The consistently thought-provoking Kyle Gann has a complaint: “I think young composers might want to think about diversifying the composers they base their styles on beyond John Coolidge Adams.” He gets a lot more promotional CDs than I do from record labels and young composers hoping to lure him out of music-critic retirement to provide that coveted Kyle Gann pull-quote for their bios. (Can I do the heist-movie thing and say they want to get him out of retirement for “one last score”? Too late, I already did.) As I said, I don’t get the same recordings that Kyle gets, but let’s take him at his word and stipulate that an awful lot of the postminimalist composers out there–especially the more successful ones–are writing warmed-over John Adams. I like John Adams as much as the next guy, and I’ve written my share of ersatz Adams, but too many composers hewing too closely to a single model could be cause for concern. When I followed up with Kyle over e-mail, he did say that “a lot of young composers I know don’t sound like Adams at all, but they’re by far the less successful ones,” so what we’re seeing may be more of a skew in economic outcomes than a skew in total underlying populations, but that skew would also be troubling.
I wonder if part of what we’re seeing here is the wages of the stylistic tunnel-vision of the music higher-education system. Read the rest of this entry »
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt turned 75 yesterday. His record label ECM Records is celebrating his three-quarters of a century with two new recordings.
Pärt’s 4th Symphony is a long-anticipated follow-up to his 3rd – which was written back in 1971! In the interim, the composer has moved from a modernist style to an idiosyncratic version of minimalism; one the composer calls the “tintinnabuli” style of composition. From bell-like resonances and slowly moving chant melodies, Pärt has crafted a personal compositional language of considerable appeal. And while this has included a number of stirring instrumental works, such as Tabula Rasa and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, more recently Pärt has been known for his choral music. His return to symphonic form is thus an opportunity to explore his mature language in a different milieu.
Perhaps in part as an acknowledgement of the home of the orchestra commissioning the Fourth Symphony – the “City of Angels” – Pärt decided to use a text as a formative – if subliminal – device in his preparations of the piece: the Canon of the Guardian Angel. Thus, while this is certainly not merely a transcription of a vocal piece – it sounds idiomatic and well orchestrated – there is a certain chant-like quality which demonstrates the symphony’s affinity with the vocal music and chant texts that are Pärt’s constant companions.
The live recording is of the work’s premiere in Disney Hall in LA. Salonen and the LA Phil give a muscular rendition of the piece, emphasizing its emphatic gestures while still allowing for the symphony’s many reflective, meditative oases to have considerably lustrous resonance. And while one can certainly hear a palpable connection to Pärt’s chant-inspired tintinnabuli pieces, the symphony also allows for dissonant verticals and melodic sweep that recalls both Pärt’s own Third Symphony and the works of other 20th century symphonists, from Gorecki to Shostakovich.
Perhaps in order to clearly attest to the connection between text and symphony, the disc is balanced out with a fifteen-minute serving of fragments from one of his important choral works from the 1990s: Kanon Pokajanen. The composer has pointed out the relationship between the canon that was his reference point for the symphony and the texts upon which the latter choral work was based.
He says, “To my mind, the two works form a stylistic unity and belong together. I wanted to give the words an opportunity to choose their own sound. The result, which even caught me by surprise, was a piece wholly pervaded by this special Slavonic diction found only in church texts. It was the canon that clearly showed me how strongly choice of language preordains a work’s character.”
Kaljuste and the Estonian Chamber Choir are seasoned handlers of Pärt’s works, having made a number of recordings of his music. They do not disappoint here, providing a performance that juxtaposes the ethereal eternity found in the texts with an earthy and corporeally passionate rendering of the music.
In order to further fete Pärt, ECM also plans a lush reissue of their landmark 1984 recording, Tabula Rasa, complete with a generous accompanying book with newly commissioned essays about the composer.
Steve Reich’s latest Nonesuch CD recently arrived, sans artwork in a little cardboard case. The disc features Double Sextet and 2×5, his collaborations with Eighth Blackbird and Bang on a Can. The former piece won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The latter is his most explicit use of rock instrumentation to date.
According to the Nonesuch site, it’s still in the “pre-order” phase of activities, so we’ll be good and hold off on a proper review ’til it’s closer to the actual release date (9/14).
Suffice it to say, if you’re a regular visitor to Sequenza 21, you’re likely going to want one, possibly three, copies of this recording. An intergenerational summit – minimalist elder statesman meets post-minimal/totalist ace performers – that, in terms of importance, is more or less the Downtown version of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.
My graduate history seminar on minimalism starts next week at Westminster Choir College. I’ll be teaching the course in a three-week intensive session – three hours a day/four days a week. In that time – just 12 meetings in all – we need to cover a lot of ground. There are three assigned texts: Minimalism: Origins by Edward Strickland, Repeating Ourselves by Robert Fink, and Music Downtown by Kyle Gann, as well as a number of supplemental readings (lots of Tom Johnson) and listening assignments.
Each student will be required to make a class presentation and write a substantial research paper. Those in the group who like to compose will write a minimal piece for the class to perform. In an exciting development, one of my students, who is a high school choir director, has already been in touch with Terry Riley’s “people” about Another Secret eQuation, his recent choral piece for young people, and will be researching it for her paper.
While I’ve been thinking about and prepping the course for a long while, I’m, of course, curious about what the Sequenza 21 community thinks. What do you consider to be an “all killer/no filler” listening list for graduate students studying minimalism – many of them for the first time. The comments section is open!
By the way, those who are interested may feel free to contact me after the class is over for a set of the handouts/slides.
Not that you need the halls of academia to get this creative; here’s the Hong Kong band RedNoon taking right to the subway:
Just a few weeks after the NYT feature with Stanford, CNN got into the act, also in Hong Kong, interviewing my composer-pal Samson Young about his own iPhone Orchestra. Samson, a Princeton grad student, put together his own performance at the January Hong Kong/Shenzhen Biennale. This one’s my personal favorite:
It may seem very queer, but it’s here — get used to it!
I really enjoyed Q2′s broadcast tonight of New Sounds Live, a concert at Merkin Hall by the Bang on a Can All Stars that featured works by Nik Bartsch, Oscar Bettison, Christine Southworth, Michael Nyman, and David Longstreth. The first in a hopefully ongoing series of collaborations between Q2 and Merkin Hall, it was also a featured event in this week’s Composers Nowfestival.
I particularly enjoyed the Bettison work, The Afflicted Girl, in part because it’s quite affecting; but it also helps that I was able to study in advance and follow along with a perusal score sent over by the kind folks at Boosey. Funded by BoaC’s Peoples’ Commissioning Fund, the piece is what Bettison calls an “anti-pastorale.” Its based on a quote from Peter Ackroyd’s London: the Biography. It describes an afflicted girl frequently found in a busy thoroughfare, seemingly oblivious to the cacophony around her. Or, as in Bettison’s posits in his piece, perhaps she found a kind of music amidst the chaos.
Clangor is Bettison’s daily bread: many of his works employ junk metal percussion. The Afflicted Girl involves copious percussion batteries, prepared piano, a keyboard tuned a quarter tone flat, taped echoes of the ensemble, plenty of electric guitar harmonics, and a Shapey-esque scordatura tuning of the cellos C string – down to G for rumbled slackening. What’s more, all the players double on bicycle bells!
Alternately assaultive and contemplative, rhythmically charged and, briefly, eerily reposeful, its a demanding, challenging, harrowing, and memorable work.
Bang on a Can. Photo: Christine Southworth
Sad you missed out on the Q2 broadcast? Fear not: the performance will be featured on a March broadcast of New Sounds.
Pwyll ap Siônis a composer and Senior Lecturer in music at Bangor University in Wales (UK). His strong interest in Minimalism (he’s written a book on Michael Nyman) led to his co-hosting of the firstInternational Conference on Minimalist Musicin 2007. He also made his way across the ocean for the second iteration of the conference, held last September in Kansas City, MO. Pwyll asked if S21 might like to print a few of his reactions and thoughts from the conference, and we said sure thing:
At the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music last September, hosted by the University of Missouri at Kansas City, part of the evening events led me to the Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral to hear composer, performer and improviser Charlemagne Palestine. He is something of an enigma; when John Adams attended a rare performance in the 1980s, Palestine walked out after twenty minutes, leaving the audience baffled. Even those who have already seen him have no idea what to expect.
I enter the dim glow of the cathedral and notice two things: first, the sound of a drone — two notes, a fifth apart (a little like La Monte Young’s infamous Composition 1960 No. 7: two notes with the instruction ‘to be held for a long time’). The drone is low in dynamic but high in register, its reedy timbre adding a slight edge to the ambiance, but this is otherwise a rather inauspicious introduction. Secondly, there’s a merry gaggle of teddies and puppets neatly arranged on a table near the entrance, all of which appear to be wearing scarves or ribbons. I am told that this is de rigueur in the eccentric world of Palestine. But nothing quite prepares me for what follows.
We are politely informed that the performance has already begun despite the fact that the audience is milling around, chatting casually or ambling up and down the aisles. The atmosphere is relaxed, however, and we are told that the unpredictable Palestine is (literally) in high spirits, on his second (large) glass of cognac, and has extended an invitation to members of the audience to visit the organ loft situated at the rear of the cathedral. We have to take off our shoes to do this – a complicated process since it is almost completely dark at the back of the nave – and just as we are about to be ushered by an assistant up the staircase, there is a frisson of activity from above, and the man himself appears, wine glass in hand, wearing a panama hat and dressed in bright, colourful clothes.
He strides purposefully past us towards the altar, raising his voice to speak. Rather like the drone, which continues to sound in the background, his voice is high-pitched and nasal. He announces that he will be playing Schlingen-Blängen, which has not been performed (spoken ostentatiously) ‘in the United States of America’ for decades. But he’s rambling on incoherently, maybe the cognac’s starting to take effect, and I’m starting to doubt all the hype. This increases as he proceeds to produce a ringing sound by rubbing his finger around the wine glass while emitting a series of pitches in a childlike voice.
With the performance rapidly descending into banality Palestine stops singing, abruptly turns on his heels down the aisle and back up the organ loft. Seizing the opportunity the Belgian musicologist/critic Maarten Beirens and I follow him up the stairs. Oblivious to the fact that we’re there, he is entirely absorbed in his own sound world and starts to perform.
Philip Glass always does the unexpected. Or, as he said to me when we were talking on the phone about his subsequently Oscar-nominated score for Errol Morris’ 2003 The Fog of War, “I’m a bad person to interview because I never stay on the subject.” Well, yes and no. Yes, because Glass’s focus on the work in front of him is unflinching, and no, because his instincts always lead him to surprising solutions. His two-act 155 minute intermission-less new opera Kepler is yet another example of Glass’s wandering, yet disciplined, mind. Premiered at the Linz Opera by American conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his Bruckner Orchester Linz on September 20 2009 as part of that city’s celebrations as this year’s Cultural Capital of Europe, Kepler made the trip to Brooklyn smoothly, carrying a bit of history. Kepler lived in Linz, Mozart’s Symphony #36 was dedicated to it, Bruckner was choir director there — and two of the Nazis’ death camps — Mauthausen and Gusen, whose specialty was getting rid of the intelligentsia, were scant kilometres from its city limits. But then darkness is rarely far from light.
And darkness, as distinct, or in contrast/opposition to — light –is the motor that drives Glass’s Kepler, but not in a Manichean way. Glass is far too subtle to put his cards on one table. Instead, being a practical and practicing Buddhist, he seems to have chosen the unglamorous “Middle Way” which means seeing “things as they are” and in Kepler’s case this is war, strife, and people who dared question him. The mathematician-teacher-astronomer-astrologer and all-round provocateur, who lived from 1571 to 1630, seems to have been at the epicenter of cultural ferment, and of course, the first decade or so of The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which began more or less as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants and ended up devastating much of Europe, with a death toll as high as 11.5 million people.
Glass dramatizes these stresses in a direct and indirect way. And Glass’s German and Latin libretto, assembled by Austrian artist Martina Winkel, from Kepler’s theoretical writings on the laws of planetary motion and other major discoveries, his enemies list, passages from the Lutheran Bible, and poems by Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), works both as reportage and evocation. The oratorio-like piece for the 79 member BOL was partially staged here with effective lighting and Karel van Laere’s costumes for its seven soloists — bass-baritone Martin Achrainer as Kepler is the only specified character with Soprano 1 — Sadie Rosales who substituted for the indisposed Cassandra McConnell — Soprano 2 (Cheryl Lichter), Mezzo (Katherina Hebelkova), Tenor (Pedro Velazquez Diaz), Baritone (Seho Chang), and Bass (Florian Spiess) — who functioned as aspects of Kepler’s often beleaguered psyche. The 40 member Linz chorus moved incrementally through the work.
I’d have to agree with my “plus 1″ friend that the first 20 or so minutes (after a wonderfully transparent orchestra only prologue with lovely chromatic figures for the strings) was pretty tough going. But things began to pick up when Kepler outlines his theories and his conflicts – the notion that heaven’s not a place inhabited by “divine beings” but a “clockwork” – which, of course, suits Glass’s formal processes perfectly. The chorus, operating as both character and commentator, gave Kepler heft and vivid and enormously varied contrasts. Glass has always written superbly for massed voices — the choruses in Satyagraha (1979) are contemporary landmarks — and those here were both affecting and powerful, especially the “Vanitas! Vanitas!” , which the full vocal ensemble sang on the lip of the stage facing the audience, with the orchestra seated behind. And wouldn’t you know it, my cell rang — being a neophyte in all things cell –which was the only sound in the house as the audience was completely spellbound — and how could they not be — by this arresting passage. I promise to learn how to turn the damned thing off. Read the rest of this entry »
Last Friday I finally made it down to the new DUMBO location of Galapagos Art Space to see the release party/performance of Mikel Rouse’s haunting new album Gravity Radio. But let’s back up for a moment before we get to Rouse.
DUMBO, for you non-New Yorkers, is one of the myriad New York City neighborhood abbreviations, like SoHo (South of Houston) or Tribeca (triangle below Canal), and it stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass,” which is to say it’s in Brooklyn in the area just south of the Manhattan Bridge. It was one of the first places in Brooklyn that artists moved to find illegal loft space in the 70s after they got priced out of lower Manhattan. (The name “DUMBO” is actually an interesting piece of failed culture jamming–residents hoped that by coining such an unappealing name they could stave off developers.)
Galapagos Art Space is a mixed-genre performance space which used to be in Williamsburg, but when the rent in Williamsburg got too high they worked out a deal that has landed them in a converted industrial space in DUMBO which they were able to entirely remodel to fit their needs and aesthetic. In front of the stage, suspended a few inches above a shallow black reflecting pool and connected by bridges, is a set of circular seating pods with room for several small tables and chairs each. A balcony with additional seating rings the room and provides space for the sound booth. The whole place is done up in red and black and chrome, set against the bare concrete walls of the building. It’s truly a beautiful space. Galapagos has a new booker, and I’m told that they are going to be increasing their classical fare–they’re already hosting the New Amsterdam Records concert series Archipelago (the next show in that series will be this Friday at 7:30pm with vocal group Roomful of Teeth and percussion/flute duo Due East.) To give a sense of how diverse the offerings at Galapagos are, in just the next week they will also be presenting Argentinian music by Emilio Teubal & Fernando Otero, punk/cabaret by Barbez, some sort of music/dance extravaganza called “Out Through Her,” the Main Squeeze accordion orchestra, a production of Hamlet, a burlesque show, Jenny Rocha and her Painted Ladies (which apparently involves music, dance, physical comedy, and theatre), a variety show, and the American Modern Ensemble. Perhaps “diverse” is an overstatement, but that programming certainly covers a lot of the territory of the hipster art universe, and that was just one week of shows.
Galapagos Art Space
That programming potpourri brings us nicely back to Mikel Rouse, whose album Gravity Radio may at first glance seem like a straight-up rock record, but which has deep roots in the classical music and theater traditions as well. Mikel himself is clearly comfortable in the netherworld between pop and classical, moving effortlessly more into one area and then into the other. In 1978 his band Tirez Tirez opened for the Talking Heads in Kansas City; in New York in the 80s when postminimalism’s highly rhythmically and structurally complex offshoot Totalism was emerging, Rouse was at the center of the movement along with composers like Kyle Gann and Michael Gordon. In 1984 he wrote a 12-tone piece called Quick Thrust for a rock quartet, which features dizzying polymeters that somehow seem tightly controlled and completely haywire at the same time. Mikel’s rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic instincts all seem grounded in rock, but he tends to deploy those materials much more like a classical composer than like a popular song writer.
Take “Black Cracker,” which is track three on Gravity Radio. First, almost all popular music in 4/4 time has four-bar phrases, but for Rouse’s lyric that fourth bar is unnecessary and he leaves it out. The whole song is perfectly seamless, and yet because every cycle is one bar shorter than you expect the whole thing feels constantly off-kilter. Then part way through he cuts the tempo of the descending hook “When I’m bored I can’t be bored with you/When I’m blown I can’t be blown in two” by half. After establishing the half-tempo version he brings back the full-tempo version over top of it, making the chorus into a prolation canon. That half-speed hook then becomes background for the next verse. Later an ascending scale adds yet another counterpoint to the mixture, and the whole thing fits together like a puzzle.
The danger of emphasizing these elements of complexity, of course, is the risk of sending the message that complexity is inherently virtuous, or that the complexity in this music somehow “elevates” it above other less complex popular music. Writing in Gramophone, Ken Smith once said that Rouse’s music is evidence that “pop music can sustain serious interest with the right person at the helm”–the implication that most pop music can’t “sustain serious interest” is the kind of thing that tells me the writer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The complexity in Gravity Radio is interesting and enjoyable, and connects the music to the classical tradition, but ultimately the music has to stand or fall on its surface qualities, and in this case it stands tall. I’ll take a well-crafted Britney Spears tune over a tortured post-serialist brain-dump by a composer who cares more about combinatoriality than musicality any day of the week, and while I haven’t asked him I suspect Mikel Rouse would feel the same way.
If it sounds like I’m avoiding telling you what Gravity Radio is, exactly, the truth is I’m not sure what to call it. It’s part song-cycle, part concept album, part theater piece. It’s a series of thematically and musically related, country-inflected, infectiously memorable rock songs of ambiguous but evocative lyrical content, connected by interludes of spoken recitation of news headlines and fragments of lyrics from the songs delivered in an astonishing newscaster-kunst voice by Veanne Cox. It has something to do with superconductors and gravity waves. It’s abstract and catchy and deep. It’s 52 minutes and 14 seconds long.
The beauty of the internet is that I can just tell you to go here to listen to portions of it and read Mikel Rouse’s description and the lyrics.
The performance at Galapagos was a stripped down version with just guitar, string quartet (members of ACME), Mikel singing, Veanne reciting, and some background sound effects. It worked well even in that format, and the absence of drums and other rock elements showcased how deeply integrated the string arrangements are into the composition. The band fought a little against the acoustics of the space, which had a tendency to muddy up the sound, but overall the performance was tight and intense. Rouse modestly sat among the ensemble rather than standing front and center like a rock frontman. The headlines in the news recitations were updated with recent news, as they will be for each leg of the international tour that begins in January.
Gravity Radio ends with one last set of news reports from which I draw one final observation: Almost any statement is improved by the addition of the phrase “Chuck Norris wins.”