Monthly Archives: March 2012

What an eclectic selection of music to listen to!  This evening I have listened to George Rochberg’s Bagatelles for Piano and String Quartet No. 3, George Crumb’s Black Angels, John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music, and Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together and The People United Will Never Be Defeated.  A barrage of styles from the 70s and early 80s, these pieces contain such an extraordinary range of techniques and styles from a sound resembling serialism (Rochberg’s Bagatelles) to minimalism (Adams’s Grand Pianola Music) to a traditional, but very modern theme and variations (Rzewski’s People United).

Out of this collection of extremes, one piece stood out to me as transcending the element of music and was extremely powerful: Crumb’s Black Angels.  A violent depiction of Hell vs. God written for electric string quartet, the powerful sounds emanating from my speakers got my attention and conveyed an extreme feeling of unease and torment.  Rarely do I find music that has such a deep connection to its topic as this work.  When the Dies Irae quotation was stated, I was floored.

It turns out Crumb quotes lots of major works, but the only distinguishable quotation, at least to my ears was the Dies Irae.  This work is hauntingly satisfying, which is surprising coming from a virtually atonal (and toneless) piece.  The affect is sublime, which, as I write this, I am realizing is exactly what Romanticism of the 19th century was all about – and now we’re discussing a new Romanticism or neo-romanticism.

For some reason, I like Frederic Rzewski’s music.  I don’t know why.  It feels moderately commercialized somehow – as though it is written for an audience that isn’t particularly well-educated (like the American masses) – yet I fall victim to its message (even though I don’t have a clue what it is).  His Coming Together feels heavy-handed in its politics yet the groove behind it is intoxicating – and very 70s!!  When I saw the music for The People United Will Never Be Defeated, I had two initial reactions: 1) Wow – that looks like something from 150 years ago (I hadn’t yet seen the last few pages) and 2) It was written for Ursula Oppens with whom I had the luxury of performing with (well, I was in the orchestra, she was up front playing all the notes) at the end of last year.  What a great theme and variations.  The progress of music over the last 200 years has stylistically freed up the possibility of variation and the journey we end up going on with this music is a far greater journey because of it.

I am posting a recording of People United that allows you to follow along with the music.  It’s really fascinating to watch the complexity grow from such a simple theme into what is clearly a post 1950s composition:


Philip Glass, who recently celebrated his 75th birthday, is often (controversially) referred to as a minimalist composer[1].  Philip Glass’s music is not minimal – it’s more a music that has evolved out of minimalism.  Listening to his opera Akhnaten, I was surprised to hear how tonal this music is.  Classical chord progressions pervade the texture, which is often grounded with an ostinato.  Although the music is quite simple, utilizing a small number of tones at once, and repetitive in a certain nature, the music does not evolve through a gradual process, which is a foundation of minimal music.  Sections are distinctly delineated throughout Akhnaten, and each of these subsequent sections has a clearly new feel to it – there is no gradual transition into each of these sections.  In many ways, the music in Akhnaten sounds more neo-classic than minimal.  The ostinatos often follow traditional chord progressions, but techniques such a split thirds (major / minor chords at the same time) clearly set this music apart from the classical era.  The repetition in the vocal parts that repeat the same note sound very much like falsobordone rather than anything new and innovative.  All of these techniques make this music very easy to listen to.

Philip Glass’s other major ‘opera’ Einstein on the Beach, is more minimal in style than Akhnaten, as we hear more gradual procession within the repetitions, however the result is very theatrical.  Listening to this work, I feel like it lacks something without the visuals associated with the stage production.  Then I ran across this video clip about the production of Einstein on the Beach:

Glass mentions that this work may be the first opera in history to be composed for the stage production rather than having the stage production come as a part of the composition.  This very much reminds me of the process of scoring for movies.  A composer will get the production video and compose around what they see and experience rather than let the visuals be created from the story within the music.  This process very much explains my realization that something was missing – the visual production – from my listening to it.

All that being said, I find Glass’s music as a whole to be interesting.  The changes in texture are interesting and some of his voicings are stunning.  He successfully sets up a mood and goes with it.  There is a certain ‘high art’ feel that is lacking throughout, which, interestingly, is explained in the video above as well.  It was suggested that Einstein on the Beach be produced on Broadway rather than at the Met because the crowd at the Met may not be the crowd that would go for a work like Einstein.  I very much hear music that is composed as production music, theater music, or movie music, and not necessarily as art music.  That is not to say that movie music does not have a place within high art – Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky being a fine example – but even with Prokofiev, Nevsky lacks a depth and a freedom that is expressed in his other masterpieces like Romeo & Juliet, Love for Three Oranges, or his Classical Symphony.

I just read an article by Steve Reich.

I just read an article by Steve Reich.

I just read an article by Steve Reich about minimalism.

I just read an article by Steve Reich about minimalism called “Music as a Gradual Process”.

I just read an article by Steve Reich about minimalism called “Music as a Gradual Process”.


Repetition is a treacherous game in music.  Persistence, however, can be brilliant.  We have reached a point in our journey where we can change gears and breathe again.  Music is alive an well.  There is much peace and tranquility in the world.  For the first time in a while, at least in our discussion here, I can site back and listen to music – let sound in – and relax.  A great weight has been lifted.  Minimalism is about process, but it also has a very comforting tonality associated with it.  The key in this success is persistence.

Serialism is persistent in a way, too, as tone rows are stated and re-stated in a formal structure.  Where serialism fails, however, is that it is too complicated to hear the persistence of these rows.  I can only remember one or two experiences listening to serial music where I felt like I had learned the language the composer had created for his piece.  Minimalism succeeds here because we are exposed to and invited to learn the process within the music.  The end result is a very comfortable experience, even when semitones and microtones are crunching against each other, because we are eased into the conflict (process) rather than thrown into it.

Reich writes:

“Performing and listening to a gradual musical process resembles: …placing your feet in the sand by the ocean’s edge and watching, feeling, and listening to the waves gradually bury them.”

Not only is this an elegant way to put it, but it’s a perfect example!  The ocean has the ability to destroy instantly, but we have all experienced this gentleness that the ocean can offer.  I would contrast this to serialism by saying that performing and listening to a serialist piece resembles being thrown overboard and tossed about on the rocks by the ocean’s fury.

Because minimalism is all about this gradual journey, pieces tend to be lengthy, but well worth the listen.  An extreme example of this grandure is LaMonte Young’s Well Tuned Piano, a 5+ hour long work for “prepared” piano.  The piano is only prepared in its special tuning, as prescribed by the composer.  Listening to this work, you can hear the unique tuning quite clearly, but your ear quickly adjusts and starts to hear it as normal.  There are overtones produced in this tuning that are, in my opinion, the real “theme” of the piece.  It’s like listening to Tuvan throat singing – there’s so much core sound, but sit back and let it wash over you, and you suddenly hear the high resonance that is the real beauty of the work.  This affect/effect is spectacular and there are really no words to describe it.  It’s worth a listen.

As an example, I am posting the first of five videos of the Well Tuned Piano as well as a video of Tuvan throat singing.  Absorb, perhaps, the first 10 minutes of the young.  Then listen to the throat singing.  Go back to the Young if you didn’t hear the overtones and listen again (no, there are no flutes in the tuvan music, and there is only a piano in the Young).

Both are examples of incredibly powerful music.  It has been enjoyable to revisit Young’s music, especially this humongous work, as I haven’t had the chance to appreciate it in over a decade.

Well, if we haven’t gotten there yet, we’ve finally made it to the absurd.  It’s safe to say that the 1980s were a bit, well, off.  We look back and wonder what society was thinking.  The hair – the clothes – the lingo.  Now, I admit each decade has had its fair share of ‘Oh my god, look at that _____’, but the 80s had a particularly rough time of it.  And that was before I found Robert Ashley’s TV “Opera” Perfect Lives.  This piece sums up so much about what was bad about the 80s – complete with really bad electric keyboard.  The first production I found for this piece was from the original 1983 premiere production[1] (broadcast in 1984)and wow, I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.  Even the 2011 production, Perfect Lives Manhattan[2], can’t escape the rinky-dink electric keyboard, a la classic 1980s video games, and Televangelist-esque narrative (I was waiting for the old lady who can’t walk to show up and be blessed by the Lord Almighty).  It’s difficult to look at these performances as anything more than ridiculous spectacle at which we should point and laugh (or better yet, change the channel).

I spent the afternoon reading Murder by Cello by Ben Piekut.  There’s a lot in there, a lot of which was name-dropping and accounts of a specific event that really had no depth to it.  Along the way, I took a few moments to write down some impressions I had.  Here’s what I came up with:

  • Stockhausen does not compose music – he creates “happenings.”  This word implies, to me, that time and context are important to the legitimacy of the work.  A production of Originale today would be very different from a production of it in the 1960s.  I have a difficult time understanding why someone would want to create ephemeral art.  To me, art transcends many boundaries, including time.  There’s too much of a “You had to be there” that causes the affect to get lost on subsequent productions.
  • “Birds, dogs, fish, and a chimpanzee were also involved.”  Really?  Like I said… absurd.
  • For a guy who made a career out of randomness and chance it’s surprising that Cage had such an adverse reaction to Moorman’s interpretation of his piece.  How can a work created on chance principles have a “proper performance?”  Oh composers… you are a contradictory breed!
  • I very much like Cage’s notation for 26′ 1.1499″.  It’s simplicity is explicit as well as open to interpretation.
  • How does one distinguish between a cat, a cat in heat, and a Siamese cat in heat??  Or a flatulent man vs a flatulent lady?  There are some things composers write that performers will not be ready for.  I’m sure someone can make that sound perfectly when needed, but can they play the cello?  Something tells me a recording of my male, one-eyed cat yelling at me for food could pass for the “cat in heat (female Siamese).”
  • Another example of the absurd: Mumma’s Sonata for Adults Only.  Does anyone actually perform this piece or Paik’s Opera Sextronique?  I’d love to know what cellists think of these works.  Could you imagine the reaction if a student programmed it on his or her senior recital?  A Bach striptease is exactly what every twenty something musician fantasizes about…
  • The “Topless Cellist” on Paik’s Opera Sextronique.  “As long as you don’t fornicate on stage, you’ll be ok”:

Somewhere the concept of “music” was lost during this time period.  It feels like spectacle was the thing and Moorman and Paik were going all out.  This makes great entertainment, but I wonder how these performances fit into our discussion of art?

I’ve spent the evening reading an essay by Sara Heimbecker entitled HPSCHD, Gesamtkunstwerk, and Utopia which primarily focuses on John Cage’s major collaborative workk (he worked with Lejaren Hillerwhich), HPSCHD, which premiered in 1969.  The essay itself is an in-depth analysis of this work and its public reception.  This work, considered highly influential by many, is a love-hate piece: you either hate it or you love it.  The reviews quoted by Heimbecker, most of which were written in response to the premiere in 1969, demonstrate this love-hate schism well.  Finding a performance on YouTube, the comments also reflect this emotionally charged reaction.  I think what impresses me the most is that this work produces such a dramatic response – it’s hard to listen to a work like this (ending this sentence here would also be true) without having a significant reaction.

The work itself is huge.  According to Heimbecker:

“The multimedia spectacle lasted four and a half hours and involved seven harpsichords, fifty-one tape players (with accompanying power amplifiers and loudspeakers) playing 208 computer-generated tapes, sixty-four slide projectors that projected 6,400 slides, and eight film projectors playing forty films” (476).

Listening to this work on YouTube is far from the experience that attending a performance must be.  Cage loves the idea of freedom and that the audience can move around the performance and decide what to experience when.  Of course, from every angle, your eyes and ears are bombarded by the ensuing chaos.  It’s difficult for me to understand how someone would experience pleasure when experiencing this work, however I see that from a political perspective, this work represents freedom, and thus be relatable in some way.  I think this work belongs in an art exhibit, as it (should be) experienced in the way we typically experience visual art in a studio.  We walk around, looking at objects from different angles and respond to the work differently as we experience it differently.  HPSCHD is a similar beast.  A four and half hour performance is difficult to sit through even with a plot – I feel that this work should be approached and left going at one’s leisure, exactly as one does in an art exhibit.  The YouTube posting of it is two, ten-minute segments and after about a minute, all I hear is white noise.  In fact, I may find the consistency of a radio station with no signal to be more pleasing to listen to than the frenetic chaos produced in HPSCHD.

It was around the time of this collaboration that Cage became an anarchist and this work reflects his ideal of a Utopian (anarchic) society.  Anarchy is an elusive concept to me.  The basic principle of anarchy is the lack of order, thus chaos.  I do have enough faith in humanity to live in chaos.  Even with structure all around me, I feel chaos pervade my daily life – in fact, I spend enormous amounts of energy each week trying to reduce chaos and find structure and tranquility so to live a more peaceful, efficient lifestyle.  Listening to this artwork as anarchy (can it be heard any other way?) makes it all the more frustrating and perplexing for me to hear.

I will say that the 1969 advertisement is, simply: awesome.

After examining some of John Cage’s (and others) graphic notation pieces, such as Water Music, and reading an interesting article on the return of graphic notation by Alyssa Timin, available online here, I am still skeptical about the idea of graphic notation as both music and art – except in, perhaps, the visual sense.  Timin mentions the concept of displaying a graphic score in an art gallery several times in her article.

It was refreshing to see Timin discuss this approach to music as ‘sound art’ rather than music, as most realizations of these works seem to be closer to the common (yet inconsistent) sound of traffic than of actual music.  Water Music, for example, is really a mix of random radio sounds (unpredictable, by nature, as the sound that will appear on 87.7fm will be different depending on the location in which you are “performing”) and terse piano gestures.  Music seems to have little to do with it.  The score itself is quite elegant, though – John Cage’s handwriting is spaced in time across eight pieces of 11×14 (perhaps larger?) paper, making a quasi-poster to be displayed for the audience during the performance.  The aural result is literally a random coordination of two contrasting sounds, which is interesting as an idea, but difficult to listen to and truly enjoy.  Perhaps seeing this performance done live is much more interesting, as the performance itself demands flexibility on the part of the performer.

But really, why all the graphic notation?  A lot of it is quite stunning as visual art – and I suppose a semi-coordinated cluster of sound is appropriately labeled sound art – but how is this considered music?  Melody and harmony are both lacking, rhythm is free and random, or at least semi-random, and pitch is optional!  Timin mentions the production of a piece where each performer gets an aural score, is isolated in headphones, and listens to the score on a [mobile device].  They can’t even hear each other!!  I think this concept thoroughly destroys the notion of performance art – being an artist is usually about connecting with the world around them in some way.  How can this be achieved while isolated in their own mobile world?  How is this any different than watching the crazy guy down at the end of the subway car singing popular music in their own, micro tonal interpretation?  It’s not worth spending any money to see a performance full of people who have nothing to do with one another except for the fact that they’re all basically doing the same thing independently of one another.

On the other hand, I have found the use of new symbols within a traditional context to be quite useful in conveying the extended technique of an instrument.  Multiphonics, growling noises, breathy sounds, etc all have a place in music and can be used to amplify the affect of a piece of music.  Bartok’s notation of the slap pizzicato is a prime example of this integration of the new with the traditional – in fact, Bartok was so successful that this notation has become mainstream.

I still have yet to hear a piece of sound art that couldn’t be reproduced using a more traditional notation system with a blend of extended technique and, perhaps, a few original ideas mixed in.  The fact that some of these pieces are so complex in their notation that you would have to consult the composer him/herself is utter nonsense!  We have reached an extreme of elitism from which we must overcome if we are to enjoy the expression of collaborative music in the future.