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.”
Many of our regular s21 readers should be familiar with Amsterdam’s own Samuel Vriezen, both as a visitor here on these pages, as well as a composer selected to be on both of our past s21-produced concerts. Samuel’s always been a highly active explorer, whether in his own or others’ music, poetry, concert production, cross-continent discussions with artists of all stripes, you name it. With a strong interest in Language Poetry, it’s not surprising that his explorations have led him to what I might call “Language Music”.
No composer could better typify this kind of piece than ex-pat American (and former Village Voice critic) Tom Johnson. For quite some time, Johnson’s own brand of ‘minimalism’ has produced a whole series of stunning pieces, often from the most basic and transparent idea and means. The beauty of Johnson’s work is that he’ll take some very simple starting concept or question and, without trying to finesse or “art it up”, follow the process all the way through in the most natural and even mundane fashion. What’s fascinating is how such a simple starting point can end up creating it’s own rich and absorbing musical experience.
Case in point: Johnson’s 1986 piece titled simply The Chord Catalog. The work consists of all 8178 chords you can play using the 13 tones of one full octave, from the 78 2-note chords up to the one 13-tone cluster. The progression unfolds on the piano with absolute regularity, both through the notes and through time. While this may sound dry as dust, what happens over time is a strange tension, anticipation, and eventually even a bit of rich disorientation. It’s also incredibly difficult to perform; Johnson himself had such a hard time mastering it that he was pretty sure there’d be no one to follow. But along came Samuel, who became enamoured enough with the piece to put in all the work necessary to not only master it, but to surpass the master in accuracy and speed.
And now there’s a chance for you to hear Samuel bring his performance of The Chord Catalog to our own shores. He’s winging his way across the pond to give two performances here: the first in Washington D.C. this Monday, October 26th at 7:30pm at Ward Recital Hall, Catholic University of America, 620 Michigan Ave. NE); the second in New York City on Wednesday, October 28th, 8:30PM at Roulette (20 Green St.).
The Concerts are titled “Chord Catalogues” because also on the bill is Samuel’s own 2006 piece Within Fourths/Within Fifths, a work that forms a kind of natural extension to the Johnson.
Just to complete the hat-trick, Samuel also has the world premiere of his piece Sept Germes Cristallinsat a concert Friday, october 30, 8PM, presented by the Ensemble Lunatics At Large at the Mannes College of Music (Mannes College Concert Hall, 150 W. 85th St) in a bill that includes Chen Yi, György Kurtág, Ryan Brown, Luciano Berio, William Funk and John Harbison. About the new work, Samuel tells me it “was written at the request of the Flemish literary review, Deus Ex Machina, as a contribution for their Valéry issue. Given that I am a poet and a composer with some background in mathematics, the idea was that I would somehow respond musically to one of the fragments from Valéry’s Cahiers – the extraordinary and humungous collection of thoughts and notes that he diligently was penning down every single morning for many decades. I chose a brief text that compares a sudden memory to the sudden crystalization that can happen in an over-saturated solution, because it suggested musical textures to me. It’s a piece in which every musician has lots of freedoms, with the soprano in control of the pacing, and every now and then a sudden fractal canon crops up.”
So if you’re in any of those neighborhoods then, drop by for some truly astounding music, and say “hi” personally to one of the nicest minds I know (for an in-your-face Dutch guy, that is … ).
When I finally struck out for the Kansas City airport on Sunday afternoon, Kyle Gann was about 45 minutes into a very chilled-out performance of his heroic four-and-a-half-hour transcription of Dennis Johnson‘s November–a piece which inspired La Monte Young’s The Well Tuned Piano and was the first minimalist piece to employ a diatonic scale, repetition, and to stretch for multiple hours. November probably would have been lost to history had Kyle not undertaken the work of rescuing it. Sarah Cahill was going to take over from him at some point that afternoon, and the final notes of that performance were to mark the official end of the conference.
While I did have to miss most of the November performance in order to catch my flight home, I’m pleased to say that in the course of the four and a half days of the conference I only missed the end of that performance, one paper on Sunday morning, and the opening remarks of the conference (having gotten lost on my way from the hotel that first day). Not all of the papers were brilliant, but some of them were, and all of them had at least some interesting features. Not all of the pieces on all of the concerts were brilliant, but every concert was worth attending, and some of the music was truly great. But I’ve talked about the papers and the concerts already: what I want to talk about now is the social experience.
Musicological research into minimalist music is a small and young field. Vast areas of theoretical and biographical groundwork remain to be done, there are few published close readings of even the most iconic pieces, and much of the work that has been done has not yet made it into the standard musicological journals and resources. One result, of course, is that researchers in musicology have the exciting prospect of building the foundation of the field, writing the essential papers that will guide future work, and making the kinds of profound discoveries that are so rare in more mature fields. The other result is a sense of comraderie among the participants in the research, promoted by the sense of common purpose, a need and desire to build on each others’ work, and the excitement of discovery. That sense of discovery isn’t just about discovering music or interesting research, but also about discovering a group of like-minded scholars who have been thus far toiling independently. Adversity, to be blunt, fosters community. I arrived in Kansas City knowing only a handful of people, and I left with the sense that I had begun dozens of potential friendships. Many of the papers I heard contained not just interesting material, but insights and references I wish I had know about when I was writing my own paper.
The other advantage of a conference in a small field is the fact that the major figures are accessible. One of Kyle Gann’s chief claims to fame in the musicological world is his tenure at the Village Voice, and his book Music Downtown, a collection of his writings for the Voice, is an essential primary source for anybody studying postminimalism. Before Kyle was covering minimalism for the Voice, though, Tom Johnson held the post from 1972-82, and his own collection of articles, The Voice of New Music, is similarly essential. Tom lives in Paris, and I had always assumed that I would never meet him, but he attended the whole conference, gave a talk about minimalism in Europe, and spent the week hanging out with the rest of us. I lean heavily on Kyle and Tom in my paper, and it was nerve-wracking to have them both in the audience, but the fact that they both seem to have liked my paper gives me confidence that I’m on the right track. Keith Potter, author of Four Musical Minimalists, was there, and I was delighted to find that he’s beginning some extensive further research on Steve Reich. Mikel Rouse was in town to present his film Funding, but in between visiting family in the area and visiting his favorite haunts from his own days studying at UMKC, he attended a number of the paper sessions. Conference co-organizer David McIntire gave a paper on Rouse, and most of us didn’t realize that Mikel was in the room–during the post-paper discussion someone pointed out that he could actually resolve a couple of questions for us, which he graciously did. Sarah Cahill played the piano beautifully, and in person she couldn’t have been nicer. Charlemagne Palestine played the organ beautifully, and in person he’s kind of a maniac. Paul Epstein gave a presentation a compositional technique called “interleaving” which he uses extensively and to excellent effect–after his presentation I assured him that I would be stealing the idea from him. And that’s just the people I had heard of beforehand.
The third installment of this conference series is tentatively scheduled for October, 2011, near Brussels. The plan is to switch back and forth across the Atlantic every two years, and 2011 feels like a long way off. While it was nice to get back home and to catch up on sleep (I was averaging about 4 to 5 hours a night while I was in KC), I also didn’t want to leave.
P.S.Here’s a copy of my paper as delivered at the conference, including typos and still sans bibliography. For more about the conference itself, don’tmissKyle’sseriesofpostings over at his blog.
Tonight’s performance by Charlemagne Palestine was, in short, one of the most extraordinary musical experiences of my life. Palestine has developed a technique for playing the organ which involves the use of wooden shims to hold down keys so he can build up drones with many notes and still have his hands free to improvise melodies over top of it. He starts with an open fifth and builds over the course of a couple hours to a dense roar that uses most of the available power of the instrument. It was mesmerizing. In truth, I wasn’t expecting to like it much — I expected it to be long and loud and somewhat interesting but ultimately boring. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I urge you that if you ever have an opportunity to hear Palestine play you not miss it for anything.
The rest of the day went well too, but I’m just too exhausted to talk about it at the moment, so I’ll save it for my wrap-up in a day or two.
This summary has to be a short one, since I need to finish preparing for my paper presentation tomorrow morning, but today was another excellent conference day. During the day, in addition to papers there was a concert of Tom Johnson‘s extremely minimal Organ and Silence performed by Neely Bruce. At dinner time Robert Carl gave a plenary address about In C, a subject on which he has just published a book. Then we all had some of the justly famous Kansas City barbecue. In the evening Sarah Cahill, a great champion of contemporary music, gave a concert which included two recently completed transcriptions of Harold Budd‘s The Children on the Hill. The piece was originally improvised, and there exist two vastly different recordings, which Kyle Gann has painstakingly transcribed. The pieces are quite beautiful. The rest of the concert was good too, but the other highlights for me were an excerpt of Hans Otte‘s Das Buch der Klange, which is virtuosic, beautiful, and spectacular, and John Adams‘s China Gates, which he actually wrote for Sarah Cahill many years ago.
A day that starts at 9AM and ends after 11 at night, in which 15 different people give presentations, and which culminates in a two hour concert, is not a day that is easy to distill down to a single theme (except perhaps happy exhaustion). We began with no fewer than six papers on Steve Reich, some of which were thematically linked but none of which was redundant. Perhaps my favorite moment of those morning sessions was when Sumanth Gopinath compared a feature of Different Trains to the music from a classic 1980s IBM commercial. In the afternoon we had papers on Part, Eastman, Glass, and Young. Kyle Gann described his painstaking reconstruction of Dennis Johnson‘s pivotal-yet-nearly-lost November, which Kyle and Sarah Cahill will be performing in all its 5-hour glory on Sunday. And at the end of the day the great Tom Johnson, who was the Downtown critic for the Village Voice from 1971 to 1982 and who now lives in Paris, gave an hour-long presentation on European minimalist music that we in the United States aren’t familiar with, and on some of his own music. Johnson’s book The Voice of New Music is essential reading for anybody who wants to understand minimalism, and it was a real thrill to hear his current thoughts on the European scene.
After dinner, the Kansas City based New Ear Ensemble gave a concert of minimalist works. New Ear is, to begin with, a superb group–they played some very difficult music very well. The concert had three high points for me: Vladimir Tosic‘s Arios for piano and cello was quite beautiful and highly formalized in a way that made every moment feel like a natural, organic outgrowth of the preceding. Jacob Ter Veldhuis‘s The Body of Your Dreams for piano and tape is always great fun, with its Reich-inspired interplay between piano melodies and a tape part assembled from an infomercial about a piece of exercise equipment that promises great results with minimal effort. The final piece on the program was Tom Johnson‘s Narayana’s Cows, which is an ingenious representation (including Johnson providing explanatory narration) of a math problem supposedly posed by the 14th century mathematician Narayana Pandit: “A cow produces one calf each year. Beginning in its fourth year, each calf produces a calf. How many cows are there after, for example17 years?” That may sound dry, but it’s actually a very fun piece.
If good luck in travel is a harbinger of things to come, then the fact that my flight into Kansas City for the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music actually touched down twenty minutes early is surely a very good sign. And so far today things have worked out that way.
The conference got underway with two papers on Intertextuality in the music of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen and British composer (and the first journalist to use the word “minimalist” to describe music) Michael Nyman. Apparently Nyman steals liberally from everybody, including himself. I mean that in only the best possible way–Nyman seems to deeply interested in the artistic possibilities that such borrowing and referencing, and he even once had a microfilm reader in his house next to his piano to enhance his ability to quickly look for material to work with. After a short break we then had three papers on the music of Phill Niblock, whose microtonal drone music is strange, fascinating, and beautiful.
After dinner, and after an on-stage conversation with Kyle Gann, Mikel Rouse presented his 2000 film Funding at the Kansas City Public Library. The film is a fascinating non-narrative (or perhaps extremely-limited-narrative) exploration of New York City, money, and identity, underscored by Rouse’s post-minimalist, rhythmically complex music. Rouse has clips of some of his films, including Funding, on his website, so I’ll just direct you there, since I need to get some sleep so I’ll be fresh for day two, which starts at 9AM tomorrow with a paper on Steve Reich.
Also, remember that some of the conference participants are Twittering about the conference with the hashtag #minconf.
Here’s your heads-up that the Second International Conference on Minimalism is fast approaching! It runs Sept. 2-6 and Kansas City gets the honors this time out.
Papers and presentations abound, as do a string of wonderful concerts. Of course there’s talk on Glass, Reich and Adams; but also Phill Niblock, Julius Eastman, La Monte Young, Tom Johnson, Mikel Rouse, Dennis Johnson and more. Concerts not only include one by prodigal legend Charlemagne Palestine, but a closing that puts none other than our old pal Kyle Gann at the keyboard with Sarah Cahill! (I’m sure Kyle’s practicing and sweating bullets at this very moment…) S21′s own resident minimalist, Galen Brown, is giving a spiel on Saturday, and hopes to post here throughout the shindig.