T is for Tom

I discovered Tom Johnson’s music through one of Band On a Can’s live albums. The concert opens with Robert Black playing Failing: A Very Difficult Piece For String Bass. I thought the piece was hilarious and clever. I’ve heard a lot of pieces that require the performer to recite a text (specifically the works of Rzewski and Stuart Saunders Smith come to mind) however, it’s rare to hear such a truly funny text being spoken. The piece is an incredibly difficult exercise in coordination. The performer has to play a challenging bass part throughout while reciting a specified text that describes the difficulty of the piece they are playing. The text becomes even sillier and begins to contemplate the very meaning of success and failure. The performer must then seamlessly begin to improvise the final section of text, adding a new and difficult task to the already haphazard adventure.

I didn’t really explore Tom Johnson’s music after that. I don’t recall why but, more than likely it just slipped under my radar. A few years later I discovered a CD of his piece Rational Melodies after hearing that piece I knew I wouldn’t allow his music to go unnoticed again.

Tom Johnson utilizes math in his music in an incredibly unique way. While most composers use math as a tool for composition ad attempt to disguise it in someway, Tom Johnson embarks the use of math and even makes it the focal point of his compositions. In many ways this approach reminds me of Steve Riech’s essay Music as a Gradual Process. In the same way Reich describes having music in which the point is hearing the process (rather than just using one) Tom Johnson creates music in which the math is the what the listener is intended to listen to.

Recommended Listening/Viewing:

Chord Catalogue

Failing: A Very Difficult Piece For String Bass

Nine Bells

Counting Duets

Narayana’s Cows

Rational Melodies

 

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S is for Sargent (S part 2)

As soon as I started this series I knew two people would have to be used for the letter S. There was no way around it, I had to do both Ken Steen and Matt Sargent. It seems fitting to have these two together though. I met them both at Hartt and I met Matt through the Metasynth and Logic classes he was teaching at Hartt, classes that were previously taught by Ken.

Matt’s music is very beautiful. there’s a really accessible and delicate sound to it when listening on a surface level but, when digging deeper into the listening experience it becomes clear how deep the processes and complexities of the piece can be. Much like Ken, Matt also has an amazing ability to integrate electronics into his compositional process. One of the most interesting uses of technology matt uses is for the production of the score itself rather than the sonic output of the piece. An example of this is the piece Separation Songs which uses a Max patch to distribute different fragments of sheet music across two different groups of performers in to different rooms. The music is constantly changing from room to room in real time.

Matt is one of the most interesting composers I know of today and I am always excited to hear whatever new work he has in store. I am excited to be performing his piece More Snow to Fall on my recital next fall at CalArts.

Recommended Listening/Viewing

Ghost Music

More Snow to Fall

Small Stones

Seperation Songs

Oxbow

Saint

Tide

Pillars of Decay (Co-composer)

S is for Steen (S part 1)

Ken Steen is one of the most fun people I have had the pleasure to know. I studied with him for two years at The Hartt School and they were some of the most inspirational and fun lessons I’ve ever had. Before I knew Ken I was a little intimidated by him. His pieces have some really scientific names and interest in natural phenomenon which, can seem really complex and daunting to a young composition student like myself. He’s incredibly tall and broad with a thick beard. I remember getting ready for my first lesson with him and being nervous as I knocked on the door. I don’t know what I was expecting but, Ken answered the door and said “Hellloooo” and I was instantly relieved to see how much a goofball he was (something I very much identify with).

His music is fantastic. He is a master of blending orchestral/instrumental sounds and electronics. I have always had issues with electronics in my own composition. I think this is due to the reductive nature of my writing process (using electronics always feel like adding more) but, Ken has always done a wonderful job blending the timbral sounds of both the acoustic and electronic worlds. The electronics always seem like an extension of the instruments themselves. The first piece of his I heard that really stuck me in terms of electronics was his piece Gravity Reconsidered (chamber version). The piece is essentially a piano concerto with different electronics/triggered sounds being processed from the piano itself. The clouds and fogs timbres the are created through the orchestra, the pianist, and the electronics creates a sense of floating more and more as the piece goes on.

Ken Steen’s music can also be absurd and full of humor. The best example of I can think of is his piece Drawn and Quartered. Drawn and Quartered was written for me to perform on my undergraduate recital. The piece is incredibly challenging and even utilizes rhythms that are simply impossible. The effect created is a performer who is extremely focuses and a little stressed. What makes this so funny is the piece is essentially an exactly notated set of instructions for pulling pasta out of a pot and breaking each strand into four pieces (thus the title). The piece is really fun to play and reminds me so much of not just Ken’s music but of Ken himself.

Recommended Listening/Viewing:

Continuous Cities

Drawn and Quartered 

Gravity Reconsidered 

Driving me Crazy

 

 

R is for Rzewski

Frederic Rzewski is a composer I’ve known about for a long time. As a percussionist one of the first pieces I ever heard was  To The Earth and I absolutely loved it. I am big fan of compositions for percussion (or really any instrument) that involve speaking. I soon discovered he had another percussion solo which was written for Al Otte. This piece was a larger and more conceptual “Opera” for solo percussionist entitled, The Fall of the Empire. 

Through these initial two pieces my interest in Rzewski grew and I began to search for more of his music. I quickly learned (as anyone who searches for more music by him will also learn) that Rzewski scans and posts all of his music for free on IMSLP. If his intentions for doing this are not fully understood it’s also interesting to note that he publishes them under “Copyleft” instead of copyright.

Rzewski is a fairly prolific composer and an accomplished performer. He has been part of the experimental music scene for many decades. One of my favorite projects of his is his piece The Road which he calls “a novel”  for piano. This piano solo is in many different movements/parts and lasts roughly eight hours in total. I’ve never listened to the entire piece (which Rzewski doesn’t expect anyone to do) but, the movements or “Miles” as Rwzeski calls them that I have heard are really interesting.

Last spring I was lucky enough to perform several of the movements from The Fall of the Empire on my final undergraduate recital at Hartt. I performed the movements: prologue,  Global Warming, The Ground, and Sabbath. I learned so much from playing that piece. Compositionally, Rzewski uses some really interesting tools (such as separating the rhythm of the text and the instruments so they form a canon). From a performance standpoint it was one of the most challenging pieces I have performed. This is due to the theatrics involved. It’s important to show off each character in each movement but overdoing them can be distracting or ruin the satirical nature of the piece. It’s also challenging at times to make the text clearly audible over the percussion instruments, which is extremely important since the text is what the piece is centered around.

I still hope to perform The Fall of the Empire in its entirety someday. I think it will happen sooner rather than later.

Recommended Listening/Viewing:

The Fall of The Empire

Coming Together

The Road

To The Earth

Pocket Symphony

Spots

Les Moutons de Panurge

O is for Olson

Tawnie Olson had just began teaching at Hartt around the time I started my undergraduate there. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to study with her however, I was lucky enough to have several conversations with her. I also had the opportunity to get to know her work. She’s a wonderfully nice person and an amazing composer whose works can be both lyrical and at other times can be quite aggressive.

I remember hearing the piece Something to Say for tabla and electronics in a masterclass at Hartt. I told Tawnie after the concert that I really enjoyed the piece. I immediately realized what a mistake it was to say that. I began to rephrase myself and say I found it really powerful. It’s an incredibly difficult piece to accept/listen (thus the inappropriate feeling of “enjoyment”) to but, a very important work. It addresses several issues in equal rights and women’s rights through a series of statements (in the form of fixed media) that are very personal accounts of things said to or overheard by Tawnie. In addition to the programmatic elements the technical side of the composition and instrumentation are also incredibly innovative. This was the first piece I heard that incorporates tabla in contemporary classical composition and it does so very well. Others obviously exist (such as the works of Evan Ziporyn) however, Something to Say has a unique blending of traditional rhythmic concepts and vocabulary from the Indian Classical Tradition with many concepts from the experimental music tradition in a very organic way.

Tawnie also has a pair of marimba solos with electronics that are absolutely stunning. Both were written for Ian Rosenbaum and are based on Birdsong. Unlike most people who have pieces about birdsong (Messiaen John Luther Adams etc.) Tawnie pays attention to the songs and uses them as a basis for a composition rather than as transcriptions. Additionally, she is interested in her personal connection to birdsong and the purpose/function of the birdsong. As I begin planning my recital at CalArts next fall I am confident I will be playing one of her marimba solos.

Recommended Listening/Viewing:

Something to Say for Tabla and Electronics

The Blackbird at Evening for Marimba and Electronics

Meadowlark for Marimba and Electronics

Seven Last Words From the Cross for Chorus, Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, Tenor and Baritone Soloists and Chamber Orchestra

N is for Negrón

Angélica Negrón is a composer whose work I have been getting to know the past few weeks. I first discovered her music through an article which discussed nine different living composers and while I was at least familiar with the eight other names, I didn’t know her name. I decided I should know more about her since the list was full of composers I love. I went to her website and was immediately drawn to the pure joy of the music. Her works include many different instruments some are more conventional like a standard orchestra or vibraphone solo but, others include accordion, toy instruments and even electronic gamelan.

The first work I heard which I am currently obsessed with is Bubblegum Grass Peppermint Field for electronic gamelan and string quartet. This piece just makes me smile for so many reasons, the timbres are so joyful, the music is very clever and it sounds like it must be a blast to play! One of my favorite aspects of this piece is that she didn’t write a piece in the traditional gamelan style nor did she use the gamelan instruments in an entirely traditional manner. The original sound-world in combination with the fact that the strings and gamelan are used equally rathe than one being an accompaniment to the other, allows this piece to be incredibly unique.

I am excited to share her work and deeply listen more of it once I can finish listening to Bubblegum Grass Peppermint Field on repeat.

Recommended Listening/Viewing:

Bubblegum Grass Peppermint Field

What Keeps me Awake

FONO

La Isla Mágica

Memories of a Penitent Heart (Film Score)

M is for Macbride

Much like Robert Carl, David Macbride is a composer I met through my studies at Hartt. He was my first composition professor and is one of the biggest influences on my life both musically and otherwise. Over the course of almost six years now I have had a pleasure to really get to know him and his music. I have been lucky enough to participate as a performer in a number of ensembles premiering his works and have also premiered a couple of solos and duets for percussion as well. I am also delighted to say David has also premiered a few of my compositions with me.

Though David’s music has great variety throughout one theme that seems to always come back is the importance and use of percussion in someway. It’s easy to forget David’s background is not in percussion (he is a pianist) as his knowledge of the instruments and techniques is vast and comparable to many percussionists. He was born of a Eurasian background and uses this influence in several of his works blending timbral, cultural and harmonic sounds from the east and the west (similar to the work of Takemitsu).

There is also often a political view in his music. Sometimes it can be very overt such as the piece Staying the Course which has one note to represent a life taken in the Iraq War and sometimes it’s incredibly subtle (perhaps even just projected by the listener) such as in Bells of Remembrance.

I am currently at work on a recital of solo percussion music by David that will hopefully be presented in the Spring of 2018. It’s always a pleasure to be working on his music and I find the more a play it the more I learn about myself. I wouldn’t be the musical or even the person I am now if it were not for my meeting David.

Recommended Listening/Viewing:

Triptych for solo Marimba

Staying the Course for Solo Percussion

Bells of Remembrance for Percussion and Piano

Still Night Thoughts for Solo Piano

Piano Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Music for a Large Space for Large Wind Ensemble

Songs of Simple Truth for Voice and Ensemble