Dmitri Tymoczko – Crackpot Hymnal (CD Review)

crackpot hymnal

Dmitri Tymoczko

Crackpot Hymnal

Bridge Records CD

In recent decades, there’s been a move in some American academic circles to put more separation between the disciplines of music composition and music theory. It seems especially curious to those of us who have, to greater or lesser degrees, modeled our careers and aesthetics on our forebears, adopting the “composer-theorist” approach (some of us even adopt the “composer-performer-theorist” tag, but that’s another story for another day). Happily, academics like Dmitri Tymoczko thrive, pointing out that a hyphenated or, more properly, interdisciplinary existence is still amply possible without compromising one’s standing in either or both disciplines.

Tymoczko is one of the best known scholars discussing geometric modeling in music theory; his “The Geometry of Musical Chords” was the first music theory article published in Science Magazine; his first book, A Geometry of Music (Oxford University Press, 2011) is thought-provoking and, given its subject matter, surprisingly accessible: It has engendered a great deal of discussion in music theory circles. However, Tymoczko teaches at Princeton University in the Composition Area; while many important theorists have studied at Princeton, there is no Theory Department in the Graduate Music program, only Composition and Musicology.

On his first CD, Beat Therapy (Bridge, also 2011), Tymoczko flexed his third stream muscles, presenting a program of concert works influenced by jazz including improvised solos. Crackpot Hymnal, his second recording for the Bridge imprint, features fully notated chamber pieces played by estimable ensembles: the Amernet and Corigliano Quartets and the Illinois Modern Ensemble with pianist Daniel Schlossberg. The pieces address crossover, or polystylism, though, for the most part, instead of jazz, popular and rock styles interact with folk and modern classical music. Given Tymoczko’s early background playing popular music, and his subsequent theoretical writings that point out the ways that geometrical modeling of scales and chords is applicable to the analysis of both classical and popular music, his exploration of similar issues in his compositions makes perfect sense.

He has a bit of fun as well with this idea of similarity of collections between disparate styles. In the album opener, The Eggman Variations (2005), a quintet for pianist John Blacklow and the Corigliano Quartet, the first movement, titled “Pentatonia,” overwhelmingly employs pentatonic collections. But is the listener guided to hear them as aspects of Asian folk music, Impressionist chamber music, or box riffs by a guitarist in a garage band? Depending on where you are in the piece, it could seem to be any one, or several, of these archetypal references to a five-note scale. Alongside the glissandos one might expect, permutations of chordal extensions (7th chords, 9th chords, et cetera), populate the piece’s second movement, “Bent.” “A Roiling Worm of Sound” (what a fantastic title) mixes multiple layers of ostinato repetitions into an ebulliently undulating whole.

Another aspect of polystylism that Tymoczko embraces in these pieces is the ever-expanding condition of our varied digital music libraries, with the concomitant use (abuse?) of the shuffle button on our iPod, iTunes, or other digital delivery system. With a few clicks of a mouse or remote, listeners can leapfrog throughout music history and a plethora of musical geographies. Typecase Treasury (2010), another piano quintet for Kevin Weng-Yew Mayner and the Amernet Quartet, is a seven-movement suite of miniatures that revels in stylistic juxtaposition. It is neoclassicism versus post-minimalism in “Where We Begin.” “Hurdy Gurdy” channels Nancarrow in its not-so-well oiled musical motor and bluesy cast. Sheared off blocks of angular rhythms and deliberately schmaltzy chords inhabit “Crackpot Hymnal” in a quirky coexistence. You can imagine what happens in “This One was Supposed to be Atonal.” The composer describes “Russian Metal” as “Shostakovich orchestrating Black Sabbath,” which is a nice summation for this simmering aural snapshot.  “Intermezzo” explores polytonality and harmonics in an appealingly piquant scoring that seems to take Bartók as its starting point. “Anthem” brings the piece to a close in rollicking fashion, bringing back some of the material from the opening, but transformed into a kinetic finale.

This Picture Seems to Move (1998), is also played by the Amernet Quartet. Even though it is a relatively early Tymoczko work, one can already hear a penchant for juxtaposition. Its first movement’s title, “Twittering Machine,” is a Paul Klee reference; obviously, it significantly predates our default assumptions about “twittering” today. It pits a modernist rhythmic language against a neoromantic harmonic palette.  The work’s other movement, titled (after Boccioni) “Those Who Go,” features a beautifully brooding quasi-tonal melody alongside five-against-three pizzicatos.

The recording’s final piece, Another Fantastic Voyage (2012), is a chamber piano concerto. Schlossberg and the Illinois Modern Ensemble supply a rousing performance of the piece, which is filled with abundant virtuosity for the soloist and hairpin turns and tricky rhythms aplenty for the sinfonietta. Its title references Asimov, and one can image the subtitles being the names of short stories by Ray Bradbury. As the three movements’ monikers – “The Mad King,” “Changeling,” and “An Evil Carnival” – suggest, this is a piece in which Tymoczko is willing to explore darker thematic terrain. It is also where he best demonstrates a flair for the dramatic.

Once again, we hear the composer unwilling to take received norms – the formality of the concerto form, for instance – at face value. Instead he seeks to subvert our expectations of what a piano concerto does by placing it inside the inspirational context of genre fiction. Of course, the piano concerto is one of the classical forms that is longest in the tooth, and there are a significant number of 20th and 21st century works that seek to deconstruct it. That Tymoczko is able to find still another way to reframe the concerto design is no mean feat. If you are one of those who distrust the “hyphenated” contingent of composer-theorists, assuming their music is overly cerebral and lacking immediacy, take a listen to this piece. When one hears its vividly orchestrated and vibrantly paced carnival ride closer, all bets are off.  You’ll likely think twice before making extravagant claims about “interdisciplinary types” again.

- Christian Carey

RIP Lou Reed (1942-2013)


“One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

- Lou Reed

Much of my music passes the above “into jazz” marker. That said, Lou Reed taught me a great deal about productivity, creativity, and the maxim that “sometimes, less is more.”

Sad tonight for Laurie Anderson, and for us, who are deprived of more “more with less.”

Saturday: Ekmeles visits Rutgers


When I was a graduate student at Rutgers (a little over a decade ago), the composition students were fortunate to have the Helix! Ensemble, a contemporary music group in residence at Rutgers, to perform our compositions alongside other new works. I have many fond memories of working with Helix!. Apart from that, other ensembles at the school occasionally (more occasionally than we would have preferred) worked with the graduate students, and we had a department forum with guest speakers.

Of late, RU’s composition program has a lot more going on. New chair Robert Aldridge seems to have brought with him a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, which has trickled down and improved things for composers. Helix! is still there and active as ever, directed by pianist and conductor Paul Hoffmann (the group’s Fall concert is on Sunday at 2 PM). Several other campus ensembles are regularly working with student composers. The students are also active in presenting their own and each others’s music in recital. Distinguished composers Charles Fussell and Gerald Chenoweth remain on the faculty and Christopher Doll is a more recent addition.  Aldridge is teaching composers as well as chairing the department; Tarik O’Regan is also teaching at Rutgers this year.

Another welcome addition: inviting guest artists to campus to work with composers. On Saturday, New York-based vocal ensemble Ekmeles performs a program of new pieces by RU composers. Ekmeles is well known for their tremendous facility with extended techniques: I’ve written in the past about their accomplishments singing Gesualdo (in Vicentino’s tuning), Carter, and contemporary microtonal music. I’m looking forward to hearing what the students will learn from Ekmeles – and try out in Saturday evening’s concert (7:30 PM at Schare Hall – Mason Gross School of the Arts).

Monday: NYNME features Foss


Monday at the DiMenna Center, New York New Music Ensemble presents a program of works by Lukas Foss (1922-2009). Lukas (with whom I studied in the 90s when I was at BU) was a man of many musical talents with a near-omnivorous interest in a host of musical styles. Rather than try to present a comprehensive portrait of them all (a tall order in a single evening!), NYNME will focus on pieces from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties, the period during which he was in his most experimental phase. In Echoi (1963), Foss made use of vast swaths of serial-inspired charts – there are pictures of them taking up whole walls of his studio. However, his performance directions add a measure of postmodern theatricality and there’s more than a bit of aleatory at work too. These seemingly disparate elements come together in a piece that is a masterful melange. Paradigm (1968), is more ebulliently chaotic still. Incorporating clangorous percussion and vociferous shouts alongside quasi-rock riffs from electric guitar, it channels more than a bit of the cultural and political revolutions afoot in the year of its composition.

Rendezvous - Tashi

Solo Observed (1982), began its life as a virtuosic solo piano piece, Solo, which found Foss experimenting with minimalism and maximalism at the same time. Solo Observed (1982, in versions for both orchestra and chamber ensemble), adds additional instruments, who observe, comment on, and sometimes even obstruct the pianist’s solo. The last work on the program, Tashi (1986), written for the star-studded chamber ensemble of the same name, is one of my favorite of Foss’s chamber works. Abundantly virtuosic and sumptuously harmonically varied, it is one of the best syntheses of the various styles and varied materials that fascinated Foss. Hunt down Rendezvous, the group’s 1989 recording on which it appears. Better yet, catch it live tonight.


10/19: Dar Williams at Symphony Space

dar williams picture

On Saturday, October 19th at 8 PM, Singer-songwriter Dar Williams will perform at New York City’s Symphony SpaceThe concert is part of a tour in support of Williams’s latest studio album, In The Time Of Gods (2012, Razor & Tie). The album presents ten tales from Greek mythology which are repurposed by Williams to address contemporary issues. Like much of her previous work, the recording sits astride folk and pop idioms, creating an  ear-pleasing yet thoughtful and substantial impression.


Those who enjoyed the second disc of Many Great Companions, the songwriter’s 2010 greatest hits compilation, with its stripped down renditions of songs from her catalogue, are likely to be pleased with the acoustic setting in which the Symphony Space performance takes place. Instead of a full band, Williams will perform as part of a duo, singing and playing guitar, accompanied by pianist Bryn Roberts. 

Opening act The Rebecca West operates in a similar “chamber folk” idiom. Alex Dezen (the Damnwells), Cameron Dezen, and Matt Hamon. Their first EP, Lost and Found, displays a capacity for generously melodic hooks and winsome three-part harmony vocals.



10/16: Cygnus at the Italian Academy

Giacomo Manzoni

Giacomo Manzoni

On Wednesday evening at 7 PM, the Cygnus Ensemble presents Modernism Through a Northern Italian Lens, a free concert at the Italian Academy at Columbia University featuring premieres by five contemporary composers: Giacomo Manzoni, Peyman Farzinpour, Daniele Venturi, John McLachlan, and Martin Boykan. The evening also features works by Dina Koston and Robert Martin as well as Columbia composers Fred Lerdahl and Georg Friedrich Haas. A co-production of the Italian Academy and League of Composers/ISCM, the event features a post-concert reception in the venue’s beautiful library.

Ice Age Covers Sinead O’Connor (Video)

ice age

In the video below, Ice Age covers Sinead O’Connor’s “Jackie.” The cover is one of the b-sides being released as part of a deluxe version of the band’s album You’re Nothing (Out Nov. 9 via Matador).

Catch the band on tour (Dates below).


Thu. Oct. 3 – Budapest, HU @ Durer Kert

Fri. Oct. 4 - Vienna, AT @ Waves Vienna

Sat. Oct. 5 - Prague, CZ @ Pilot Club

Sun. Oct. 6 - Berlin, DE @ West Germany

Tue. Oct. 8 - Santa Cruz, CA @ The Catalyst Atrium w/ the Videos

Wed. Oct. 9 - San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop w/ the Videos

Thu. Oct. 10 - Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo w/ The Men (Culture Collide Festival)

Sun. Oct. 13 - Mexico City, MX @ Corona Capital Music Festival

Tue. Oct. 15 - Brooklyn, NY @ The Acheron w/ Believer, Law

Wed. Oct. 16 - Brooklyn, NY @ The Acheron w/ Survival

Thu. Oct. 31 - Paris, FR @ Pitchfork Music Festival

Fri. Nov. 1 - Toulouse, FR @ Dynamo

Sat. Nov. 2 - Oviedo, ESP @ Whippoorwill

Sun. Nov. 3 - Madrid, ESP @  Charada

Mon. Nov. 4 - Barcelona ESP @ Apolo 2

Tue. Nov. 5 - Milan, IT @ Rocket

Wed. Nov. 6 - Bologna, IT @ Locomotiv

Fri. Nov. 8 - Den Haag, NL @ Rewire Festival

Sat. Nov. 9 - London, UK @ Old Blue Last

Fri. Nov. 22 - Moscow, RUS @ Manifest

Sat. Nov. 23 - St Petersburg, RUS @ Chetvert

Princeton Recital is Tomorrow – Join Us!



 A Recital of Compositions

by Christian Carey

Saturday, September 28th at 2 PM

Prince of Peace Church,

Princeton Junction, NJ

free event

Performed by:

Righteous Girls

(Gina Izzo, flute; Erika Dohi, piano)


(Jeffrey Gavett, baritone, Carlos Cordeiro, bass clarinet,

Andy Kozar, trumpet, Will Lang, trombone)

Peter Jarvis, drum set

Sara Noble, soprano

Megan Ihnen, mezzo soprano

Carl Patrick Bolleia, piano

Zheng Yuan, viola

                                                                                                                                                                         Natalie Spehar, cello

In One Week: Recital in Princeton

Christian Carey recital postcard

Emerged: A Recital of Compositions by Christian Carey

Christian Carey headshot

Saturday, September 28th at 2 PM

Prince of Peace Church,

Princeton Junction, NJ

Free Event

Performed by:

Righteous Girls

(Gina Izzo, flute; Erika Dohi, piano)


(Jeffrey Gavett, baritone, Carlos Cordeiro, bass clarinet,

Andy Kozar, trumpet, Will Lang, trombone)

Peter Jarvis, drum set

Sara Noble, soprano

Megan Ihnen, mezzo soprano

Carl Patrick Bolleia, piano

Zheng Yuan, viola

Natalie Spehar, cello


Prayer  (2011)    loadbang

3 Bagatelles (2006)    Righteous Girls

“He Wishes for the

Cloths of Heaven” (2009)   Megan Ihnen and Zheng Yuan

3 Flourishes (2008)            Gina Izzo

Solo for piano  (2013)            Erika Dohi   (World Premiere)

“Fuller Brush Music”    (2010)             Peter Jarvis

“Blue Symphony” (2013)   Sara Noble & Carl Patrick Bolleia

Two Miniatures  (2012)    Carl Patrick Bolleia

“Gloss on Guston”

“Fiery Sunset”

3 Kenyon Settings  (2009)    Megan Ihnen and Natalie Spehar

For Milton   (2011)     Righteous Girls