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.
Failing: A Very Difficult Piece For String Bass
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.
More Snow to Fall
Pillars of Decay (Co-composer)
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.
Drawn and Quartered
Driving me Crazy
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.
The Fall of The Empire
To The Earth
Les Moutons de Panurge
First of all, I should inform you now that I’m cheating. The next letter should be Q however, when it came down to it I just didn’t know any composers who’s first or last name starts with Q. I could try an get to know someone’s works really quickly or feature a composer I don’t really know but that didn’t seem like the correct choice (especially since I couldn’t find any living or contemporary composers). It seems more important to share composers who’s work I truly love and believe in. My main goal has in doing this challenge has been to share music of composers I enjoy and often personally know so hopefully reader and listener you too can discover new and interesting music.
So with that explanation out of the way, I present my composer for Q: Paula Matthusen. I met Paula late last summer where I was lucky enough to have a lesson with her as a perspective student applying to Wesleyan. Paula was my main reason for applying to Wesleyan she’s simply inspiring. I was fortunate to see her again in November when she came to present on her work at Hartt for composition seminar. She’s a really unique and wonderful composer who likes to blend old school and new school both in terms of technique and technology.
I find Paula’s music to be very endearing. There is an unexplainable concept in her music that sounds nostalgic. Perhaps it has to do with her use of old technology such as cassette recorders or maybe it’s her references to other composer’s works (such as her installation in Central Park which closely relates to/references Ive’s Central Park in the Dark). These both seem like they could be plausible reasons for Paula’s music to sound so nostalgic but, I think its something else. I think it’s something more engrained in the music and sound itself. I haven’t discovered what it is but, I hope as I continue to listen I one day will be able to discover what it is that makes her music feel so personal.
The Days are Nouns
In Words of One Syllable
Of Architecture and Accumulation
Much like Jürg Frey and Antoine Beuger I have covered Michael Pisaro’s work in my Recent Recommendations #2: Wandelweiser post however there is so much to talk about with Michael’s work I most likely have no need to repeat myself.
Michael is an incredibly prolific composer, I can barely keep up with his work. As many of you may know I am obsessive when it comes to collecting CDs and Michael is one of the few people who has such a variety of recordings and pieces constantly flowing that I have trouble keeping up (which is a great thing).
Michael’s music often has extended silences, a trait that is fairly uncommon outside of the Wandelweiser composers. It’s really interesting hearing the difference between the silences on his albums versus silences on the same piece in person. This may in part be due to the different listening environments. Usually recordings are being listened to at home or during travel, while live performances often take place in some sort of concert hall. The community surrounding the listening can also play a role here, the idea of a group dynamic in listening has always felt different to me than listening on my own. While these are all contributing factors I think the biggest factor is Michael’s ability to frame silence within he context of the piece. Michael has an amazing ability to create different meanings and types of silence based on the music that proceeds it and the music that follows.
Michael has also made incredibly use of what he often refers to as “gravity percussion”. Gravity percussion takes some common found sounds or percussion instruments such as, a vibraphone bar, a metal bowl, or a cymbal and pours rice or beans or other small items to create a randomized granular sound. He frequently collaborates with percussionist Greg Stuart on several of the pieces that use gravity percussion. There has been a massive amount of music written and performed between the two of them to the point that it becomes difficult to think of one without the other.
Michael is one of the most inspiring composers I have had the chance to meet and study with. He is the initial reason for my interest in CalArts (of course being here now, there is unmeasurable list of reasons why CalArts is a good fit for me). I am excited to continue learning from him for at least the next year.
The Punishment of The Tribe By Its Elders
Hearing Metal 1
Hearing Metal 2
Hearing Metal 3
Hearing Metal 4
The Fields Have Ears (a series of pieces)
Green Hour, Grey Future
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.
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