On Listening, Part 1

I think it’s natural for me, as a composer and musician – especially a long-time improvising musican – the be very sensitive to what I hear and really notice the details of sound. My day-to-day experience is a combination of all the activities and sensations of my mind and body, and sounds, things I hear, can matter a lot in the moment of being in a particular place at a particular time. We live in an environment of sound, and it matters.

I also have an iPod, and there’s a lot to say about the device, of course, and I think that’s better left to others. It’s a great thing for me, and I enjoy the experience of having it in a lot of different ways. One way is certainly that way that music can accompany certain experiences, for good, ill or just odd. I had a good one recently, getting on the F train as the Sibelius Symphony No. 6 began. It has a very quiet opening, and it took a little while for me to hear it above the noise of the car – try and keep the volume at less than half – and when it did, the seemingly distant yet clear sounds of the high strings were an uncanny but wonderful moment of discovery, in my ears, in a noisy, crowded public space. I’ve done a rough recreation of what that sounds like here:

This concept of the environment of sound is a vital one, and frequently ignored. For interested readers, I would refer you to this extraordinary, profound book, and the related project.

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The Joy of Radio

Nice article in today’s Times about WFMU, which is an excellent radio station. I myself proudly wear a hoodie, given to me by my wife, promoting WFMU with the slogan: “Eat Flaming Death, Fascist Media Bastards!” I perked up a bit when I ran across the name Ergo Phizmiz, because I have been listening in flabbergasted joy to his record Perpetuum Mobile, and am running over with thoughts about it. Post on that to come soon.

I disagree with Jim Jarmusch, though: WKCR is the greatest radio station on earth. The steady, informative love and brilliance of Phil Schaap, three hours of Dexter Gordon on Wednesday, music composed in 1974 a week or so ago – nothing like coming in to the apartment and hearing I Am Sitting in a Room on the radio. There’s a lot of recordings I hear on the radio that I also own, but it’s special to hear them being broadcast, with that extra helping of serendipity and the feeling that you’re sharing your pleasures with others. It’s been a long held dream of mine to have a radio show, maybe I’ll just have to webcast it. Raise your hand if you’d listen.

A Milkshake of Sound and Fury

Finally, on the eve of the Oscar’s, we saw There Will be Blood. And . . . it was not good. Not at all. A failure, actually.

It had a lot of promise at the beginning, a great and grand idea between the twin millenarian impulses in American culture; rapacious capitalism and fundamentalist Christianity. The two have been paired and opposed for so long, and have a particular connection to the past and future of California, which I personally feel is the cultural core of America. Certainly it’s future.

But this seed of the idea, which is hinted at, is completely sabotaged by an faulty structure, awful editing – 15 years and clearly a great deal of the apotheosis of the story are simply missing – irritating, look at me indications that P.T. Anderson has seen Citizen Kane and a few paintings [there’s a scene of two men hunched over in sleep that is a deliberate recreation of a painting I know well but currently, maddeningly, cannot recover from my memory), and a god-awful performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Wow, he gives mannerism a bad name. He’ll probably win the Oscar (I did like the clothes, all those chambray work shirts and henleys and high boots).

A lot has been made of the score, by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, music which also doubles as a string orchestra piece. As for as contemporary film music goes, it certainly stands out – it’s both sonorous and experimental and totally unlike the sweeping anodyne pastiches that are the norm. It’s used terribly in the movie though, and that’s clearly the fault of the director. The music has nothing to do with the scenes on the screen. It’s not even in opposition, it exists in an entirely different aesthetic realm. The music that does work, briefly, is the use of a solo cello version of Fratres. Anderson also uses the last movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto – poor Brahms, what did he to do deserve it – in ways that indicate he both has no idea of the content of the music, nor of the story he seems to be trying to tell. Ah, but what do I know, I’m just an unemployed composer . . .

. . . at least I know what this means, now.

Pi Cubed

The good people at Pi records sent me two new releases for this winter, Vision Towards Essence (PI23) from Muhal Richard Abrams and Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers (PI24), while I myself paid for the new recording from saxophonist Steve Lehman, On Meaning (PI25). I’ve been listening to them each over the past couple months, and have some thoughts on the music.

Abrams is a veteran band-leader and pianist, an important figure in the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective dedicated to pushing the creative envelope of contemporary jazz, and whose figurehead ensemble has long been The Art Ensemble of Chicago. This new disc is a piano recital, recorded live at the 1998 Guelph Jazz Festival, the performance broken down after the fact into three long, unnamed parts. Abrams is improvising from the very start, ruminating mainly on sonic possibilities; chords, textures, pedal tones. He’s trying things out, in search of material. The feel is quiet, relaxed, ruminative. A little more than eight minutes in, he finds his to way more energetic material, some cascading short runs punctuated by a hint of violence in the bass. This gives way to a general back and forth between contemplative, quasi-mysterious minor key explorations and more rhythmic material that gives hints of the stride piano tradition so important to jazz.

About seven minutes into “Part 2,” the pianist finds his way to a fairly consistent tempo and rhythm, and a sense of major tonality for the first time. There’s a very modern version of stride and blues happening here, the left hand jaunty, the right repeating short arpeggios, runs, tremolos. It’s not the blues, but there’s something of the blues there, and the refreshing sound of major seven and nine chords after a long stretch of minor tonality.

It’s not long, though, before Abrams returns to the device of cascading clusters in the right hand, up and down, and tight three or four finger arpeggios over a darker bass. He then surprise with a bit of a toccata of sharp bass notes and higher clusters, then a further taste of jazz, this time the walking bass supporting an idiomatic solo. Again, though, this feeling of energy and pulse doesn’t last, and the playing returns to less pressing concerns.

If I seem unenthusiastic about this recording, that is accurate. This seems, for the most part, a very internal exploration for Abrams; the entire performance gives off the sense that he’s practicing or satisfying his own needs in the studio, rather than presenting a concert. There’s a lot of wandering in to musical dead-ends, repetition of the same technical devices, material that either breaks off too soon or overstays its welcome. Free improvisation is fiendishly difficult and exhausting, and hardly any performers have lived who can pull it off consistently well each time they sit in front of an audience. Abrams does not have technique of a Cecil Taylor or a Keith Jarrett, and so cannot just thrill us with pianism while searching for interesting material. Unfortunately, he doesn’t find much on this record, but it could just have been a bad night.

ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American jazz musician, which already brings a lot of extra musical baggage to having a listen. This is just a musical experience, though, and one that means to blend material from Iraqi culture, musically and instrumentally, into American jazz. It’s clearly a personal statement and the product of immersing himself in the traditional musical culture of Iraq, a process which included learning to play the santoor (a hammered dulcimer) along with his main instrument, the trumpet. The result is very personal as well; the tracks take the form of a suite, and the tone is one of respect and inner exploration. The very opening phrases of the record, on “Menba’/Jourjina” are powerfully remeniscent of a similar ‘world music’-jazz ‘fusion’ artist, Trilok Gurtu, and his exceptional “Shobarock.” But this record and style is different, the music belongs to ElSaffar. Throughout, he presents music that is slightly understated, although clearly heavy with emotion.

Overall, this is a success and a welcome addition to a long line of jazz recordings that seek to blend music from other parts of the world with the jazz idiom (of course, jazz itself is a blend of music from different parts of the world, birthed into new life in America). It also makes an intriguing book-end to John Zorn‘s Masada projects, which make the same attempt from the opposite side of the semitic musical tradition. Two Rivers does not groove as much as Masada does, but it does maintain a supple mix of jazz rhythms and bass ostinati. ElSaffar’s own vocalizations, the off-centered turning of the santoor and Zaafer Tawil’s portamento-style violin playing add a microtonal, singing flavor to the project that Masada does not explore. The suite gradually picks up musical and emotional momentum, assisted in great part by de facto Pi house saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, one of the most intense players on today’s scene. The closing “The Blues in E Half-Flat” is a satisfying culmination. One quibble is that the suite takes a while to pick up steam, and the three tracks which cover the first 21 minutes of the recording are difficult to differentiate in quality. Still, this is a recording that has been rewarding my repeated listening, which is truly the best compliment. The excellent band includes Nasheet Waits on drums, Carlos DeRosa on bass and Tareq Abboushi on percussion.

Saving the best for last, we have the excellent On Meaning. Lehman’s previous Pi release was the intriguing Demian as Posthuman. That record was exploratory in the truest sense, a series of short, almost fragmented musical statements that seek to respond to the notion, what happens if I do this? It’s not the most successful musically, but taken on its own terms its terse, focussed nature is extraordinarily stimulating, especially as Lehman does not offer definitive answers. Instead, we get suggestions, material to be responded to in a dialogue with tradition and contemporary ways. The new record consolidates some of this exploration, especially in the manner in which the production of music via electronic effects can be translated in to material purely for playing.

The record features the alto saxophonist’s Quintet; Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Drew Gress on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. It’s a group that is reminiscent in sound and style of the Dave Holland Quintet and the musicians assembled for Jackie McLean‘s Destination Out. Lehman and his musicians are pioneering a truly new post-bop style that has a locus in New York City and, to a great extent, at Pi. He (and others like Vijay Iyer) are clearly influenced by popular music, especially hip-hop and its sub-genres, and the technology used to produce it. This comes through and the palette of rhythms head not only the drums but incorporated into the melody lines as well. There is intricate layering of syncopations between drum and bass, a quick, stuttering attack on the cymbals and side of the drums, and an equally syncopated and stuttering division in the melodies, which, as o the opening “Analog Moment,” make a great deal out of repeating single pitches. This is an acoustic adaptation of the type of cut-up, quickly paced start-stop beats that are the product of ubiquitous music production software like ProTools and Logic. In the Quintet, though, there’s never any actual drop of the beat, everything flows, everything is pushed just that little extra bit forward by the excellent Sorey, another favorite of the label.

Along with the ideas from contemporary pop music, Lehman explores territory laid out by Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, but he’s not as abstract – he has more of a “come along with me” musical personality. And he loves a good groove, like on the high point of the recording “Curse Fraction,” a tune with a weighty yet flowing beat and a simple melody that is both skittering and nicely sweet. The ensemble hits the right balance of tight and loose, and the open sound that the vibes provides is refreshing. Finlayson is a fine foil for Lehman, his trumpet punchy and rounded while the saxophone has that right-on-the-edge sound that McLean made work so well, and that Lehman learned from that master. There’s the pleasing nervous energy that is specifically associated with Be-Bop but is also a featured flavor of New York City jazz, and this is very much New York City music – there’s a lot going on, and it’s all moving ahead. Get on the ride, this guy has got something going on. I don’t think there’ll be many new jazz releases this year as satisfying as On Meaning.

Welcome Guests

Turangalila Page One

I’ve had a great weekend of concerts, courtesy of Carnegie Hall and the Saint Louis Symphony, led by David Robertson.  I had a ticket to the Saturday concert, and because I’m a Carnegie subscriber – which means only three concerts! – I frequently have the opportunity to cadge free tickets.  So there I was, in the front row of the Dress Circle Friday night for Turangalîla-Symphonie.  And, wow, what a performance.

The NY Phil could have had Robertson as their music director, but passed in favor of Maazel.  What where they thinking?  As I remarked to the fellow sitting next to me Saturday night, they didn’t want to wake up their subscribers.  Robertson was presenting a Discovery Concert, which meant a half-hour demonstration of the work and Messiaen‘s ideas and procedures, utilizing sections of the work and the full orchestra, and including an explanation of the ondes martenot.  The played excerpts, he showed Delaunay paintings and he discussed Messiaen’s synesthesia, which made him experience a rainbow as literally music from heaven.  Where else does one go with that than mystical Catholicism?

Robertson is an excellent conductor, musician and communicator.  He completely won over the audience during the presentation, and then kicked-ass in the concert.  It was a tremendous performance.  Colorful, energetic, precise in the mechanistic sections and lilting in the lyrical ones.  St. Louis is an excellent ensemble.  During the performance, before the fourth section, Robertson turned to the audience and told everyone that the perfect time to cough would be after the next section, the wild dance movement “Joie du sang des étoiles.”  After they ran through that with joy, the audience burst into loud, appreciative applause, which Robertson gracefully acknowledged.  They did so again after the beautiful “Jardin du sommeil d’amour,” and also after “Dévelopment de l’amour.”  It was great to hear, spontaneous appreciation for the fantastic music-making.  And at the end, after the wonderful final chord which was played with the most beautifully shaped orchestral crescendo I have ever heard, there was wild applause, multiple ovations for orchestra, conductor and the keyboard soloists, Nicolas Hodges and Cynthia Millar.  It was a beautiful and thrilling concert.  Bravissimo, maestro.

Saturday was my original ticket that I was anticipating for the New York premiere of John Adam‘s new Atomic Symphony, which he distilled from his Doctor Atomic opera.  It came at the end of a superbm, and superbly played, program of the Brahms Tragic Overture, the Berg Violin Concerto, beautifully played by Christian Tetzlaff (what a sound he has), and Tapiola.  It’s excellent in the way of Adams best music; immediately appealing to the ear, rhythmically strong, harmonically resonant, dramatically powerful and seeming to be of ideal duration – it ends just when it seems it should.  One of the features is his transcription to the solo trumpet of Oppenheimer‘s great aria, prior to intermission, of John Donne‘s holy sonnet “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God.”  Seeing Gerald Finley perform that in the original production was one of the greatest things I’ve experienced on the opera stage.  Hearing it as pure notes emphasizes what a wonderful, moving melody it is (Adams writes in the notes that the symphony, which is in one movement with three sections, is partly a response to the Sibelius Symphony No. 7, a work that is very important to me and which I will have an upcoming post on).  The composer as in attendance and got a great ovation, as did Robinson again, at the end, from a hall full of joyous, appreciative concert-goers.  I was one of them.

Time and Place, and Space

Previously I have mentioned a piece of music that was important to my own composing, and putting my actions where my lazy-ass blogger ways are, I went out last night to catch a performance of Ensemble ACJW at Zankel Hall. I’m always striving to hear, live, music that is important to me, and this entire concert was a real pleasure above and beyond checking anything off a personal list of experiences.

The Ensemble is an excellent organization. Made up of superb post-graduate musicians, it’s dedicated to developing professional performance skills, presenting programs with an exciting mix of pieces, and to education; all the musicians teach in the New York City public schools. The hall was only half-full, but along with hipsters, music students, a few middle-aged long hairs and me, there were a good number of elementary school kids, eight to ten years old, there in groups and with parents. That was truly great to see, especially considering they where there, in stormy weather, to hear a mix of Antony Holborne, Luciano Berio, Ingram Marshall and Steve Reich. Now, that’s a man’s music.

Holborne opened the program, with five of his dances arranged for a small brass ensemble with percussion. The arrangements were effective and the music almost plays itself. Holborne is not well know, either by audiences or scholars – there’s his music, and not much else. What I know of his work is from an achingly beautiful recording by Jordi Savall. In that record, it’s difficult to find the elision between the pure beauty of the music and the pure beauty of Savall as a musician, but the two men are certainly made for each other. The brass arrangements satisfy in the way of Renaissance music, with antiphony, firm and expected cadences, lilting lines and lively, swinging rhythms.

The piece from Berio, Linnea, was originally a dance commission, and has a consistent pulse that one may not expect from that composer. It also has a sonically beguiling instrumentation of two pianos, vibraphone and marimba. Lots of rich, ringing tones. He starts out with the simplest material, two alternating pitches played by the ensemble, alternates the rhythm a bit, and then we’re off, at a graceful stride, developing variations, interplay, call and response. The piece was new to me a constantly pleasurable and intriguing.

After intermission came the red meat, Marshall’s Fog Tropes and City Life from Reich. It also brought out conductor Alan Pierson to the stage, and a different sense of energy and performance. For the first piece, Pierson placed the two trumpets in the left balcony, the two horns on opposite sides of the stage and the two trombones on the right balcony. This was a very effective complement to the sense of grand space that Marshall’s tape of altered fog horn, and other environmental sounds, creates. The brass hit the ideal balance of blending into the sonic framework and calling out clearly with their material, which is purely musical and harmonic. What I heard was what appears to me to be the central idea of the piece, which is the mystery and beauty of the sounds that surround us in a place, a place that really exists in our imagination. Marshall evokes responses in the listener, and this makes for an enduring work.

(It was also the kind of dialogue that work has with artists, and vice-versa. My own response to Fog Tropes sought to have the instruments create the idea of antiphonal fog horns and their reflections, and in performance I placed them at different points on the stage to create that effect. Marshall himself composed the tape as a separate piece, and added brass at the suggestion of John Adams, and the musicians accompany and respond to the tape. And so, in performance I experience this and the wonderful effect of spacing the musicians around the stage . . . and it goes back and forth, the constant dialogue between composers and the body of work created through history, to which they add, and which other composers hear and respond too . . .)

City Life was dynamic and dynamite. I have heard this piece performed under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas and recordings from Reich’s own group, The Ensemble Moderne and an Italian new music group called Contempoartensemble, and I have never heard it played with such a sense of excitement. Pierson drove this music and had it swinging madly, and the musicians certainly seemed to be relishing the chance to play it. It’s just a bit over 10 years old now, and it’s become a repertory work. Considering the challenges contemporary music faces in simply getting performances, this is gratifying and exciting. It’s a powerhouse piece, it belongs to New York City explicitly – Reich uses sounds he recorded off the streets as an important part of the ensemble – and the kids were digging it.

This was a terrific experience, and I will be going back for more. The flat ticket price for ACJW concerts is a very reasonable $15, and what you get is as good a concert experience you’ll find in New York City.

How Composers Learn, Part 1

In the process of applying for PhD programs in the fall, I exchanged email with a former teacher of mine at the San Francisco Conservatory. At one point he wrote something, in the prospect of possible future consolation, that struck me as intuitively true:

I don’t think I learned anything from my alleged composition teachers. . . The history of music — now so neatly archived (I think it’s nice that there’s a way for music historians to earn a regular salary too) — is a superb educational resource, non pareil. If I were to undertake to teach a young composer, it would largely involve looking at music by others rather
than the student himself.

This has probably always been (largely) true. A good composer teacher is really more of a critic, I think, someone who can take a piece of music on its own terms and discern what makes it work, and what makes it fail. Being a good composer can’t be taught, but a young composer can be guided towards resources, examples, and also, ideally, shown to a clear way of thinking about their own work, taught how to listen to what they are doing.

But this body of music is the true teacher. Since the Beethoven Piano Sonatas have been published, they’ve been the guidebook for teaching so much of composition and harmony. How can I perform this modulation, make this structure? Well, let’s look at Beethoven and see how he did it. It’s no different, in essence from how writers learn to write (by reading), and jazz musicians learn what their music is (by listening).

In looking at schools, I found out that Princeton has a particular requirement for their fellows (one of a very few) that I found intriguing and exciting – each student writes a piece in response to another piece. How simple, and how great. No complicated lesson, just do the thing that composers do in order to learn their craft and explore their ideas.

So, if I’m not at Princeton next fall, I still have this enormous body of work available to me to learn from. And in truth I’ve already started. I’ve already written music in response (some would say imitation) to other pieces that involve me. Most have not been successful and are pretty much forgotten, like my own version of Barber’s Symphony No. 1. Still, it’s the way. And it’s a way for me to maintain the California focus, the look off the edge of the world into the future, that developed so strongly in me and is so important to maintain now that I’m back in New York.

In the scheme of things, it’s unconventional but appropriate. There is so much music available nowadays, so many styles and such a pervasive effect of non-classical music on my generation of composers, and those that come behind us. So for me, a point of influence in a lasting work of mine, a chamber piece called Big City from whence this blog is titled, is the work of Ingram Marshall, especially his Fog Tropes. There’s a guy who probably would not get into a lot of PhD programs, but he’s made a lot of good music that is firmly in the California aesthetic. Which means it’s evocative, slightly abstract, a little dark. Those are all good things.

Marshall’s work is an evocation of San Francisco Bay and the fog that can completely shroud it, leaving one in an undifferentiated greyscape. It blends electronic sounds with a brass choir, ideally seamlessly: http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewAlbum?i=49626185&id=49626748&s=143441

My own piece has a first movement meant to evoke an equally physical experience of living in San Francisco – there is a recorded part that plays along with the instruments, but their voices and musical purpose are different than Marshall’s:

I wanted a background that suggested a physical location, but not the emulsification of sound that Marshall achieves. Also, in peformance, the soprano sax and bass clarinet were spaced as far apart as possible to give the sense the horns were calling to each other, albeit in an uncoordinated way, across a distance.

I revised the piece this fall, and also made a brand new audio file (party because it’s a hassle to get the one off DAT, partly as a learning exercise in some new software tools I have). The result, built from environmental sounds, is hopefully both more specific to SF Bay and also more mysterious. Here’s a sample

I kinda’ like it . . .

. . . and nicely enough, I can catch a performance of Fog Tropes at Zankel Hall tomorrow evening.

And I have a lot more learning to do. The study of Beethoven for harmony and Bach for counterpoint never tires, and in the fall I added a lot of excellent books to the music library. But as for pieces to respond too, well, those pop in and out of my head all the time. Some are more challenging others, more ambitious, more complex. A short list would be something like this:

. . . and that’s just what I’m thinking of today. There’ll be many more installments on this topic. Now, it’s time to see just what can be done, editing samples and mixing audio files.