Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970
By David Toop
Bloomsbury, 330 pp.
Even given the relative expanse of a projected two-volume history of improvised music, David Toop has set lofty goals for himself. In volume one, Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970, he discusses a number of musical figures from improvising communities: Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, Keith Rowe, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy are a small sampling of those who loom large. John Cage is a totemic figure discussed from a variety of angles. Such collectives as AMM, MEV, Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Company, and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza feature prominently as well. In addition, Toop connects improvisation to a panoply of other reference points, musical and otherwise, such as rock, concert music, fine art, film, and literature. Politics and historical events and their influence on musicians is a particularly well-drawn through line.
One would be hard pressed to take a strictly chronological approach to reading Into the Maelstrom. A great pleasure is the oftimes improvisatory feel of its labyrinthine passages. In this sense it jubilantly resembles the Edgar Allen Poe story from which it takes its title. No matter how far-flung a new passage may at first seem, Toop finds a way to integrate it into the fabric of the book. For the most part, Maelstrom is confined to the genesis and development of free playing in the decades leading up to 1970. Digressions from this era, such as transcribed later interviews and personal anecdotes, are used to provide a more comprehensive portrait of particular figures and incidents. Nor does Toop eschew discussion of earlier figures. Indeed, his profiles of musicians such as Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, and Stuff Smith trace a lineage of free playing, or at the very least playing on the cusp of free, that is farther reaching than is often enough acknowledged. Flashbacks and flashforwards are also employed to tease out thematic issues, such as audience responsiveness (or non-responsiveness, and occasionally dangerous hostility), interaction between musicians (with its own degrees of responsiveness and even dangerous hostility), and, especially, issues of freedom, both in musical and political contexts. Thus, Into the Maelstrom allows us a glimpse into an ever-changing landscape of varying interactions, all of which contribute to the development of improvisation. I’m eager to read its companion second volume.
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On July 22nd via his PostClassic blog, Kyle Gann published a post titled “One Less Critic,” more or less announcing his retirement from music criticism. Writing for nearly thirty years in a number of publications, notably the Village Voice and Chamber Music Magazine, Gann has been a thoughtful, often provoking, and even, occasionally, a polarizing figure in discourse about contemporary classical music. He’s also been active in a number of other activities, first and foremost as an imaginative composer, a professor at Bard College, and a musicologist who’s published articles and books on a wide range of composers, including minimalists, microtonalists, Conlon Nancarrow, and John Cage. His book on Robert Ashley will be published this fall.
In his blog post, Gann writes, “Criticism is a noble profession, or could be if we took it seriously enough and applied rigorous standards to it, but you get pigeonholed as a bystander, someone valued for your perspective on others rather than for your own potential contributions.”
He’s not the first composer/critic to voice these concerns. It’s fair to say that those who write about others’ music potentially imperil their own. One’s advancement in a career as a creative and/or performing artist often involves blunting their candor and, upon occasion, judiciously withholding their opinions, delicacies which a writer (at least, an honest writer) can ill afford.
Certainly, I haven’t always agreed with Gann’s assessment of the musical landscape. In 1997, I first read his essay on 12-tone composers in academia, in which he likened those in grad programs studying with Wuorinen and Carter to be a wasted generation of composers, like lemmings leaping to their (artistic) deaths. At that time, I was a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers: studying withWuorinen and writing a dissertation on Carter! I didn’t transfer or change my topic.
That said, I respect Gann’s formidable intellect and, even when it stings a little, his candor. I hope that during his “retirement” from criticism, he will find many new opportunities provided to him as a composer. In the spirit of bygones being bygones, maybe some of them will be in collaboration with ensembles that, back in the day, got a rough review from him!
Book of Ice
by Paul D. Miller with an introduction by Brian Greene
Mark Batty; 128 pages
Paul D. Miller is probably best known as DJ Spooky, outelectronica artist. But he’s also an eloquent author about DJing and musical aesthetics in books such as Rhythm Science and Sound Unbound. Well versed in contemporary classical music, Miller has collaborated with and remixed music by Steve Reich, Iannis Xenakis, and Terry Riley. His latest project is perhaps his most ambitious and it involves one of the longest field trips and most far flung residencies an artist can make: a trip to Antartica.
In order to do research for Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antartica, a work commissioned by BAM for its 2009 Next Wave festival, Miller travelled to this remote region, soaking in its forbidding landscapes. Book of Ice is a companion to the Terra Nova project, a journal of the work in process. It’s also a travelogue for this most unlikely of destinations. Miller meditates on a complex array of associations – historical, sociological, and imaginational – that humankind has with this principally uninhabited continent.
Along the way, readers are treated to a glimpse of Antartica’s fascinating past and its very uncertain and environmentally unstable future. Miller is a nimble ecological advocate, expounding upon the dangers we face from climate change – underscored by the impact it’s already had on polar ice caps – without ever allowing the book to tread too heavily. He also manages to make what might at first seem to be an unlikely pairing – that of DJ culture and Antartic exploits – cohere into an edifying and engaging read throughout.
“I’ve never had a grand plan. Never even had an ambition – I still don’t, beyond wanting to write better music,” says Ford. “So I’ve done things as they’ve come along. Of course I also say no to things. I got into writing music journalism because, in 1983 when I came to Australia, I wasn’t, over all, very impressed with the music journalism I read. My radio work really came out of being an academic and gradually replaced it totally.”
Although born in England, Andrew Ford has become associated with his adopted homeland, Australia. He’s one of the most astute commentators on the country’s music scene, hosting “The Music Show,” a weekly broadcast on ABC Radio National since 1995.
“I live in the country, and most weeks I compose from Monday to Thursday. Then on Friday I drive the two hours up to Sydney and my producers hand me a folder full of research and a bunch of CDs relating to the guests I will have on The Music Show the following morning. There are usually four and we try to mix things up: I might talk to a jazz singer, a didgeridoo player, an opera director and the composer of a new string quartet. I do the show live, and then drive home on the Saturday afternoon. I try not to work on Sundays. If I’m writing a book, of course, that might have to take over for a while.”
Ford has written several books, and while most are accessible to a general audience, he’s never shy about exposing his readers to a wide array of adventurous music. He’s also the rare interviewer who’s able to “talk shop” with composers from the vantage point of a fellow practitioner. This is clearly demonstrated in Composer to Composer (1993), an excellent collection of interviews he conducted with many of Australia’s finest composers, as well as composers from elsewhere, such as the UK’s Brian Ferneyhough and Americans John Cage and Elliott Carter. Another one of his collections, Illegal Harmonies, has just been reissued in its third edition by Black, Inc.
Ford says, “Illegal Harmonies was a history of music in the 20th century and began as a radio series in 1997. There were ten 90-minute episodes, one for each decade. The book was published the same year, and this is its third edition. I’ve added a new preface and also there’s a new epilogue looking at music in the first decade of the 21st century.”
Black, Inc. has also recently published Ford’s latest book, The Sound of Pictures. He says, “Funnily enough, the book isn’t really about film scores. I’d say that, more accurately, it’s about films and how they used music and sound in general. It looks – and especially listens – to a lot of films, and finds some connections between them. The way films use sound to plant clues – including false clues – or to undermine, as well as reinforce, what is happening on the screen.”
Those wishing for an entrée to Ford’s own music might start with The Waltz Book, a recent CD release on the Tall Poppies imprint. It consists of sixty one-minute long waltzes performed by pianist Ian Munro. But these are hardly your garden-variety Viennese dance pieces by Strauss. They explore a wide array of sound worlds, using waltz time as a jumping off point for some truly imaginative musical excursions.
Ford says, “The piece was never really about waltzes. It was an attempt to build a single large structure out of a lot of small structures. I felt these small pieces should all be the same size – like a mosaic – but that each might have its own personality and be performable as an independent miniature. A minute seemed the obvious length for each piece, and having decided that, the idea of the minute-waltz followed. Of course, the fact that each minute is a waltz – or at least waltz-related – brings a kind of unity to the hour-long whole, but what interested me above all was two things. First, I wanted to experiment with putting different amounts of music into the minute molds: you can have a minute of furious activity, or a minute of Satie-like blankness. Second, I wanted the overall structure of the hour to be coherent. That’s a long time listening to piano miniatures, and the audience needs to have its attention held: there had to be a sense of a journey or a story being told. You can imagine that at the first performance I was quite nervous!”
Another of Ford’s most recent pieces found the composer working in another medium with a storied tradition: the brass band. The Black Dyke Band premiered his work The Rising at the Manchester Brass festival in January 2011.
Ford says, “Without wishing to make a pun, writing for a brass band was a blast, and especially writing for the Black Dyke Band which is the UK’s finest and has more than 150 years of history behind it. They can play anything – they are total virtuosi. I’d never written for band before. I wasn’t even terribly sure what a baritone horn was. I did my homework, but I confess there was an element of guesswork involved. But the piece came out well. It sounded just as I’d hoped. Better, in some ways, because one thing I’d failed to appreciate was just how homogenous the sound is – it’s like they are all playing different sizes of the same instrument. It was this big glowing mass of sound – the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan – and I am completely hooked. I would love to write another band piece.”
Which other works would Andrew Ford like for listeners from outside Australia to hear? “I’m very happy with my Symphony (2008). I feel that, perhaps out of all my pieces, you could say this was really typical of me. There are no references, no extra-musical stuff: it’s just my music. And fortunately you can hear (and see) Brett Dean conducting the premiere of the piece at my website. I’ve revised it slightly since then, but nothing major. My opera, Rembrandt’s Wife (2009), is another piece I am very happy with. I had a brilliant libretto (by Sue Smith) and I tried to make it into one long song. I was determined it would be full of real singing from start to finish. It was a joy to write and I’ve never felt so unselfconscious in writing a piece. It felt as though it wrote itself. What else? Maybe Learning to Howl (2001), a song cycle for soprano, soprano sax/clarinets, harp and percussion, to words mostly by women.”
“One long-term project is called Progess. My earliest pieces – when I was a teenager – were rather influenced by Stockhausen’s then current intuitive music. This was convenient, in a way, because I must admit that I didn’t really know how to write everything down. As my technique improved, I have always wanted to return to that, to introduce more freedom into my pieces, but the trouble is I keep hearing them rather clearly in my imagination and I end up notating what I hear. Progress, right from the start, is designed as a fluid piece, with hardly anything pinned down and the players asked to improvise in various ways and based on certain melodic models. The instrumentation is totally flexible and so is the spatial layout. Indeed perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the way it will accommodate itself to the building in which it is performed – literally filling the building (not just the main performance space – even assuming there is one of these), so that it becomes a musical representation of the building. There will also be recorded voices – something I’ve used quite a lot recently – talking about the place, its history, its significance, what was there before it was built, etc. It should see the light of day next year with further performances in 2013, but it’s early in the process, so I can’t say too much more.”
When asked who, apart from Andrew Ford, are the composers born or residing in Australia that should gain more currency abroad, Ford replies, “David Lumsdaine, 80 this year and now living in the UK, is a very serious voice, I think. What interests me in particular is the way in which his soundscapes and his composed works intersect. There’s a new CD – White Dawn – that places them alongside each other. I’m very drawn to Mary Finsterer’s music, especially her latest stuff. It’s always interesting to observe composers in transition. Of course if you’re not in transition, then you’re drying up.”
Illegal Harmonies and The Sound of Pictures can be ordered via Black, Inc.’s website.
Published in 2007, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’ first book, was an engrossing and thoughtful survey of Twentieth Century music, equally useful as an introduction to neophytes and a refresher to specialists (he’s since tweaked the paperback edition to be even more comprehensive, including updated info and a “go-to” listening list). By “classical music” standards, the book was wildly successful, and Ross subsequently garnered a number of honors, including a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award and a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship. Its follow-up, Listen to This, doesn’t limit itself to contemporary concert music. Instead, it’s a wide-ranging survey of musical topics, including portrait essays of musicians as diverse as Radiohead, Marian Anderson, Sonic Youth, and Cecil Taylor, discussions of specific musical genres, and thought pieces on the state of music education, the record industry, and cultural consumption at home and abroad.
Ross has been a music critic on the staff at the New Yorker since 1996. While most of these essays are culled from his writings there, Listen to This never strikes one merely as a “greatest hits” compilation. Rather, the volume is structured to tease out several overarching concerns. One of them is the working musician. In one chapter, he demystifies the grueling touring schedule of chamber musicians, pointing out that even acclaimed groups such as the St. Lawrence String Quartet have to hustle to make a living in today’s economic climate. Far from being another “death of classical music story,” Ross argues for the relevancy of these touring ensembles that, despite these challenges, bring music of a very high level of artistry to locations far and wide, many of them off of the beaten path. Another topic is globalization’s affect on postmillennial music, which is explored in a particularly fascinating travel essay detailing a concert-filled trip to China and in a jaunt to Carnival in Brazil with Björk.
While there’s no mistaking Ross’ erudition, a trait that allows specialists to prefer his writings to those of some of his journalist colleagues with less musical knowledge, Listen to This is an approachable collection. One of the ways in which it speaks to a wide audience is with an eagerness to share in what Leonard Bernstein called “The Joy of Music.” Indeed, Ross is that rare writer on music who can share his enthusiasms for an artist’s work with unabashed honesty. But even when backstage with Radiohead or following Björk through the streets of Salvador, he defuses any notions of fanboy journalism – a trend that, alarmingly, has infiltrated all too many publications of late. Instead, Ross seeks to put a human face on artistic process, detailing the origins of Björk’s eclectic musical tastes and providing a foil for the singer’s exotic costumes and playful demeanor by detailing a studio session in which, while humane, she is exacting in eliciting musical details from collaborators. There’s an emotional openness, even vulnerability, which runs through a number of these essays. His eulogy of the exquisitely talented mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is one of the most affecting yet observant tributes to this recently departed artist (rereading it was made all the more poignant by the passing in April of her husband, the composer Peter Lieberson).
The state of music education is a frequent topic of discussion of late. Ross’ essay “The Crisis of Music Education” should be required reading for policy-makers, educators, and the parents of artistically motivated children alike. As one can tell by the title, it acknowledges the beleaguered state of arts and education funding; but Ross still provides several glimmers of hope for the future. He describes the unlikely and extraordinary flowering of a music program in the inner city at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey. Another urban success story is detailed in Providence, Rhode Island’s Community MusicWorks, a program run by the Providence String Quartet, a group of graduates from major conservatories who prefer giving back to staking a claim for fame and fortune. Ross even gets in on the education act himself: part of his book tour for Listen to This has featured a performance/discussion of bass lines throughout music history ranging from Purcellian grounds to Delta Blues walking lines: it’s also made for a cult YouTube hit, in which Ross is joined by the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson and ex-Battles composer Tyondai Braxton.
A staff position at the New Yorker provides a platform from which can wield considerable influence. Some of the essays collected here have already had undeniable impact. Ross has done a considerable amount to raise the stock of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, and his fascinating chapter on the composer’s works and working environments is another “must-read” excerpt. One wonders whether it’s mere coincidence that Providence String Quartet founder Sebastian Ruth received a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship. If Ross had a hand in this, more power to him: it’s nice to see a music critic on the side of the good guys!
While reading Conversing With Cage at a bus stop today, I stumbled across this funny yet in the end profound exchange (circa 1980) between John Cage and John Robert with Silvey Panet Raymond:
How do you consider new popular music – punk, New Wave?
What is the New Wave? I don’t really know what it is. If you could point it out to me, I might have some reaction.
It’s very simple, three – , four-chord stuff, aggressive, fast.
There’s a good deal of dancing on the part of the performers?
Usually jumping up and down
I’ve seen something like that. It was entertaining to see but not very engaging.
But they use very dissonant sounds; I wonder how you felt about that?
I have no objection to dissonance.
I know you have no objections, but I wanted to know whether you felt any pleasure that things were coming round to your way of thinking.
But this isn’t it, is it? Isn’t it a regular beat?
Not all the time.
I think it’s part of show business.
In a marginal way?
No. I’m much more a part of music as a means of changing the mind. Perhaps if you want to say that, I wouldn’t myself.
Opening up the mind.
A means of converting the mind, turning it around, so that it moves away from itself out to the rest of the world, or as Ramakrishna said, “as a means of rapid transportation.”
So your music in itself is not that important.
The use of it is what is important.
The use rather than the result.
That’s what Wittgenstein said about anything. He said the meaning of something was in its use.
As exasperated as I get by quotes attributed to John Cage regarding jazz improvisation, so-called popular music, and well, composing in general, I have been and will continue to be educated, provoked and inspired by his writings and music. My most recent work-in-progress for five electric guitars and electric bass is in part a homage to Cage’sImaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) that utilizes notation borrowed from Leo Brouwer’s wonderful guitar quartet Cuban Landscape With Rain (1984) to realize various aleatoric events. How my new piece (or for that matter Brouwer’s) would sit with Cage and his desire that music realized via chance operations covert the mind of its performers and listeners is – since he’s no longer with us – open to debate.
Maybe including “…for John Cage…” in the title of my piece isn’t appropriate?
Cage also readily admitted he was “close minded…” about many things.
Does Cage present to you a similar grab bag of ideas – some valuable, some exasperating? Has your attitude and appreciation of Cage changed over time?
Innerviews: Music Without Borders
(Extraordinary Conversations with Extraordinary Musicians)
by Anil Prasad
Abstract Logix Books; 315 pages, Published 2010
Anil Prasad has covered music on the internet longer than practically anyone. He started the website Innerviews in 1994, well before blogging, social media, and a host of other technological changes. The web has changed remarkably over the past sixteen years, but Innerviews has remained a consistent and engaging part of the internet’s musical life.
Prasad regularly publishes interviews with musicians from a plethora of genres: jazz, fusion, funk, prog, world music, electronica, etc. Innerviews the book collects some of his most noteworthy conversations with a diverse yet distinguished assortment of musicians.
Each chapter is devoted to a different artist (24 in all). Interviewees include Victor Wooten (who also writes the book’s foreword), John McLaughlin, David Torn, Björk,McCoy Tyner, and David Sylvian.
(True, the emphasis is on jazz, world, and popular music, but even the most classically oriented of Sequenza 21’s readers will likely find plenty here that speaks to the lives of concert music artists as well).
Prasad sets up the interviews with lengthy introductions, detailing the artists’ biographies and respective career trajectories. The interviews themselves feature discussions of creative process, musical inspirations, and approaches to performing and recording. Happily, Prasad avoids the sensational (PR-induced) talking points that are so often found in many recent “press interviews.” He instead favors affording the artists a more open-ended conversation, and the chance to share in depth observations about the music itself.
There’s another key component of every Innerviews interview that’s worth mentioning. Prasad doesn’t shy away from the interior life of creative artists, asking each musician to describe their spiritual journey and how it relates to their musical experiences. It’s refreshing that this open-ended line of inquiry elicits such a variety of responses. It appears that, much like the panoply of musical styles referenced in Innerviews, the question of spirituality inspires in artists an abundance of creativity.
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Each generation of composers coming up through college is always a little dismayed to find their music history survey books fizzling out in their descriptions current composers. Maybe one compressed chapter at the end, with a jumble of names or the barest of thumbnail sketches. Half are already only half-remembered, and the other half are musicians you desperately want something, anything more from or about! Yet often somewhere out there beyond the curriculum, there’s another kind of book; one some dedicated fan, critic or participant created, providing fuller sketches and often interviews with the people that matter most to them in the here and now (one such that mattered greatly for me in the 1980s was John Rockwell’sAll American Music).
Another of my little quirks is a strong liking for a number of recent and contemporary Canadian composers. I have no idea how it happened — other than perhaps years of government funding and a certain image of some “outsider” isolation and independence — but to my ears Canada has produced a remarkably large group of surprising and creative musicians.
So I was very happy to see that one of the latest “catch-up” books on composers comes from a Canadian perspective.Paul Steenhuisen, a fine Canadian musician in his own right, has recently published Sonic Mosaics: Conversations with Composers (University of Alberta Press, 2009), a collection of interviews with (mostly) living composers from America, Europe and Canada.
We asked another Canadian musician and journalist,John Oliver, to review the book:
Sonic Mosaics is a book of interviews conducted by composer Paul Steenhuisen over a three-year period from 2001-2004. Over half of the interviews were commissioned by Toronto’s monthly, short-run music publication WholeNote on the occasion of a composer’s presence in the city for a premiere performance or CD release. Two were originally published in Musicworks magazine and the rest were conducted by Steenhuisen afterward to complete the book and attempt to represent more Canadian composers.
Steenhuisen gets full marks for disclosure: he reveals the shortcomings and strengths of the book in the introduction. Although the book contains a large number of interviews with Canadian composers, the author admits that it is by no means representative of the entire country. The reader is treated to six interviews with non-Canadian composers, three of which occur as a result of a composer’s appearance as a guest of New Music Concerts. Five are with the most senior generation of international contemporary music “stars”: Pierre Boulez, George Crumb, Mauricio Kagel, Christian Wolff and Helmut Lachenmann; the sixth is UK composer Michael Finnissy.
Equivalent Canadian senior composers include R. Murray Schafer, John Weinzweig, Udo Kasemets, John Beckwith, and Francis Dhomont. Yet equivalent senior composers of Quebec and the rest of Canada are not represented. The rest of the interviews give a glimpse into the creative minds of primarily composers who reside in the province of Ontario. Place-of-residence analysis reveals that, of the 26 Canadian interviewees, 16 reside in Ontario, 6 in Quebec, 3 in British Columbia, and one in Alberta: not an accurate proportional representation. The reader may also note that over half of composers represented here teach at universities, an understandable bias given the author’s background and the general tendency in Canada for composers to gain a livelihood from teaching. If this represents only a subset of important Canadian composers, the reader’s curiosity will be aroused to seek out information about more as a result of reading this book. A second volume is in order.
Actually it goes to 12, and yes, he is working on another parody of Brown’s to be called, The Lost Chord. I hope you enjoy THE SCHOENBERG CODE by Dick Strawser. Chapter 12 should be out very soon, unfortunately Dick was in a car accident and is on the mend.
Which seems all the more reason to mention the long-awaited Notations sequel just released: Notations 21, brought together by Theresa Sauer. Besides the book, the Notations 21 project has its own website with even more information. Between all these links you can feast, gawk and marvel at snippets of the highest, subtlest, strangest and most elegant musical and extra-musical explorations of the last 50 years.