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!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meredith Monk and Eric Salzman, a Labor of Love


Labor Records LAB 7094

Labor Records LAB 7094

New music aficionados in the 1970s had access to quite a bit of new and unusual music on the Nonesuch label under the watchful eye of Theresa Sterne.  In fact, Salzman was among the wonderful producers along with people like Joshua Rifkin who put that label at the forefront of contemporary music releases.

Two most unusual dramatic pieces, The Nude Paper Sermon (1969) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1977) caught my ear (yes, I have them on vinyl).  I was looking to see if these had ever been reissued (they have) and ran across this disc containing music by Eric Salzman (who was involved in both of the aforementioned discs) and by Meredith Monk.

Eric Salzman

Eric Salzman

Eric Salzman (1933- ) is a composer, scholar, broadcaster, producer and theorist.  He studied at Columbia University(BA 1954) with Jack Beeson, Lionel Trilling, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky.  His graduate work at Princeton University (MFA 1956) was with Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, Edward T. Cone, Arthur Mendel, Oliver Strunk and Nino Pirotta.  A 1956-8 Fulbright fellowship allowed him to work with Goffredo Petrassi and at Darmstätdter Ferienkurse with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono.

He has written for various news media and wrote for the wonderful Stereo Review magazine from 1966.  His academic credits and publications are also highly regarded.  He was the music director at WBAI, a Pacifica Radio Station during the 60s and 70s.  In short he is a living treasure of American music.

 

His music, unfortunately, is less well-known I think than his writings but what little I have been able to hear of his work (you can hear excerpts of various pieces on his web site) has piqued my interest to seek out more.  He is uncompromisingly innovative and experimental which may put off the casual listener but has wonderful revelations to those who lend their ear.  This disc on Labor Records (who have also issued the aforementioned dramatic works) contains a new aural drama or radio drama if you prefer.

Now I doubt that anyone who actually seeks out a recording by the likes of Salzman and Monk will be put off by innovative and experimental ideas but these works are quite listener friendly and represent mature work by both artists.  This very welcome recording gives listeners an opportunity to hear the vibrant mature work of two clearly still vital living masters.

Salzman’s “Jukebox in the Tavern of Love” (2008) was written on commission from the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble and was performed in Brooklyn’s “Bargemusic” in 2009.  The libretto is by Valeria Vasileski and the action takes place in a New York bar during a power outage.  The cast of characters reminds this writer of any number of, “a man walks into a bar…” jokes.  We meet a nun, a Rabbi, a Broadway Dame, a poet, and a Con Ed worker all culled from the composer and librettists perceptions of the individuals that make up Western Wind.  And these characters comment on the subject of love in this re-visioning of the madrigal opera genre.

 

Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk (1942- ) is a dancer, composer, vocalist, choreographer, filmmaker and new music innovator in extended vocal techniques.  She is among the best known of the composers who comprised the loosely defined “downtown” new music scene in New York in the 1970s.  She graduated Sarah Lawrence College in 1964 having studied with Beverly Schmidt Blossom.  She is best known for her numerous recordings on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label.

Basket Rondo (2007), also written for the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, is vintage Monk.  The eight movements take the listener through a series of extended vocal sound worlds.  Monk’s work is always more evocative than literal and this work could suggest whatever the listener perceives or could simply be appreciated as musical expression. Her creative vision that underlies this piece involves a pre-industrial society singing a sort of work song.  Monk’s ability to export her extended vocal techniques through her workshops made it possible for her to write in her idiomatic style for singers not otherwise familiar with these techniques.

The piece is cast in eight movements  suggesting the “rondo” I suppose.  And I’m guessing the baskets represent the fruits of their labors.  But the important thing is that Monk’s re-visioning of medieval history in these dream like dance/vocal dramas succeeds in creating mesmerizing aural theater regardless of what plays in your head when you hear it.

The Grammy nominated Western Wind Vocal Ensemble (much of whose work is with Medieval and Renaissance music) has a well-deserved reputation as being among the finest small vocal ensembles working today.  This disc allows them to demonstrate their ability to move easily into the contemporary music world.  Their performances here are superb and a very welcome addition to the discography of these two composers.  I cannot think of anyone who could have written this music other than the present composers.  Here are two works by composers whose idiosyncratic methods have produced music that identifies them much as a thumb print identifies a check writer (or a criminal, for that matter, I suppose).  That is a mark of true mastery. And it would be a crime to miss hearing these works.