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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New World Records 80817

There is more to be had in this one man’s work than one evening could hope to contain but this program was also a CD release event of Amirkhanian’s sound collage works, a distinctly different genre from those who may know his language based works.  The two CD set on New World Records, “Loudspeakers” is a compendium of four works, Pianola (Pas de mains) (1997–2000; the subtitle is French for “no hands”), Im Frühling (“In Spring”, 1990), Loudspeakers (1990) ,  a vocal portrait of Morton Feldman, and Son of Metropolis San Francisco (1987/1997).  This release serves as a fine birthday present for the composer and his audience illustrating this important aspect of his oeuvre..

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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!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mechanical and Microtonal: Kyle Gann’s “Hyperchromatica”


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Other Minds OM 1025-2

Kyle Gann‘s interest in the microtonal has been evident at least since his opera Custer and Sitting Bull (1997-99).  Many will be familiar with his justly famed monograph on Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano works.  Given that history this release seems almost inevitable, a series of works (or perhaps it is one big work) written for 3 computer controlled pianos tuned to his 33 note scale based on the harmonics of the E flat scale.

This is also hardly Gann’s first foray into the world of the player piano (as it was called in a different age).  His 2005 Nude Rolling Down an Escalator album contains some of his etudes for this computer controlled instrument which is the modern equivalent of the player piano.  And in addition to his fascination with alternate tunings and scales it should be noted that Gann is also somewhat of an expert as regards the player piano itself.  Gann authored one of the finest books on that composer’s music, “The Music of Conlon Nancarrow” (1995).  So it appears intuitive that he would write a magnum opus for the modern equivalent of the player piano, the disklavier, a computer controlled piano.

Gann refers to this work as being the longest composition for a keyboard in alternate tuning.  Indeed this would appear to be the case but a listener could easily hear these as  individual works with poetic titles like one encounters in Debussy’s Preludes.  Like those works one can listen to them individually or as a complete set.  But regardless of how you may choose to file these in your head this is an intriguing and engaging work (or set of works).

A work of  this dimension will necessarily invite comparisons to The Well Tempered Clavier, The Art of Fugue, and similar works because it effectively demonstrates the scales and the various musical possibilities unlocked by the different tuning much as Bach did nearly 300 years ago with well tempered tuning (or, in the latter example, the possibilities of counterpoint).  This work is like a major thesis on alternate tunings and the effects it has on melody and harmony.  Some listeners will be familiar with the interesting but less comprehensive Microtonal Music (1996) CD by Easley Blackwood.  Using a synthesizer Blackwood explores tonal and melodic relationships of various different tunings achieving some of the same goals as Gann.

The titles the composer uses reflect his ongoing fascination with things cosmic as he did with his, “The Planets” (1994-2008).  In this respect we hear Gann, the romantic, writing little tone poems.  Now these tone poems put the listener into a different universe but they fit the same logical category as tone poems written in a more familiar tuning system and hence have the more romantic quality of representational (as opposed to absolute) music.  Of course the composer’s intention of exploring this tuning system keeps this work also in the category of absolute music meaning that it is in large part about the tuning system.  Unlike the Blackwood experiments which were about finding functional harmonies (at least in the commonly understood western music definition) Gann’s work is about expression, motives, melodies.  It is, if you will, a logical step for one who has worked intensely with the complex rhythms endemic to Nancarrow and the fascination with alternate tuning systems gleaned from both western music history and world musics.

Since the end of the Baroque era western music adopted well tempered tuning as a standard and the result is that hearing these alternate tunings sounds wrong to most ears.  One of the things Gann is doing here is to make a foray into what will likely be a more common practice, that being the use of alternate tunings.  They are quite approachable and listenable in this context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Major Peter Garland Work


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The Whole Earth Catalog turned 50 this year.  It was in the 1980 edition of this classic publication that this writer stumbled across and embraced a small article which listed, “A Basic 10 Records of American Composers”.  It was written by one Peter Garland and forever influenced most of my subsequent listening choices and purchases.  For the record they are:

The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles (recently released on CD Other Minds OM 1020-21-2)

Piano Music of Henry Cowell (Folkways FM 3349)

Ameriques, Arcana, Ionisation by Edgar Varese (Columbia M 34552)

Peaens, Stars, Granites: Music by Dane Rudhyar and Ruth Crawford Seeger (CRI  S 247)

Ives: Three Places in New England, Copland: Appalachian Spring (Sound 80 DLR 101)

Music of Silvestre Revueltas (RCA)

Conlon Nancarrow: Complete Studies for Player Piano (Other Minds CD 1012-1015-2)

Lou Harrison: Pacifika Rondo and other works (Desto DC 6478)

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury (Columbia M2 30576)

John Cage: Three Dances for Two Pianos, Steve Reich: Four Organs (Angel S 36059)

And I start here to illustrate the range of this still too little known composer, musicologist, writer, musician.  Peter Garland (1952- ) doesn’t even have a dedicated website as of this writing and this list helps to put him in a context.  But a quick look at Google, Wikipedia, and Baker’s Biographical Dictionary will confirm that Garland is indeed a prolific composer as well as an accomplished and dedicated musicologist. The list of albums reflect far ranging tastes and interests. That 1980 article serves to reflect how his scholarship reached effectively beyond academia and reached a much wider audience and the same wide embrace is slowly being realized about his musical output.

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Peter Garland

He studied at Cal Arts with James Tenney and Harold Budd.  He started Soundings Press after attending a workshop with Dick Higgins.  Soundings press published articles by Garland and other musicologists.  Garland has focused on Native American and Latin American indigenous musics and is regarded as an expert in these areas.  Hie own music employs a variety of styles including minimalism and some use of folk melodies but he doesn’t really sound like anyone else.

His compositions almost seem secondary to his academic pursuits and, despite tantalizing descriptions of Garland’s performances in places like EAR magazine his music was hard to come by for some time. There have been a few recordings and, for those who don’t know his work, here is a little discography:

  • 1982 Matachin Dances (EP, Cold Blue)
  • 1986 Peñasco Blanco (Cold Blue, reissued on Nana + Victorio, 1993)
  • 1992 Border Music (¿What Next?, reissued on OO Disc, 2002)
  • 1992 Walk in Beauty (New Albion)
  • 1993 Nana + Victorio (Avant)
  • 2000 The Days Run Away (Tzadik)
  • 2002 Another Sunrise (Mode)
  • 2005 Love Songs (Tzadik)
  • 2008 Three Strange Angels (Tzadik) reissue of Border Music expanded with live recordings
  • 2009 String Quartets (Cold Blue)
  • 2011 Waves Breaking on Rocks (New World)
  • 2015 After the Wars (Cold Blue) EP with Sarah Cahill
  • 2017 The Birthday Party (New World)

Fortunately there are a few record producers who have recognized Garland’s talents.  And it should come as no surprise that these producers are of the independent label variety.  Starkland Records is indeed one of those independents with a reliable nose/ear for good new music and have chosen to record a major opus, The Landscape Scrolls.

This choice embodies much of what is great about Peter Garland.  In this work we get exposed to his scholarship of the stories and symbols of the scrolls as well as some insight to his interest in experimental and unusual instruments.  This is in fact a percussion piece but not the percussion music of your mother’s generation.

Commissioned by and dedicated to percussionist John Lane, The Landscape Scrolls (2010-2011) depicts the 24-hour day cycle in five movements. Garland remarks the work was influenced by Indian ragas, Japanese haiku poetry, and, especially, the famous Landscape Scroll of the Four Seasons by Japan’s 15th century painter Sesshu.

Each of the five movements is a metaphorical monochromatic study, more about resonance and space than melody or harmony: mid-day (Chinese drums); afternoon (rice bowls); after dark (triangles); late (glockenspiel); early morning (tubular bells). Garland notes that, after the fact, he was likely influenced by his fascination with the single-tonal color paintings of Barnett Newman.

John Luther Adams, himself a composer of some significant percussion music lately, provides most of the lucid liner notes.  Clearly Garland is respected by his fellow artists.  This release provides a fine opportunity to get to know this American master through this major opus.  As usual the Starkland production is very well recorded and sounds great.  This one was really done right.

 

A Fitting 100th Birthday Celebration for Conlon Nancarrow


Nancarrow birthday cake.

Happy 100th Birthday to Conlon Nancarrow

October 27th, 2012 would have been the 100th birthday of composer Conlon Nancarrow.  While still not a household name his work has become better known through recordings and live performances over the last 30 years or so.  He spent the majority of his creative life working in relative obscurity in Mexico City. While known by some of his contemporaries his music first became widely known through a 1969 Columbia Records release, part of that label’s ‘Music of Our Time’ series curated by David Behrman.

The evening’s celebration of his 100th birthday I’m sure would have made him proud.  Curated by bay area new music advocates Other Minds and hosted by the Piedmont Piano Company in downtown Oakland was a sort of preview of the next weekend’s three day event.

In the beautiful space of that showroom the audience was treated to hors d’ouerves, wine before the concert.  The event opened with a portion of a film by Jim Greeson, a documentary about the life and music of Nancarrow that painted him as another (if the most radical) of the musicians who were born in Texarkana, Arkansas which claims Scott Joplin as one of it’s famous sons.  This was followed by pianola virtuoso Rex Lawson who played a few of Nancarrow’s early studies.

The pianola is not the same thing as a player piano, as Lawson informed the audience.  It is a device which fits over the keyboard of a traditional piano and depresses the keys based on the instructions of a paper roll inserted as one would in a player piano.  However the pianola allows the performer to vary dynamics and phrasing and actually perform the music.  And Lawson demonstrated this beautifully.

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Pianola showing the place where the paper roll is inserted.

At the intermission birthday candles were lit and Lawson was accorded the honor of blowing them out in the late composer’s honor.  Nancarrow died in 1997 having lived to see a tremendous resurgence in interest in his music and an acknowledgement of his contribution to music.  His complex rhythm studies for player piano number just over 50.  And though he wrote some chamber and orchestral music as well, these are the pieces on which rest his fame as an innovator.

Rex Lawson blowing out the candles on Nancarrow's birthday cake.

Rex Lawson blowing out the candles on Nancarrow’s birthday cake.

Just prior to the intermission we were treated to the multi-talented artist an composer Trimpin‘s computer controlled pianola.  Attached to two pianos were devices for pressing the keys which were in turn controlled by a computer program.

Piano with Trimpin’s computer controlled pianola attached to the keyboard

Piano number two with Trimpin's computer controlled pianola attached to the keyboard

Piano number two with Trimpin’s computer controlled pianola attached to the keyboard

They played the massively complex Study No. 40b and did so very effectively.  The audience left their seats to stand around the two upright pianos which behind the seating area.  The sound cannot be described in words and the audience, some perhaps mystified, were very appreciative.  Trimpin later spoke of this work reconstructing one of Nancarrow’s abandoned project, a percussion orchestra controlled by a piano roll.  It was abandoned when Nancarrow realized that the technology could not perform the music accurately, something which is now possible with Trimpin’s research.  The results of that research, Trimpin: Nancarrow Percussion Orchestra / MATRIX 244 will be installed in the Pacific Film Archive and be available to the public from November 2nd to December 23rd.

Trimpin holding a prototype for Nancarrow's aborted percussion orchestra experiment's

Trimpin holding a prototype for Nancarrow’s aborted percussion orchestra experiment’s

After the candles were out the audience, led by Charles Amirkhanian, sang happy birthday which prompted Lawson to spontaneously run to one of the pianos to accompany the traditional song.  Charles Amirkhanian, composer, radio host and impresario produced the first complete recording of Nancarrow’s player piano studies (and the only recording made on Nancarrow’s player pianos in his Mexico City studio) in 1980 which brought the composer to a much wider audience and got him invited to the 1982 New Music America festival and later helped him get a Mac Arthur genius grant.  A chance find in a record store in Paris inspired Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti to write his masterful piano etudes after hearing these recordings.

Charles Amirkhanian with Rex Lawson

Charles Amirkhanian holding the microphone while Rex Lawson sings along with one of his piano rolls.

Trimpin scanned all of Nancarrow’s piano rolls into a computer and made it possible for the music to be studied more widely as well as preserving it on a hard drive.  He went from the piano rolls which are essentially a digital medium the equivalent of punch cards for historians and those of us old enough to remember to digital storage on a magnetic drive.

As I noted at the beginning this was a most appropriate tribute occurring on Nancarrow’s actual birthday and featuring people like Amirkhanian, Lawson and Trimpin who were inspired by Nancarrow’s work and have done so much to bring it to light and to preserve it for posterity.

Following the intermission we were again treated to Rex Lawson who provided a perspective on the importance of player pianos and pianolas in early 20th Century culture.  He illustrated the function of the pianolist explaining as he said, “Why I need to be here at all…” by playing a Rachmaninoff polka first without any nuance executed by the pianolist and then with him demonstrating how the pianolist puts life into the piece, a world of difference.  He spoke of composers who actually wrote for the pianola.  It is different from writing for a pianist because the pianola is not limited to the size of one’s hand or the number of fingers one has.  It afforded composers a technology to write a more orchestral fabric.

He demonstrated with pieces by Sir Arnold Bax, an early 20th century British composer and by Stravisnksy (a marvelous arrangement of the scene from Petroushka when the puppet first comes to life).  He also spoke of now forgotten composers who had the career of being arrangers for the pianola.  While many homes had pianos and many could play the piano, the pianola allowed them to play larger and more difficult works beyond the skills of the average pianist and, frequently, beyond the skills of any human being.

The evening ended with another demonstration of Trimpin’s computer driven pianola this time playing one of Nancarrow’s early boogie woogie pieces.  And then there was time to speak with the artists and audience members who showed enthusiasm and interest.

Tonight’s event, we were told, was organized by Other Mind’s development director Cynthia Mei and she made a plea for funding this and next weekend’s events through Kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/otherminds/nancarrow-at-100-a-centennial-celebration?ref=card) where the rewards for participating in the funding range from mention in the program booklet to CDs, t-shirts and downloadable recordings of the performances.  This writer is a proud part of the kickstarter campaign and would like to encourage others as well.  We are honoring a true genius in American music and preserving his influence and legacy for future generations.  I think Mr. Nancarrow would have heartily approved.