Nonclassical

What are we supposed to call new music? It’s not a new problem (is Rhapsody in Blue classical, jazz or pop? Yes, yes it is), but it’s an increasing and increasingly complex problem. Or to put it another way, it’s an increasingly subtle and sublime pleasure. Zoologists and astronomers seek the joy of finding a thing that is new to human eyes, and giving that thing a name. And so do music fans.

What’s new means different things to different people. When I arrived at college, I was interested in new, contemporary classical music, like Morton Feldman, and new jazz. My classmates told me how they liked new music too, which to them meant The Romantics, Duran Duran and whatever was in heavy rotation at WLIR. The idea of “new” was segregated by style and experience, and pop music fans could barely imagine that anything new was being made outside of their own, famously cyclical and cannibalistic, genre.

But then came the personal computer, the internet and iTunes. There’s more than one generation now with the experience of music as a vast, cross-referenced database. Genres still exist because styles still exist, but there are few, if any, barriers separating them from audiences and especially from musicians and composers. New music is being made, music in every form and style is being made, with the use of electronics (a great genre leveller and connector); classical and non-clasical musicians are meeting up on laptops across the world.

This is explicit in the title of the new Nonclassical label, and in their output, which provides a substantial answer to what to call the music on their CDs by pairing composed pieces with a set of remixes of same, with one interesting exception. Of course, the pairing doesn’t really answer the question of what to call the music, but it shows how the means of making music and approaching pieces are currently common across genres. If the twentieth century broke down the practice of segregating music by genre through, roughly, the conservatory for classical, the garage for rock and the woodshed for jazz, then the twenty-first century has a laptop in each place, the musicians chatting and playing together across local and wide-area networks.

Nonclassical, the label and the style, could be the equivalent of indie- or alt- classical music, although the cuteness of those labels excludes real information. “Indie” is what everyone is who doesn’t regularly work for or depend on The Man. “Alt” is a little more useful, but in conveying a challenge it over promises; Kronos Quartet has been putting out arrangements of non-classical music for far too long for this to be an underground, alternative way to make music, and too many middle-aged jazz musicians have had to wash dishes or deliver mail for far too long because alt-type organizations can’t work up the gumption to challenge themselves and put them on stages or on records. No, it’s the music that tells us what to call it, and, like all types of music, how it’s made and what it intends are the keys.

A prototype of this music, and the prototype for the goals of the Nonclassical label, is Cortical Songs , from John Matthias and Nick Ryan. The CD title comes from the main piece, a work for solo violinist – Matthias – and string ensemble, playing music devised by the two men and programmed for the computer by Ryan. They have taken rhythmic patterns based on the firings of neurons and made a piece where the instructions for the musicians are controlled by a computer that simulates the neuronal process through LEDs; when an LED ‘fires,’ the musicians respond. It’s ingenious and more than just a clever idea, as the piece itself is simple, straightforward and achingly gorgeous, a four part minor key lament with the transparent texture of Arvo Pärt and a sound familiar to anyone who has heard the slow movements of The Four Seasons. The music is made via techniques pioneered through the centuries in classical music, and is made to sound simply strong and good; it will arrest any ear. It’s followed by eleven different remixes of the piece, which is a good example of one important nonclassical value; collaborative, open-source, music meant to be a beginning, not an end. There’s an inherent irreverence in this idea, that something can always be redone, reworked, even improved in someone else’s hands. That’s always been true to some extent in how musicians and composers become who they are, but it’s new to have this as a developing public aesthetic. Last year’s In C Remixed is the premiere example, but Cortical Songs is more concentrated, tougher and more evocative in every way, in part because the piece is new and it’s still becoming familiar in the ears, and in part because the remixes are not only uniformly excellent but also mainly stay away from the dance music aesthetic. There are very few beats and lots of evocative textures and fascinating restructuring of a piece that already has an open structure. The cuts from Thom Yorke, Simon Tony, Dominic Murcott and Marcus Coates are particularly fine. Cortical Songs gets more interesting and rewarding with each listen, and is one of the strongest releases of the year.

Another new and important nonclassical label is New Amsterdam, which has already put out an impressive array of excellent contemporary classical, pop and jazz CDs. They are also the home to the self described “ambient indie classical’ violin and guitar duo of Caleb Burhans and Greg McMurray who call themselves itsnotyouitsme. Their description is a good place to start, but what they do is improvise, and with the help of electronics (looping, signal processing), create richly textured soundscapes. The music is tonal, mostly consonant, ambient in the sense that it all has the same depth, there’s no separation between foreground and background, and rather than audible beats there is the sound of simple, repeated patterns flowing from one color and emotional timbre to the next, like coming upon a stream and seeing what we missed up the line move past us. The repeated arpeggios under a fairly clear musical line on “Vanity Stays My Hand” (on the new release, fallen monuments) is pretty close to a song, but that’s as pop as their music gets, no matter the incredibly simple, satisfying pleasure of listening to the disc. It’s as beautiful as their debut release, but I think given that these are live recordings, there’s a quiet but gripping intensity that gives the new record a good deal more power. This is music that makes the world a better place to live in. It certainly is ambient improvisation, but classical? Not quite, but why not. Put it amongst its peers in the tone-poem form, and it fares well. I’d take it over Richard Strauss any day.

Gabriel Prokofiev, composer, DJ, and founder of the Nonclassical label, and of course Sergei Prokofiev’s grandson, has the exceptional release noted above, a CD of his Piano Book No. 1, performed by the painist GéNIA, who by happy and important coincidence is the great-great granddaughter of Vladimir Horowitz, who premiered the recording of the elder Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7. Gabriel has already made an explicit “indie-classical” work, his Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, but that piece is more a slogan than a constructive musical idea, a stagy dressing-up of the turntable in a tuxedo without the musical interest that Christian Marclay and Bernhard Lang generate with the same instrument. The Piano Book is classical through and through, a concentrated set of pithy pieces presented as they are, with no remixing, in gorgeous sound and excellent playing from the pianist. The music hints at some expectations, then exceeds them and surprises. There is an aesthetic debt to his grandfather in the muscular sound and the quality of deadpan aggression, walking a fine balance between malevolence and parody. The way the music is made in detail, though, the way the notes fit together into chords, the way the chords are set into rhythms and especially the way Prokofiev sets out phrases that banter and bicker with each other, comes out of the legacy of Ligeti’s piano music, his earlier pieces and especially his monumental Etudes . Like those pieces, the Piano Book explores a combination of technical ideas and musical questions. Sections like “Rockaby” juxtapose phrases that don’t seem to quite fit together, and then find ways to bring them into the composer’s musical logic, while “Cold Wooden Window” is an open-ended ballad, seeming to ask why, but never giving an answer. This is accomplished contemporary classical music, atypical in a way from the other Nonclassical releases, but also an important addition to the catalog. If indie- or alt- classical means music made out of the tradition of Western Classical Music that pop fans would want to listen to, then Prokofiev has given them the sugar with his label and added the tonic with this CD.

The balance between the two is idealized on Import/Export, a collaboration between Prokofiev, as composer and Joby Burgess, under his Powerplant project, as percussionist. This is a piece for junk percussion, metal drums, soda bottles, plastic bags, the physical detritus of global trade. If the idea seems at hearing like a combination of easy political slogans and “Stomp” style theatricality, the results once again massively exceed expectations. This is a fascinating, thoughtful and engrossing work. The objects are used in a completely musical way, for their sound, and Prokofiev has made a piece of music that has a great balance between sound and the rhythmic interest that a large scale percussion piece needs. It has a loping pulse that makes the body move in time and well-crafted space and dynamics. There’s another set of well made remixes and a DVD that features a filmed performance of the piece in its multi-media realization, which includes the silent narrative of a film running alongside and behind Burgess as he plays. As a piece of music, Import/Export has the rigor and craft of a classical composition, and as a performance and package it again has a broad, and truly smart, appeal to listeners who may never know that this kind of music was pioneered by dead, white Europeans and Americans. This is an excellent all around release. You can hear both works from Prokofiev live at LPR this Wednesday, with both GéNIA and Burgess performing and the composer himself DJing and laying down phat . . . . sonatas?

Now, a question? What typically classical instrument elicits the most surprise and delight when found in a nonclassical ensemble? My completely unscientific, anecdotal survey says it’s the cello. Two cellists who started out in bands and have since gone their own ways each have new recordings out this summer, Maya Beiser (a founder of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, important progenitors of nonclassical music), and Zoë Keating (previously of Rapustina and sometime member of Amanda Palmer’s band), and they are fine complements to each other.

Beiser’s Provenance actually puts here closer to the company of another cellist, or proto-cellist, the great gamba player Jordi Savall. Her disc takes territory Savall has been exploring, the music of Sephardic Spain, and approaches it from the opposite end, a contemporary viewpoint rather than an archeological one. It’s in no way derivative of the other work and shows how rich the Sephardic musical traditions are, and makes a strong and enjoyable point about how they’ve been with us through the centuries, even in popular music. That’s on the most provocative track, an arrangement made by Evan Zyporin of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” with a multi-tracked Beiser accompanied by Jerry Marotta on the drums. It’s close to the original, which already combines a Levantine riff with a Medieval beat, and Beiser caresses Robert Plant’s line in a remarkably articulated way. It stands out as familiar, but there’s no gimmick. It falls at the end and rounds off opening “I Was There,” by Kayhan Kalhor. The piece has a long, ruminative opening with Beiser and oud player Bassam Saba improvising in a minor mood, carefully scaling the tension so that the ear anticipates the frame drums that enter with a beat at exactly the right moment. There’s a sense of ensemble play that is very much like Savall’s work, again with an interesting, modern difference. The sense of rhythm that comes through in the strong, regular beat and Beiser’s driving attacks comes directly out of rock, but it’s subtle enough that the effect is of modern musicians playing ancient music and, in their own way, making it new again. After this, “Kashmir” appears seamlessly, and the middle stretch of “Memories,” “Mar De Leche” and “Only Breath,” the first from Armenian musician Djivan Gasparyan and the last from composer Douglas Cuomo, elide together hypnotically, and knit the CD together into a coherent musical suite and a substantial journey through how the present views, and is in debt to, the past. As noted on the previous items, the disc is ravishingly beautiful and has a haunting power.

Keating’s Into The Trees has it’s own great beauty and haunting power. Self-produced in every way and self-released, this follows from and develops on her previous recordings. While Beiser’s nonclassical approach is fair to hear as world music project (with the inherently obvious meaninglessness in that label), Keating’s method is easy to quantify but harder to label. She uses technology to loop and layer cello patterns into pieces of music that have substantial structure and substantial emotional power. In one sense, she’s a Minimalist, but with less focus on process and more on expression. The language of her playing is lyrical, very much songs without words, and the short phrases and rhythmic accents she prefers would be right at home in pop and rock music. The sound she produces is deeply sensuous, as rich as the most enthralling kind of drone music, but she has a lot more going on.

Into The Trees has no particular standout tracks because the entire recording is outstanding. She’s a musician who gives the impression of looking inward and finding lovely things to share with us. The powerfully mournful sound of her cello is curbed with the feeling of pleasure in how well she expresses her ideas. There is an anthemic quality to a lot of the pieces, and a bit of the literal idea of a journey into the woods, with an evocative blend of curiosity, longing, trepidation, confidence and joy. There’s also a Romantic journey of some struggle culminating in the success and acceptance of “Don’t Worry,” certainly the sweetly inspired climax of the record, but the denoument takes us through even more interesting territory and states, and tacks on a nice bit of tension. There’s a postscript in a second version of “Optimist,” which shows that Keating is a performing musician who makes technology work for her. And, again, the music is simply beautiful, with a thrilling sense of power at its core. So, what to call it? With her compositional techniques and rigor, the depth and richness of her expression and her pop accessibility, I think Zoë Keating is actually the paragon of the idea of nonclassical style, most of all because what she is doing is so unfussy, undogmatic and personal; she’s just making the music she wants to make out of her own experience of listening and playing and is showing the possible way to everyone else.

If you’d like to hear some nonclassical, and classical, music from a cellist, head down to LPR on August 8 for the debut appearance of Peter Gregson, a young Scotsman who, while more classically inclined than Beiser and Keating, is hauling the instrument into the twenty-first century. He has already performed across the web, interactively, via Twitter, and like Keating works directly with technology as part of his performances, including accompanying himself in Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint, originally written for Beiser, and creating his own luscious arrangement of Thomas Tallis’ great motet Spem in Alium. He’ll be playing those two pieces, and more.

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Nationalism used to be a common and important feature of music. Prior to World War II, there were identifiable national styles that had been developing for centuries. The Stürm und Drang of German music, the diaphanous harmonies in French music, the dazzling colors in Russian music were stereotypes but true enough, based in common fact and experience. The physical, emotional and intellectual dislocations of war put an end to much of those qualities, along with the spread of audio recordings and an ideological, international compositional style, 12-tone Serialism. There is still music that captures and evokes qualities of certain places, though it’s far more personal, connected more to geographical and historical qualities than those of national identity.

The American Contemporary Music Ensemble performed music at Le Poisson Rouge recently that was powerfully evocative of two specific places that exist both on maps of the globe and in maps of the mind, two places far removed from each other; South Africa and Alaska. From what the music revealed, the two places have little to do with each other, except for their fundamental quality as outposts from which to carve a new path. The composers were Kevin Volans and John Luther Adams, and their territories pair the interior with the exterior.

Volans is South African, and came to prominence when the Kronos String Quartet asked him to rework a series of pieces he had been making under the title “White Man Sleeps;” pieces of that arrangement are on the 1987 Kronos CD of that same title. The original work was the composer’s attempt to create a music that reflected the multicultural society in which he was raised. Transferring it to the string quartet meant, for him, losing particular qualities of instrumental color and tuning which were an important part of his initial idea. He gained a great deal more, though, in that he transferred his personal aesthetic into an international and historical one. White Man Sleeps for string quartet has a definite foundation in Volans’ country and it places that multicultural aspect into the ongoing world of classical music. The string quartet group inside ACME, Caleb Burhans and Yuki Numata playing violins, Nadia Sirota on viola and Artistic Director Clarice Jensen playing the cello, played three of the five sections of the piece, in the order of II, IV and I. Hearing the music in this setting, a quasi-formalized chamber music concert, was even more ear opening than encountering it on the CD. Kronos emphasizes the context but doesn’t establish enough of the music for any particular idea to take hold. With a generous amount of the music it’s clear how this piece is inextricably woven into the mosaic of classical music. Composers like Steve Reich learned features of African music and returned it to the West in the form of his own pioneering works, which do things like fitting together the audible beat found almost everywhere outside the Western classical tradition into the abstract processes that were created here. Volans music has qualities one hears in Reich, like the punchy phrases and dancing, syncopated rhythms, but his are coming from the source, Africa itself. His compositional process is also his own, more song-like and dance-like, repeating sections to make a whole rather than working out a progression of expansion and contraction of small units. It’s African music, from Africa, from a composer who came out to meet the West. The performance was lively and touching.

Volans’ later Shiva Dance, String Quartet No. 9 has some similar features but is a very different work; more Western, more expressive, grimmer. It begins with gestural language that is a like one-step abstraction of the means of the earlier work, then gradually transforms the material in a way that is very ‘classical.’ There’s an intensity to the music and the appearance of vibrato, which had not revealed itself before, makes it seem very Romantic. The two pieces together sound like internal cartography, a map Volans is trying to draw of South Africa, it’s history, his place in it and where it all fits in the world and in history. It’s going to include glory and tragedy. The quartet ends in whispered textures, and was another fine performance. This group within a group cannot possibly devote the same kind of intense rehearsal time that most string quartets need to develop the sound and interplay that produces the best playing, and so it’s astonishing to hear these four musicians play with so much sympathy in the inner voices, such a uniform sound (and such an interesting sound too; astringent and almost accordion-like), and such easily coordinated phrasing.

Adams’ territory is Alaska, and his music is about making a sound, hearing how it fills up and disappears into space, or reflects back, and then responding to and building off that. He works with compositional processes that are as abstract as any in the classical tradition but he lays them in aim of a target that has to do with the environment, horizons and the idea of achieving stillness within a stream of flowing time. He’s an experimentalist in the vital West coast tradition of composers who know their European music history and have turned to the Pacific, to see where the sun goes and what is possible across the seemingly endless expanse of that huge ocean. The myth of the American frontier, supposedly dead, still lives in a line of thought that follows Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and even Robert Bechtle, though the organic beauty of his work makes him more the musical equivalent of Andy Goldsworthy.

ACME played two Adams pieces, The Farthest Place and In a Treeless Place, Only Snow. The latter work has some more familiar elements; a rising and falling quasi-gamelan scale, a cello solo that is recognizable as a variant of that scale and an ending that is one last iteration of it. The ear can hear how the piece is put together, where it’s going, and it’s stunningly gorgeous, with a shimmering sound. Even more beautiful is the first work, which creates a plangent object of sound with repeated piano, vibraphone and marimba notes. Mixed in are sustained lines from cello and violin. This music is deceptively simple on the page and to the ear but unique in its methods and very hard to play. ACME produced a lovely balance and blend of sound, the emulsification of the instrumental tones into one seemingly solid object that they slowly turned in time, for us to marvel at. While the low ceiling of Le Poisson Rouge is not the ideal environment for Adams’ music, the playing was so fine, and the appearance of the music so welcome, that time did, gratefully, stand still.

How Composers Learn, Part 3

They learn by developing taste, and critical judgement. By taste I mean being honest with themselves over what appeals to them and what doesn’t, be it gold or trash (hey, I like “Californication“), and by critical judgement I mean the ability to discern the purpose of a particular work and evaluate its success in fulfilling that purpose. This way, a composer can appreciate the quality of a work that does not appeal to him – in my case, that’s pretty much the entire body of work of Strauss – or personally enjoy something that he recognizes doesn’t have the greatest quality.

These are really essential skills, because they develop the ability of all the senses, especially the ear and the mind. When making a work or listening to a work, a composer has to determine who it sounds. And like the Duke said, if it sounds good, it is good – well made in some way, and well made music is successful music. This all came to my mind when we were at Le Poisson Rouge the other night, catching an excellent program in the Wordless Music series, featuring Arvo Part played by the Wordless Music Orchestra and Tim Hecker presenting his own work, along with short works by Andrew Norman – his energetic Gran Turismo – and Jeff Myers – a schematic and cinematic Metamorphosis, which was inconsistently successful.

Part and Hecker are two musicians who I always enjoy listening to, in the literal sense that their music sounds so good to me. This is a tribute to their own ears, their own taste and critical judgement. Taste and critical judgement are the very lifeblood of their work. They are both musicians who I think are most accurately described as Minimalists. Part is often grouped with Glass and Reich, but if we are to understand the real meaning of that style, we can’t truly call Glass and Reich Minimalists. Their methods are to use repetition as the means of development, and their works are frequently grand in scope, especially those of Glass, who has an inherent grandeur and expansiveness in even his shortest works. Glass and Reich construct substantial edifices out of discrete units, but there is nothing Minimal about their work.

Part and Hecker are Minimal because they use the least possible material, and keep it that way. Part’s great masterpieces, Fratres, Passio and Tabula Rasa, the work that was given a powerful and moving performance by the orchestra (Yuki Numata and Nadia Sirota were the excellent soloists, all led with a real understanding of the work by Ryan McAdams), present the minimum amount of music, then presents it again, without change, and again, and again. I do not know Part’s composing methods, but his work gives the impression of being structured in a completely intuitive way, the artist listening to his own work and trusting his ear to say when a thing has been said. One feature of what Part says is that it is austerely beautiful to the ear, satisfying and enticing without tiring, but anything that goes on too long fails, and Part manages, in his best work, to give the sensation that it lasts exactly as long as it ideally should. This is truly impressive in Passio, which is essentially an hour-plus of the same musical material repeated, without even a key change, and completely involving for every second. Tabula Rasa is featured on the great recording that introduced the composer to a worldwide audience, and is a masterpiece of the expression of mystery. The music seems to proceed slowly past the listener, like a disconsolate parade, until it is finally passed slowly to the lower strings, where it simply disappears, as if over the horizon.

The pairing of Hecker with Part was exceptional. Hecker’s electronic medium is entirely different, but like Part he pares his work down to the essentials. The great advantage that the electronic medium has is that all the traditional structural means of music – form, meter, pitch, key, rhythm – can be abandoned in terms of pure sound and timbre. His work is made up of great slabs of sound drifting with, towards, against, through and away from each other, and what makes it so successful – and it is frequently absolutely great – is the quality of his sound. He fills up the spectrum with complex timbres that balance pitch, timbre, texture and noise that are ominous and comforting at the same time. R. Murray Schafer has pointed out that music is touch at a distance, and while Hecker was working the playback mix, I found myself putting my hand up against the ear, to better feel it pushing and vibrating against me. Touching me. It is his ear that allows him to create such wonderful sound, and his ear which, without any seeming structure to his work, allows him to judge when to modify or change a particular sound. From his ear to yours, it’s a sensational experience.