Song For An Emptied Planet

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project

Do you like scary stories? Well, you’re not prepared for the terrors of this one.

An emptied planet, Earth without human beings, has been on my mind for a while. If you ‘enjoyed’ the NY Mag article, and would like to think about the future in a parallel, and visceral way, I would like to point you to my [article at NewMusicBox](newmusicbox george grella) that thinks through the media we will leave behind and how other beings might find music within.

And while you’re reading that, use my Bandcamp survey of music that imagines an empty Earth as a soundtrack.



Thread(ing) the Words, the World

Henry Threadgill DecJan2014 drwg

As a reader interested in the state of contemporary music, you’ve likely already seen that Henry Threadgill won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, specifically for his 2015 album on Pi, In For a Penny, In for a Pound.

Personally, I’m overjoyed. I’ve been following Threadgill since I first heard one of his records with his group Air, which was probably around 1980-81. He’s one of those musicians who’s work gives me immediate pleasure while at the same time I often can’t completely comprehend it, and so I follow with persistent fascination. There are many examples of his music that deserve this kind of recognition, and the award feels to me like an honor for his complete career. But the Pulitzer is interested in the idea of composition, and In for a Penny, In for a Pound is just that.

I interviewed Threadgill and Jason Moran, in the company of Raymond Foye, for the December 2014/January 2015 Rail (I have something of a history of writing about Thread for the Rail, and without his existence probably would not be editing the music section). We talked about the work, which was about to premiere at Roulette (UPDATED: Liberty Ellman has told me the recordings were made in the studio, the Roulette performances were recorded but not for release), and he described it as a concerto highlighting the members of his excellent band, Zooid. He plays, but he’s not featured—he’s the composer, which likely made it easy for the committee to see what this piece is.

Musically, it’s the culmination of a long, developing concept of organizing what is best described as contemporary chamber music along the historic principles of jazz. From Air, through the Sextett, and even the electric bands Very Very Circus and Make a Move, Threadgill has been looking for a new structural method on top of the foundation of African-American music: marches, rags, the blues. You can hear a march, whether up-tempo or a dirge, a rag, a blues, or all three, on every single record he’s produced.

What he’s been doing with Zooid, and encapsulates on In for a Penny, is combine those roots with a means to tightly organize harmony and modulation while also allowing for improvised solos and free group interplay and accompaniment in the manner of traditional jazz. (I discussed this with him a few years ago, and don’t want to try and get too deep into it in case I misremember, but Threadgill uses a central chord, then lists the allowable intervals from the notes in the chord, and the musicians are free to use those intervals to modulate, but they must remain within those limits.) With his trademark recursive themes and hip, funky pulse, you get music that has immediate physical impact, that is firmly tonal (though complex), and tremendously sophisticated. Great art, in other words.

(His newest release is also another composition, in an appreciably different style: Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. This is a very beautiful record, a tribute to his dear, departed, much-missed friend Butch Morris—the music carries a deep, elegiac quality underneath a compelling, almost diffident, surface.)

And great African-American art, I want to point out. Threadgill’s work is the fulfillment of the AACM motto, the one Joseph Jarman would announce at the end of every Art Ensemble of Chicago concert, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future!” As Henry said during our interview, “What a lot of people forget about is that historically black people in America are the latest things on the planet!” They are, and they have been giving us all sorts of the latest thinking in serious music for more than a century. Occasionally, people hear this.


For more Threadgill listening pleasure, here’s a recommended discography:

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Henry Threadgill: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note: a great bargain, and although not the most comprehensive collection, this is where you get Spirit of Nuff…Nuff, one of his most important records, the compositional ideas of Song Out of My Trees, and some decent (if not the best) Air, including a guest appearance from Cassandra Wilson.


Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air: expensive, but worth every penny and pound. This has some, altough not all, of the Air records, the absolutely essential run of Sextett albums (You Know the Number, Easily Slip Into Another World, Rag, Bush, and All), the early X-75 compositional experiment, two Very Very Circus recordings, and Where’s Your Cup with Make a Move. That last band lasted all of two records, and is something of a sidebar, but Where’s Your Cup kicks ass all up and down the sidewalk. Get this if you can at all afford it, and even if you can’t (limited edition of 5,000 total copies, marked as running low as of the beginning of September 2016).

Pi Recordings: Henry’s label for the 21st century, with seven releases so far and, if the whispers I’ve been hearing are true, something else to come this year that is supposed to be crushingly great. This is where the Zooid band has been thriving. If you don’t need EVERYTHING Henry has made (why not?), and taking into account that Zooid has gotten better at Henry’s concept through the years, the records to get here are This Brings Us To, Vol. 2 through Old Locks and Irregular Verbs.

Deaths in Winter

Deaths come disproportionally in winter (in the northern hemisphere). There’s no sure explanation, but it seems to me the combination of cold and diminished sunlight direct the body towards a natural cessation of activity, and for one already approaching the end of life, it may be perhaps one subtle step to slip away.

Some important, irreplaceable musicians are now gone: Mark Murphy, Paul Bley, Pierre Boulez, and Elizabeth Swados. Read the obits if you want, they all give a good outline of each career, though I have some differing critical views on their individual importance. (UPDATE: Here is my own Boulez obit at the New York Classical Review.)

Mark Murphy

I miss Murphy particularly. The ultimate, true hipster, he gave up a promising career as a matinée idol singer to be a musical expression of the Beats, especially Kerouac. As careerism and consumerism has taken over the professional development of writers and musicians in America, the Beats have become easy to laugh at, in the sense that if one conforms to the crowd, numbers protect the ego with a sense of false courage. Murphy never let go of what is an essential American idea of individual freedom held within the values and morals of communitarianism:

His influence on the most artistically important contemporary singers was profound:

Paul Bley

Bley is a great loss too, although, unlike Murphy, his playing declined over the last decade or so, along with his health. You’ll find Bley’s records under jazz, and he was one of the greatest jazz pianists, but he was so much more—an exceptional improviser who could freely improvise coherent, linear structures, and was an exceptional listener. And he was an emotionally moving blues player. There’s substantial documentation to his career, on records and in books: I’m partial to this great solo CD, and this Black Saint/Soul Note box is the best single compilation (and if you can get one or more of the Life of a Trio CDs, you will have some of the finest small group improvisations ever recorded) . Bley’s own thoughts are important, and he had a capable amanuensis in Arrigo Cappelletti, but read Paul Bley: The Logic of Chance in the original Italian if you can, the translation is literal and un-idiomatic, a tiring read.

Elizabeth Swados

Swados may get lost in the shuffle. She had a tough end, but she left us with a lot of great music, and Runaways should remain a staple of high school and community productions as long as there are kids. Please don’t underestimate how important this is: the music we make and experience when young is the most important music in our lives, and Swados will be inside millions of people.

She also wrote books, including My Depression: A Picture Book, which is an important thing to read for those of us who find ourselves caught in the mental and emotional straight-jacket of self-loathing.

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Pierre Boulez

Certainly everyone will mention Boulez and Le Marteau sans Maître, and that is an important work, but in the negative sense. The piece marks the extremity of decadence of serial music. Schoenberg and his followers used the cool veneer of their music as pernicious, ideological propaganda, developing the idea that their method was objectively correct, the logical culmination of historical currents. Actual history, the accumulation of events, has shown serial music to be both an aberration—it’s heyday, though outsized, was short-lived—and the same as every other style, which first supersedes previous ideas, then grows increasingly solipsistic until it, in turn, is superseded by another. Le Marteau is about nothing more than a technique taken to the nth degree, past the point where it serves a coherent musical purpose.

Boulez was, in all, a notable composer, staking out a place in the continuum where he exerted beneficial intellectual influence and also created some fine pieces of music. Pli selon pli is one of my favorites, along with …explosante fixe… :

As a conductor, his recordings of Stravinsky, Bartók, Debussy, and Ravel should be in every classical music lover’s library (I think his Ravel is the finest on disc). His takes on romantic music are uneven, but at their best are refreshing and satisfying. The salient example is his Mahler: his readings of the Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth symphonies have brilliant moments but ultimately fall apart, while the vocal music comes of well, with a great pulse and understanding of Mahler’s continually forward development.


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Best Classical Recordings 2015

Another year in which classical music didn’t die, was not dying, was not suffering, etc, just like every other year. I attended easily over 100 classical music performances, spanning music from the Renaissance to something like last Thursday, and listened to over 200 recordings that were issued just this year—and one important caveat is that there is still about 48 hours of music I have not yet been able to get through. If you only read stories about economic issues in classical music (or jazz) you would only ever think that the music is vanishing. It is not so, never has been, will never be. Yes, it’s fucking impossible to make a living, much less a buck, but people are still doing it. Who are you going to believe, mainstream cultural writers/editors, or your lying ears?

The composition of these lists is something I still fiddle with, because of this historical tradition of classical music and the nature of recordings. This year, I have two main lists, Classical Recordings and New Music; the former is new recordings of previously recorded music, the latter is new recordings of music that is heard on record for the first time.

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Classical Recordings

An interesting year to say the least, a big year for Schumann (primarily thanks to Harmonia Mundi, with Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov), and also for Morton Feldman and Fred Rzewski: two new recordings for each of Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello and The People United Will Never be Defeated! respectively. I’m not alone as a contemporary composer and critic who can never get enough of new music on recordings and concert programs, but as we get further into the 21st century, the actual evidence of performances and recordings tells me that new and contemporary is active and pervasive. It’s all one stream of time, and arrow pointing into the future, the vanguard supported by the centuries that came before. I like to spread things around, so it’s an indication of how fine the albums are that I put both new recordings of The People United on this list. Both Levit and Oppens are tremendous in this music, but Levit’s album is a better one because it also has the Golbberg and Diabelli Variations.

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  1. Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov, Brahms, Schumann & Dietrich: Violin Sonatas
  2. Igor Levit, Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski
  3. Le Poème Harmonique, Vincent Dumestre, Coeur, Airs de cour Français de le fin du XVI siécle
  4. Ursula Oppens & Jerome Lowenthal, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
  5. Aleck Karis, Curtis Macomber, Danielle Farina, Christopher Finckel, Feldman: Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello
  6. Dmitri Ensemble and Graham Ross, Shostakovich-Barshai: Chamber Symphonies
  7. Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Gil Rose, Lukas Foss: Complete Symphonies
  8. Orli Shaham, Brahms Inspired (Opus 117/118/119)
  9. New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert, Carl Nielsen: The Symphonies and Concertos
  10. Chi-Chen Wu, Nicholas DiEugenio, Robert Schumann: Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano


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  1. RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, René Jacobs, Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail
  2. Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman, Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
  3. Musica Aeterna, Teodor Currentzis, Mozart: Cosi fan Tutte
  4. Ensemble Pygmalion and Raphaël Pichon, Rameau: Castor et Pollux
  5. American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, Hindemith: The Long Christmas Dinner

Honorable Mention:

  • Momenta Quartet, Similar Motion
  • Jennifer Koh, Bach & Beyond, Part 2
  • Frederic Chiu, Distant Voices: Piano Music by Claude Debussy and Gao Ping
  • Alexander Melnikov, Isabelle Faust, et al, Hindemith: Sonatas for …
  • Jennie Oh Brown, Looking Back: Flute Music of Joseph Schwantner
  • Diego Ares, Soler” Sol de mi fortuna, Sonatas form the Morgan Library
  • Kim Kashkashian, Sarah Rotheberg, Steven Schick, Houston Chamber Choir, Robert Simpson, Morton Feldman/Erik Satie/John Cage
  • Sophie Karthäuser, Ensemble Correspondences and Sébastien Daucé, Lalande: Leçons de Ténèbres
  • Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman, Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
  • Jean Rondeau, Bach: Imagine
  • Movses Pogossian, Varty Manouelian, Susan Grace, Stefan Wolpe: Music for Violin and Piano (1924–1966)
  • Mark Kroll, Marina Minkin, Vitttorio Rieti: Music for Harpsichord and Instruments
  • New Budapest Orpheum Society, As Dreams Fall Apart: The Golden Age of Jewish Stage and Film Music 1925–1955
  • Jerusalem Quartet, Beethoven: String Quartets Op. 18
  • Karen Gottlieb, Music for Harp
  • Trio Settecento, Veracini: Complete Sonate Academiche
  • Melia Watras, ispirare
  • Matt Haimovitz, Bach: The Cello Suites

New Music

An extraordinarily difficult category to rank this year. Michael Pisaro’s release had the most acute effect on me as a listener, so I’ll put that at the top, but everything else was strong, involving, and fascinating in one way or another, together they made 2015 a notable year for new music.

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  1. Michael Pisaro, a mist is a collection of points
  2. Tristan Perich, Compositions 1–4
  3. ICE, Anna Thorvaldsdottir: In the Light of Air
  4. Konus Quartett & Mondrian Ensemble: Jürg: Chamber Music
  5. Yarn/Wire: Yarn/Wire/Currents Vols 1–3
  6. Boston Modern Orchestra Project: Andrew Norman: Play
  7. Conspirare and Craig Hella Johson, Joby Talbot: Path of Miracles
  8. Christian Wolff, Christian Wolff: Incidental Music and Keyboard Miscellany
  9. Parker Quartet, Jeremy Gill: Capriccio
  10. Joe Phillips, Changing Same

Honorable Mention:

  • Zooid, Henry Threadgill: In for a Penny, In for a Pound
  • The Sebastians, Night Scenes from the Ospedale
  • Steve Lambert, Zahskl’s Jukebox
  • Eric Nathan: Multitude Solitude
  • Mihailo Trandafilovski: Five
  • Lewis Nielsen: Axis
  • Nordic Affect, Clockworking
  • Richard Carrick: Cycles of Evolution
  • Dan Trueman, Adam Sliwinski, Nostalgic Synchronic: Etudes for Prepared Digital Piano
  • Elliott Sharp, The Boreal
  • loadbang, lungpowered
  • R. Andrew Lee, as if to each other…
  • Reiko Füting, names, erased
  • Trio Nexus, Alvin Lucier: Broken Line
  • Michael Vincent Waller, The South Shore
  • Noah Creshevsky, Hyperrealist Music, 2011-2015
  • James Moore and Andie Spring, Gertrudes


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  1. Stravinsky: The Complete Columbia Album Collection
  2. Ferenc Fricsay: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Gramophone, Vol. 2: Operas & Choral Works
  3. Glenn Gould Remastered: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection
  4. Sibelius: Historical Recordings and Rarities
  5. Sviataslov Richter: The Complete Album Collection
  6. Leonard Bernstein Remastered Edition: Sibelius: The Complete Symphonies
  7. Ivo Pogorelich: Complete Recordings
  8. Stravinsky: Complete Edition (DG)
  9. Sibelius: Sibelius Edition (DG)
  10. Matt Haimovitz, Orbit: Music for Solo Cello (1945–2014)

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The Man Machine

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

In the fall of 2009, Capitol/EMI issued a lavish and long-awaited box set, collecting the catalogue of recordings of one of the world’s most beloved, and most important, pop music groups. The music this group made was not only great in its own right but revolutionary and hugely influential. Whole genres of popular music of the last forty years are impossible to imagine, and would have been impossible to create, without the legacy of this band, arguably the greatest of all that came out of the rise of pop culture and mass media. That band is, of course, Kraftwerk.

I find the most beautiful lyrics in all of pop music are:

“Radioactivity/It’s in the air for you and me”

I’m neither exaggerating nor being facetious. That brief phrase fills me with a blissful, joyous feeling. Because of all the things in my life, one of my great loves is Kraftwek. Ahhhh, Kraftwerk . . .

If you hit that last link, you saw a good depiction of the group’s aesthetic, and when I say I love them, I love the entire package, the vision that goes beyond just music and conveys what I feel is a vision of the future. Kraftwerk doesn’t offer predictions of the future – they are from the future, coming back to visit us and tell us that everything works, and everything is going to be fine.

So it is some sense of comfort that I find so wonderful in Kraftwerk. The music certainly conveys it. I’m not going to make an objective, critical argument that it is great, but it is great to me. The timbres of the electronic sounds they use please my ear, as do the rhythms, and so I find their music very warm – their sense of humor adds to that. And their is a willful naiveté they embrace that I find utterly charming. You can see it in this early video for “Radioactivity,” which takes something sinister and gives it a bit of sweetness:

Almost 40 years later, they are perhaps wiser, certainly more sober and ‘professional’ in the way they present themselves. No longer time-travellers, they are technocrats, using technology to clean-up the messes made by misguided projects:

Despite the ominous opening, the performance is still uplifting. Radiation is still something to be made beautiful, or around which beauty can grow. In Chernobyl itself, nature is returning, adapting to a new environment rapidly in the absence of human activity. This touches on another Kraftwerk aesthetic, the idea of the beauty of lasting technology. If they are truly visiting us from the future, perhaps they are robots, and what they are telling us is that although mankind no longer exists, the earth abides, and we have left behind beautiful examples of our technology that await rediscovery, perhaps the alien finger hitting the “Play” button. It’s “Wall-E” with a human facade.

Kraftwerk also mark the nexus between technology, engineering, communications and the creative and applied arts. They have always been as much engineers as musicians, engineers of beautiful machines for making music. That idea was not new when they appeared, but it was new in the realm of pop music. Their aesthetic forefathers were the Futurists and their idea of the Art of Noises, and especially the American composer George Antheil.

I think of Antheil as an inventor and a revolutionary, and although he was not a great composer, he was an important one who produced one far-seeing masterpiece. His Ballet mécanique was an idea so far ahead of his era that it is only in the past few years that it can be realized appropriately. It’s a piece for machines, and Antheil envisioned mechanical control of all the instruments, the pianos, xylophones and drums. That was not technically feasible 70 years ago – it’s only with the advent of MIDI sequencing that a good performance can even be ventured, and I had heard enough mediocre realizations to think that the piece was nothing but a mediocre imitation of Stravinsky, with a bit of Varese tossed in.

I’m glad to say that I’m wrong. I saw a performance in the spring of 2008 that finally produced the work as Antheil imagined. It was entirely mechanical. The vital added feature was a number of robotic beaters, built by LEMUR, used to play the xylophones and drums. This were extremely well designed and built, and so the piece could be performed via computer control with a degree of precision that the human ear heard as unvaryingly absolute. And it was stunning, thrilling. It is the workings of machinery and manufacturing made into music, and it is an incredible work. It’s also a nostalgic one, because the factories that the Futurists thought were the cathedrals of a new age are essentially gone. The ones that are left are more and more populated by . . . robots.

And from Antheil, via Kraftwerk, we get to . . . Hip-Hop. Indeed, Hip-Hop is impossible without Kraftwerk, and here’s the Rosetta Stone which proves it:

And why not? Hip-hop is pop music that is pioneering the use of technology in the means of production. To a great extent, it is manufactured music, put together with physical pieces of raw materials (which used to be tape splices and are now digital files). Musicians and producers use machinery to engineer beats, which they sell like tools or cars. Americans are still making things, it seems, adapting the aesthetic of fine German engineering. Now that’s free trade we can believe in, my friends.

Culturally, the affinity between a bunch of pale toningenieurs and a bunch of B-Boys from the Bronx is closer than the skin color and clothing styles might suggest. Kraftwerk carved, via sound, carved out space in the popular imagination that the nexus of music and science-fiction fit into neatly and warmly. And science-fiction, from proto form in the theology of the Nation of Islam and the concepts of Sun Ra, to Rammellzee and the Jonzun Crew, is an important part of African-American popular culture. Again, why not? Imagine that you are born and raised in a country that your forefathers were integral in building, not of their own desire but because that had been taken from their far-away homes and forced into labor, and that, while nominally free and equal, your were regarded in general with hostility and suspicion by the majority population, the ones who engineered your existence here, and most of whom had roots far younger and shallower than yours (yet who claimed to be the true and natural citizens of this land). Wouldn’t you feel like an alien from outer space, wouldn’t you look to someplace off the planet, or some technology that would get you there, as your home, your heaven?

But back to the future. The enduring legacy of Kraftwerk is a utopian one, that the future will be good. It just may not be a human utopia – it’s a place where everything works, and perhaps better because we may not be around anymore. Of all the worthy Kraftwerk tributes out there, I think the best one to end with is this one:

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