Notes From the Underground, A major new recording of Anthony Davis’ orchestral music


Album cover

Album cover

In March, 2014 the Boston Modern Orchestra Project released Notes From the Underground, a major retrospective recording of the composer’s work for large ensembles.  The recording includes Notes from the Underground (1988) a two movement work for orchestra, You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007) a concerto for clarinet and contra-alto clarinet and Kurzweil processor and a new recording of the piano concerto Wayang No. 5 (1984) with the composer as soloist.  The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is conducted by Gil Rose.

There are liner notes by the composer and also by the great musician/composer/historian George Lewis (and a frequent musical collaborator with Davis).  The notes are relatively brief but contain a wealth of information and provide useful insights into both the musical processes and the sociopolitical forces that drive Davis’ music.  Davis describes his compositional processes and Lewis, a frequent musical collaborator,  places the music in historic and sociopolitical contexts.

Only the Wayang No. 5 has had a previous recording.  It was one of the two works included on the Gramavision release which included the equally engaging Violin Concerto “Maps” (1988) written for and performed by violinist Shem Guibbory.  The concerto reflects Davis’ interest in jazz as well as his study of gamelan music from whence comes the title “Wayang”. Davis has written a series of compositions for various combinations of instruments titled sequentially Wayang No. 1, No. 2, etc.  The term refers to the shadow puppet theater of  Bali which are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra, an ensemble largely of tuned gongs and other percussion instruments.  Davis studied gamelan music and wrote six compositions (so far) titled Wayang of which the fifth is the piano concerto on this recording.

Wayang No. V is the earliest composition on the disc and consists of four movements.  Opening-Dance begins with an improvisatory section with the pianist playing over unresolved harmonies in the orchestra which then leads to the main section of the movement which is characterized by ostinati in the orchestra as well as on the piano.  There is a seamless transition to the second movement Undine, a slow movement with an impressionistic feel.  March also begins without pause from the previous movement.  It is a scherzo like piece where the polyrhythmic structures are quite clear.   The finale, Keçak, a reference to the monkey chant in the ritual enactment of a scene from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara help Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana.  It begins with a long solo piano introduction followed  by a sort of dialog between the piano and several percussion instruments.  Davis demonstrates his virtuosity here in writing that is indebted as much to gamelan as it is to jazz and modernism from Schoenberg to Bartok, Stravinsky, Hans Werner Henze and Thelonius Monk.

This is a concerto that is more concerned more with expression than empty virtuosity though the piano part could hardly be called easy.  I am amazed that there have been no pianists who have added this wonderful piece to their repertory.  It is a very entertaining piece of music making.

The title track is the orchestral composition, Notes from the Underground (1988).  It is a two movement work dedicated to the writer Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), best known for his National Book Award winning novel The Invisible Man (1952).   The title evokes Dostoevsky’s existential 1864 novel as well as Ellison’s collection of essays, Shadow and Act (1964). The composer describes it as a “riff” on Duke Ellington’s Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937).  It is, to this listener, a grand set of orchestral variations.

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first movement, Shadow, is described by the composer as one that introduces fragments which will be heard in the second movement.  It features a prominent solo for the percussionist.  The second movement, Act is the longer of the two and is described as being written in ten steps with an elaborate polyrhythmic structures described in more detail in the accompanying notes. The writing here probably comes as close to minimalist or process music as anything the composer has done.  It is not minimalism per se  but it is perhaps proto-minimalist techniques whose roots are at least partly in jazz as musicologist Robert Fink suggests.   It produces a ritualistic and meditative feel to this richly orchestrated, reverent and mysterious sounding piece.   It is a fitting tribute to a great American man of letters as well as to the great composer Duke Ellington.

The concerto, You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007) is the most recent as well as the most overtly political piece on the album and it is a gem.  It is written for clarinet doubling alto clarinet and a Kurzweil synthesizer/sampler and orchestra.  Longtime collaborator, the wonderful J. D. Parran  plays the clarinets winding his way through a balanced hybrid of styles including bebop, modern classical and free jazz styles comprising rhythmic complexity and multiphonics.  One could hardly imagine a soloist better suited for this music.  Earl Howard plays the Kurzweil which intones sampled speech of words from the Miranda Rights which are supposed to be presented at the time of an arrest.  Here they are presented strategically in poetic dialogue with the music controlled by the keyboard player.

Here again the individual movements have their own titles poetically referencing the issues which the composer attempts to invoke in this piece. He says in his notes, “I tried to approach ‘silence’ as, rather than John Cage’s apolitical world of ‘white privilege’, a much more dangerous place.”  The first, Interrogation, is intended to evoke the clarinet as being interrogated by the orchestra.  The second, Loss  features an improvised duet between the Kurzweil and the clarinet.  It ends with an homage to Charles Mingus, a major influence on Davis.  The third, Incarceration includes more text from the Miranda and the Kurzweil processes both the words and the clarinet solo.   And finally, Dance of the Other, intending to evoke the fantasy and the feeling of otherness and presumably alienation.

It is a concerto in the classical sense of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra and it seamlessly blends various classical and jazz harmonies and techniques which challenge the expertise of the soloist.  All the while it clearly presents a political context which meditates on the inhumanities and inequalities inherent in our “correctional” system and in our society as a whole.  As political music it lies within a grand tradition taking a place beside earlier masterpieces of that genre like Henze’s Essay on Pigs (1968) and Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).  And as a concerto it is a challenge to the soloist and a delight to the listener.

This is a wonderful disc, well recorded and performed.  It presents some amazing and substantial music by one of the living treasures of American composers.  Anthony Davis has had a long and influential presence on the American music scene in his jazz performances as well as his chamber and orchestral music.  His operas like X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), Amistad(1997 ) and the more recent Wakonda’s Dream (2007) have been performed to critical acclaim. Hopefully this recording will introduce people to this composer’s works and remind those already familiar with the power and depth of Davis’ music.  Bravo to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for bringing this music to the listening public.  I hope the major orchestras and theaters and recording companies are paying attention so we can hear more from this still too little known composer.

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Not Another Minimalist! (NAM): New and Lesser Known Minimalists


Philip Glass portrait

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

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

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...

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.