Charles Amirkhanian, Catalyst of New Music Turns 75


Charles Amirkhanian interviewed by Kyle Gann at Berkeley’s David Brower Center (Photo by Allan Cronin, Creative Commons license)

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.   

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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.

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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.  

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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).  

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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..

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Carol Law

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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, No! Not Another Minimalist! John McGuire


When I posted my introductory article to the “Not Another Minimalist!” series I got the suggestion on Facebook from composer/writer Walter Zimmerman that I do a piece on John McGuire.  Many will remember Zimmerman for his important book of interviews called Desert Plants (1976) in which he interviewed a series of 23 American composers in the early to mid-1970s.  His choices virtually defined an era much like Robert Ashley’s Music with Roots in the Ether would later do.  He is also a fine composer in his own right and will be featured in a future essay on this blog.  I am honored to receive a challenge from him and I also thought it was a fine selection of a minimalist-type composer whose work deserves wider dissemination so I am using McGuire as my first article in the series.

Unfortunately there is precious little to be found on this American composer.  In Zimmerman’s book he gets only one page so I am essentially updating his earlier efforts.  However, even 38 years later, McGuire does not appear to have a web page and I have been able to find reference to only a few recordings of his music.

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Cover image from one of McGuire’s recordings.

John McGuire (1942- ) studied with Robert Gross at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he earned his BA in 1964, with Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and with Seymour Shifrin at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his MA in 1970. He also studied composition privately with Karl Kohn, composition and orchestration with Krzysztof Penderecki at the Folkwang Universität der Künste in Essen from 1966–68 and composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt in 1967–68. He then studied computer composition with Gottfried Michael Koenig at the Instituut voor Sonologie of the Universiteit Utrecht in 1970–71 and electronic music with Hans Ulrich Humpert at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz in Cologne from 1975–77.

I came to know the work of John McGuire when I found a remaindered copy of a Largo CD containing his 48 variations for two pianos in the great though now sadly gone Rose Records  store in Chicago in the 1980s.  It was a gamble as I had never even heard of this composer but the album somehow spoke to me from the CD bin.

Variations for 2 pianos CD

Variations for 2 pianos CD

My gamble paid off because I had found in that piece a new take  on minimalism and pattern music.  It seemed to be closer to classical variation form than to strict process-oriented patterns but clearly there were rhythmic cells being subjected to development.  It clocks in at about 48 minutes and is a tour de force.

As it turns out McGuire makes use of minimalism as only one of his compositional techniques and has a distinctly different take on it which appears to be informed by the various techniques gleaned from his teachers.  After finding and bonding with this CD I began to look for more of this man’s music.

The intelligent vigilance of Richard Friedman and the Other Minds organization broadcast McGuire’s 1974 Frieze for 4 pianos and his 1985 Cadence Music for 21 Instruments in a RadiOM program dedicated to the composer’s music. Both recordings were broadcast from a 2 CD release on the RZ label.   Again the unmistakable sound of minimalism in a very unique approach.

The east coast equivalent of RadiOM is WNYC’s New Sounds hosted by John Schaefer.  The program of November 12, 2013 included McGuire’s Pulse Music III from 1978.  This is a great example at the composer’s facility with electronics.  This piece realized on tape was apparently originally for a multiple speaker installation  but is mesmerizing even in the stereo presentation which was broadcast.  Another inspired new music show, Kalvos and Damian did a program on the genesis of this music which remains available as streaming content.

McGuire spent 25 years living and working in Germany returning to the United States in 1998.  He then worked for Carl Fischer music as an editor and was a visiting adjunct professor at Columbia from 2000-2002.

I’m not sure I’ve been able to do much more than Walter Zimmerman did in his book but it is my hope that this article may spark interest in musicians, producers and broadcasters to keep this fascinating composer in mind for future projects and performances.

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