Lions In Winter


187 years total, Photo by Jon Simon

Did Elliot Carter ever babysit Pierre Boulez? It’s possible, considering that Boulez is only 85 years old this year, while Carter finished his 102nd year on earth December 11. Carter was in the audience this past Monday at Miller Theater for a Portrait of the younger man. It was another one of the events at Miller that drew a packed and excited audience that included, along with Carter, other composers and musicians. John Zorn and Chet Biscardi sat in front of me, Olga Neuwirth at the other end of my row, Sean Sheperd milled in the crowd afterward.

Boulez is deeply important, of course, and also truly fascinating. He may deny this, but he has gone through several important transformations in his musical career that have paralleled large-scale movements in art music in the 20th century, from extreme dogmatism and musical utopianism through the return of Romanticism. He has been on the inside of all this both as an important composer and conductor, and has produced great music on paper and on the podium.

Boulez took Schoenberg’s serial atonality to the extreme, applying strict, hermetically logical rules to other aspects of music, like rhythm and dynamics. And although he is, historically, the antithesis of Cage, he did create a very Cageian piece, Le Marteau sans Maître , where willful expression on the part of the composer and musicians is subdued almost entirely. That work was a pivotal moment for him and for contemporary music. It has been praised for decades, but I feel it is a bad piece of music, but a necessary one. It is completely unenjoyable, in the guise of musical expression it expressive nothing other than a set of rules. Yet it also shows that Schoenberg’s system and its developments were a technical and aesthetic cul-de-sac, and after it music had to back it’s way out and find new directions.

Boulez did the same, and with orchestras, by going backwards in time from Alban Berg, he discovered the great works of Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner. While his results in leading this music are mixed, he can produce astonishing performances, especially live, and has also made some of the finest recordings of Stravinsky and Debussy. I recall his leading the Chicago Symphony in Petrushka a few years ago as the greatest I have ever heard that music. The Miller Portrait was dedicated to his work as a composer and gave examples that spanned seven decades.

The earliest work was 12 Notations, from 1945. Anthony Cheung played this with impeccable skill and musicality. The pieces are sharply etched, mostly atonal but not strictly so. Atonal music is, for most people, including musicians, impossible to follow along the lines and their repetition, it goes against how the ear and the mind work. The fundamental features of melody and harmony cannot be defined in the moment of hearing, so we are left with a series of events placed in time. The best of this music places them with exactitude, and this is one of Boulez’s great virtues as a composer; he creates tension and release by producing a feeling of suspense around when the next event will take place, and what it will be like. The Notations have this virtue, and even have moments of tonality. They also have a great deal of charm and wit, and as Boulez said on stage, they are strictly organized but “hopefully the audience can’t hear that,” which is an important point about music that he would have denied when he first wrote the work! It should just sound good.

His intellectual charm and what is a typical French love of transparent sound and colors is just under the surface of his music, making even the most difficult works appealing in some ways. He also writes very well for the voice, one of the few composers who can make atonal and dissonant vocal lines pleasurable. The example in concert was two Improvisations sur Mallarmé from the 1950s, vocal music that formed the basis of one of his large scale masterpieces, Pli Selon Pli. Mary Elizabeth Mackenzie sang these beautifully, with a full voice, real expression and fabulous pitch. She was accompanied by the centerpiece group of the concert, the excellent Talea Ensemble with precise, impressive leadership from conductor James Baker. The ensemble began and ended the evening with Boulez’s two Dérives, the first from the mid-1980s, the second originally from that same decade but greatly revised and expanded just four years ago.

The first is light, brisk, almost Baroque in the way it builds itself from flourish and trills. The colors are crystalline, chiming. It’s a tone poem, a landscape piece, something out of the Artic, with wind blowing across the frozen surface while, underneath, geological processes move slowly and powerfully. The second work is enormous, the duration of a late Romantic symphony, and a work of complete brilliance. It is ultra-complex but not dense, the clarity and transparency of the score reveals how full of committed thinking the music is. There is something going on all the time, so much polyphony that it is truly too much to digest in one hearing, and it is abstract, revealing nothing about what Boulez was thinking other than the notes and the sound. But Boulez was thinking a great deal, and the music is the demonstration of a mind working at an extremely powerful level, holding and developing multiple ideas simultaneously. The flow of ideas is so fast that it approaches the level of a Cecil Taylor improvisation, just with great orchestration. The effect, as one tries to keep track of the lines, is the creation of a pleasant fugue state. Although there are repeated gestures and sectional ideas, it approaches Carter’s ideal of endless, repetitive music.

Every time I think of, or write that line, I do have to stop and contemplate the idea of a music that does not repeat. Music is repetition and change, that is how musical structures can be made and, usually, how essential ideas of tension and release are conveyed. Music is artificial, it’s something we create out of our minds and in our ears. Carter has dedicated himself for decades now to creating music that doesn’t repeat, music that follows the external flow of time rather than creating it’s own, artificial sense of time. I find this in concept, as a human being, unnerving. Time is what I exist in, and I prefer my art to be artificial, to be at its core an Existential blow against the entropy that is an inevitable feature of the universe. And yet here is Carter, doing the thing that every neuron tells me can’t be done, and doing it brilliantly.

His current output, a substantial sample of which is available on this great set released this year, is the most sheerly enjoyable of his career. Carter has always gone his own way, only coincidentally with or against musical fashion, and his individuality has never been greater. His voice is so consistent and so clear, yet he never sounds like he is repeating himself and reworking his own material. His pieces have become shorter and, as they become ever more concentrated on his idea, with it’s unfathomable implications, have become surprisingly lighter. They are impish, dazzling, full of humor, but without wasted notes or filligree. One is left smiling as if he’s played a good natured practical joke, one where the punch line went by so quickly it may have been missed. This video gives a good example of this style:

It is perhaps impossible to determine exactly what Carter is saying here, but it is so clear that he is saying something worthwhile, and that because it can’t be understood, it draws the listener in. It’s as mysterious, abstract and absolute as music gets, and still it’s amiable, approachable, winning. Carter is really exploring aesthetic possibilities that are as yet unknown in cultural history, and the clarity and concentration of his style, the sense that you are hearing exactly what he wants you to hear, comes from his astonishing creative experience. At 102 years young, his voice is assured and modestly experimental beyond any in the history of Western art music.

It’s an unmistakable feature of late style. You can hear it in a CD out this year from Noah Creshevsky, who has pioneered his own unmistakable style. He calls it hyperrealism, and it’s apt. Creshevsky works with electroacoustic sources (samples and instruments), and stitches his music together into pieces that sound like music that is just slightly inhuman, in that it is clear, direct, has recognizable means and structures, but has a particular quality of the velocity of events and ideas, or adapts an acoustic instrument in a particular way, that could not actually be produced by a person physically playing an instrument. It’s like Conlon Nancarrow’s approach, but with an interest in varied, open-ended structures. The results are as unnerving as Carter’s concept, but exhilarating. The Twilight Of The Gods is a dazzling CD, the pieces full of recognizable details that tickle the mind and the memory, the music itself moving in ways that make one dizzy. Creshevsky’s music is like riding a musical roller-coaster, one that has turns and drops that can’t be seen or anticipated from the car. It can be exhausting, but it is amazing to hear, and the CD is one of the best releases of the year. It’s also a testament, again, to an artist whose language and craft are beyond assured.

Another composer who is so clear and accomplished in his language is Ingram Marshall. He also has one of the year’s best release in September Canons . Here we are on, it seems, a unguided tour of the composer’s mind, with pieces that cover several of the areas he has touched on in his work; his use of electronics to augment acoustic instruments with great beauty, represented by the title piece for Todd Reynolds violin, his pieces that use fragments of his own memory and experiences via older recordings of music, like Sibelius or village marches, as the texture in which to create new perspectives, music for the Gambuh, an Indonesian dramatic form, and of course gamelan music, represented here by “Woodstone.” This last has one of the most compelling and beautiful combinations of melody and harmony that I have ever heard, so beautiful it’s disturbing in its power. A wonderful collection.

Of course, the great example of late style in the arts is Beethoven, especially the piano sonatas and string quartets. Beethoven, the great builder of musical structures that, without a wasted moment, inevitably conveyed the listener from beginning to end, from entrance to exit, every room and passageway with a purpose . . . this Beethoven, late in his life and deaf, with his unerring knowledge of how symbols on a page translated into sound and form, began to explore what strike me as deeply personal thoughts and feelings. The musical edifices are still unshakably firm, but they are more extravagant, with details, passageways and rooms that have no other purpose than to add a sensation of pleasure, or mystery. There is a long debate about the meaning of the late string quartets, and to that I would add the view that much of them mean nothing. That for Beethoven, who had been a public composer, producing works that more and more informed the audience of ideas along with music, the late music is necessarily internal, due to his deafness, but also delightfully internal. He is not only writing what he hears in his inner ear but what delights his inner ear, music that makes him wonder and question and mostly marvel at the oddness of it all. The reputation of the Grosse Fugue, the initial finale of the Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130, was that it was too difficult to listen to. It does begin sternly, but then it grows increasingly warm as Beethoven seems to enthrall himself with how much nice music the material can produce. Perhaps the mystery of this late style is that it is the sound of a man humming to himself in his private moments.

To explore that mystery, listen to the Tokyo Quartet’s set of the late quartets, and also to the first two volumes of the Cypress String Quartet’s recordings of the late quartets. Both groups of recordings are at the highest level, and they are quite different from each other. The Tokyo is a veteran group, their sound, especially in the brilliant Harmonia Mundi SACD sound, is bright, polished but not smoothed over. Their tempos and playing style is lighter, they have a focus on ensemble unanimity of purpose, giving the feeling that they have clearly determined the thing they will express and then doing so with great style. Their set is full of energy, bravura in every way. The Cypress is a younger group, their sound is rougher and darker (both types of sound are great in this music). Their playing is more deliberate, like they are thinking out loud, and at times they seem to be deliberately giving an independent voice to each of their members, exploring the possibilities of the music and confident it will bear them safely to a conclusion – this strikes me as a naturally brilliant approach to these pieces, with their willfulness and depth. Where the Tokyo excites with beauty, the Cypress excites with a thrilling kind of gravitas, a willingness to contemplate what is happening in front of them while they play the music. Their CDs have superb sound, and I’m eagerly awaiting the final installment. Both sets would be a valuable part of any Beethoven collection, and with their quality and differences make great ‘bookends.’


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:

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.