Steve Reich

Bitch Slap

This clever edit of an Angie Dickinson/Lee Marvin movie clip with the audio of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music is making the rounds on the intertubes this morning, and it’s well done:

The video itself comes from this scene from “Point Blank,” directed by John Boorman, which is a terrific thriller/crime/revenge drama, with more than a little touch of a ghost story. It was remade by Mel Gibson, but he missed the point of everything except the violence, which is expected.

Here’s Clapping Music in a performance by the Grand Valley State New Music Ensemble (I like the fast tempo):

And here’s a nice abstract visual realization of the score:

Back to beginnings to end it, there’s nothing much cooler than Lee Marvin.

2010 Top 10

Of all the music, of all kinds, released this year, these are my favorites, in alphabetical order:

Die Zauberflöte, MozartRené Jacobs, conductor, Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor; Daniel Behle, Marlis Petersen, Dainiel Schmutzhard, Sunhae Im, Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, Marcos Fink

René Jacobs has finished his series of recordings of the mature Mozart operas with this superb and wonderful Magic Flute that is easily one of the finest ever made and also the most constructively unique. Among period instrument and performance styles, Jacob’s work stands out from his peers via the orchestral sound he develops, his non-dogmatic way with singers and his attention to a dramatic ideal. He, perhaps, has a point to prove, but it’s not about the proper way to recreate Mozart, it’s about the proper way to present a staged drama entirely in an audio format. His achievement in this is both so full and also so natural and subtle that it almost escapes notice.

Jacobs is undemonstrative as a conductor, so it’s worth pointing out how fine the fundamentals of the recording are, the kinds of things that a conductor is responsible for preparing before the curtain lifts or the disc starts spinning. In an era in which both modern and period orchestras sound very much like each other, the sound Jacobs gets – woody, warm, with crunchy brass, a pleasingly brittle power – is remarkable for it’s color, sensuousness and intimacy. The singing is excellent throughout, and again notable for its naturalness in what is an unnatural form. All the voices are terrific, especially Behle as Tamino, Petersen as Tamina and Schmutzhard as Papageno. They not only sing the music but inhabit the characters. Jacobs maintains a relaxed sense of phrasing even at the fastest tempos (his Allegro in the Overture is incredibly fast) and so the singers always sound like they have something to say, articulating the notes and words clearly. Behle is especially fine. He shines in the company of his peers, who include Fritz Wunderlich and Nicolai Gedda. While those other two great singers draw you to the beauty of their voices and their singing, Behle sings with equal musicality and better characterization; it’s not him but Tamino we hear, the music and the things he thinks and feels.

And this, what makes this such a great recording, and a great opera recording, is the overall focus on the drama. It’s what Jacobs has done throughout his series, which is now one of the great documents of recorded music. There is something he does that I have not heard on any recording, studio or live, before; during the stretches of dialogue he has moments of continuo playing and snatches of song and vocalization from some of the other characters in the scene. This is scintillating, it makes the listening experience vivid and, in the audio dimension, integrates the spoken drama into the sung dialogue. But the overall thing, the subtle and profound feature that illuminates his care and musical intelligence, is to contain the entire recording within the frame of a story. Die Zauberflöte is Mozart’s story, and Jacobs and musicians tell it to us with love and dedication, they give us Mozart. It’s pretty simple, really. This tale is one of the great works in Western art music, it needs little more than skillful, sympathetic telling. This is as skillful and sympathetic as it gets, and that fundamental simplicity clears away what now seems like a burdensome legacy of demonstrative, self-involved performances.

Double Sextet/2×5, Reich – Eighth Blackbird and Bang On a Can

The first piece won the Pulitzer, and it’s a great example of late period Reich. 2×5, however, is even better, a complete knockout that shows the composer’s previously hidden prog-rock roots – maybe even he doesn’t know about them? – in a bright, chiming mesh of polyrhythms with such appeal that there’s some danger one’s dancing limbs will draw and quarter the listener. What a way to go.

I’m New Here – Gil Scott-Heron

The return of Gil Scot-Heron to active music is noteworthy in itself. That the result is the finest record from this great and important artist is a bit mind-boggling. The balance on this disc between modern R&B, the tragedy of worn out lives and the lyricism of life itself is impossible to describe and impossible to miss.

Katrina Ballads – Ted Hearne

This continues to excite and satisfy with the way Hearne harnesses anger and indignation into focussed, powerful, smart and incisive musical expression. Deeply impressive both as a work of composed music and a performance.

Mahler Symphony No. 1 – Netherlands Symphony Orchestra

Mahler Symphony No. 2 – Simon Rattle

Mahler Symphony No. 4 – Phillipe Herreweghe

Discussed here.

Radif Suite – Amir ElSaffar and Hafez Modirzadeh

My top jazz recording of the year.

Reservoir – Isabelle O’Connell

A great recording that does everything a recital of new music should do, present the pianist’s musical intelligence, taste and skill. The set of pieces O’Connell has chosen is wins through both variety and quality, they are exceptionally well made works from a group of composers who all have distinctive voices. And her playing is fabulous, technically precise, physically powerful and so very musical.

Television Landscape – William Brittelle

A great work of long form pop composition, a great record, and a great listening experience, something that connects the mind’s memories to the culture at large in a moving, beautiful way.

Honorable Mention:

Cortical Songs, Cathedral City, sweet light crude, Good Things, I Learned The Hard Way, Lift, Another Lifetime, City Noir, Puer Natus Est, Ombra Cara, Glass Violin Concerto No. 2, Solo, Chill Morn He Climb Jenny, Beethoven: Complete Piano Concertos, Stravinsky: The Fairy’s Kiss, Jeremy Denk Plays Ives, For 2 (Alva Noto), Farad: Vocoder Music 1969-1982, Écailles de Lune, Grinderman 2, Into The Trees, Ya-Ka-May, Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

UPDATED: Can’t forget Tweet-Tweet!

Baby Playlist, #3

Philip Glass: Orpheé; Portland Opera, Anne Manson

This will certainly please fans of Glass, and is a fascinating example of how his late style is developing. Like La Belle et la Bête, this is an operatic adaptation of an accidental libretto, i.e. the script from a Cocteau movie. It suffers from the same problematic detail, Glass trying to wedge the French phrases, diction and meter into his fairly rigid style, which produces a mix of good vocal music and parts where the singers have to try and spit out the words with compressed desperation. That being said, the music is fine and surprising. After going through a polytonal period, Glass seems to be synthesizing different structural ideas into his usual juxtaposition of phrases, and he’s using a lot of rhythms that are new to him. Large sections sound more than a little like ragtime/cakewalk in a way that is completely charming and adds drama and expression. As always, he quotes himself, even using sections identical to the previous work, but this new piece is mostly fresh and winning, seemingly fine live performances at the Portland Opera from the musicians, the conductor and a large cast, especially Philip Cutlip in the title role, and a good recording.

An interesting interview, but Ainsley is wrong about Cocteau being the first to use special effects in movies. Georges Melies, anyone?

Mahler: Songs with Orchestra ; Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

The final CD in Tilson Thomas’ Mahler cycle is as good as one would expect. Hampson is great in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Graham is even better – deeply expressive, supple, beautiful tone – in the Rückert-Lieder. The set is rounded off with five selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the last track is “Urlicht.” The playing and conducting are beyond exquisite, the SACD sound is like sitting inside the orchestra. SFS Media has produced the finest Mahler cycle, by far – nothing else is in the same league in terms of playing, musicality, expression. One may not agree with the interpretive choices, but there is no Mahler playing like this. The only drawback is the price of the discs, which for Mahler lovers should be no object, but perhaps down the road the producers might repackage it all in a box, for their additional profit and at some savings to the consumer.

Arvo Pärt: Symphony No. 4, Kanon Pokajanen ; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Estonia Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tönu Kaljuste

Severely beautiful, and very welcome on CD (the only previous recording had been an iTunes download in the DG Concerts series). Pärt is slowly, inexorably exploring Neo-Romanticism, and his Symphony No. 4 is minimalist in the way Bruckner is minimalist, a large, open scale architecture filled with repeated, small scale gestures. The second, “Affannoso” movement is mesmerizing. The make-weight, excerpts from his Kanon Pokajanen , is luminous, but considering ECM is rehashing this material and charging full price for the CD, it’s not a great value.

Steve Reich: Double Sextet, 2×5 ; eighth blackbird, Bang on Can

Reich is always good, and these are his finest pieces since City Life. It’s also the most sheerly enjoyable Reich recording out there. Double Sextet is like Hard-Bop Reich, taking elements of the “blues” of the early masterpiece, Four Organs, filtering it through the developments of Three Tales, and creating a piece of music that swings more than anything I’ve heard from him. It’s extroverted, basically simple but not simplistic. 2×5 is Reich as Prog-Rock and is not far removed from ultra-high order King Crimson; shimmering guitar, razor edge, interlocking complex rhythms, even a drum kit. The former piece won the Pulitzer, the latter may be even better. Great performances and a great CD.

P.S. The baby seemed to dig Mahler and Reich the best.

Cash For Stash

In addition to my previous post, there’s a good handful of new CDs coming out next Tuesday:

Also, Knitting Factory is rereleasing/distributing current Fela titles at slightly cheaper prices, at least over the short term, incuding Shuffering and Shmiling/No Agreement and Zombie, which are essential titles.

All this offered with little critical insight; I’m carving out my own space here and am still scrounging for promo and review copies. Many labels don’t respond, and the bigger they are, the less likely they are to care about what I have to think. I was at the Crimson Grail performance and the New York City debut of Double Sextet, and I’m a personal fan of Sunny, Bleckmann, Parker and Fela. I’m curious about The Bad Plus, mainly because I wonder if they are staying with their formula while the rest of world is starting to pass them by, so caveat emptor.

UPDATED: Added missing link

The Time Of The Season

What’s your idea of holiday music? For a lot of people, it’s this:

That may be the worst song I’ve ever heard, be thankful I didn’t embed the album version. And before you say anything, there is no competition from Wham! They lack the completely inappropriate hard-rock bludgeon.

Or, there’s Senator Orrin Hatch’s new Hanukkah song (I do not exaggerate when I write that I am deeply embarrassed for Jeffrey Goldberg both promoting his part in its creation and offering his appreciation for the music. The combination of Hatch condescending to educate ‘secular Jews’ about their own culture and the mechanical, stupid and over-sold songwriting is nauseating, and Goldberg’s inability to listen to this in any critical way is another indication to me that I am correct when I argue that developing aesthetic judgement helps one think critically about political subjects).

In standard fare there’s the usual over-roasted, mushy chestnuts, the annual Messiahs, even the occasional gem. There’s an interesting and aesthetically fitting tradition in Japan of performing the Beethoven Ninth Symphony on New Year’s Eve. But if you’re looking both for something to celebrate the season and stay off the beaten track, there’s festivals, and by that I mean the good old-fashioned, New Media kind.

New York City public radio station WNYC bought classical music station WQXR from The New York Times this fall, and moved it up the dial to 105.9. The purchase saved the station and hopefully will make for more interesting music programming (programming and hosting positions were advertised through the fall, but, sadly and frustratingly, The Big City was never considered). One exciting change is the development of Q2, the station’s on-line broadcaster, and even more exciting is that today marks the start of a weeklong festival devoted to Steve Reich, Maximum Reich. You can listen via iTunes classical radio or through the station’s site, www.wqxr.org/q2/. The schedule is a little difficult to track; Nadia Sirota hosts everyday at midnight, 10AM and 6PM, a different recording of Music For 18 Musicians is featured daily at 10PM, interviews with Reich are presented at 2AM, noon and 8PM. In addition, there is a daily focus on different aspects of his work, although no specific times are given. Sit down, boot up, and tune in.

WKCR’s annual Bach Festival begins on the 21st and continues through the end of the year. It lasts longer and is more satisfying than the Yule Log. While it may seem like ten days of Bach is too much to endure, the experience of turning on the radio, or tuning in with your computer, over the course of the Festival is beyond rewarding. Bach’s output was as varied as it was vast, and the vitality, beauty and charm of the music are constant.

If you’re in the New York City area and want to get out of the house, try the 2009 Blip Festival, held this year at The Bell House in Gowanus, Brooklyn December 17-19. Music made with 8-bit computers and bent circuit deviousness, this will give you some idea of the wonderfully naive sound and infectious spirit of fun of this music:

The New York Philharmonic naming Alan Gilbert as their new music director was an enduring gift to all music loving New Yorkers, and Gilbert himself has instituted a new offering as well, the CONTACT! series promoting new music. The first of the two in the series will be performed next week, on the 17th and 19th, with Magnus Lindberg hosting and conducting. That this series exists is a truly auspicious thing and another reason to be excited about the Philharmonic. This orchestra is returning to cultural relevancy and that is nothing but a grand benefit for the city.

And lest you think me Scrooge or the Grinch, there is actual Holiday music on the horizon as well, events that, along with all the above, are on my Critic’s Calendar. This Saturday, arguably the world’s leading vocal ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, is performing Josquin’s Mass for the Virgin Mary at, appropriately, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, as part of Miller Theater’s Early Music series. Readers of this blog are well aware that Miller is a leader in presenting great works of contemporary music, but they also are leaders in the local Early Music scene, and I think that is a natural fit. Both musics tend to reveal the process by which they are made in performance and so are similarly stimulating to listeners.

The following Sunday, John Adams‘ contemporary masterpiece of the Nativity, El Nino, appears at Carnegie Hall, with the composer conducting, and Dawn Upshaw, Michelle DeYoung and Eric Owens as soloists. It’s not clear if the performance will include the Peter Sellars’ film and staging, but even without those the music is marvelous and absolutely seasonal. If you’re tired of Handel, see this.

To bring this round-up full circle, we must turn to the world beyond the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean. While locally based streaming radio is available anywhere in the world there is an internet connection, a human connection, a human gathering in the spirit of the season takes place all over the country and in Europe and Australia as well, unsilent night. This is not only local to so many, and free, but anyone with a boom box can participate in the music making. This year’s event in New York City is Saturday, the 12th, but check your local listings, gather and enjoy.

Music, Every Day

No fancy preamble, just a collection of reviews of new and newish music, from classical to jazz, between and beyond:

New Bach
Bach wrote dance music. His great solo works for violin and cello are made up of different and very specific type of dances, not in the concert sense that is familiar to us but in the sense that groups of people, often in couples, danced to these different beats and rhythms in specific steps. The history of Western Classical music is the history of developing abstraction, but during the 17th Century music was still connected economically and socially to the gathering of people to dine, drink and dance. The differences with today are substantial ones of style; we go to the disco, we dance as individuals and the music is canned (although arguably of a greater variety of specific beats and rhythms). Dancing with a partner is old-timey, and so is the music for it, like bluegrass and fiddle music – the fiddle has been the staple of the dance band since at least the time of Bach.

Fiddler Dana Lyn and guitarist Rob Moose are trying to make Bach dance again through their duo, Bach Reformed, and their debut CD “In Double” (available on iTunes and eMusic) is one of the surprise pleasures of the year so far. When I first saw this ensemble they were doing simple transcriptions of this music, dividing the melodic line and harmonic accompaniment between them. Since that time, they’ve developed the concept and arrangements into an intriguing mix of old, old-timey and new music and it works. Bach in general works in transcription form since the original music is so beautifully structured (during the annual Bach festival on WKCR, there is a regular segment for Bach transcribed for unusual instruments, like the tuba) and taking dance music and playing it like dances is simple and powerful. At it’s best, Bach Reformed balances an evocative line of playing Bach in a way that is faithful to the idea of baroque dance – in such forms as gavotte, bourée and gigue – and the dance inflections and phrases of bluegrass. The music is not made into bluegrass, nor is bluegrass being played like Bach, they happen simultaneously and in comity and the sensation in the ear is wonderful. The qualities of musicianship that make for good bluegrass playing make for good Bach playing as well; energy, sharp attacks and rhythmic flexibility within phrases and around beats. Bach can take being pushed and pulled with the best of them, and the best Bach solo playing combines the tension and release of time with his inherent tension and release of harmonies.

Lyn’s fiddle sound is enormous and beautiful and she plays with tremendous verve. She really drives the band, which is at times held back from it’s very finest moments by Moose’s precise but overly metronomic arpeggiations. As they move through the music, the ‘Partita No. 3 for Violin,’ ‘Suite No. 1 for Cello’ and a section of the ‘Partita No. 1 for Violin,’ she at times seems to urge him on, but the fire ignites under him quickly enough. Like her, he catches the natural combination of Bach’s rhythms and bluegrass attack and phrasing and each piece of music builds in excitement as in a live performance. The arrangements are skillful and imaginative, passing off the roles of lead and accompaniment with an understanding of the instruments’ strengths. It’s natural and effective for the guitar or mandolin to take the harmonic material while the fiddle essentially solos, and it sounds just as natural and effective for the fiddle to outline the harmonies through single note harmonics while Moose dances his way through into the lead. “In Double” is an excellent release, seemingly modest in scope but fundamentally grand in ambition and effect, an absolute pleasure for head and heart to hear and rehear, and is highly recommended; I want more, in fact. (Bach Reformed is giving a release performance at Barbes on Tuesday, November 24).

Classical Sax

The saxophone may now be the pre-eminent instrument in jazz, but the classical literature for it predates the origins of jazz. Classical saxophone is a beautiful instrument with an ideal of a rich, cultivated tone and fluid, melliferous phrasing. One can hear these qualities on Classical alto saxophonist Javier Oviedo’s debut release, The Classical Saxophone, a French Love Story.” The subtitle gives a hint of the history of the music, which is part of the tradition of the pedagogue Marcel Mule, but this record tells a very specific and slightly peculiar story. The material on the CD, which includes world premiere recordings of pieces by Jean Hure, Louis Mayeur, Gabriel Grovlez and a new orchestration of Eugene Bozza’s ‘Aria,’ is related to late 19th-early 20th century Francophile, philanthropist and classical saxophonist Elise Hall. Through her resources and performances she brought French Classical saxophone literature to American audiences.

Her personal story, which included not only her institutional philanthropy but her birth into Boston society, is important in understanding this music, which depends as much on a sense of a time and place in history as on its own qualities. This is music, mostly, for bourgeois audiences and for bourgeois pleasure, circa 1899 – 1919. There is a great deal of charm here and nothing to trouble the mind or the soul. Hure’s ‘Concertstuck’ is a lovely, lilting piece, while Grovlez’s three part ‘Suite for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra’ is a well-crafted updating of baroque dance forms. The weak selection is Mayeur’s ‘Grande Fantasie Brillante sur Carnival de Venise,’ which is an immature pastiche of themes and variations which never rise past the level of an exercise book, but there is also Glazunov’s fine ‘Concerto in E-flat major, Op. 109’ and the concluding ‘Aria’ is lovely. Oviedo is dedicated to this music and plays it with real love and care, and he’s ably accompanied by the Orchestre Pasdeloup, conducted by Jean-Pierre Schmidt, who ably capture this sound of salons and velvet settees.

Jazz and Poetry

Picture a basement nightclub in Greenwich Village, young men and women wearing black turtlenecks, berets and Wayfarers, listening to a recital of some free form poetry accompanied by bongos and a flute. At the end, they signal their approval by snapping their fingers. That’s the cliche of jazz and poetry, and while it may be dramatic is indicates pretty well how a good idea in theory can turn out to be a bad one in practice. Poetry and jazz music have only rarely made a successful mix. It’s not for trying, of course. A whole generation of poets was inspired by jazz, and some like Bob Kaufman successfully made it their aesthetic career. There’s a lot of good poetry about or inspired by jazz (these two collections are great places to start for the curious reader) but very little good jazz music made out of poetry. The problem in what I’ve heard has been the approach to the text, a sentimental view of poetry which sees it as too delicate to stand up to actual jazz music, and so the settings are arch. An example of this is Fred Hersch’s “Leaves of Grass” project, where poor Walt Whitman’s muscular, effervescent, joyous poetry is set to emasculating, genteel jazzy chamber music, with neither the barbaric yawp of jazz nor, frankly, the compositional skill to satisfy an undergraduate education. “Behold the received models of the parlors – /What are they to me?” Advice any jazz musician who wishes to seriously set poetry should heed.

Some have. The pioneer in this regard was the brilliant and individual Steve Lacy, who created an entirely new genre, the jazz art-song. Working specifically with poetry, rather than song lyrics, he made jazz music through setting the text as carefully as Schumann or Schubert had, although in an entirely different style. Lacy made a decision about what the poems meant to him and conveyed that through his music, and that’s the key. The poems say something, the music should say something about the poems. One of Lacy’s biggest projects was his Futurities,” settings of Robert Creeley poems in music for dance performance. Creeley was an aphoristic poet and Lacy an aphoristic composer and the music is natural, strong, tells us something about the poems and lets the musicians blow.

Now pianist Frank Carlberg has also made jazz out of Creeley’s poetry, and the result is the tremendous “American Dream.” Carlberg doesn’t shrink from the poems, and Creeley’s lines are tougher than leather. The very first sound is vocalist Christine Correa’s wail, as gripping as anything since John Vicker’s sang “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!” at Covent Garden. Carlberg’s band, with Chris Cheek on tenor sax, John Hebert playing bass and Michael Sarin on drums, has some qualities of Keith Jarrett’s great European quartet, but with an extra toughness to their grooves and a tastier blues/rock filling. His settings of the text are excellent, turning the lines of poetry into real songs with harmonies and contrapuntal material that give the musicians a lot of ideas to work with. The star is Correa, her powerful and expressive singing dominates the record. Her full-throated voice demands attention and her musical sense and diction convey both the text and a plangent sense of meaning. She colors the phrases and notes with the details of real thoughts – the way she clips ‘out there’ into ‘out! . . . there . . . ;’ the joy of ‘we get crazy but we have fun,’ the rueful hope of ‘no more war, dear brother’ – that show she has command of not just the notes but the meanings. The connection to Lacy’s music is mostly subtle, but clear, important and welcome. Lacy was enormously admired but so individual that his practical influence on jazz has been slight. Carlberg has his own way of setting the same poet, his lines are longer and more lyrical, but the roar in the vocals triggers immediate memories of Lacy’s wife Irene Aebi wailing out on his great live set, “The Way,” and the tune for ‘Fat Fate’ could be heard as a fast variation on Lacy’s lovely ‘Napping.’ “American Dream” is a model of what jazz and poetry can achieve together, and is one of the finest jazz records of this decade. Tough, beautiful, driving and moving, it is urgently recommended.

New Guitar Music

Classical guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee came out with an excellent debut disc last year, and he’s followed it up with an EP which displays his wide range of musicianship and includes the bar-none finest recording of a great piece of contemporary music. But first, the rest.
As the title Solar/Electric” implies, this is an electric record, meaning that Lee is playing the electric guitar and using a good amount of electronic processing as well. The bookends are two original pieces, ‘Sunrise from the Bottom of the Sea,’ which Lee describes as a “psychedelic, prog-rock fantasty concerto” dedicated to Jimi Hendrix and the closing ‘One Thought Among Many.’ His own words give a good idea of what he is doing and aiming for in the music. Lee is a superb guitarist, with exceptional musicality and technique, and he also shows on the EP that he has a real idea of what can be done with the electric guitar, a very different instrument. The electric instrument is a tremendous producer of pure sound, and Lee gets a lot of great sounds out of it; burning distortion, arching cries, vocalized “wahs.” ‘Sunrise’ is an extended improvisation for guitar which he accompanies with tuned crystal glasses, tuned percussion, strings and sampled sounds. There is respect for Hendrix and also for Ligeti’s cloud-harmony music and the music comes in several distinct sections, each full of evocative material. There’s almost too much good stuff going on, with different sections developing from intriguing introductions into something that is on the verge of making a larger statement, but then stops and another one begins. Structurally, this could benefit from both pruning and expansion, separating the different statements and pushing them further; there’s an album here, not just an EP.

The last piece takes one idea and develops it to complete satisfaction. It’s a soundscape of ambient guitar washes and trills, into which a slow rock flavored dialogue among overdubbed guitars gently elides. Tasty little phrases are passed back and forth and then the music vanishes at the ideal moment. The structure and discipline give this succinct material a lot of force.

In between is what makes this EP important, a fabulous recording of Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint.’ There have been other realizations since it’s premiere recording from Pat Metheny, including for percussion, but this performance seems the way the music has always meant to be. Lee’s production and attack are bright and full of verve, the articulation of each note makes the music almost dance and pushes it forward with a supple, flexible feeling for rhythm and tempo. The sound of his electric guitar is like the sun shining brightly on a beautiful day compared to the sold, slate gray of the Metheny version. Lee also fills out the electric sound with that of an acoustic guitar which gives this performance an absolutely beautiful sonic surface and depth. His emphasis on what he hears as the important elements of Reich’s counterpoint and beat show a tremendous feeling for and understanding of the music, and his slow middle movement is as lyrical as a great pop song. It’s absolutely stunning and is a real masterpiece of instrumental performance. (Solar/Electric” will be released on December 1, both in digital and physical formats, and Lee performs this music at Public Assembly on December 4).

I Repeat Myself When Under Stress

Seriously, most likely none of you will ever read Repeating Ourselves, American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice, from Robert Fink. I’m not implying that none of you are interested in the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass – I’m sure many of you are, and you should be. I’m also certain that you are interested in critical thinking about cultural ideas, especially in terms of music, or else you would not be a reader of this blog. However, there is a particular separation between cultural ideas presented for curious, knowledgeable and interested laymen and those presented towards more self-consciously specialized audiences.

More on that later, but I think I should digress into a little disclosure, so my personal biases are clear up-front. The book is an academic, though not very technical, musicological work, the product of a general environment that I both would like to be a part of and am ambivalent about. Composers survive as composers by teaching at colleges and universities, and they can teach because they earn PhDs, and I would very much like to survive as a composer, especially after more than two years of unemployment from any kind of paying job. I also value the academic environment for the space it makes for thinking in time, for the mind, and especially for the opportunity for never-ending research, which is my crack. However, as a composer and a critical writer, I do not want to write for academic audiences, I want to make myself understood to anyone who is curious about and interested in my subjects, no matter their specific education in them. My models in this include works like Rites of Spring, by Modris Eksteins, which is a superb non-academic study of aesthetic and cultural ideas. It is written in a way that I value, learned, cogent and clear, eschewing the cultish code-words and phrases of contemporary academia.

And to further lay the cards on the table, I applied for PhD programs in the fall of 2007, with no success. The responsibility is entirely mine – my portfolio needs to be bigger and better. My sister J., who just completed her DMA, has had an intriguing suggestion, which is that I apply for a musicology degree, which would allow the same opportunities for learning and still let me do my own thing, literally, as a composer. I’m not sure what to do with that idea. Other than what is available to everyone who reads this blog, I don’t have any other writing that covers musicology in any way. Also, I am not sure that my modes of thinking and means of writing would be acceptable to any department, and Repeating Ourselves, in that sense, is an argument against the idea. If it is a representative work of contemporary musicology, then I do not belong in that field.

Finally, I’ve started the preliminary process of writing a book, which is planned as a work of Western cultural history as seen through the lens of Western music history, in the line of, and an argument with, Paul Henry Lang, Richard Taruskin and the book and its peers under review here. So this article itself is a part of that book, perhaps not literally but at the very least an argument for it. As I post later entries, I’ll try and make the specific point that they may have something to do with the book, because I would especially elicit and enjoy comments on whether or not what I am trying to say to you makes sense. It’s part of a worthwhile argument I want to have, and if I can’t have it at Princeton or Berkeley, I can do it here, where ink is free, and there’s no tuition . . . or stipend.

The general idea of Fink’s book is exciting and worthwhile – what are the elements of culture which helped produce a particular, and particularly important and successful, school of musical thought? I have an intuitive response when it comes to minimalism and certainly the idea of repetition is a vital part. Fink, however, explores cultural repetition in ways that are only obvious, shallow and weak, although I’m not sure he is completely responsible for those choices – again, more on that later.

Fink breaks out four cultural categories that he feels helped create and explain the existence and appeal of Minimalism (and I want to point out that though he name-checks a list of composers which includes LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich, he confines most of his actual musical analysis to Reich – 11 out of 18 total examples. His technical analysis of the music is, to his credit, quite good. Fink explains how the music works clearly and, I think, accurately, in that the explanations jibe with what the ear hears. He also specifically calls Minimalism “pulse-pattern” music, which I find an excellent description, as the actual quality of Reich and Glass is maximalist. They use repetitive patterns to build active, polyphonic structures, producing large scale works out of evolving variations of small scale ideas. It is the idea of making, shaping, growing a varied large-scale structure out of much smaller repetitive music that is key to the success of their works, and this truth of the music is actually a problem for Repeating Ourselves); disco, television advertising, the relatively popular appeal of baroque music during the boom of the LP era, and the Suzuki method of music instruction. At first thought and hearing, these ideas seem intuitively correct. The test is to put them to greater analysis, and it is there that they are found wanting.

The first section lays it all out there; a musical and sociological comparison of the long remix of Donna Summer singing “Love To Love You Baby” with Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians, two long works that are landmarks of their respective genres. There is a musical comparison to be made, in that they are both examples of pulse-pattern music, made with the technique of accumulating brief, repetitive units. It’s interesting, but only goes so far. The idea of disco is to be completely, explicitly repetitive, to lay out a dependable/predictable tempo/rhythm for dancing. The idea of Music For 18 Musicians is to use a process of substituting notes for rests to build a large scale, aesthetically and emotionally transformative experience. Musically there is a great bifurcation between the two means and ends, and extra-musically there is a fundamental bifurcation between the profane and the exalted. Fink’s takes a different path, however, which is a comparison of the two pieces as different aspects of teleology in music . . . and there it is, the fundamental and spectacular flaw in this book. Rather than an examination of American Minimal music as music, it’s a study of the social theory of this music.

Perhaps it’s better to write that as Social Theory, as opposed to music in societies and the mutually complex relationships between cultures and their arts. The use of Social Theory, as an academic field of study, in the discussion of music was pioneered by Susan McClary, and Fink’s book is her intellectual progeny. Now, I am not expert on Social Theory, and I’m in no position to offer a broad critique of it. However, how it is used in this musicological study is fair game, and it’s use is misguided and wrong-headed in different ways. It’s not the music of Donna Summer and Steve Reich that matters so much, it’s the desire for teleology or jouissance and how well they satisfy those desires which matters. Um, excuse me? Perhaps these are imperatives of Social Theory, but they have very little do to with music. Or rather, they have to do with only a small and artificially defined quality of music.

Both “Love To Love You Baby” and Music For 18 Musicians can be considered in two general ways, how they are made, which is musicology, and how they are experienced, which is aesthetics. The former, being technical, is a more specific and also more limited study than the latter, which is incredibly fruitful. To set out a premise that the music can only be experienced in one of two ways is ridiculously tendentious and perhaps simply stupid. What if the teleology of each music is itself jouissance? Musicians can certainly produce music that is simply made to be a pleasure to hear. That is a good thing. Music can also be made that has a particular social or political purpose, but that music can still also be a pleasure to hear. Also, a good work of art generally reveals a purpose to the audience that the creator may neither have intended nor been aware of. I’m not arguing anything here but the obvious, and it takes a strenuous bit of effort to ignore the simple power, depth and efficacy of first choices in listening and to suppose only one of two binary, and false, choices. This effort shows itself in the lack of critical ethics that the book conveys, from this first section on. Fink argues (not very clearly) that both pieces of music have a teleology as well as jouissance, and vice versa, to which the answer is, well yes, and he also hints at both a snobbery and a reverse-snobbery, a weird attitude that teleological music is generally superior than music that only seeks jouissance, yet that he as an academic imbued with Social Theory assumes his own smug superiority over the teleological thrust, as it were, of composers who themselves never had the intellectual tools to see that they were captive of unenlightened and unethical social and economic systems. Social Theory Musicology sees Beethoven as a superior artist to Donna Summer, but mocks Beethoven because he could not recognize that he was forced by the structure of society into the teleological trap of the Fifth Symphony. That the Fifth follows a dramatic journey from darkness and tension to deeply satisfying joy is somehow irrelevant – the music itself, how it sounds, doesn’t seem to matter at all, while some supposed social structure (which we cannot hear), is really the thing that matters.

This is both brittle and shallow, too weak as an argument to handle the “facts” that Fink marshals. This section on repetitive advertising as the force for producing pulse-pattern music is rambling and bizarre. The argument is that the repeated showing of particular ads on television in the 50’s though the early 60’s created an environment in which the only possible outcome is Steve Reich. This has to do, somehow, with the “construction of desire.” That in itself is a concept I would dispute, but even if this were so, even if we are empty husks waiting to be directed by the somehow wholly human and independent thinkers of advertising, how could this lead to pulse-pattern music? The experience of Music For 18 Musicians is one in which the piece begins and is played through to the end. The experience of seeing the same ad repeatedly on television is actually one of seeing the same ad repeated non-sequentially, interrupted by different broadcasts, different days of the week. Pulse-pattern music is a sequential medium, broadcast advertising is an interrupted medium, no matter how frequent. Hearing music that uses repetition, whether Reich or Haydn, is not repeated hearing of a jingle. It’s all in the ears, but again the idea of Social Theory seems to be that the music doesn’t matter.

Except when it does. The third and last sections are about the cultural aspects of being able to put several LPs of second rate baroque string concertos on the repeating arm of the turntable, and about the pedagogy of repetition pioneerd by Shinichi Suzuki. As this section is title “Culture of Thanatos,” we seem to be in the world of teleology here – although it’s unclear. Fink tries to convince us that a culture of repeated listening produced by these two perhaps problematic innovations, like ads on TV, made pulse-pattern music possible. I think these arguments are slightly stronger than the first half of the book (“Culture of Eros”), but still weak. The issue here is demographics. The post-war professionals who bought stereo systems and stocked up on aural wallpaper were not the Boomers who became Reich’s early audience (I think it’s important to point out here that Reich and especially Glass developed a relatively large audience among Boomer listeners who came from a rock background). It’s easier to make the point that students who underwent the Suzuki method were essentially drilled into the idea of repetitive listening, but here I wonder why this matters at all. There was a brief Suzuki craze in America, but it was just that. Where is the Suzuki method now? How many Americans were automatized by Suzuki, and how long did that effect last? And again, this ignores the actual quality of the music. Reich’s music, with its emphasis on process, starts someplace and goes someplace else. It may not be the path that Classical structures take, but it is still a task. Suzuki’s demand that masses of students play the same exercise over and over again is simply rote, static ritual. Pulse-pattern music uses repetitive techniques to produce a larger result. Fink is confusing technical means for the actual product; a car is not an assembly line. We certainly do live in a repetitive culture and have ever since Ford’s manufacturing innovation. There are repetitive experiences we have every day; the same commute, passing telephone poles on the highway, punching in our PIN number, lifting weights. There is an aspect of humanity that finds pleasing focus in repetitive tasks, as well as boredom.

This is perhaps the strangest aspect of the Social Theory view of music; it ignores what is right in front of one’s nose for ideas that depend on fussy, complicated and artificial rules of thought. Just because something is obvious doesn’t mean it doesn’t reward study, and just because something is complicated doesn’t mean it’s true. There’s also an ethical and moral problem with this way of thinking. The argument of the book is impossible to make without assuming a particular view of humanity, which is that people lack minds and souls, the ability to sense, think, make decisions and be active agents – they are simply automata, their every move pre-determined by social structures, things like the “construction of desire.” On this, I call deep, tendentious bullshit. Remove active agency from people, and you’ve removed responsibility and thereby ethical and moral considerations. There are no values, no judgments, which is wrong on many levels, from facts to morals. People think, feel and take action. Societies are built around de jure and de facto ideas of what is right and wrong. How is it that these value-free societies filled with automata were constructed anyway? Is our world like that of “They Live,” where everything is run by aliens? If so, the advertisers who control our very actions must be aliens, and I would say that since people like Robert Fink somehow find the free will and thought to create such complicated and certain explanations for how things are, they are clearly free of the shackles of the “construction of desire,” and must be space aliens themselves.

Except, of course, they are not. And they are wrong. Perhaps human existence is ruled by desire, but if so that is an idea of desire far more complex and wonderful than the simple desire to consume products and services. This view is incredibly materialistic, incredibly shallow and complete stuck in a Western and academic centric viewpoint, there is so much of the world, history and human experience that it misses. This is dogma that admits no doubts, no matter the bizarre twists and turns it must make for argument’s sake. In this it is very much like every other belief system and has none of the features of the scientific method that it claims as its own. There is so much more to the world, to life and to art than this. A book about music should give the impression it hears the music, and knows that listening is the single most important part of thinking about music. It would see the Beethoven “Pastoral” symphony as the inevitable result of the carriage industry and its advertisers ability to create a previously unknown and completely materialistic desire for people to picnic in the country, and through the forces of which Beethoven himself becomes simply another cog in the media-industrial machine, and the teleology of the work is directed towards the purchase of horse-drawn carriages. Perhaps, but it’s also an aural expression of personal sensations and joys, a representation of human experiences, a strict narrative conveyed through entirely abstract means (somehow!) and also completely gripping and beautiful. I think I’ll go listen . . .

Song and Dance

I’ve been ranting for about 10 years now about how things don’t really change, how we live in Romantic times, overcome by pathological neuroses, insanities, ethnic hatreds, sexual perversions, atavistic beliefs. Good times, good times. But I must admit I’ve been corrected in my views, and pleasantly so.

The culprits responsible are Vesturport and The Reykyjavik City Theatre, who brought their production of Woyzeck to BAM last week. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. The play, as much of it that Büchner finished, is the exemplar of Romantic insanity par excellence, and it’s central character, a man who is stupid, insane and suffering from hallucinations, is both alien and alienating. I love Berg’s Wozzeck as a work of operatic art, but it does not make me feel any more connection to or understanding of the character. The idea that the play is proto-Modern because it has no set structure is nonsense – it is so because the Büchner died before the work was finished, and he hadn’t yet set the order. It’s not a Modern work at all, which is why it is both fascinating and unapproachable.

There’s something anthropological about it, a study in how people thought 150 years ago, what they felt was possible, realistic, what they could imagine. Frankly, I cannot conceive of any contemporary person who could think that an incapacitated, stupid, clinically insane person suffering from hallucinations and prone to violence would be anywhere except shunned on the sidewalks or medicated to an incapacitated numbness, much less that a drum major with high hat and tall stick would be a dominating social and sexual figure, and that the rivalry between the two over a prostitute would result in murder and suicide. Isn’t it Romantic?

But this production makes you believe, and brings you into an experience with identifiable people. Instead of a military context, the play is set in a water factory, which both explains hierarchical relations and still offers something disorienting; they’re manufacturing water. And the Drum Major is transformed into the “Drum Major,” a recognizable rock-star/CEO who comes on stage from the ceiling, dangling from a trapeze and bungy-jumping into the audience, while singing a rock anthem celebrating himself. Yeah, it’s spectacular.

And so it’s a production that makes sense, and dazzles. Just when it seems all spectacle, comes the denoument, the beating, the drowning, the death. Woyzeck is a person onstage, driven insane by humiliation, uncontrollable and regretful in his rage. After the fantastic staging, great songs from Nick Cave, thrills and delights, there’s a real tragedy which is, finally, truly upsetting and moving.

Order was restored through Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s dance concert set to a great selection of music by Steve Reich. Except for Eight Lines, the accompaniment was live, and made this just as much a concert as a dance performance – the group Ictus played Marimba Phase, Piano Phase, Four Organs and the first part of Drumming and did so with tremendous skill and energy. Keersmaeker’s choreography went from producing close visual parallels to Reich’s process, as seen above, to acting as an equal and opposite compliment on the music. It was refreshingly Classical, like the greatest ballets. I don’t know much about dance, but have been fortunate to see a lot of great dancing, including the Kirov ballet performing Scheherezade, another high point in my life. The spelling of musical phrases in the air, like in the great work of Mark Morris and the triumphs of Stravinsky and Balanchine, is beautiful in the way that music is – there one moment and gone the next, leaving a trace in the memory and a sensation of pleasure that seems one of the high points of living. This was deep, thoughtful and full of a grounded and focussed sense of joy, especially the festive encore of Music For Pieces of Wood. Reich himself was there – I see him everywhere nowadays – and it’s a measure of his stature over the history of music that his work is living through so many different musicians and different forms. I hope he lasts as long as Elliot Carter.

Repeating Ourselves

I went to a nightclub last weekend to hear some music. Before the band came on, the PA was delivering Tortoise and Sigur Ros with a physical presence. The place filled up rapidly once the doors opened and was eventually packed beyond standing room, with the audience sitting on the floor, just inches away from the musicians and . . . the conductor?

Yes, it was at a nightclub, and the band was Signal, essentially a modern chamber symphony, and the music was all Steve Reich, “You Are (Variations)” and “Music for 18 Musicians.” And the club was a new venue in the Village Gate’s old spot, Le Poisson Rouge.

This is part of an interesting and exciting trend which is bringing chamber music, old and new, to non-concert halls and younger audiences. It’s a logical next step in the process that the Kronos Quartet unofficially began, as a pop-audiance friendly classical ensemble, and that I feel has really been pioneered by Matt Haimovitz, who made a brief career of playing the Bach Cello Suites in bars and nightclubs across the country. This is not so different than how “classical” music developed in front of audiences 200 years ago – contemporary music presented in front of contemporary audiences.

Reich’s music is particularly attractive to night club audiences – its propulsive, audible beat is immediately captivating, and his consonant harmonies and clear textures are attractive to the ear. He’s not easy-listening, of course, but rewarding listening, and “Music for 18 Musicians” is not just a masterpiece but one of the seminal works in the long history of Western Classical Music. I don’t feel this is an overstatement, it’s something that is reinforced every time I hear the work, or witness a performance. It is great music, certainly, exciting, beautiful and satisfying. It is also the major work of Minimalism, an important development in musical history. The piece is Reich’s personal synthesis of the music he loves – jazz, Bach, Stravinsky – but it also demonstrates a quality that John Cage sought, which is a music without climaxes. The piece begins, it proceeds, and then it ends, constantly flowing and evolving from one state to the other. There is no development as understood from music history, no narrative or drama, no rise and fall of events. Cage himself achieved this through techniques designed to eliminate the composer’s and musicians’ intentions, which is a fascinating and also highly problematic idea. Reich achieves this by writing the music he hears in his head and feels in his body.

I think his achievement cannot be separated from the dense structure of society. This book (which I have not yet read), appears to make that argument. Certainly America is a mechanize society, and if it manufactures less nowadays, it is still digitally mechanized (and computers are nothing but machine labor, performing repetitive heavy-lifting). So for anyone consciously living and working in America, this music is an expression of that experience. It communicates. An important idea it presents is that of cooperation and collaboration; the piece is broken down into sections, and the ensemble moves through each by following musical cues from the vibraphone (and in this performance at least the lead bass clarinet). There is also a constant pulse played on two marimbas, and the physical challenge of maintaining the same beat for an hour is such that some of the percussionists need to trade off the part for the sake of rest – although the marimba players in Signal kept up the pulse for most of the performance on their own, and seemed to be enjoying themselves. Much more than music led by a conductor, and even more than most chamber music, there is a sense of people working together towards a shared goal and enjoying the work. This is a community piece that draws all the participants together, which is one of the joys of a performance, especially in the middle of a season where there are hateful people who hope to split us apart in every way possible. “Music for 18 Musicians” is a seminal work because it present so many new possibilities.

Originally, Reich wrote this for his own, specialized ensemble, and the only way to hear it for about 25 years has been to be fortunate enough to catch his group. But a performing score now exists, which brings the piece beyond the experimental and places it into the repertoire of classical music. There are five recordings of it and three of those are by ensembles other than Reich’s group – and they are arguably better. Certainly the piece, and music itself, it better for it.