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
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.
Bubblegum Grass Peppermint Field
What Keeps me Awake
La Isla Mágica
Memories of a Penitent Heart (Film Score)
First off, I’d just like to address I made a mistake in my previous post, I am actually not a day behind in the challenge so the Letter C will be saved until tomorrow!
Now with that disclaimer out of the way I’d like to introduce today’s composer, Antoine Beuger! Antoine is a composer I have recently discovered (within the past year). Since learning about him, his music has been an excellent source of intrigue and exploration. As some of you may recall from my “Recent Recommendations” post Antoine is a member of Wandelweiser (in fact he runs Edition Wandelweiser). Much of his music consists of incredibly quiet sounds, silence and, extended durations.
Recently, I took part in a performance of his piece …of Being Numerous in Michael Pisaro’s Experimental Music Workshop at CalArts. I found the performance to be incredibly ear opening both as a performer and as a listener. I have performed many pieces for an “open instrumentation” but for some reason Antoine’s piece seemed to indicate something more than just choosing an instrument or even a sound or sounds. The movement of the sound and the physical placement of the instrument or object seemed to be of great importance. Perhaps this is due to the subtlety of the music itself or the use of silence. Everything in this music becomes amplified due to the vast space and durations. The reduction and subtly in the music of Antoine Beuger is not only inspiring but also invigorating. To many people silence and slow moving music can be boring or uninteresting but in Antoine’s music nothing could be more exciting
…Of Being Numerous for open ensemble
Silent Harmonies in Discrete Continuity electronic music
Landscapes of Absence various instruments and speaker
Calme étendue for mbira
His music can be found on Edition Wandelweiser Records and more information on his work can be found at http://www.wandelweiser.de. If you haven’t checked out the music of Wandelweiser I highly recommend it (also check out my post Recent Recommendations #2 to read more about Wandelweiser).