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.
William Susman (1960- ) may not be a household name but, since my first encounter (purely by chance) with this man’s work I have heard, enjoyed, and reviewed several fascinating CDs of chamber music and film music which demonstrate a significant musical voice with some mighty substantial compositions. I don’t know how Mr. Susman feels about being called a “minimalist” but that is the most useful way I can convey with words his musical style. That much used word is a sort of catch all for what is in fact a plethora of compositional styles based in some basic, though hardly rigid, set of practices like static harmonies and repetition.
There are, as of this writing, four books of Quiet Rhythms (2010, 2010, 2012, 2013), each book contains 22 pieces further divided into 11 “Prologues” followed by 11 “Actions”. While I have only the vaguest idea of what processes the composer uses in these works (Book I at least) sounds to these ears like music which should share company with the likes of Terry Riley’s “Two Keyboard Studies” (1965), William Duckworth’s “Time Curve Preludes” (1977-78), Jeroen van Veen’s “Minimal Preludes” (four books1999-2013), Philip Glass’ “Etudes” (two volumes1994-2012). Spiritually they share a kinship with antecedents such as Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos” (six volumes1926-1939), and, ultimately I suppose, Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” (1722-1742). Yes, these are a diverse set of works for comparison, but to my ears they seem to share attempts to codify and/or experiment with their respective materials. They are the composers’ working out of their ideas.
And, in a delightful coincidence the pianist chosen to interpret these works is none other than Nicolas Horvath, a name that has graced these pages numerous times since our first online meeting in about 2014. Horvath has become a sort of pied piper for minimalist composers. He has performed solo recitals lasting up to 35 hours including Philip Glass’ complete piano music, a solo rendition of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” (1893-94), whose 840 repetitions were first performed by a tag team of pianists helmed by John Cage (of course) in 1963. He has also recently recorded all the piano music of little known French minimalist composer Jean Catoire (1923-2005) and numerous other projects including his own original compositions and sound/art installations.
Horvath was born to play this music and Mr. Susman kindly informed me that he will indeed record the remaining three books. This musician’s curatorial radar is as unique as it is accurate. That is, he knows good music when he sees/hears it and he searches far and wide. He delivers loving and authoritative performances here. It is, after all, his métier.
Susman’s etudes are experimental only in the sense of a composer exploring his inspiration, transcribing the dictation of his muses. The title “Quiet Rhythms” is quite apt as these are really kind of soothing in their harmony and meandering developments. And, more importantly, they have the weight of substance.
Three of these have been recorded before and I’m pleased to say that the remaining 8 compositions are equal in quality to the ones I’d already heard. Each numbered piece is actually two pieces, a prologue of 90-120 seconds followed by a more complex sounding work using similar methods. At first I had wanted to write about each of the pieces but I found myself enraptured by the music and insufficiently skilled in musicology to do a respectable analysis of these works.
So I’ve chosen to simply say that these are fascinating and engaging pieces whose structure is very much secondary to the quality of the musical content. These are truly post minimal works with a much wider harmonic palette than its minimalist predecessors. The sound is quite rich and the pieces engage the listener transporting them to a powerful emotional experience. The music echoes Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley but they also are destined to share a place in the repertoire alongside similar works by William Duckworth, Jeroen van Veen, and Simeon ten Holt.
Horvath is truly in his element here and his performances are hypnotically engaging. I can’t imagine these works being done better but, that said, they are attractive concert pieces for adventuresome pianists to program. Above all these are listener friendly despite the feel that they are almost a sort of textbook or manifesto by the composer which describes in music his vision of minimalism/post-minimalism.
If you’re a fan of minimal/post-minimal music this is a must have. but beware and remember to budget for the forthcoming 3 discs. You will want them all.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
I feel as though this artist is a personal discovery for me. Whilst surfing You Tube I found a series of his videos which greatly appealed to me and I contacted him via email. I learned that he was about to release his debut as a solo artist. The logistics of sending CDs by mail “across the pond” as the saying goes are fraught with financial and logistical hurdles so I was glad to find that he was releasing via Bandcamp, a music vendor and streaming service whose business model appeals more to me every day. This album is also available on Amazon music and probably other streaming sites as well.
Let me first issue a disclaimer, to wit: that I am an unreformed and unashamed Glass groupie whose live performances with his ensemble will doubtless comfort me well into my waning years. Those memories echo in my head even now.
“Dennis Weijers is a Dutch musician and composer. He followed a traditional education at the conservatories of Rotterdam and Enschede, and got in touch with experimental electroacoustic music after moving to Berlin. Dennis started to merge his accordion with electronics. Dennis works with a variety of instruments and gear (from accordions and modular synths up to a 1948 wire recorder, tape machines and more curiosities). In 2018 he did a concert series in which he performed the complete version of Philip Glass’ Glassworks. In 2021, his debut album Accordion + Modular Synthesizer was released.”
The present disc is apparently one of those “crowd sourced” deals which allows public funding for a given project not easily funded otherwise. I missed this project but I will be on board for his next release. So I delved into his online presence and found a young highly skilled man whose primary instrument is the accordion and whose interests take his composing and transcribing skills into the electroacoustic and sound installation realms. His choice of accordion as primary instrument puts him in the company of other innovators such as Pauline Oliveros, Guy Klucevsek, William Schimmel, Miloš Katanić, and others to whom I apologize for not naming here. Do click on his You Tube link (provided above) to get an idea of his creative foci. They include a excerpts from a couple of sound installation works as well as a bit of Terry Riley’s “Rainbow in Curved Air”.
But let’s get to the album at hand. This recently release contains a complete performance of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” arranged for accordion and electronics. This could have been done purely as a recording but it seems clear that Weijers is enamored of live performance so these arrangements can be done live (which is apparently how he developed them).
The “Opening” begins with apparently with a brief section with (apparently to these ears) a lo fi/hi pass filter which sounds like a glitch and shortly morphs into a full spectrum sound for the rest of the performance. In fact compositional notions like glitch, sampling, looping, etc. appear strategically in other movements but I will leave that to the listener to discover. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a recomposition but rather a recasting in which the artist provides a context and uses a few effects judiciously providing a personal touch much as a painter signs a painting.
This faithful, loving rendition segues into the second movement, called “Floe”. For those who have heard Glass’ ensemble do this live (as I did in 1980) you will likely feel nostalgia. The experience is one of a good transcription of a familiar piece and the nostalgia likely comes from the life memories attached to that first hearing.
The third movement, “Islands” is a glorious minimalist slow movement which serves as much to relax the listener as it does to provide a significant contrast in anticipation of the next movement.
Movement 4, “Rubric” is a manic masterpiece which I recall playing so much that I wore out those grooves on my vinyl copy. Weijers really shows his interpretive musical chops here. He makes the piece rock and his rhythmic sensibility suggest a fondness and familiarity with jazz.
Movement 5, “Facades” is one of Glass’ early hits and, as I recall, was liked even by folks who didn’t like his other music. My recollection is that this piece had originally been written for the Godfrey Reggio film, “Koyaanisqatsi” but not used. Like any good composer does it was repurposed into the present multi-movement work. This movement triggers sadness with my nostalgia as I recall reveling in the beautiful playing of the now late Jon Gibson.
“Closing” is basically a reworking, an orchestration of the “Opening” section which kind of opens the door to inviting transcriptions. It is a full orchestration of what had been a solo piano piece at the beginning. Weijers seals the deal on nostalgia when he ends this movement by reintroducing that high pass filter and adding a little vinyl groove scratches at the fade out. That brought a bit of a tear to my eye.
I don’t know Weijers age but I doubt that he was even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes at the time I saw those performances but he has clearly absorbed this music this music completely and shows a deep love and affinity for it. It is a mark, perhaps of genius, that he frames his performance of the complete work with the lo fi/glitch at the opening and vinyl crackles at the end. It was a reminder to this age denying listener that this was indeed long ago. (Over 40 years).
The major work on this album is the following track. It is the performance (excerpted on You Tube) which first gave me that delightful twinge I feel when I believe I have discovered something new and meaningful. It was a performance of a too little known work by Steve Reich (Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards, 1979), another minimalist composer who was a frequent visitor to my turntable. The work, roughly contemporary with Glassworks, was only recorded once by the San Francisco Symphony under Edo De Waart, is an overlooked masterpiece.
It’s impossible to miss the Dutch connections with Glass (whose 1979 opera “Satyagraha” was commissioned by the city of Rotterdam) and the only recorded performance of Reich’s Variations performed by the prominent Dutch conductor Edo de Waart. Well now comes Mr. Weijers delivers a beautiful transcription and spectacular performance which very well might raise this work out of its languished state. At the very least this is a tribute to Reich.
It is wonderful to hear this Reich piece again. I have never heard it live and, as far as I know, Reich never attempted to recast it in a new orchestration (as he did with the “Octet” orchestrated and played more commonly now as “Eight Lines”). The point is that we have a younger generation encountering, appreciating, and celebrating what is now “old school” minimalism. Whether you are encountering these pieces for the first time or basking in the nostalgia of rediscovery through creative and dedicated new performances this is a truly auspicious debut of a musician who has given new life to music which clearly has endured and will likely continue to endure into further generations. Bravo, Mr. Weijers.
As if this weren’t enough the curious collector gets two extra bonus tracks if you download via Bandcamp. They are two brief pieces that provide a peek at Weijers’ other musical efforts. The first is a beautiful meditative tribute to minimalism, a gentle elegiac piece for accordion and electronics. The second, a collaboration with Koen Dijkman, a musician who appears on other releases along with Weijers. This piece has a more prog rock/improv feel.
If old school minimalism appeals to you or contemporary accordion, you will want to hear this album. But regardless I’m willing to bet that you will be hearing more from this wonderful artist. And I bristle with anticipation.
This is not a Philip Glass album. This is also not a tortured Magritte metaphor. It is a Maya Beiser album. Yes, she is playing her transcriptions of several of Philip Glass’ pieces: (Piano) Etude No. 5, Etude No. 2, Mad Rush, Music in Similar Motion, and four movements from Glass’ score to the third of Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaaqatsi, Naqoyqatsi): Naqoyqatsi, Massman, New World, and Old World.
It was after my second hearing of the disc that it occurred to me that Beiser’s transcriptions for cello with electronic looping and layering are in fact her own recompositions of these works in her own image, so to speak. Think Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky transcriptions in “The Fairy’s Kiss” or Henze’s reworking of Telemann in his Telemanniana (other examples abound). Of course Beiser is working on a smaller scale but she is recomposing these works from a very personal perspective much as those composers did. I had been expecting to not like this album but once heard…
Beiser, a founding and long time member of the Bang on a Can All Stars, cut an elegant figure even when she was at the back of that venerable performing ensemble (got to be good looking cuz she’s so hard to see?). She has always been a highly skilled and accomplished cellist and a thoughtful, intelligent musician. That is true of all the members of the All Stars who started as highly skilled musicians with an interest in new music. Beiser is certainly also a member of the “glam classical” musicians following in the traditions of performers like Nigel Kennedy, Yuja Wang and, well… back at least to Liberace and perhaps Chopin and Liszt. The appellation, “glam classical” is descriptive rather than pejorative in intent. The reality is that all the aforementioned artists remained fine musicians throughout their careers. An imposing physical presence, after all, does not necessarily detract from the music. Quite the opposite sometimes.
Amazon lists this release as Beiser’s 14th album and she comes out strong on all fronts. Her playing, her interpretive skills, and her arrangements make for a very strong, complex, but listenable album. The first two etudes will be familiar to most listeners and are perhaps the most methodical with clear structures though very different from the piano originals. “Mad Rush” (also originally a piano piece) and “Music in Similar Motion” (originally for the Philip Glass Ensemble) both come off as driving ritual symphonic pieces, thrilling new readings of the original compositions (Music in Similar Motion a personal favorite for this writer and this version really rocks). The last four excerpts from Naqoyqatsi are the most lyrical and easy listening works, but again Beiser creates the music in her own personal context, glamorous but authentic and with a warmth that lasts long after the last tones fade. Fabulous album!
This is the latest release by an ensemble whose debut CD was released some nine years ago. Most recently this ensemble released a fine recording featuring Simone Dinnerstein playing piano concertos by J. S. Bach and Philip Glass. This recording is focused on the virtuosity of this small string orchestra by focusing on some unusual but highly listenable pieces from the early twentieth century to the present.
The lovely cover art (by Bill Flynn) conjures images that evoke Picasso’s drawings of Igor Stravinsky conducting. The album evokes a feeling of an early twentieth century salon and makes the most of this rather small ensemble which counts 20 musicians on this release. The issue here seems to be quality musicianship exploring unusual but very listenable music.
The disc begins with the too little heard Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (1937) by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Bridge was one of Britten’s teachers and a fine composer as well. This is the piece that first brought Britten international recognition but it is not frequently played or recorded as one might expect. It is a very entertaining set of variations and one can only surmise that this ensemble will likely tackle some of Britten’s other early string orchestra pieces like the Simple Symphony (1934).
After that workout we are treated to another set of variations. This time by one Ethan Wood, a violinist with the ensemble. His contribution is a set of variations on the French song, “Ah vous dirais-je, Maman” (better known to some as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”). This little fantasy is billed as “a folk tale for 18 players based on characters created by W. A. Mozart”.
And, finally, we have a lively transcription of Sergei Prokofiev’s ” Vision Fugitives” Op. 22. Originally for piano, this string orchestra version is a unique but interesting idea. The ensemble handles this complex music well and this version provides a perspective on these little miniatures that will produce discussion among fanciers of the original piano versions.
All in all this is basically a pretty conservative program stylistically but the intelligent choices of repertoire and the wonderful execution make this a stand out release with incredible potential that will leave listeners waiting for their next release.
This book took me a while to absorb. It is the first book length treatment that this writer has seen on the subject of Philip Glass’ film music. Some have suggested that his film music may wind up constituting his most enduring legacy and one need only listen casually to any number of film scores to hear his influence.
This is basically an academic treatise which is what one can reasonably expect from the Routledge imprint. However the author seems to have taken care to transcend the adequate but sometimes dull prose which suffices for publication reasons but whose weight challenges the attention of all but the most stalwart of academic readers. This book is quite readable and deserves to be read.
Admittedly it is risky to tread on the “meaning” of music but Evans here makes a case that places him in the company of Leonard B. Meyer’s book, Emotion and Meaning in Music. Though it is clearly not an attempt to extend Meyer’s work, Evans is in good company as he seeks to examine the emotional content of Glass’ work that underlies his success as a film composer. Film music, after all, tends to underscore the emotional content of cinematic images to some degree and those mechanisms can and should be examined. The alternative would be to simply dismiss it as “magic” I suppose.
The cover which depicts one of those wonderful live performances of Koyaanisqatsi triggers memories of this writer’s first viewing of this intimate and effective scoring of Godfrey Reggio’s non-narrative, no dialogue sequence of images. Never had I seen/heard a more mesmerizing collaboration since the (stylistically very different) Carl Stallings cartoon scores which exist forever in the near subconscious recall of anyone who was exposed to his work in their childhood.
For many film music means the classic Erich Korngold, Alex North, Alfred Newman, etc. and their more recent successors like Elmer Bernstein, John Williams, etc. But film music continues to evolve and, though this evolution will not likely supplant these classic styles, there is room for innovation and change.
Glass’ work in Koyaanisqatsi relied on the hypnotic minimalist patterns which amplified the character of the images. Who knew then that his style could translate to more mainstream films? But that is exactly what he has done and it is exactly why such a book needed to be written and Evans has accomplished a great deal here.
This is an intriguing and insightful book which opens potential for research in Glass’ music as well as film music in general. While not the easiest of reads this book covers a lot of territory and is generously referenced. Clearly there is much work to be done here and Evans has given a wonderful and pretty comprehensive start. Highly recommended.
I first heard of this young Monacan pianist and composer when a composer friend, David Toub, told me that he was going to program one of this piano pieces. That piece along with quite a few other performances are available on Nicolas Horvath’s You Tube video channel here.
Horvath developed a strong interest in contemporary music from Gerard Frémy among others and has been programming a great deal of new music ranging from the more familiar such as Philip Glass to a host of others including quite a few pieces written for or premiered by him as well as his own transcriptions and reconstructions. He is known for his concerts in non-traditional venues with very non-traditional lengths of performance as well as traditional concerts.
His current projects include Night of Minimalism in which he performs continuously for 10-15 hours with a wide variety of minimalist and post-minimalist pieces and Glass Worlds in which he performs the complete solo piano works of Philip Glass (approximately 15 hours) along with pieces by an international list of composers written in tribute to Glass. He is also an electroacoustic composer (he counts Francois Bayle among his teachers) and a visual artist all with a passion for contemporary works.
The artist standing in one of his installations.
We had corresponded via e-mail over the last year or so and when I suggested the idea of interviewing him he responded by arranging time after a (traditional length) concert he gave in Minsk, Belarus on December 1, 2014. I prepared for what I anticipated would be a one hour interview after which I imagined he would probably need to get to sleep. But when I attempted to wrap up our conversation (at a couple of points) he immediately asked, “Don’t you have any more questions?”. What followed resulted in approximately three and an half hours of delightful and wide-ranging conversation about this man and his art which he ended with the comment, “I must go, the piano is calling me.” It appears that his seemingly boundless energy extends well beyond the stage. The following January (2015) he gave the world premiere performance of all of Philip Glass’ 20 Etudes in none other than Carnegie Hall.
Horvath with spent score pages as he traverses one of his extended performance ventures. (copyright Jean Therry Boisseau)
Since that time we have continued our correspondence and this affable, patient young artist continues on various projects and no sign of his interest or energy waning. He recently sent me various photos of him in various settings pursuing his varied artistic interests for this article.
Composer as well as performer in an electroacoustic performance without piano.
Horvath was born in Monaco in 1977. He studied piano at the Académie de Musique Rainier III de Monaco and the École Normale de Musique de Paris. At 16, Lawrence Foster took notice of him in a concert and, securing a three year scholarship for him from the Princess Grace Foundation, was able to invite him to the Aspen Music Festival. After his studies in the École Normale de Musique in Paris, he worked for three years with
Bruno-Léonardo Gelber, Gérard Frémy who instilled in him a sensitivity to music of our time as well as Eric Heidsieck, Gabriel Tacchino, Nelson Delle-Vigne, Philippe Entremont and Oxana Yablonskaya. Leslie Howard got to know him and invited him to perform before the Liszt Society in the United Kingdom. He has been playing professionally for 7 years and puts his own characteristic style into his productions and performances.
In a move reminiscent of Terry Riley’s all night solo improv fests Horvath has performed several lengthy programs. He has performed Erik Satie’s proto-minimalist Vexations (1893) in performances that ranged widely in length. One notable performance at the Palais de Tokyo lasted 35 hours, the longest solo piano performance on record as far as I can determine. Previously this piece has been performed by tag teams of pianists (the first in 1967 in New York was curated by John Cage) to perform the 840 repetitions of the piece whose tempo or recommended duration is not specified. Horvath, taking on a musicological mantle is preparing his own edition of this unique work. He has published an 24 hour version on his You Tube channel here.
Given his intense schedule and vast repertoire he has been remarkably responsive and has an irrepressibly strong appetite for new music. He tells me that he had worked on a project in which he planned to play all the piano music of the French composer Jean Catoire (1923-2005), some 35 hours of material (in a single program, of course). Unfortunately that composer’s relative obscurity seems to have resulted in insufficient support for the project which is, for now, on hold. Here’s hoping that this can be realized sometime soon.
Horvath’s fascination with authenticity, completeness and performances of unconventional lengths uninterrupted by applause where audiences are invited to lay on the floor with blankets and sleeping bags and approach the piano seems unusual but he has been getting enthusiastic audiences and has enjoyed overflow crowds. Like Terry Riley and perhaps even some of Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts there is a ritual feel to these marathon performances. Regrettably I have not yet been able to attend one but I would love to partake in what must be a powerful shared experience. He invites people to come to the piano and to watch, look at the score. It is unlike the conventional recital and therein lies some of its charm. At least one of his videos features a small sign which reads, “Don’t feed the pianist” and attests to his warmth and wonderful sense of humor.
His passion has parallels in his spirituality and he has pursued sacred pilgrimages which require a great deal of time and energy but without doubt fill a very deep and sincere need. More details and photos are available on his blog. And, as with music, he is very open to discussing this very personal aspect of his life.
The artist braving the elements on one of his pilgrimages.
There are conventional two hour with intermission style recitals in more conventional concert venues that he has played and Horvath also enjoys playing with an orchestra. His performances of both of Philip Glass’ piano concertos can be viewed on You Tube and you can see the intensity of his execution. This came through in the course of our interview as well when Mr. Horvath would speak of the music and then verbally imitate the rhythms (no doubt endlessly practiced) which drive his enthusiasm. The music seems to be deeply integrated into his very being.
His first solo commercial recording was released in 2012. It consists of Franz Liszt’s ‘Christus’, an oratorio composed in 1862-66 for narrator, soloists, chorus and orchestra. Horvath plays a piano reduction done by the composer. This is the first known recording of this unique and virtuosic set of piano works. It is certainly an unusual choice for a debut recording but it is consistent with his very personal tastes. (He lists Scriabin and Chopin as among his favorite composers.). He is in the process of recording all of Philip Glass’ piano music for Grand Piano records distributed by Naxos. At the time of this writing four well-received volumes have been released. He is also planning to record all of Satie’s piano music and he has just recently released his rendition of Cornelius Cardew’s indeterminate masterpiece, Treatise.
I have seldom encountered a musician with such intensity and drive. He is also one of the most skilled in using the internet to promote himself and his projects. And though this is no doubt a man with a considerable ego he is in fact very unpretentious and very genuinely turned on, driven by the music itself. Don’t get me wrong, he is concerned with developing his image and career but he seems happy to be doing the work he has been doing and he is, like any really good musician, self-critical and a perfectionist.
A quick look at his YouTube channel here reveals some of the range of his interests which include the standard repertoire along with interest in contemporary works. Just released is a creative video with Horvath playing Glass’ Morning Passages while he apparently experiences a reverie involving a beautiful woman which could have been on MTV at its height. Perhaps he is even channeling Oscar Levant who embraced roles in films along with his pianistic talents. His website is a good resource for updates on his various projects and performances.
Focused concentration at the keyboard.
As of the time of this writing his discography includes:
Hortus Records 100 (2012)
A very unusual choice for a debut recording. Nonetheless this is a distinctive recording which reflects the virtuosity as well as the careful scholarship which continues to characterize his work. He managed to locate a couple of previously lost pieces in this set of composer transcriptions. One also can’t miss the spiritual dimension here, as close to his heart as music and an equally important aspect of his personality.
Grand Piano GP 677 (2015)
This first disc in the series manages to provide the listener with truly inspired interpretations of Glass’ keyboard oeuvre and gives us a world premiere recording of How Now as well.
Grand Piano GP 690 (2015)
The complete Piano Etudes by the man who premiered the set at Carnegie Hall. These etudes were also recorded by the wonderful Maki Namekawa and the opportunity to hear these really different takes is positively revelatory.
Grand Piano GP 691 (2016)
The third disc in the traversal of Glass’ piano music (original and transcribed) also offers world premieres. Horvath’s inclusion of Glass’ early Sonatina No. 2 reflects his work under the tutelage of Darius Milhaud and provides insight into the composer’s early development before he developed his more familiar mature style.
Grand Piano GP 692 (2016)
Haven’t yet heard this disc but I have in queued for ordering in the next few weeks.
Demerara Records (2016)
Haven’t heard this one yet either but, again, it’s in my Amazon shopping cart.
Horvath’s interpretation of this important work by Cornelius Cardew
Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was sort of England’s John Cage, a major voice in 20th Century experimental music. Scholarship has yet to do justice to the late composer’s work but this disc is an important contribution toward that end..
Horvath’s career is characterized by innovation and passion combined with astute scholarship and a keen sense of what is new and interesting in music while clearly being schooled in the classic repertoire. The piano calls him as do his other passions and I highly recommend paying attention as he answers those calls. He is truly an artist to watch.
N.B. Mr. Horvath generously read and approved an advance draft of this article shortly after arriving in the United States for concerts at Steinway Hall in Rockville with a Chopin program and a recital at The Spectrum in New York City which will include two pieces written for him by Michael Vincent Waller along with some Chopin pieces.
The efforts to establish a new and functional role for opera in the late twentieth and early twenty first century have produced a wide variety of styles. One can certainly see the 1976 Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach as a landmark in these efforts in the conventional opera house but the development of chamber opera pioneered composers like recent National Medal of Arts winner Meredith Monk and Eric Salzman (both of whom created innovative works in this genre before Einstein) deserve attention as well.
This recording appears to fit into that tradition of chamber opera. Manhattan in Charcoal (2014) by Gene Pritsker with libretto by poet Jacob Miller requires six singers and a narrator along with a chamber ensemble of about a dozen musicians. I don’t know much about how this piece has been staged but it works well as theater for the ears.
I knew little of Pritsker’s work prior to receiving this disc for review and I read that his repertoire of techniques range rather widely from classical, to jazz, rock and rap influences. So I embarked on a bit of a learning mission. Fortunately I found his You Tube channel here. I found his web site a bit too busy and distracting even if it does seem quite comprehensive. (I dare you to try to sleep after confronting his oeuvre.)
Here is a man born in Russia, moved to Brooklyn at age 8 and attended the Manhattan School of Music graduating in 1994. While there he teamed up with conductor Kristjan Järvi to create the Absolute Ensemble. He counts approximately 500 compositions ranging from solo pieces to orchestral and vocal works. My journey of learning left my head spinning but it was not an unpleasant spin. Pritsker’s work incorporates jazz, rap, beat boxing and eclectic instrumentation as well. He has been active in the Manhattan downtown scene and may very well be the next generation of musical magicians to successfully grace that hotbed of musical eclecticism.
His style is mostly tonal and any experiments appear to have been done prior to the composition of the present work. I must say that his eclecticism and embrace of a wide variety of musical devices puts me in the mind of some of Stravinsky’s work at times. But Pritsker is not derivative, rather he wields a large pallete.
What we have here is a form of cabaret, well suited to small venues and friendly to audiences. It is well within the style and practice of such music and this piece is a good example of the updating of those traditions with contemporary instruments, music and modern performance practice.
The story is not unlike that of La Bohéme and, though hardly Puccini from a musical perspective, is as much a reworking of that old gem as West Side Story was a reworking of Romeo and Juliet. Here, however, we don’t see the romantic guise of Puccini but rather the unnecessary tragedy of a Romeo and Juliet beset not by family rivalries but by economic and social realities and perhaps by the inability to see them for what they really are.
This is apparently the first opera (of six) by Pritsker for which he did not write the libretto. I’m not sure what impact that has had on his overall effort but his ability to set the English language to music is admirable. All in all a thoroughly satisfying little drama which leaves the audience questioning these issues much as the protagonist has done.
Despite the title, this is neither a Stephen King adaptation or that of a given miniseries. This is an actual medieval mystery play which was performed to disseminate religious ideas during that period. The medieval passion plays are better known but eclectic composer Robert Moran managed to find an actual drama and added to it his unique blend of experimentalism, minimalism, jazz and lyrical melodies to create this visually and musically striking (there is a Video here) setting of this forgotten little play.
Moran (1937- ) studied in Vienna with Hans Erich Apostel, a student of both Berg and Schoenberg. He earned a master’s degree from Mills College having studied with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio. He has produced everything from electronic music, to happenings involving whole cities and has written in musical styles derived from chance operations to minimalism and is not afraid to write beautiful melodies. His collaboration with Philip Glass in The Juniper Tree (1985) is a fine example of his facility with vocal writing and music drama.
This drama is performed in a cathedral space and Moran takes advantage of the resonant space by the inclusion of Alphorns, harp and organ whose tones are transformed in part by that space. Musical styles vary suited to the unfolding drama and work well with the staging of the piece.
Moran, who professes a love of opera since about the age of 9 or 10 has a great sense of the dramatic and for beautiful vocal writing. He says he listens to operas all the time. His 2011 Trinity Requiem was written for similar forces and performed in a similarly resonant space also to great effect. And his sense of eclecticism allows him to select from a wide variety of musical styles and effects.
The end result is, for this reviewer, a very successful integration of the composer’s various skills and influences. It would be hard to imagine a better setting of this piece. He starts with an anonymous text from Quirinus Monastery Cloister Tegernsee in Bavaria ca. 1150 and, with Alexander Hermann, creates a realization for performance. The piece is scored for children’s chorus, vocal ensemble, soprano, mezzo-soprano, counter-tenor, oboe, english horn, Alp horn, Bar piano and organ. In addition there are two other defined ensembles consisting of harp (representing the Heathen and his Babylonian followers), guitar, recorders and synthesizer (representing the Synagogue and Jerusalem), trumpets, horn, trombone, bass trombone, tuba and percussion (representing the Church and its Devotees).
There are roles for dancers and, in the performance depicted on the CD cover, choreography by Jarkko Lehmus and Bettina Hermann design by George Veit and menacing puppets created by Fabian Vogel. Unfortunately there are no current plans to release a DVD of this work but settling for the music alone is hardly a terrible sacrifice. Moran brings his eclectic musical range, knowledge of opera and music theater combined with careful selection of dramatic text to create a piece that can work as aural theater as well.
The disc concludes with another piece, Within a Day (2014), of aural theater which, in this case, has no specified stage actions. It is a collaboration with the Thingamajigs Performance Group, Edward Shocker’s improvisational ensemble. It is an example of Moran’s ability to write less determined music as well as his ability to collaborate with other creative artists. The piece premiered at San Francisco’s Center for New Music in January, 2014 and subsequently recorded in Lisser Hall at Mills College in May, 2014. It is a collective improvisation based on what appears to be an indeterminate score by the composer.
This is a clearly different music with more abstract aims and it contrasts strangely with the music drama but this is a good example of Moran’s facility with the art of composition as well as collaboration (Can you get more collaborative as a composer than an indeterminate score?). This more ambient sort of music is a little sonic theater for the mind based loosely on Moran’s interest in Tibetan texts invoking the gods and goddesses through their chants.
This disc made one of my best of 2014 and I highly recommend it for listeners interested in music drama and sound theater.
Let me first acknowledge that I am running behind on my reviews but one of the reasons I have been slow about this one is that I have had great difficulty trying to characterize this music in a meaningful way for readers of this blog. And by that I don’t mean to imply that this music makes for a difficult listening experience, it doesn’t.
Passing Frames (2014)
Passing Frames is the second CD by composer/pianist Joel Helander whose previous release, Flood (2012) is a solo piano effort. These two CDs published on Bandcamp earned Mr. Helander mention in Forbes magazine in an article about the self-marketing that is available to musicians who are trying to establish themselves in the music business.
Helander is a student in theory and composition at Clark University where this very project is featured on their website. I conducted a sort of interview with Mr. Helander via e-mail exchanges and learned that he has been playing piano for about 10 years including classical training and a more recent interest in jazz performance. He said that this project began as a sort of follow-up or perhaps a natural progression to his previous release. His earlier album has much in common with this one in terms of atmosphere. Passing Frames is a set of ensemble pieces with the assistance of friends and classmates all drawn from the Worcester area.
His brother Karl Helander, a singer and song writer in his own right, who studied studio drumming at the University of Miami plays drums and percussion. String and wind players were enlisted from the Worcester Chamber Music Society, fellow Clark students and other friends. He cites Mike Tierney (guitar, engineer, co-producer) as being essential to the creation of the overall sound of the album as well as being an effective instrumentalist in selected tracks. All in all it sounds like this was a very close creative collaboration which was rewarding for all involved.
When I first received the CD in the mail I was immediately struck by the lovely cover art and overall design which led me to comment to Mr. Helander of the nostalgia for the larger cover art one used to get with vinyl LPs. He commented that he had looked into this possibility but found it economically prohibitive. The photo and overall design was by the same artist, Paul Puiia, who had designed his previous release. There are 11 tracks on this CD all with poetic titles that tell you little about the music itself but no doubt have some meaning for the composer and perhaps his collaborators. That is not intended as a criticism, rather it is a reflection of music that is less concerned with form than expression. Not program music but little poetic statements. And given that Mr. Helander aspires to writing film music this sort of focus seems quite appropriate.
On my first few listens to this disc I was reminded in ways of Ludovico Einaudi, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra and perhaps some of the chamber music of Peter Schickele. Mr. Helander said he was comfortable with those comparisons. I did ask him to list some of the music he listens to and he provided me with a pretty eclectic list including:
This is an interesting and varied list. I didn’t include this list to give prospective listeners and idea of what the music sounds like but I think it does reveal something about the aspirations and inspirations of the composer’s intent.
I had given some thought to trying to describe each of the tracks on the disc and give my analysis and impressions but finally decided to leave my readers with more general impressions. Each of the tracks is a self-contained musical statement though three of the tracks are identified as being parts of a suite. As I said, the poetic titles may have meaning for the composer and may invoke ideas in the listener as well but in the end I perceived the entire disc as a sort of unified whole in that the disc appears to be a musical statement which stands as a reflection of the composer’s ideas at the time of this release much as his first disc does.
Further listenings suggested a sort of sophisticated melancholy lounge music born both of the composer’s aesthetic and those of his collaborators (the production and recording certainly add to this effect). There appears to be more of a classical influence with a jazz ambiance added. This is an interesting disc which manages to be both gently experimental as well as eminently listenable. It is a snapshot of this young man’s best efforts at composition and each can be listened to as a potential sound track to a yet to be made film sequence or simply as a pleasant musical statement on it’s own.
With the perspective of the first disc in mind one can see a progression and integration of nascent ideas evolving as the composer works to develop a more integrated and clear statement of his ideas. He achieves exactly what he intended I think. That being said I will be interested to see what he does next as I enjoy the work he has done so far. If you are interested in new music this disc is worth a listen. If you are just looking for something different to add to your listening selections you would not be disappointed either.
Philip Glass portrait (Photo credit: DailyM = Differentieel + JeeeM)
I have been a fan of so-called minimalist or pattern music for quite a number of years. Since my first encounter with this type of music in the late 1970s I have listened with interest and been fascinated to hear how each composer expressed their own voice within that general rubric. Though many have eschewed the label ‘minimal’ and argued over the alternate label ‘pattern music’ there are recognizable characteristics which continue to bind, however loosely, Perhaps that is just another way of saying that I “know it when I hear it” but I think readers tend to get the general idea and I am open to discussion on what music I should include or exclude from these categories.
Kyle Gann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Anyway the point of this rambling little post is to introduce a recurring series of posts about my personal discoveries in said genre. You can be assured that I have scoured high and low but lay no claim to being either definitive or comprehensive. What will follow will be an ongoing series of posts identifying the music of one composer or group whose music sounds minimalist or pattern based at least to my ears and which I find pleasing and/or significant in some way. I will head each post with the identifying acronym NAM (Not Another Minimalist!).
Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The most useful books for me on this subject for me are those by Kyle Gann, Tom Johnson, Michael Nyman, Wim Mertens and Robert Fink. I am listing these as my primary influences and do not mean to discount important works by other writers on the subject. Gann’s ‘American Music in the Twentieth Century'(1997) and the collection of articles, ‘Music Downtown'(2006) remain among the most lucid descriptions and analyses of minimalist music. He also maintains a blog with pretty regular posts at (http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/). Gann’s work might not have been possible without the work of fellow composer and journalist Tom Johnson whose collection of reviews, ‘The Voice of New Music’ (1991) is one of the most important collections of reviews of the burgeoning ‘downtown music’ scene in New York in the 70s and 80s where purveyors of this genre first displayed their wares . Both ‘Music Downtown’ and ‘The Voice of New Music’ are collections of reviews of concerts and events written for the Village Voice.
UCLA professor and music critic Robert Fink on the “Different Strokes” panel at the 2009 Pop Conference, Experience Music Project, Seattle, Washington. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Michael Nyman’s book, ‘Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond'(1974) is among the earliest to describe this music and its context. Wim Merten’s ‘American Minimal Music'(1988) is a great analysis of the essential canon. Unfortunately these have been difficult to find lately and hopefully some reissues including digital formats may be forthcoming.
Robert Fink is a musicologist at UCLA. His book, ‘Repeating Ourselves’ provides one of the most wide-ranging and comprehensive analyses of the concept of minimalism and pattern music. He works across all music genres and cultural practices to identify a sort of minimalist ethic and has done much to shape my thinking in this area.
There are certainly many other fine books on the subject and that itself may need to be the subject of a future post.
I don’t like all music in this category (or any category for that matter) but it is the one which feels kind of like a personal discovery to me and a genre that continues to interest me. And I can report that there is a good deal of music outside the classic canon of minimalism that is definitely worth the effort to find. And there are pieces of music written before the 1960s which appear in hindsight to have been sorts of precursors to this style.
This will be an occasional series of posts and I have decided to gather them under the somewhat facetious acronym of NAM (Not Another Minimalist) for the sake of easy reference should any reader actually find these posts useful. My intent is both to share my discoveries and to generate debate and comment about this type of music. I want to explore and share artistically interesting developments that lie outside the Reich/Glass/Riley/Young canon of minimalism. As always I welcome discussion and feedback.
The implicitly condescending appellation “Guitar God” has been perhaps somewhat jealously applied to virtuosic guitarists in various popular rock bands. Whether your taste runs to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen you cannot discount the technical skill of these and so many other rock/pop guitar players.
Rock and pop artists have distanced themselves from the classical music circles who initially disdained and even condemned their work. But that did not and does not mean that they eschew classical music. Many were initially schooled in classical performance technique and/or were provided a favorable view of some classical masterpieces.
Ian Anderson’s group ‘Jethro Tull’ utilized a movement from a Bach Lute Suite (taking a few rhythmic liberties) in their piece, ‘Bouree’. Roger McGuinn of ‘The Byrds’ acknowledged channeling Bach when he created the now instantly recognizable intro to their version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man‘. Rick Wakeman, keyboardist of the band ‘Yes’ as well as a solo artist peppers his work with snippets of classical melodies no doubt learned in his piano lessons that served him so well. Keith Emerson of ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer‘ went as far as to write a piano concerto.
From the classical side of the aisle there have been composers who wanted to utilize some of the techniques and ideas of rock and pop within the context of their classical training. Stanley Silverman wrote an opera titled, ‘Elephant Steps’ which was championed by the ever eclectic Michael Tilson Thomas. (This piece deserves at least a second hearing and I hope that Columbia will some day release it as a CD.)
Leonard Bernstein, no stranger to popular musical theater, embraced rock and blues including such ensembles alongside the orchestra in major works such as his ‘Mass’. Similar, though less successful collaborations occurred when symphony orchestras were added to the production of albums by the likes of ‘Deep Purple and, more notably, ‘The Moody Blues’.
Many such collaborations have been and occasionally continue to be attempted but the end result most often appears to keep the division between classical and ‘pop’ rather separate. That is not necessarily a bad thing either. Philip Glass‘ work appears to have been pretty heavily informed by rock music. He played piano in a couple of tracks on one of the New York punk rock band, ‘Polyrock’. The driving rhythms of rock are endemic to much of Glass’ music. Steve Reich’s work as a jazz drummer seems to be evidenced in his intricate use of rhythm patterns in his music.
So while ‘pop’ musicians incorporated some of their classical training and influences and ‘classical’ musicians acknowledged and collaborated with their pop counterparts the classical aspects remained for better or worse more decorative than organic. Jazz became an organic part of many classical works starting in the 1920s. And, as mentioned before, rock influences have certainly found an organic role in the music of Philip Glass and, more recently in the music of Michael Daugherty.
Along came Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Jeffery Lohn and their various collaborators. These musicians with strong roots in rock music began to explore what has become, in this writer’s opinion, the epitome of the organic implementation of classical music into the ‘pop’ medium. Using primarily guitars (in ever-increasing numbers) as well as drum kits and the usual accoutrements of rock bands these musicians began writing music that is definitely not pop or rock (neither does it actually resemble classical at times).
English: A self-portrait photograph by and of Rhys Chatham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Branca who had worked with Jeffrey Lohn began writing his Symphonies in the 1970s. They now number 12 or 13. Working with multiples of guitars, modified keyboard instruments, alternate tunings and basking in the glory of loud he has created an arguably classical set of works grown out of clearly rock/pop beginnings.
Rhys Chatham, a trumpet player initially, worked with Branca and Lohn for a while and began to develop his own classical path within the rock ethic. Beginning with Guitar Trio (1977). And continuing into increasingly massive multiple guitar works he has created another distinct set of works that are clearly not rock or pop. He does not use the classical form titles like ‘symphony’ favored by Branca but these pieces like, ‘An Angel Moves Too Fast to See’ and ‘Crimson Grail‘ feature large numbers of guitarists which by necessity must be locally sourced. Even without classical form or titles these are clearly not pop or rock pieces. And perhaps they can’t be called classical either but they are certainly of symphonic proportion.
Both Branca’s and Chatham’s works have been recorded and I highly recommend the recordings. But these musics cannot be fully captured by current recording technology. The acoustics of the space in which they’re performed and the volume levels which elicit their own effects are best experienced live because of the volume levels and also because of the overtones which are elicited by the instruments in the performing space and more audible because of the overall volume and the characteristics of the listening space.
Such a rare opportunity awaits Bay Area audiences this November when Rhys Chatham comes to town under auspices of ‘Other Minds’ and the delightfully insightful and eclectic producer Charles Amirkhanian. They have engaged the architecturally and sonically fascinating space of the Crane Pavilion in Richmond (a few miles north of Berkeley and Oakland) with sweeping views if San Francisco Bay and enlisted many locally sourced musicians to produce the west coast premiere of Chatham’s “A Secret Rose” (2011) for 100 guitarists.
Official Other Minds logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Tickets can be purchased through the Other Minds website (www.otherminds.org).
This is a rare opportunity to hear a uniquely different music in a visually stunning and acoustically interesting space. Hope to see you there.
I had the pleasure of seeing the recent production of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson “opera” ‘Einstein on the Beach’ in Berkeley on October 28th. I had seen the production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music 20 years ago and have loved the music since I first bought the recording issued on the short-lived Tomato record label (this is the performance now available on Sony). It is clearly a work which compels me and has insinuated itself into my world view.
The production was beautiful. The musicians as always played well under the precise and confident direction of Michael Riesman who has apparently conducted every performance of the opera (that alone is an astonishing feat). The dancers were spectacular in their execution of Lucinda Childs’ unusual choreography. And the solo violin played in this production by violinist Jennifer Koh breathed a new virtuosic life into the familiar solo part.
Dance with spaceship
The set design and lighting were about as good as it gets and the performers appeared to be well rehearsed and operated as well oiled parts of the unified whole of the machine that is Einstein on the Beach. It was a production that was loving and well received by the audience (a genuinely appreciative standing ovation followed the performance) in this, the west coast premiere of this landmark piece from 1976. It is certainly worth noting that it took 36 years for this to be produced in even this most liberal of musical places.
I have hesitated to write about this performance partly because I didn’t want to simply report my attendance and geeky satisfaction. I wondered if everything has already been said ad nauseam about this piece and adding yet another adoring review would be pointless and dull. But the performance (all 4.5 hours of it) left me with a renewed appreciation for the music and the visuals. It reinforced my belief that this is a truly significant work of art and that it will continue to be revived. However it is likely that this is the last revival we will see which has been supervised by the original creators. Philip Glass is 75 and Robert Wilson is 71. Lucinda Childs is 72. And there is at the time of this writing no heir apparent for the Philip Glass Ensemble.
The vaguely apocalyptic themes provide a sort of commentary for our times. Like any great work of art it continues to take on meaning for subsequent generations. It is both a response to the milieu in which it was created and a mirror in which is reflected the present time of its performance. Don’t get me wrong. This avant-garde masterpiece is hardly easy listening or easy viewing. In addition to its length it is non-linear, devoid of plot and devoid of most of the conventions by which we normally judge and appreciate both theater and music.
But it has been embraced by many. Mark Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2012 Fashion Show featured models walking up and down the runway to the sound of the opening “1, 2, 3, 4…” of the solo chorus which opens the work. A Pepsi commercial from 2008 titled ‘Einstein’s Choice’ also featured that same chorus. And the incidental music to any number of nature programs are frequently infused with the now familiar arpeggios endemic to Philip Glass’ compositional style.
Combine these things with the fact that revivals of this opera play to nearly or completely sold out houses in New York, France, Berkeley, Mexico City, Amsterdam and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Granted the revivals are infrequent, the last being 20 years ago, but the draw of this work apparently remains strong suggesting that it is now and will likely remain in the repertoire.
I came away from this production with a sense of exhilaration that I feel when I encounter a great performance of a masterpiece by Mozart, Beethoven or John Coltrane, a sense of connection to a greater meaning such as one finds in all great works of art be they music, theater, painting, literature, film, etc. And I don’t think I am alone in having felt that.
When I first began listening to this piece in the aforementioned Tomato recording I was both fascinated and perplexed. I felt compelled to listen again and again and was perplexed at what I was hearing. But history tells us that few seem to fully appreciate great art at the time of its emergence, that such appreciation takes time. With time and repeated listenings I began to find the work grow on me, become familiar.
Seeing the 1992 revival in Brooklyn only further reinforced my sense that this is a very significant work and it remains one of my favorite pieces of music. It is one of the pieces of music that feels to me like a personal discovery, one which I seem to have appreciated to some degree from my first encounter with it. And my understanding as well as my affection for this work has only increased with time.
What remains to be seen is whether this work can continue to be successful in subsequent productions done by people whose connection to the work is less direct and whether it can continue to speak to subsequent generations. The majority of the crowd at Zellerbach hall for this performance appeared to be in the 40 to 50+ category which may be in part due to the cost of a ticket. I hope that it is not lack of interest.
For years, until the new recording was released on Nonesuch Records in 1993, I listened to the 1979 release which, due to the length of the music, abbreviated some of the repetitions to allow the recording to fit on 4 vinyl discs. It is this recording which I know best and is most deeply imprinted on my memory.
Of course the experience is quite different with the accompanying visuals. I had learned to appreciate the music alone with just of few still photos to kindle my imagination as to how the full production would appear. And, not surprisingly, my first encounter with the full production in 1992 exceeded my expectations and provided a new and richer perspective on the meaning of this opera.
When I say “meaning” I am referring only to the meaning which I experience. I don’t lay any claim to any special knowledge here. And I think that this and all great works of art sustain their worth through their ability to mean and be associated with a variety of things. Einstein has different meanings and associations for each individual and perhaps no ultimate “meaning”.
Even the texts associated with the piece are intentionally non-linear, make few concrete references to culture as a whole. There is no story here, there are only visual images, sonic images and a variety of spoken words which, while in English, have mostly vague meanings. The issue here is the emotional impact.
Epilogue (Knee Play 5)
‘Einstein’ has clearly affected me emotionally and I am witness to the its effect on the audiences of which I was a part. When I tell people anything about the meaning of the work I invariably refer to it as “post-apocalyptic” metaphor which ends quite simply with a poignant little love story, if you will, a bedtime story for our times. After some 4 hours of having presented it’s audience with a plethora of images the opera ends with two lovers on a park bench who sit silently while the bus driver, his vehicle moving slowly from stage right to stage center, narrates the scene. The lovers sit quietly until, we are told, one speaks up and asks, “Do you love me, John?” This other’s answer speaks from the throes of youthful optimism and love at first affirming his love and then, when asked, “How much do you love me?”, he answers, “Count the stars in the sky. Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon. Number the grains of sand on the seashore.”
This epilogue seems to suggest that, in the end, all that matters is how we experience each other, how well we succeed in communicating on a one to one level. And perhaps that is also a metaphor for the work’s ability to communicate with subsequent generations. While we try to communicate we succeed only sometimes. Great art succeeds only sometimes. The salient issue is having tried. Despite the difficulties in communication, in love, in life, we try. The opera ends in that 1979 recording with the chorus, two speaking voices, violin and organ all ending softly and definitively at the same time as the narration, “Impossible, you say?”