Archive for April, 2005

In Pruning the List (April 21), I suggested Glass’s Einstein on the Beach as the composition that had the most widespread, immediate influence on American music in the 1970s. Nobody has suggested an alternative, so EOTB gets the nod by negative acclamation.

Now to the 1980s. With this post, the original list gets knocked off of this page and into the archives, so you can access it here if you want to refresh your memory. I’m looking for suggestions as to which work from the 1980s had the most powerful impact on American composers of the time, the piece that made the most composers reconsider what was possible. Not necessarily the best piece, but the piece that, through a combination of inspiration, prominence and luck had the most widespread, immediate influence.

My vote goes to John Adams Harmonielehre. Runners-up (in chronological order) are Glass Satyagraha, Gubaidulina Offetorium, Anderson O Superman, Reich Tehillim, Reich The Desert Music and Andriessen De Stijl.

What do you think?

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In Arlit where I am sitting in my hotel room writing this, I suddenly catch sight of a man carrying an empty picture frame…It frames his whole person as he carries it, only his head and ffeet outside it. It is strange to see the way the frame separates him, brings him out, yes even elevates him. When he stops for a moment to move it from one shoulder to another, he seems to step out of the frame. It looks as if that were the simplest thing in the world.

- Sven Lindqvist

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Paging Ken Russell: Listomania has overtaken the Composers Forum page. I’m beginning to regret my little contribution to this phenomenon.

So on to another topic: Taking a page from Tom Myron, Jerry asked what other art forms or disciplines have had the biggest impact on our composing. For me there is no hesitation: literature has been a defining force in the way I think about my work. In fact, I could break down my artistic influences in the following manner:

Literature (plays, novels, poetry, etc.): 65%
Film: 20%
Visual arts (painting, sculpture, etc.): 10%
Other (dance, architecture, etc.) 5%

This is not to say that I have any less respect or love for great dance, paintings or architecture (please don’t send me your indignations — if you do, you are missing the point). I just find that these art forms have a less direct influence on how I think about composing. And I think those proportions are an undiscussed aspect of compositional style: I know I have colleagues who are heavily influenced by the plastic arts, and their music is different from mine in a way that reflects those different influences.

And therein lies a huge part of the lack of comprehension we often have for one another’s work. Some music is narrative-driven, some is design-driven, etc. Vincent Persichetti once told me that all music is dance, and while I loved the man and respect his work, that connection to dance is not one I immediately warm up to, so it requires an extra effort for me to lose myself in his music. Not that I’m incapable of appreciating it, but I need to step farther outside of myself to find his center.

Do you think this is an important distinction? Or do you find it irrelevant? I wonder, if we are able to articulate these influences in this manner, how it might help or hinder others in appreciating what we do. I know of several specific instances where I was able to grasp another composer’s art more readily once I understood his/her non-musical influences.

Can you assign percentages to your non-musical influences?

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Last post was called Pruning the List, but I feel like I’m pruning a butterfly bush: new blossoms are coming hard and fast.

Some great suggestions have brought the list up to 148 — far beyond what I initially asked for, but part of the interest in this kind of joint project is the fact that you can’t predict the outcome.

The new suggestions bring the total of pieces I’ve heard up to 49, so I’m still at 1/3. Which only confirms the point I’ve made before that this is not my list, it’s ours.

If you haven’t checked in awhile, take a look at some of the recent comments on the list below: I think you will find some of great interest.

Meanwhile, we have a student composers concert here tonight, so I’m a busy, busy boy. They (the students) are nervous, but if they only knew how terrified I am for them…

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Okay, now that we’ve had a chance to come up with every piece from 1970-2005 we can think of that deserves our love and affection, and bemoan the unfairness of skipping over so many great composers that were left off The List, it’s time for me to get back to what I was looking for originally.

Alexander Radvilovich asked me what pieces since 1970 had the same effect that Le marteau had on the 1950s and Sinfonia had on the 1960s.

So it’s time to look back over the list and pick out one piece from each decade that had the most widespread influence. Elodie Lauten has written about The End of Stylistic Dominance and Rodney Lister has testified to the shift in media attention since the 1970s, and it is true that both of those cultural shifts have muddied the waters. But could it still be possible to point to one work that had the broadest influence on other composers? Not necessarily the “best” piece, or the piece that has “stood the test of time” (whatever that means), and certainly not the piece that had the most impact on any one of us individually. I’m looking for the composition that, due to a complex set of factors (innovation, quality, prominent premiere, timing, luck, etc.) made a sizable proportion of composers of the time stop in their tracks and reconsider their artistic paths.

Looking back through the 70s list, my vote goes to Einstein on the Beach. Not anywhere near my favorite work from the period, but the attention it got and the impact it had is undeniable.

Runners-up, in no particular order: Drumming, Final Alice, Shaker Loops, Rochberg Third Quartet.

Of course, none of these comes close to Star Wars, on a certain level. But I just can’t bring myself to put that in the same category. And I’m sorry to say that Ligeti (whose name rhymes with SPI-ghet-ti) isn’t in here either.

Again, I’m not making a case that these are the best pieces of the decade. They are certainly not my favorites, especially with 20-20 hindsight. But I think they meant the most in the shifting mindsets of the time.

Do you agree? I’m looking for responses from people who were there, composers who are now in their 40s and up. We will need the input from younger composers when we get to the 1980s and 1990s. I’m going to assume that it’s too soon to say anything about the 2000s.

Jerry, I know you are dying to get your favorite — Bernstein’s Mass — on this list somehow. Sorry!

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Jerry Bowles alert: three Sequenza21 composers (Beth Anderson, Judith Lang Zaimont and yours truly) are having pieces performed on a concert organized by Maksim Kuzin in Kiev this evening. Could it be a coincidence?

I also understand that my quartet The Curse of Philip Dunigan was performed last night at IU in Bloomington. Can anyone confirm that?

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“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

- Ambrose Bierce

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[thanks to great reader suggestions, this list has expanded tremendously since first posted -- up to 152 now -- so some of the comments I made at the bottom are no longer relevant or true.]

Here it is, Sequenza21′s list of most influential pieces since 1970. The list includes the pieces I originally came up with plus readers’ suggestions, both those that were posted and those that were emailed to me. I’ve also added a few pieces I thought of after I published the initial lists. I’ve left out a handful of works I couldn’t find dates for, but the rest are all here.

It’s an amazing, preposterous, fascinating, revealing, disorienting and provocative list of compositions. Take a look at it, and then I have a few questions and observations:

George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children (1970)
John Cage: Songbooks (1970)
Gyorgi Ligeti: Chamber Concerto (1970)
George Crumb: Black Angels (1970)
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mantra (1970)
Elliott Carter: String Quartet No. 3 (1971)
Tom Johnson: An Hour for Piano (1971)
George Crumb: Vox Balanae (1971)
Steve Reich: Drumming (1971)
Philip Glass: Music in Twelve Parts (1971-1974)
Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel (1972)
Gyorgi Ligeti: Double Concerto (1972)
Charles Amirkhanian: Just (1972)
Andres Jolivet: Violin Concerto (1972)
Peter Maxwell Davies: Hymn to St. Magnus (1972)
George Rochberg: String Quartet No. 3 (1972)
Frederic Rzewski: Coming Together (1972)
Luciano Berio: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1972-73)
Louis Andriessen: De Staat (1972-76)
Helmut Lachenmann: Gran Torso (1972-88)
Ben Johnston: String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace” (1973)
Leonard Bernstein: Mass (1973)
Per Norgard: Turn (1973)
Steve Reich: Music for Mallet instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973)
Gyorgi Ligeti: San Francisco Polyphony (1973-74)
Brian Ferneyhough: Unity Capsule (1973-76)
Luciano Berio: Points on the Curve to Find (1974)
Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 15 (1974)
Peter Maxwell Davies: Ave Maris Stella (1975)
Per Norgard: Symphony No. 3 (1975)
Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975)
Henri Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit (1976)
David del Tredici: Final Alice (1976)
Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach (1976)
John Williams: Star Wars (1977)
Henri Dutilleux: Timbres, espaces, mouvement (1977)
Peter Maxwell Davies: A Mirror of Whitening Light (1977)
Sofia Gubaidulina: Duo-Sonata (1977)
Joseph Schwantner: Aftertones of Infinity (1978)
John Adams: Shaker Loops (1978)
Morton Feldman: Why Patterns? (1978)
Tristan Murail: Treize couleurs du soleil couchant (1978)
Robert Ashley: Perfect Lives (1978)
William Duckworth: The Time Curve Preludes (1978-79)
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Chamber Symphony (1979)
Judith Weir: King Harald’s Saga (1979)

Philip Glass: Satyagraha (1980)
Sofia Gubaidalina: Offetorium (1980)
James Sellars: Chanson Dada (1980)
Joan Tower: Petroushskates (1980)
James Dillon: Spleen (1980)
Harold Budd/Brian Eno: The Plateaux of Mirror (1980)
Conlon Nancarrow: Studies Nos. 40, 41, 47, 48 (1980s)
Laurie Anderson: O Superman (1981)
Ezra Sims: Phenomena (1981)
Jaco Pastorius: Word of Mouth (1981)
La Monte Young: The Well-Tuned Piano (1981)
Horatiu Radulescu: Iubiri (1981)
Judith Weir: Thread! (1981)
Peter Maxwell Davies: Image Reflection Shadow (1982)
Steve Reich: Tehillim (1982)
Michael Finnissy: Banumbirr (1982)
Anderzej Panufnik: Arbor Cosmica (1983)
Oliver Knussen: Where the Wild Things Are (1983)
Steve Reich: The Desert Music (1983)
Salvatore Sciarrino: Macbeth (1983)
Witold Lutoslawski: Symphony No. 3 (1983)
Magnus Lindberg: Kraft (1983-85)
Morton Feldman: For Philip Guston (1984)
Salvatore Sciarrino: Hermes (1984)
Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 3 (1984)
Harrison Birtwhistle: The Mask of Orpheus (1984)
Arvo Part: Te Deum (1984)
Louis Andriessen: De Stijl (1984-85)
Morton Feldman: Piano and String Quartet (1985)
Judith Weir: The Consolations of Scholarship (1985)
John Adams: Harmonielehre (1985)
Gyorgi Ligeti: Piano Concerto (1985-88)
Gyorgi Ligeti: Piano Etudes (1985-1990)
Daniel Lentz: The Crack in the Bell (1986)
Per Norgard: Lin (1986)
Laurie Anderson: Home of the Brave (1986)
Michael Finnissy: String Trio (1986)
Witold Lutoslawski: Chain 3 (1986)
Janice Giteck: Om Shanti (1986)
Harrison Birtwhistle: Earth Dances (1986)
Carl Stone: Shing Kee (1986)
Iannis Xenakis: Keqrops (1986)
Morton Feldman: For Samuel Beckett (1987)
Galina Ustvolskaya: Symphony No. 4 “Prayer” (1987)
Lois V Vierk: Simoon (1987)
Gyorgi Kurtag: Quasi una fantasia (1987)
Toru Takemitsu: Twill by Twilight (1988)
Wolfgang Rihm: Depart (1988)
Larry Polansky: Lonesome Road: The Crawford Variations (1988-89)
David Rakowski: Piano Etudes (1988-)
Bunita Marcus: Adam and Eve (1989)
Lee Hyla: String Quartet No. 3 (1989)
Art Jarvinen: Murphy-Nights (1989)

Gyorgi Ligeti: Violin Concerto (1990)
John Cage: Four2 (1990)
Iannis Xenakis: Knephas (1990)
Pauline Oliveros: Crone Music (1990)
Martin Bresnick: Opere della Musica Povera (1990-99)
Julia Wolfe: Four Marys (1991)
John Cage: Five3 (1991)
Robert Ashley: Improvement (1991)
Milton Babbitt: Mehr Du (1991)
John Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer (1991)
Meredith Monk: Atlas (1991)
Judith Weir: I Broke Off a Golden Branch (1991)
Frederic Rzewski: De Profundis (1991)
John Adams: Chamber Symphony (1992)
Magnus Lindberg: Clarinet Quintet (1992)
Conrad Cummings: Photo Op (1992)
John Cage: Fifty-Eight (1992)
David Lang: Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993)
Milton Babbitt: String Quartet No. 6 (1993)
David First: Jade Screen Test Dreams of Renting Wings (1993)
Michael Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony (1993)
Elliott Carter: Symphonia (1993-96)
Magnus Lindberg: Aura (1994)
Olivier Messiaen: Eclairs sur l’Au-Dela (1994)
Milton Babbitt: Triad (1994)
Gyorgi Kurtag: Stele (1994)
Mikel Rouse: Failing Kansas (1995)
Michael Gordon: Trance (1995)
Eve Beglarian: Landscaping for Privacy (1995)
Mikel Rouse: Dennis Cleveland (1996)
Gerard Grisey: Vortex temporum (1996)
Tobias Picker: Emmeline (1996)
Esa-Pekka Salonen: LA Variations (1996)
Tan Dun: Marco Polo (1996)
Michael Finnissy: Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets (1997)
Thomas Ades: Powder Her Face (1997)
Sofia Gubaidulina: Canticle of the Sun (1997)
Michael Finnissy: Multiple Forms of Constraint (1997)
Pierre Boulez: Sur incises (1998)
John Luther Adams: In the White Silence (1998)
Beat Furrer: Still (1998)
Mark Adamo: Little Women (1998)
John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music (1998-99)
Elodie Lauten: Waking in New York (1999)
Toshio Hosokawa: Koto-uta (1999)
Louis Andriessen: Writing to Vermeer (1999)
The Magnetic Fields (aka Stephin Merritt): 69 LOVE SONGS (the album) (1999)

Kaija Saariaho: L’amour de loin (2000)
Frederic Rzewski: Pocket Symphony (2000)
Osvaldo Golijov: La Pasión según San Marcos (2000)
Michael Gordon: Decasia (2001)
Michael Harrison: Revelation (2001)
Chocolate Genius (aka Marc Anthony Thompson): Godmusic (2001)
Peter Maxwell Davies: Naxos Quartets (2002-05)
John Luther Adams: The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies (2002)
John Corigliano: Circus Maximus (2004)

So there it is. Have you memorized them all? Now for some questions.

Are there too many pieces on this list? I don’t think so. There are many, many composers out there doing wonderful work.

Is it possible we missed some? No question in my mind. We’re doing a little better than the Pulitzer Prize, but this list just scratches the surface.

Is this list biased? You bet. I can think of a number of prominent people born in the 1930s in particular who have been left off. Anybody remember an interview a few weeks ago in the NYTimes with James Levine and a couple of composers? Won’t find their names here. Among established composers with prominent careers in 1970-2005, don’t look for Mario Davidovsky, Alfred Schnittke, Lou Harrison, Iannis Xenakis, Sofia Gubaidalina, Toru Takemitsu or William Bolcom either.

We’re also missing a lot of the composers who are getting the majority of orchestral commissions these days. And don’t tell me they don’t have any influence, because there are hundreds of other composers trying to imitate those career paths, even if they won’t admit it.

Do numbers matter? The most represented composer is Peter Maxwell Davies, with five entries. John Adams, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Gyorgi Ligeti, Steve Reich and Judith Weir have four each. All of these composers are very important, but I’m thinking these numbers are only of qualified interest — they might be a bit skewed by individual enthusiasms to be really significant of the largest trends. But numbers are what they are.

Is there a connection between length and impact? I don’t know all of the works on this list, but of the ones I know, very few are under 10 minutes, and many are over 30 minutes. Is length an appropriate measure of importance?

What is influence? I asked What new works changed the way composers thought about composing from 1970 to 2005. Several people answered with the pieces that had influenced them most. But there are two kinds of influence: there is the piece that changes how you think about music, and there is the piece that reinforces the viewpoint you already hold. No matter how conservative or progressive we may be, we all respond to both types of influence, and I believe that a lot of the pieces that ended up on this list — both conservative and progressive — fall into the latter category, even though I was specifically asking for the former.

Actually, there is a third kind of influence, which we all experience as well: the piece that has a negative impact on us, as in, Wow, I never want to write anything like that!

How many of these works have you heard? My score is 52, which is just over one-third. Gives me a great reason to go on living, just knowing that all those life-changing works are still out there for me to experience.

What’s next? You tell me. Hope this list is of some use/interest to you.

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What do Charles Wuorinen, John Harbison and Joan Tower have in common? Some people would say not much, others would say quite a lot. One undeniable thing they have in common is their age: all three composers were born in 1938.

Another thing they have in common was a performance here by the Da Capo Chamber Players on Saturday night. But although these three composers share a birth year, the pieces that represented them came from three distinct stages of life: Wuorinen’s was written when he was 24, Tower’s piece was penned at the age of 42, and Harbison’s work was just premiered this past fall, when the composer turned 66.

The program opened with Bearbeitungen über Das Glogauer Liederbuch (1962), Charles Wuorinen’s recomposition of six anonymous works from the late 15th century. In this context, the piece functions as a modernist appetizer, a way of saying See, composers have been writing complex music for centuries. Wuorinen comments in his notes that the complexity of the period (roughly 1460-1480) “contrasts sharply with what came later” — meaning the High Renaissance. Fittingly, twenty years after this piece was written, the postmodern tipping point had arrived, and complexity was dominant no more.

That postmodern point was typified by the concluding work on the program. A signature closer for Da Capo concerts, Joan Tower’s Petroushskates (1980) was written when she was still the founding pianist of the ensemble. The piece is familiar to anyone who has heard much of this group; it’s a pleasantly energetic romp through Stravinskian rhythms and harmonies. In a way, it has a function complementary to Bearbeitungen, reassuring the audience, at the end of a long evening, that even complex music can be fun.

John Harbison’s music has never made much of an impression on me. My reactions have ranged from That wasn’t bad to Didn’t like that much — not the effect most composers are after.

His new work, Songs America Loves to Sing (2004) was a revelation. Based on 10 familiar melodies, the piece is riveting from start to finish (about a 25-minute duration). I confess I was predisposed to dislike the piece, with its cheerleading title and settings of such overdone melodies as Amazing Grace and Happy Birthday. But Harbison’s piece is about much more than the tunes: it’s about children singing around a piano, it’s about immersement in folk traditions, and it’s about a man on the brink of old age remembering, and trying to remember, and forgetting.

Taking its title from his recollection of a volume of songs his family sang together when he was growing up, Songs America Loves to Sing alternates, in approved academic style, between soloistic and canonic settings. The canons are clever in unexpected ways, and many of the solos are suitably virtuosic. All of this may be very impressive from a technical standpoint, but the piece gains its true value from the way in which Harbison has inhabited the material. The powerful gospel rhythms in the piano part of What a Friend We Have in Jesus are shadowed by the rest of the ensemble, playing almost inaudibly throughout in ghostly reverence. Aura Lee features a witty, mensural canon combined with a tribute to Elvis. Contentious canons in diminution dramatize the struggle behind We Shall Overcome. And the Anniversary Song is a touching marriage of melancholy and hope: at the conclusion, strummed strings in the piano blend with harmonicas played by the flutist, clarinetist and violinist, while a wistful fragment of the tune disappears into the highest reaches of the cello.

The concert also featured some pieces by composers who weren’t born in 1938. Best among them was Shulamit Ran’s Mirage from 1990, a work in which flurrying gestures, germinating from an amplified alto flute, coalesce into a heterophonic outpouring of melody.

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Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.

- William Faulkner

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