If you’re a fan of new music, be it “indie-classical” or whatever it’s being labeled this week, then you must check out the music of composer and conductor Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. Phillips’ music, composed and arranged for his ensemble Numinous, a large chamber group (or small orchestra?) of woodwinds, brass, strings, tuned percussion, electric instruments and vocalists, is a complex, finely detailed amalgam of classical, minimalist, South American, Asian, and African American influences, with a distinctive “sound” that is instantly identifiable, yet full of surprises. (You know those descriptive terms “Brahmsian” or “the Mingus effect”? It’s like that.) Phillips’ latest album, Changing Same, due out August 28 on New Amsterdam Records, is perhaps his most autobiographical musical statement to date.
While his previous recordings, Numinous: The Music of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. and Vipassana include notes that detail the inspiration for his compositions, Changing Same has no notes; just a quote from 1966 by writer, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka (then Le Roi Jones) that describes a “post-black aesthetic,” one that unapologetically digs both the down-home and the downtown, the highfalutin and the funky, the Anglo-centric and the Afro-futuristic, the “what it is” and the “what the hell is goin’ on?” The titles for each of the six movements of Changing Same offer some additional clues . . . “Behold, the Only Thing Greater Than Yourself,” “Miserere,” “Unlimited,” “Alpha Man,” “The Most Beautiful Magic.” The first track, “19,” which can be streamed and purchased here, refers to November 19, 1970, the date of the publication of James Baldwin’s essay, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, opus 19, from 1911, and the age Phillips began studying music as an undergrad, after two semesters as a bio-chemistry major.
Changing Same is another intriguing chapter in Phillips’ journey, from growing up listening to both Holst and Prince, to conducting Numinous onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a performance of his score for the 1922 silent film The Loves of Pharoah, to producing this latest release. In the following interview, Phillips provides some details about that journey, and explains how his life experience, be it past, future or present-day-craziness, is reflected in the music of Changing Same.
On the back of your new album, there’s a quote by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) from his 1966 essay, The Changing Same:
“R&B is about emotion, issues purely out of emotion. New Black Music is also about emotion, but from a different place, and finally toward a different end. What these musicians feel is a more complete existence. That is, the digging of everything.”
So, my first question with regard to this quote is, do you dig everything?
Well, of course, I have my standards. [laughs] There are things I like and don’t like.
In that essay, Baraka is explaining the spontaneous compositional processes of the creative improvisational people at that time, and putting them in a continuum of what had come before in terms of black music. He’s saying look, these guys might seem like they’re acting wild and crazy, But really, this “New Black Music” harkens back to earlier music.
When I read the essay, the quote just jumped out at me. I thought it was a perfect encapsulation of what I’m doing or hoping to have happen with my piece. With Changing Same, I wanted to take the cultural and musical things that I grew up with and incorporate them into piece. When I read Baraka’s essay, I thought, yes, I grew up with the black music continuum, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince. But I grew up with classical music as well, like Holst, Bach . . . like any other composer, I have a potpourri of influences. Sometimes you can hear these influences very specifically. For example, on the fourth track, “The Most Beautiful Magic,” the initial bass line is actually coming straight from Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
We like to think that chamber music is an acquired taste but what is chamber music but music played in a room by a few people for a few people or for thousands? So it’s not just the Mexico- founded Cuarteto Latinoamerico, or the American Patricia Barber and her band, or the American quartet Brooklyn Rider, and the Australian Dead Can Dance, or the late lamented Beatles, because all of these groups are playing chamber music. Syrian clarinetist-composer Kinan Azmeh was the headliner on the last installment of Lenore Davis’ St Urban’s poets cum musicians series at Subculture’s handsome downstairs room on Bleecker in New York’s West Village. And the music, by four completely different composers from two different continents, seemed to address the hidden source of sound. We like to think we’re in the light but we’re mostly in the dark, even underground.
Program director/ pianist Lenore Davis noted in her opening remarks that Robert Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style for Cello and Piano, Op.102 wasn’t the usual German romantic Sturm und Drang, but something fun. And what emerged was a charming, entertaining, and very solid performance by Davis and cellist Nicholas Canellakis of a minor piece by a major composer, though I kept thinking — did Brahms steal from Schumann, and was that why Schumann walked into the Rhine or was it all the sour and inveterate Clara Schumann’s doing? My late composer friend Virgil Thomson used to say that “the dead do not rest easy in Vienna” but could that also include northern Germany?
Aram Khachaturian’s three – movement 1932 Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano didn’t add up to much either, though it was vividly played by Azmeh, violinist Yevgeny Kutik, and Davis. But the real star of the piece was Kutik with his strenuous but effortlessly dispatched virtuoso fiddling, with Azmeh providing careful but decidedly in the background wind support.
Things improved immeasurably with three songs from Arabic Lieder by the renowned Syrian composer-pianist Gaswan Zerikly ( b.1954 — ) whom I had never heard of, but Azmeh’s soprano Dima Orsho, with whom he has worked for fifteen years in their chamber group Hewar (Arabic for “dialogue “) sang Zerliky’s settings of one poem by Abu Khalil al-Qabbani, Badr Shakir al -Sayyab, and the late great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Zerikly is Europeanized but clearly his own man, and his rapprochement with the Western art song tradition proved that there was new wine in those old European bottles. Still, do we have to model our art on “the Old World ” to feel validated? But Zerikly bridged the European – non-Western “divide” with musical settings which respected and enlarged both supposedly opposed traditions. Formal metrical demands were happily married with melodic gestures inherently ‘”non-Western” but obviously shared with “ours” because the audience was clearly moved despite the fact that Orsho sang everything in Arabic, with great expressivity and consummate taste. Sound is emotion and emotion sound, and this superlative singer heightened the attention level in the room to an extraordinary degree.
Azmeh’s Songs for Days to Come (2015), which St Urban commissioned, and which received its world premiere here, was the centerpiece of the concert, and though it came last, one could hardly imagine a more beautiful or moving end to a program. The piece, for the same players — Orsho, Azmeh, Canellakis, and Davis — showcased Azmeh’s extraordinary skill at embedding words in music so that the words seemed to come out of the instrumental music and vice versa. It was Azmeh’s first try at making songs from words, all of his other “settings” for Orsho being deeply emotive yet “only” vocalese, Yet the five songs, all in classical Arabic, but the last, which Azmeh chose from five Syrian poets, including his uncle Hazem al-Azmeh, were, he notes. intended to “reflect and document the contrasting feelings a Syrian might have experienced in the last four years ” before many countries and their proxy mercenaries colluded and launched a war to erase his people from their land and their history. Azmeh’s settings are direct but very evocative, and his clarinet sound seemed to emerge from “almost ” silence, and end in “almost” silence, like but not quite like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (1907-09 ) which links a Western European with a non- Western Chinese. And he preceded his settings with recordings of all five poets reading their words, beautifully, as stand alone things.The other participants in this very touching piece gave it their all, and the audience responded with steady and more than welcoming applause.
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The Dog Star 11 series of new music concerts continued on Sunday, May 31, 2015 at The Wild Beast performance space on the campus of Cal Arts. Reinier van Houdt, coming all the way from the Netherlands, was on hand to perform Green Hour, Grey Future (2014/15) by Michael Pisaro. An attentive audience sat quietly in the sun-splashed Wild Beast as the 73 minute-long work for solo piano and electronics gracefully unfolded.
The title of this piece comes from a poem by Susan Howe titled “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time.” The third section of that poem, “Taking the Forest” contains these lines:
Eve of origin Embla the eve soft origin vat and covert
Green hour avert grey future Summer summon out-of-bound shelter
The line “Green hour avert grey future” suggested to the composer a long, gradual transition from the vibrant green of the living present to the “grey” uncertainty of a distant future. Michael Pisaro writes: “So my idea was to take this hour for the piano and have it tilt ever so gradually from green to grey in its own particular fog-like way.”
The piece proceeds in a series of seven minute units that gradually increase in density, although in an artfully indirect manner that includes tone sequences, harmony, melody and loudness. The death of Mark Trayle, a close friend of the composer, also added a solemn dimension to the concept of transition in this work. Green Hour, Grey Future is dedicated to Reinier van Houdt and written in memory of Mark Trayle.
The piece opens with a single sustained piano note in the lower register. There is a pause, and the same note repeats twice more, followed by a longer pause. The note repeats twice again but this time with a bit less space between. After a somewhat shorter pause, the same note was repeated three times and a soft electronic matching tone was heard from the speakers. The electronic tone was sustained and smooth, although binaural beating could be heard at times – and the piano was silent. A long stretch of silence then concluded the sequence.
The opening sections proceeded in this way, with the opening piano note or notes rising in pitch and the matching electronic tones typically increasing somewhat in volume. Soon three or more notes and were played consecutively, followed by the electronic humming and another long pause of silence. The feeling was peaceful and calm, but anticipatory – like waiting for a distant signal. The slowly unfolding patterns in these early sections worked to focus the attention of the listener, and each new sequence seemed to add another piece to an emerging picture.
Very gradually the piece increased in complexity – a chord might be heard, or there were two or more consonant electronic pitches sounding together. The number of notes from the piano increased to something like a series of short phrases and finally becoming a steady stream. The piano and electronic tones now overlapped while the tempo – although never rushed – became incrementally faster. The piano notes, now played in the middle register, began to weave around the electronic humming in the background to produce a wonderfully warm mix of melody and sustained tones.
At this point a low percussive pinging sound was heard from the speakers turning the mood noticeably darker. The piano melody also took on a disconcerting feel as the louder, percussive electronics contended for attention in the foreground. This gloominess, however, gave way as pitches in the piano and electronics rose briefly to more optimistic levels. Bell-like tones from the speakers and a light tinkling sound added a mystical feel.
Before the warmer feel could fully establish itself, however, a solitary low starting note from the piano and a sustained low humming in the electronics recalled the beginning of the piece, now with a touch of menace. The piano sequences seemed to meander and drift while a low, rough rumble from the electronics overwhelmed the texture at times. This combination continued along for several minutes with the electronics clearly predominating. In the latter sections of the piece the piano continued its quiet, uncertain melody while the sounds of running water, birds, rain drops and the roar of an overhead jet were heard from the speakers. The piano notes finally slowed, and the piece came to a close.
In the course of 70 minutes, Green Hour, Grey Future carefully unfurls its beguilingly slow transition from spare simplicity in the opening, through a warm optimism in the middle sections and into the fog of an indeterminate future at the close. The electronics and piano were nicely matched in this performance, with the colors and moods most vivid in the middle sections. Reinier van Houdt, whose cool temperament and formidable powers of concentration combine so well, played this piece to perfection. A look at the score afterwords showed the sequences of notes on the staff marked with the timing in minutes, and Reinier used a stopwatch at the keyboard to mark his way through the piece.
Reinier van Houdt was planning to stay in California for a few more days so that a recording of this piece could be made. Watch for Green Hour, Grey Future – it will be worth a listen.
Meeting someone out of cyberspace can be fun. And so it was after a flurry of e- mails that San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet double bassist and composer Shinji Eshima and I met on a brisk April Sunday just before his 2pm curtain for its Balanchine Masterworks Program, to talk about his SFB commission RAkU which the company
tours to Hamburg–26-27 June, and to London’s Sadler’s Wells–19,20,23 Sept–and to DC’s Kennedy Center 13-18 December.
Eshima is immediately cordial (“You’re on time “) and leads us through the underground maze of The War Memorial Opera House until we arrive backstage where several dancers are warming up, and sees principal Damian Smith ( “You’re looking good”) who isn’t. And then we decamp to the lounge to talk about his Japan-set score for Yuri Possokhov’s RAkU, which the company debuted in February 2011 to immediate acclaim, and which I caught–the audience was spellbound–when it was revived this winter. The composer, who’s dressed in a black suit and snappy tie, speaks in a quiet, even tone about his work on RAkU.
“It’s based on the story of the monk who burned down The Temple of The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto which is the most famous temple in Japan,” and Eshima is quick to point out his Buddhist background. “My grandmother was the first ordained woman minister in America and my family was very involved in the Buddhist temple in Berkeley” The Buddhist concept of attachment, or in Eshima’s case the burning obsession of desire, drives his score, and the San Francisco Zen Center monks in the pit chant “We’re here to listen to your suffering” to the same 3-note cell–Eshima translates it as “I love here”–which expresses the desire of the monk–Pascal Molat–for the princess–Yuan Yuan Tan–who’s in love with the samurai prince–Daniel Deivson. Eshima and Iwonder if it’s possible to break free of desire and hence suffering, but musical matters are more pressing, and the composer, as I’d requested via e-mail, brings the score.
“I wanted to use the harp here, “he says, pointing to the opening bars of the “Prelude”, where it functions as both rhythm and color before darker hues are added by double basses and English horn. The sound is bare and heartbreakingly direct–the ” I love her ” cell–and any composer who goes out this far at the very beginning risks not being able to keep his audience with him for the duration. But Eshima’s instincts are right on the money, and honed no doubt by his long service in the opera pit where he’s absorbed how masters like Verdi do it. And Eshima’s sense of musical space is impeccable. “You want to give space to the performers,” he says, meaning of course the musicians, but any music theatre work has to factor in the performer on stage and off, and Eshima’s ” Warrior ” honors both with its dense bacchanal like dance in 7/8, with dramatically percussive writing not just for percussion–conch shell, non-pitched drums, timpan , bass drum, wood block, marimba, harp, piano–but also in the winds–flutes, clarinets–and brass–bass trombones. And Eshima keeps its steady met. 135 pulse interesting by spelling a 14 beat count as 4+4+4+2, and 2+2+2+2+2+2+2. Eshima’s intimate use of space is equally striking in “Kimono”–with is oboe arabesque over a string drone which suggests the piercing mixed winds in gagaku ( itals )–Japanese court music as Yuan Yuan Tan’s kimono, in a true coup de theatre, slips off her and disappears above the stage.
Eshima leads us back to the musician’s locker room to his locker plastered with photos, and takes out his Charles Plumerel 1843 double bass which figures famously in Degas’ painting The Orchestra of the Opera. He runs his finger reverently over its pen under enamel inscription, And then he plays the opening and reiterated for four minutes Eb with which Wagner began his RHEINGOLD prelude, and the connections between his RAkU “Prelude” and Wagner, are obvious. We are going into another world, and this is the key to the door.
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The Dog Star concert series, sponsored by Cal Arts, is a Los Angeles cultural landmark that features new music in a number of venues around town over the course of some 18 days. On Saturday, May 23, 2015 the Happy Valley Band arrived from Santa Cruz to present a Dog Star concert at the Wulf along with the group Desert Magic. A standing-room crowd packed into the smallish venue for an evening of original rounds and a high-powered experimental transcription of “the Great American Songbook heard through the ear of a machine.”
Desert Magic opened and presented several pieces from their upcoming CD A Round The Sun. Alex Wand, Steven Van Betten and Logan Hone played variously guitar, percussion, saxophone and all sang vocals. All of their music is in the form of a round and draws small vignettes about everyday topics and events. Some of the lyrics heard included “blood moon selfie”, “I was born under the desert sun”, “howl at the moonlight” and “the battery in the camera died and I saw a real sunset”. There was even a a piece whose patter was built around “Dog Star” and this drew some knowing laughs from the audience. The blend of guitar and vocals had a pleasant, folk-like feel and the round form produces an engaging texture. A variety of simple percussion elements brought out the beat, and added to a pleasing groove. The singing was often in harmony and perhaps Desert Magic could have wished for better acoustics, but the audience was generally charmed by this performance. Desert Magic is releasing the music from their CD on the solstices and equinoxes of the year 2015.
The Happy Valley Band followed, comprised of piano, two violins, electric guitar, two saxophones, electric bass and drum kit – various combinations of these instruments were employed for the different pieces performed at this concert. According to the program notes “ the ensemble plays transcriptions of popular music classics, made through a process of machine listening and sound analysis.” This is a massive oversimplification – the processing of a classic pop tune involves three major stages: audio separation, pitch plus rhythm analysis and symbolic notation generation. According to David Kant’s website the process proceeds as follows: “ First, the original audio recordings are separated into individual instruments using signal processing tools. The separated instruments are then translated into raw note on and off data through pitch and amplitude analysis. Finally, the raw note data is transcribed to music notation.” The end result is a computational rendering of what the machine has perceived within the recorded music, and this is translated into a musical score and performed for humans to hear. An excellent technical summary of the entire process appears here.
The first piece played by the Happy Valley Band was It’s a Man’s World by James Brown and is a good example of how all the processing actually sounds. It began with a frantic series of runs by the two violins, with loud entrances quickly following by the drums, bass, guitar and saxophone. The notes from the players come in sheets as an overwhelmingly complex texture, but at the same time the voice of James Brown was heard singing the familiar tune – a kind of cantus firmus that anchored the listener against the whirlwind of rapid variations. The rhythms of each instrument sounded independent – the players followed their scores using the pulse from the sung lyrics and not from a formal beat, but this only added to the originality of the sound. Not surprisingly, the pitches and harmonies always felt connected to the familiar tune, being derived from the same materials.
The drums, bass and electric guitar, especially, pushed the volume up to hard rock levels and this nicely complimented the source material. The organic complexity in the playing was reminiscent of the music of Brian Fernyhough and the use of pop classics as a starting point provided a reassuring measure of accessibility. The volume and high energy level brought a sense of spectacle that quickly captured the attention of the audience. The sheet music for each piece ran to dozens of pages, and these were tossed off the stands by the musicians and fell to the floor in great white heaps.
A number of pieces were played including You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman by Aretha Franklin, Suspicious Minds (We’re Caught In a Trap) – the Elvis standard, Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash and several others. The soulful music always worked well and Suspicious Minds was surprisingly powerful, especially the chorus where the saxophones produced an outburst worthy of Coltrane in his late free jazz period. The music seemed to come in waves, washing out over the audience in great surges like some primal force.
The Happy Valley Band has created a very appealing mix from the most unlikely elements – highly complex music played at rock band decibels and fashioned from the pop classics of the past.
The Happy Valley Band is:
Alexander Dupuis (guitar),
Conrad Harris (violin)
Pauline Kim Harris (violin)
Beau Sievers (drums)
Andrew Smith (piano)
Mustafa Walker (bass)
David Kant (saxophone and arrangement)
It is a trusim that opera is a collaborative endeavor but it is also true that the lion’s share of the credit, or blame, for its success usually goes to the composer. We may choose to see an opera because we like a particular singer, or director, or librettist, but, for better or worse, the composer is the ultimate “owner” of the work. Nobody says John Adams and Alice Goodman’s Nixon in China, although Goodman’s libretto is essential to the piece. Few people say Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein at the Beach. The Cave is described by Wikipedia as a multimedia opera in three acts by Steve Reich to an English libretto by his wife Beryl Korot when, in fact, it is at least as much her work as his.
It seem inevitable then that Paradise Interrupted, the installation one-act opera that is headlining Spoleto this year, will become known to future generations as Huang Ruo’s Paradise Interrupted. And he deserves lots of credit.The young Chinese-born composer’s composition masterfully blends 600-year-old Kunqu, one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, with contemporary Western music to create a sound landscape that is mesmerizing and ethereal, capturing perfectly the hope, longing and ultimate resignation of The Woman (sung gloriously by Chinese opera star Qian Yi).
But, the truth is, Paradise Interrupted is mostly Jennifer Wen Ma’s opera. Wen Ma, a Chinese-born interdisciplinary visual artist conceived, directed and designed the work, as well as co-wrote the libretto. The idea came to her, she says, while she was standing beneath her own art installation called Hanging Garden in Ink, a 60-foot-long, 6-ton suspended garden made of live trees dipped in black ink , in Beijing. Suddenly she imagined the black garden as an arresting and beautiful setting for an opera.
Set against an ever changing backdrop of abstract digital images that reflect the singer’s mood shifts, the garden that greets the audience of Paradise Interrupted is an assemblage of laser-cut paper painted with black ink that is unfolded, accordian-like, and closed up again by the performers throughout the drama. The effect is that the garden appears to move in response to the singers’ voices. The effect is stunning. Eight feet in height, the garden’s stark presence creates a looming landscape that takes on a life of its own. With some many moving parts and such seemingly fragile material, the potential for a staging disaster seemed so ominous that I found myself holding my breath as if watching a tightrope walker.
The chances are good that you’ve seen Ma’s work before even if you’re not an opera goer. In 2008, she was one of the seven members on the core creative team for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, and the chief designer for visual and special effects. She won an Emmy for the US broadcast of the ceremony.
The story is drawn from Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and and Du Liniang from the famous 1598 Ming Dynasty opera The Peony Pavilion. In a dream, a woman meets her lover and searches for an unattainable ideal–a return to paradise–as a vast interactive garden grows from an empty stage in response to her voice, only to disappear as her dream ends. With few movements and gestures, Qian’s lyrical, ethereal voice carried the story, ably abetted by bass-baritone Ao Li, baritone Joo Won Kang, tenor Joseph Dennis and countertenor John Holiday, whose singing especially stood out. Conductor John Kennedy has become an important go-to guy for New Music.
If you missed it at Spoleto, you’ll have to wait for it to come to the Lincoln Center Festival next year..
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It felt kind of like a Kennedy -meets-Weird-Al Yankovich-day at the opening concert of the 2015 Wells Fargo Chamber Music series at Spoleto. Series director Geoff Nutall, who is also first violinist of the superb St. Lawrence Quartet, is just as fashion-forward as his single-named British contemporary and was in mid-Festival sartorial form. This year’s composer-in-residence Mark Applebaum, whose startling and oddly mesmerizing piece Aphasia anchored today’s program, may be the only man–white or black–in America (other then Weird Al) to still sport an Afro. Almost certainly, he is the only composer to write a piece to be performed by a florist.
Aphasia is a scary word for people my age, meaning the loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage, like that caused by strokes. Applebaum’s Aphasia is a 9-minute piece expressly written for a “singer” to perform without making a single sound. Premiered in February 2011, it consists of hundreds of transformed vocal samples derived from the voice of professional baritone Nicholas Isherwood and set to a score of nonsense hand signals coordinated to each sound.
Based on everyday activities, the hand gestures were recorded as a written musical score, using icons with names such as “give me the money” and “Post-it Notes.” Applebaum says these gestures are intended to reflect his own fascination with “absurdity that seems to be the consequence of tedious, obsessive attention to ridiculous things.” Or, in other words, how bizarre the actions of the mundane routine of activity seem when they are examined out of context. Applebaum performed the piece himself.
While the piece was inspired by a conversation between Isherwood and Applebaum, the idea to write a piece for a mute singer with hand motions was Applebaum’s own “obsession.” He says his intention was to have Aphasia come across as a metaphor for “expressive paralysis,” something that unnerves him every time he “confronts the terror of composing a new piece.
Applebaum, who teaches at Stanford, is sometimes called “the mad scientist of music” for his extensive use of technology, and “invented and found” instruments–but his pieces are also curiously rooted in human emotions like joy, boredom, fear, despair, generously laced with Woody Allen-level angst. A zest of narcissism here, a dash of paranoia there, a couple of sprigs of self-loathing on the side. The result is work that is highly personal and curiously “music-ish.” As Applebaum likes to say the interesting question is not “is it music” but “is it interesting?” That, it certainly is.
There’s more Applebaum to come at Spoleto in the next week-and-a-half. The Bank of America Chamber Music series consists of 11 separate programs that run about 1 hour and 15 minutes, presented three times each.
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While I was in Ireland a week ago, I had the honor of speaking to composition students at the Dublin Institute of Technology Conservatory of Music & Theatre. It was a great chance to spend two hours talking about myself…
“It’s kind of odd making a powerpoint presentation about yourself,” I opened to absolutely no laughs or even smiles.
I guess starting off with a joke didn’t work afterall. It really was an honor though. It was fun to tell my story and how I approach composing. I’m always interested in how others work and (perhaps selfishly) I enjoyed discussing the music that I’ve been so lucky to write.
I presented a number of different pieces, including my masters thesis, First Flight. At approximately 13 minutes in length, First Flight was my first successful wind ensemble work. And at 13 minutes in length, it was 47 minutes shorter than the theses written by everyone sitting in front of me. “We have a requirement of at least one hour of music.”
One hour of music. That’s four times the size of my thesis. So that should mean 60 minutes of intelligent, artistic and quality music, right? This lead me to the question, does size really matter?
Ok, well if you know me you know I love Mahler. He’s the king of long-winded composition. Even when I speak of my love for Mahler, I think of specific moments I love. In the monumental 3rd symphony (being honest here), I love the final movement. That’s 30 minutes, not an hour, I could care less about the “bing, bong” part. I love all of the 10th Symphony, but technically the Adagio was the only movement finished. Ok ok ok, I love the 9th Symphony. The opening is so lush and by the time you get to the end it’s just so magical…by the time you get to the end.
Ok, let’s put Mahler to the side for a moment. What music do I love that takes at least 60 minutes to get through? Planets? Wagner? Symphonies? Daphnis & Chloe? No, I love the moments more: Jupiter, finale of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 and obviously Lever le jour, obviously. I would say an opera or musical doesn’t count in this instance because there are so many small sections that make up the whole.
Now some of you will say, “Well Tim, it takes going through the full hour long piece to recognize the importance of the moments.” Yes, you’re right. I think, or are you?
Let’s avoid discussion of how we’re “all ADHD” and can’t focus for an hour of music. My question is should we?
Remember that the requirement is for the composition to be at least 60 minutes in length. Can a composer write a concise and fully intelligent piece in 60 minutes? Yes, we have seen it in the past, (there are many great long works) but can the composer do it without meandering all over the place? Do composers need to be boasting about how big their composition is, or should we celebrate the ones with less girth that get the job done?
Downtown Los Angeles was the venue on Monday, May 4, 2015 for a concert by Michael Pisaro and Graham Lambkin – marking the release of their new CD, Schwarze Riesenfalter, on Erstwhile Records. A standing-room only crowd packed into the Wulf to listen to an atmospheric mix of guitar, keyboard, percussion and recordings.
The concert consisted of a single work based loosely on the text of Summer, a short poem by Georg Trakl that begins:
The twilight stills the lament Of the cuckoo in the wood. Deeper bows the wheat, The red poppy.
A black storm threatens Above the hilltop. The ancient trill of the cricket Dies in the field.
A recording of bird calls, some indistinct voices, and a loud piano crash began the piece, establishing a mood that was at once outdoors, dark and primal. The soft clanging of a gong was heard and the roar of a crackling campfire increased in volume along with vaguely menacing voices – it was as if some sort of ceremony was taking place deep in the wood. The voices faded and the solitary piano notes became warmer and welcoming as a sense of natural balance emerged. Graham Lambkin reached inside the piano, sounding one of the lower strings that morphed into a low groan. A sudden, sharp rapping on the piano case and some taut notes added a new layer of tension. Michael Pisaro rose from the piano bench and took up his electric guitar – a buzzing drone was heard along with a few loud pops – it was as if the instrument and the electronics were synthesizing the fire heard previously.
The piece proceeded with a sense of lurking jeopardy from the recorded voices and the scratchy sounds from Graham Lambkin’s processed violin, offset at times by a strong but calming melody in the guitar. This sense of contrast carried the piece forward – oscillating between a low, simmering anxiety and a more organic wholesomeness. At length Pisaro put down his guitar and took up the small gong, circling the performance area and filling the air with soft, contemplative sounds. Splashing water was heard and some light notes from Graham Lambkin at the piano mixed with the gong in a pleasantly airy amalgam. The recording now issued what sounded like someone walking through a thicket, and it was as if the woods were filled with benevolent spirits.
New notes from the piano shifted the mood to a decidedly darker tone and the gong was replaced with finger cymbals that added a sense of uneasiness even while maintaining a mystical feel. A low drone appeared, followed by a recording of sustained harmonica tones, some clicks and pops – all accompanied by the moaning voice. The piano, played once again by Michael Pisaro, sounded a series of somber notes and whirring sounds were heard, enhancing the darkness and mystery. This took on a dreamlike quality and the sounds of falling rain added a sense of sadness. The rain increased – a definite downpour now – as the piano continued with its sorrowful melody. The sound of wind arose in the recording and some whistling by the performers increased the palpable sense of loneliness. A recording of the piano theme previously heard was played through a tiny speaker placed center stage, and this small, ghostly sound seemed to haunt the performance space as it quietly faded away. The brief sound of footsteps in a corridor concluded this highly atmospheric and evocative work.
The playing was integrated seamlessly with the various recorded passages – and kudos to Pisaro and Lambkin who had to manage all the technology and move about on a completely darkened stage. The recordings and live playing were artfully synchronized and yet the whole seemed to be greater than the sum of the individual parts. The playing and the recordings both were necessary to complete the entire picture so vividly painted by this piece. The experience drew in and captivated the audience, who responded with sustained applause at the conclusion.
On Sunday, April 19, my piece Rise was premiered in Washington, DC. A collaboration with the poet Tameka Cage Conley, the work bears witness to our country’s fraught journey from Selma to Ferguson and beyond. The morning of the performance, a young Black man named Freddie Gray died of severe injuries sustained while in Baltimore City Police custody.
Last week, Chris Shiley and I recorded the Invocation that opens Rise. The same music returns in the fifth movement, called for by Dr. Cage Conley’s words: “A horn tells us, / a brother has fallen, again…” I share it with you as a lament, a prayer, and a call to action, for Freddie Gray and for Baltimore.
You can stream the track for free, and buy it for $1 or more. All proceeds go directly to the family of Freddie Gray, and will be used to cover medical and burial costs.
Click here to listen and donate. Thanks so much, and please share if you are so inclined!
All Best, Judah
P.S. For those interested, I posted some thoughts on art and activism over the course of the past week in Baltimore. You can read them here and here.