Posts Tagged “minimalism”

TomJ1On Friday, February 22 the week-long 2013 residency of Tom Johnson in Los Angeles was capped off with a concert of his music at the wulf, an experimental performance space deep in the gritty heart of industrial downtown. Featured was the Los Angeles premiere of  ‘Clarinet Trio’ and four other works, plus the occasion was also marked by the release of a new CD of Tom’s works titled ‘correct music’ from Populist Records. About 50 people crowded into the reclaimed factory loft to attend the event and what the wulf lacks in amenities was more than compensated by the enthusiasm of the young audience. The concert was free and there was an ice chest full of  Tecate beer – what’s not to like?

Tom Johnson’s time in Los Angeles this past week was spent giving lectures on mathematics and music at Cal Arts, hosting an exhibition of his drawings in the Art Share LA gallery and presiding over concerts of new music. Tom has deep minimalist roots and, according to the concert notes, “works with simple forms and limited sonic materials, utilizing logic and mathematical models in both his music and his drawings.”


The concert began with Clarinet Trio, performed by Jim Sullivan, Brian Walsh and Damon Zick. This piece consists of a series of short passages with changing sets of three note chords separated by short pauses.  Tom Johnson uses mathematics and sets of drawings to describe his intended sequence of the various permutations of musical sound and these are then translated into the written score and parts.  Clarinet Trio was constructed to explore the possible ways of playing seven different three-note chords and this took about 20 minutes to unfold. The different segments varied in rhythm, attack, dynamic and tempo but the ensemble playing here was very tight and each phrase was cleanly played with good intonation. The acoustics of the small space at the wulf were well-matched to the musical forces and those listening were very attentive during  the Trio – even the 5 second pauses between phrases became familiar after a few minutes. The occasional horn blast from the nearby freeway made its way inside during the silences, but this was not a distraction. The premiere was well-executed by the performers and well-received by the audience.

The second piece was Eggs and Baskets, a narrated piece that is similar in construction to Tom’s Narayana’s Cows. The idea in Eggs and Baskets was to musically describe all the possible ways to put six eggs in two baskets. The two baskets were represented by a viola, played by Andrew McIntosh and a clarinet played by Brian Walsh – as the narration progressed each player sounded a series of notes representing the number eggs in his ‘basket’. The interplay between the viola and clarinet thus became increasingly varied as the permutations grew, with notes trading rapidly back and forth within the same phrase – but this was cleanly done and very effective. The narration by Douglas Wadle nicely connected the playing to the concept, making for an enjoyable piece.

Trio for Strings followed and this set out to play “all possible 3-note chords adding to 72 where C = 24” – some 280 combinations altogether. This was a smooth legato sound of rapidly changing tone combinations, often dissonant. I found that my ear would follow one or the other string players for a time, the chords that sounded were brief and constantly changing. The pitch discipline of the string players was impressive as each tone typically did not bear any familiar relationship to those around it. Hearing this piece is like listening to a computer roll through the possible permutations of a pitch set and it gives a striking example of just how small a subset our traditional tonalities are of all the possibilities that are available in the equal-tempered scale.

Tilework for Piano followed and this was played by Dante Boon, the Dutch composer and pianist. This was similar to Clarinet Trio in that it consists of a series of short phrases built from a limited number of tones, separated by short pauses. The piano gives this piece a more introspective feel and I found my ear tended to concentrate more on the patterns than the pitches or timbre. A concert presented by Mr. Boon will be given at the wulf on February 28.


The concert concluded with Eight Patterns for Eight Instruments, and the musical forces used for this performance were sax, piano, violin, clarinet, accordion, guitar, flute and oboe. There is a video of this piece on YouTube as played mostly by strings but the use of winds here yielded a brighter, more accessible sound. ‘Eight Patterns for Eight Instruments’ consists of eight short segments of scales and simple chord patterns. This music is as close to the classic minimalist style as was heard during this concert and the eight instruments played tightly together, filling up the space with a well-balanced sound. A sort of warm optimism radiates from this piece that is appealing and, if anything, too short.

This concert was a good illustration of just how fully grounded is the music of Tom Johnson on the mathematics of combinations and permutations. Rarely has a music been so rigorously architected – the drawings that Tom uses to structure his work look very much like a set of drafted plans or a chemical diagram for a complex molecule.  Other minimalist composer’s of Tom’s generation incorporated repetition and gradual changes in rhythmic patterns to realize their music. Tom’s music stands out because of his use of an entirely different mathematical space to guide the structure of his works.

Further information about upcoming events at the wulf is available here.

More about the exhibition of Tom Johnson’s drawings at Art Share LA can be found here.

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On Sunday, February 19, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang brought his music to Samuelson Chapel for the 10th Annual New Music Concert at California Lutheran University. The concert was well-attended and performed by the students, faculty and friends of the CLU music department. David Lang participated in a Q&A session with department chairman Wyant Morton and offered a number of observations on his life as a composer and how it had changed – mostly for the better – by winning the Pulitzer. His easy conversational style and helpful remarks about his music connected well with the audience.

The concert opened with two solo piano offerings from Memory Pieces – a group of 8 small-scale works that were written to capture specific memories of friends who had passed away between 1992 and 1997. These were ably played by Jessica Helms, former CLU student and accompanist for the vocal ensembles for the concert. The first piece, wed, was written in memory of Kate Ericson who, though mortally ill and near death, married her long-time companion and artistic collaborator. The music for this consisted of a series of even phrases that alternated between an airy optimism and sudden dissonances – as if reflecting the hope present in marriage and the pull of mortality. Tellingly, the piece simply stops.

The second piece, grind, was written in memory of Jacob Druckman, David Lang’s teacher at Yale. In the pre-concert Q&A David admitted to having a somewhat bumpy relationship with his mentor and this piece accordingly features loud and aggressive sounds in the lower registers.  The repetitive phrasing suggests a series of running disagreements and yet there was a kind of creative tension present in the music, doubtless a byproduct of that relationship. The title was well-chosen.

An a cappella vocal piece titled I Lie was performed next by the women of the Areté Vocal Ensemble, directed by Morton Wyant.  This was originally commissioned by Kitka, an all-female vocal ensemble in the Bay area specializing in Eastern European folk music. I Lie is a Yiddish love song of expectation and waiting and the music portrays this through a series of soft, short phrases joined by longer, over-arching tones. A soprano solo, nicely sung by Debbie Schaeffer, provided a complimentary external melody. The harmony was, by turns, airy and light as well as somewhat dissonant, but always delicate and concise.

lend/lease is a piece scored for the improbable combination of piccolo and wood blocks and was performed by Nancy Marfisi playing piccolo and percussionist Scott Higgins. There is an exotic, almost Asian feel to this and the interconnection of the parts was such that the musicians wisely faced each other for needed visual communication. lend/lease was written for a recent birthday celebration of the London Sinfonietta and reflects the cooperation between the United States and Great Britain in the early years of World War II. The intricate rhythms and patterns of lend/lease were carefully executed and the efforts of the players were recognized by the applause that followed.

Oh Graveyard from 2010, was performed by the full Areté Vocal Ensemble – some 24 voices strong. This piece is nominally based on the spiritual Lay This Body Down but is “more a response to the genre of spirituals and what they mean”, according to the composer.  Oh Graveyard begins with small phrases and builds up voice by voice.  A series of solos – soprano, tenor, bass and alto – break off from the main body of singers and add to the layers of smooth harmony that convincingly evoked the peace and restfulness of the title.

the anvil chorus for solo percussion was written, according to the composer, to celebrate “… – that since the beginning of time people have always banged on things as a result of their profession.”  The piece begins with a steady, recognizably musical rhythm but one punctuated with a series of loud bangs, clangs and booms at unexpected intervals. The percussive elements were well chosen to recreate familiar metal-working sounds and this added to the industrial atmosphere, especially in the slower tempos. As the pace of the piece quickened, a more cohesive sound emerged that made a convincing connection between the shop floor and musical expression. According to the program notes the anvil chorus “..uses a ‘melody’ to control various beat patterns. The ‘melody’ is played on resonant junk metals of the percussionist’s choosing, and, by adding certain rules, it triggers an odd accompaniment of non-resonant junk metals, played both by hand and by foot.”  The fine effort by Scott Higgins in his performance of this piece resulted in sustained applause and scattered shouts of enthusiasm from the audience.

again, the final piece of the concert featured the Cal Lutheran Choir, directed by Morton Wyant.  This work from 2005, is a setting of a few lines from the book of Ecclesiastes. again begins with short phrases in the bass and tenor with longer phrases arcing above in the higher voices. This results a well-developed harmony that was most effective when all the parts were singing together – the 70 voices of the choir were sufficient to fill the space even though dispersed, having fanned out around the edges to surround the audience.  The soft, delicate nuances of this piece provided a quietly beautiful ending to a concert of new music that was both accessible and well-received by those in attendance.

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Last night Steve Reich, the Bang on a Can All-Stars and red fish blue fish appeared in front of a full Disney Concert Hall as part of the LA Philharmonic 2011/2012 Green Umbrella series of contemporary music. Steve Reich was warmly greeted by an enthusiastic audience and performed the first piece Clapping Music along with percussionist David Cossin.

Clapping was followed by Video Phase an updated version of Reich’s 1967 Piano Phase. This was created by David Crossin in 2000 by playing the piece on MIDI percussion pads that trigger piano samples of the notes. A prerecorded video of this was projected onto a screen while Cossin played the percussion pads live, varying the tempo and pattern. A video feed of Cossins’ live playing was then superimposed onto the recorded video in such a way that the movement of the mallets could be seen going in and out of phase with each other as the piece progressed (see photo). This was particularly effective in showing how Piano Phase unfolds and the playing was brilliant, bringing out all the detailed complexities and cross-patterns that make this piece a classic. The appreciative audience demanded a curtain call from the breathless Cossin who had clearly put in a heroic effort.

The Los Angeles premiere of 2X5 followed. Composed in 2009 and scored for piano, bass guitar, electric guitars and drums, the piece can be played against a recording by a single group of 5 instruments or, as in this performance, by two identical 5-piece groups. The rock band scoring represents something of a departure for Reich but the piece contains the rhythmic structure and materials we have come to expect from his music. I first became familiar with 2X5 when Reich generously made the recorded elements available for a re-mixing contest on the Indaba Music website. The careful mixing of the full recorded version has doubtless spoiled me – the live performance to my ears lacked a certain sharpness and punch. The bass guitars sounded muddy and the listening was always improved when the drums entered, giving the texture some welcome clarity and pop. But the groove inherent in the piece broke through and I could see many of those in the audience around me clearly enjoying the interplay between the musicians on the stage.  A long and cheerfully noisy ovation preceded the intermission.

Music for 18 Musicians closed the show and here the sound issues became more distracting. I have listened to this piece dozens of times through headphones and I hear something new in the details each time – it is a landmark piece and has withstood the test of time. I love this piece – and Bang on a Can obviously knows how to play it – but somehow the experience I had in Disney Hall seemed out of balance and uneven. At each transition the change in texture seemed to put the ensemble sound into confusion. The players worked hard to sort it all out, but from where I was sitting the overall result was inconsistent. I have heard Music for 18 Musicians performed live before, achieving a realization on a par with the recording, but sadly this was not the case this time. All of the instruments were playing into microphones, so perhaps the decision to use a sound system in a concert hall should be revisited next time.  Music for 18 Musicians makes me want to tap my foot, bob my head and sing along – it has that kind of groove – but as I looked around most of the people listening were frozen still. A long and loud standing ovation followed, no doubt in appreciation of the fine music that Steve Reich and Bang on a Can has given us over the years.


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