in the production and promotion of non-pop new music. Therein lies the “agony” referenced in my title. This essential background information makes for some slow going reading but also serves to demonstrate how daunting their task has been.
The book documents the early efforts both to define their concepts and to learn the politics of the new music economy. But, painful as they are, these efforts are ultimately instructive for anyone involved in the production of new music. This reader comes away with a new found respect for those who wrangle with the varied and complex elements behind the production of concerts in general, and new music in particular. It is “how the sausage is made” so to speak. And it is a useful perspective for the average listener to better understand the incredible complexity of new music production and promotion.
The book is divided into 7 chapters and an epilogue which focuses not just on the trials and tribulations of the gestation of Bang on a Can but also its context among several other new music initiatives that preceded BOC. Meet the Composer, New Music America, and the New York Philharmonic’s New Horizons Festival loomed large in their time and the “downtown” loft scene which nurtured the likes of Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Rhys Chatham, etc. contributed to the promotion of new music during their respective eras.
Robin identifies the innovative efforts by BOC in their use of marathon open air concerts to showcase their innovative programming which effectively blurred the lines of genres like jazz, free jazz, classical, pop, rock, etc. But their challenges were essentially the some, the politics of concert production, funding, advertising, etc. They characterized their efforts in contrast to the economically dominant Lincoln Center. The evolution of BOC from its beginnings through the establishment of the Bang on a Can All Stars touring ensemble, the establishment of a record label (Cantaloupe) and their later performances at Lincoln Center, the stodgy institution against which they railed dubbing their music as “downtown” as an alternative to the “uptown” mainstream. There is the beginnings of a history of new music in recordings that remains to be written but the point here is context and the socioeconomic and political motivations involved.
Author William Robin does his work well in this academic tome which is richly annotated and referenced with a bibliography to take the interested reader to a wealth of information on new music and its production. And while this is more about “how the sausage is made” so to speak, it is a necessary exposition which provides both history and context, something to think about the next time you buy a ticket to hear new music. Admittedly its not a pretty picture but it certainly illuminates the side of new music virtually unknown to the average listener.
While this reader had hoped for more information on the music performed (which deserves a book unto itself) this book takes its place alongside Tom Johnson”s “The Voice of New Music”, Kyle Gann’s “Downtown Music”, Renee Levine Packer’s wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music scene, “This Life of Sounds”, Benjamin Piekut’s “Experimentalism Otherwise”, George Lewis’ “A Power Stronger than Itself”, Luciano Chessa’s “Luigi Russolo, Futurist”, and David Bernstein’s “The San Francisco Tape Music Center” (to name a few) as an essential history of new music.
A large and sympathetic crowd filled the Goldman Theater in Berkeley’s David Brower Center on this 19th day of 2020, the 75th birthday of composer, broadcaster, producer, new music catalyst Charles Amirkhanian. His is perhaps not a household name except in the households of the legions of composers, musicians, and fans of new music (this writer’s household definitely included). That is a substantial crowd actually and close to 200 of them were in attendance.
It was somehow fitting that this celebration take place in this particular venue. The Brower Center also contains the office from which he administers the wonderful Other Minds organization, the current outlet for his various projects supporting new music including the annual Other Minds concert series.
Joshua Kosman’s respectful article of January 14th served notice to all of this impending event.
Amirkhanian with his ASCAP Award in the background (Photo by Allan Cronin Creative Commons license)
Charles is the executive and artistic director of the Other Minds Music Festival in San Francisco, which he co-founded with Jim Newman in 1992. That festival will mark its 25th incarnation this year. In addition he produces Other Minds Records and maintains a huge archive of interviews and music as well as a weekly radio broadcast on KALW featuring new and interesting music presented by he and his musical confederates.
His stint as music director for KPFA in San Francisco lasted from 1969 to 1992 during which time he also interviewed most (if not all) the significant new music composers and performers of the time. This writer has dubbed him the “Bill Graham” of new music because of the detail and care he always takes in producing concerts, conversations, recordings, and happenings.
His musicological efforts can be seen in his writings and advocacy of the work of George Antheil (for whom he served as executor of the composer’s estate) and Conlon Nancarrow, expatriate American composer who spent much of his creative life in Mexico City. It was in the composer’s studio there that Charles recorded all of the groundbreaking studies for player piano on the composer’s original instruments (a major undertaking). Indeed Charles’ history of advocacy and support of fellow musicians and composers would be a worthy subject for a book on its own. His advocacy is a large part of his legacy as well.
Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith (all rights reserved)
The 178 seat Goldman Theater had but a few empty seats. The crowd was a clearly enthusiastic one comprised of artists and supporters of the arts. The evening commenced with an interview by fellow composer and scholar Kyle Gann, himself long associated with Mr. Amirkhanian (since at least 1982). A professor of music at Bard College, Gann came here to the west coast expressly for this interview.
Kyle Gann, composer, scholar, professor of music (Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith)
After a brief intro from Blaine Todd, Other Minds’ Associate Director the interview (actually more of a friendly conversation) began with brief discussion of Amirkhanian’s beginnings and subsequent history in music in the Bay Area (and beyond). Just in this casual conversation we met the man whose experiences has had him cross paths with a virtual Who’s Who of the most significant figures in 20th (and now 21st) century music while pursuing his own compositional efforts.
In many, or dare I say, most cases his relationships have been very beneficial to his peers. This was quite evident in a few conversations which this writer had with fellow audience members. One gentleman asserted that Charles has put his advocacy ahead of his own work in favor of supporting new and emerging talents. Another reminisced about how much he had learned of new music as a result of listening to those KPFA shows and how much this meant in his life. His support of this very blog is another example. It came about during the experience of volunteering at the Other Minds office. And one need only look at the histories of many of the composers hosted at the fabulous Other Minds festival to see the subsequent successes attained by the talented individuals invited to perform at those events. Henry Brant’s Pulitzer Prize winning organ concerto, “Ice Field” (2001) was an Other Minds commission. More examples abound.
Amirkhanian’s sound poetry can be found on albums such as Lexical Music (1979, now on OM records 1032-2), Mental Radio (1985, CRI records, reissued on New World Records), Walking Tune (1997, Starkland Records), and his genre defining anthology “10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces (1975, OM 1006).
New World Records 80817
There is more to be had in this one man’s work than one evening could hope to contain but this program was also a CD release event of Amirkhanian’s sound collage works, a distinctly different genre from those who may know his language based works. The two CD set on New World Records, “Loudspeakers” is a compendium of four works, Pianola (Pas de mains) (1997–2000; the subtitle is French for “no hands”), Im Frühling (“In Spring”, 1990), Loudspeakers (1990) , a vocal portrait of Morton Feldman, and Son of Metropolis San Francisco (1987/1997). This release serves as a fine birthday present for the composer and his audience illustrating this important aspect of his oeuvre..
At one point Amirkhanian quipped about his “long suffering wife” Carol Law who is a photographer and visual artist whose work includes some fascinating collaborations with Mr. Amirkhanian. The two spent the mid 1960s traveling and meeting sound poets throughout Europe and the Nordic countries. These efforts were very nicely showcased some of his work in the Other Minds 23 concerts. I include one photo from that festival to give some idea of the significance of the collaboration. Law’s affable presence is a part of all these concerts and, far from suffering, she seems to derive much joy and satisfaction from this work.
Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry in conjunction with Carol Law’s surreal slide show in which Amirkhanian becomes a part of the striking images.
Though Charles once remarked in an interview that one cannot really play these sound collages and expect people to listen in a concert hall (these pieces are originally conceived for presentation on radio) that is exactly what he did at this event. We were treated to some or all of the pieces on this important new release including the entire 20 minutes or so Son of Metropolis. And this sympathetic audience ate it like candy. Indeed these sonic landscapes, the experimental Pianola, and the humorous homage to the late Morton Feldman in the titular Loudspeakers were absorbed by hungry ears and met with appreciative applause. It is clear to those with new music ears that this release is a major event.
Other Minds OM-1025-2
In a role reversal consistent with our guest of honor’s reputation for magnanimity a portion of the event was given to listening to an excerpt (the album is over 2 hours long) from Kyle Gann’s masterful Hyperchromatica, a piece written for three computer controlled disklaviers all tuned to a 33 tone octave and produced by Amirkhanian on Other Minds Records. One cannot accurately describe the sound of this music except that it may remind some of a detuned old piano. It is anything but detuned and Gann owes his inspiration in part to the experiments with tuning from predecessors such as La Monte Young and Ben Johnston (among others). Actually he just recently released his own carefully researched tome on the subject of tuning.
Charles signing his CD
Kyle signing his CD
Amirkhanian briefly took the role of interviewer and provided a very useful introduction to this work prior to hearing one of its movements. As with the earlier pieces the audience listened with respectful attention and responded with warm applause. This Other Minds records release was also available before, at intermission, and at the conclusion of the vent with both Charles and Kyle happily autographing and discussing their work. Both the Hyperchromatica disc and this new book are major additions to the world of new music.
And, of course, no birthday is complete without a cake.
Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith
Many lingered following the event (which exceeded its two hour original plan) to chat with the kindred spirits and share in the cake, cookies, and fine UBUNTU brand coffee. It is an event that will live in this writer’s memory and doubtless in the many who attended.
The man of the hour toasting his “semisesquicentennial”.
A very Happy Birthday to you, Mr. Amirkhanian. Your vision and efforts have been and continue to be a blessing to the Bay Area and the new music community in general. Salud!!
I’m skeptical about year end lists but I have enough people asking me that it would be impertinent to skip this task. I make no claims to having even listened to enough to make any definitive statements about the “best” but I have my own quirky criteria which I hope at least stirs interest. Here goes.
Let’s start with the most read reviews. Without a doubt the prize here goes to Tim Brady’s “Music for Large Ensemble”. This reviewer was enthralled by this recording by this Canadian musician whose work needs to be better known.
This little gem was sent to me by a producer friend and I liked it immediately. I knew none of these composers but I enjoyed the album tremendously. Don’t let the unusual name “Twiolins” stop you. This is some seriously good music making. It is my sleeper of the year.
Running close behind the Twiolins is the lovely album of post minimalist miniatures by the wonderful Anne Akiko Meyers. Frequently these named soloist albums of miniatures are targeted at a “light music” crowd. Well this isn’t light music but it is quite listenable and entertaining.
The creative programming and dedicated playing made this a popular review to New Music Buff readers. Definitely want to hear more from the Telegraph Quartet.
Another disc sent by my friend Joshua. This one is a DVD/CD combo of music by a composer whose existence was only revealed to me a couple of years ago. Marin includes a clever animated video which accompanies the title track.
I was fortunate enough to have been able to hear Terry Riley and Gloria Cheng in an all Terry Riley program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Both were in spectacular form and the audience was quite pleased.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the fabulous 6 night series of concerts produced by Other Minds. This is why I am a rabid advocate of OM programs. More on that soon with OM 24 coming up.
And lastly I want to tell you about two more composers who are happily on my radar.
One of the joys of reviewing CDs is the discovery of new artists to follow. Harold Meltzer is now in that group for me. This basically tonal composer has a real feel for writing for the voice and has turned out some seriously interesting chamber music.
Another composer unknown to these ears. I bristle at the term “electroacoustic” because it sometimes means experimental or bad music. Not so here. Moe is fascinating. Definitely worth your time.
OK, gonna can the objectivity here to say that this is possibly the most underappreciated album I’ve heard this year. Combining a recording of the Debussy Preludes along with Schoenberg’s rarely heard “Hanging Gardens”, Webern’s Variations, and Berg’s Piano Sonata creates a picture of a moment in history when music moved from impressionism to expressionism. Jacob Greenberg is very much up to the task. Buy this one and listen, please. It’s wonderful.
Also beyond objectivity is this fascinating major opus by Kyle Gann. It didn’t get much recognition on my blog but it’s a major work that deserves your attention if you like modern music.
Well this is one of my favorite reviews in terms of the quality of my writing. The work is most wonderful as well. Though this review was actually published on December 31st I’m still including it in my 2018.
This is definitely cheating on my part but after that concert at Yerba Buena I can’t resist making folks aware of this wonderful set on the independent label, “Irritable Hedgehog”. Trust me, if you like Riley, you need this set.
I review relatively few books on this site but by far the most intriguing and important book that has made it across my desk to this blog is Gay Guerilla. The efforts of Mary Jane Leach, Renee Levine Packer, Luciano Chessa, and others are now helping to establish an understanding of this composer who died too young. Here’s looking forward to next year.
I know I have left out a great deal in this quirky year end selection but I hope that I have not offended anyone. Peace and music to all.
Curiously enough the upcoming presidential elections have brought to some prominence the name of Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law Professor and intellectual property expert who now, as ‘Larry Lessig’ has thrown his hat into the ring as a presidential candidate. And it is this man’s work on copyright and commons issues that speaks to my concerns in this blog to the impact of these practices on music. Lessig makes his case in ‘The Future of Ideas’ and in the later freely available, Creative Commons licensed, ‘Remix’ in which he advocates for reform of copyright laws to foster creativity.
Few would argue that copyright law is overdue for a major overhaul and fewer still would deny that non-top forty composers gain little from the present form of these laws aside from the ability to deny performance, recording and distribution rights (assuming, of course, that they can afford an attorney and litigation costs). Yet current copyright law appears to be the dominant practice.
Much of my thinking here has also been influenced by the work of Lewis Hyde whose ‘The Gift’ and ‘Common as Air’ are essential reading as well. A subject for a future blog most likely.
Professor Lewis Hyde
There are notable exceptions such as Frederic Rzewski‘s embrace of “Copyleft” and others embrace (including yours truly) of the Creative Commons licensing. My very basic understanding of these non-traditional licenses is that they allow for use and distribution of the artists’ works without charge unless a profit is made. This worked well for me when a photo which I uploaded to Wikipedia (they recommend Creative Commons licensing for media uploads), a picture I had taken of the working model of Babbage’s Difference Engine at the Computer History Museum in Menlo Park, California, was found by someone at Harper Collins who contacted me and negotiated a fair price to include this photo in Walter Isaacson’s ‘The Innovators’.
Babbage Difference Engine at the Computer History Museum
Now I believe I tread more contentious ground with my concerns about the consumers, the listeners, the audience. As an avid listener to new music I have encountered barriers that block my ability to listen to new music. High ticket or CD prices and geographical distance are well-known barriers. However some artists like La Monte Young hold their work so tightly under copyright so as to effectively limit the availability of both live and recorded performances, restricting access to perhaps thousands of listeners (Would you believe maybe hundreds?)
La Monte Young
Others such as my friends David Toub, Kyle Gann and many others put much of their work, scores and recordings, online for all to access.
As an avid listener and collector of new music I have amassed an archive of air checks, live recordings, bootlegs, free copies, etc. of a great deal of new music. Indeed there are vaults of broadcast and other live recordings that languish awaiting the ravages of time to destroy them. If I didn’t catch the original broadcast there seems to be no way to access these recordings, even just to listen.
I am a listener and like to promote what I think sounds interesting. I do not and will not sell these recordings but I have given them away to interested folks. I see this as sort of dissemination of what might not be heard at all.
I am aware that the nature of the music I tend to address in this blog appeals to a rather small audience. I once had the experience while driving and playing a favorite CD having a friend comment, “You know I think that if someone broke into your car they probably wouldn’t steal your CDs.” Some months later I did find my car stereo gone and, as predicted, the CDs were left on the seat untouched. My point is that promoting this music by making it available to interested listeners may help promote the music and is not likely to take money out of the artist’s pocket. Just my opinion of course.
Another current issue, that of the freely distributed YouTube short film series, ‘Adult Wednesday Addams’ may serve as a useful parable here. These 3-5 minute films by star Melissa Hunter and her crew were pulled from Melissa’s YouTube channel after an injunction was obtained by the estate of Charles Addams whose drawings served as the basis for The Addams Family television series and subsequent films.
However one can still easily find these episodes which appear, at least for a time, on others’ YouTube channels. No money was apparently made here and Hunter’s site appears to be respecting the terms of the injunction. The videos which are at once creative, entertaining, darkly funny and nostalgic certainly serve to illuminate the talents of Hunter and her associates and do not appear to present a credible threat to the Charles Addams Estate. And it appears now that they can’t really make this Lessigian Remix (apologies for the clunky neologism) go away, ever. So this raises the question of what such an injunction actually accomplishes.
Melissa Hunter in character as Adult Wednesday Addams
I am in the process of cataloging and digitizing my archives and look forward to both listening and sharing them with folks who actually might have considered stealing those quirky CDs from my car.