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.
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.
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
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 Warand 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.
One of my favorite things in music is when genres blurred and combined. It’s exciting for me when a performer of classical music has an interest in other cultures and other styles of music. One of the best examples that I can think of as a composer and a performer is Glenn Kotche. Kotche is best known for being the drummer in the Indie Rock band, Wilco. In addition to this he is also an amazingly successful composer writing works for The Silk Road Ensemble, Eighth Blackbird and, Kronos Quartet. Even his compositional work is highly diverse from traditional percussion ensemble to pieces inspired by Gamelan music and Balinese Monkey Chant. He also has helped to promote to works of other composers as well through commissions, including a drum set opera but John Luther Adams.
Kotche’s album Adventure Land made a huge impact on me. It’s a variety show of an album. The instrumentation on each track is incredibly unique and as one might expect given Kotche’s interests, the pieces are stylistically all over the place. He is also a fantastic writer having contributed an essay for The Farthest Place and has published book entitled A Beat a Week.
In an effort to try and keep up with my blog I have decided to try the April A to Z Challenge! The details of which can be found on the A to Z website (Which I have linked off to). The basic idea is to make a post each day. The subject of each post will relate to a letter beginning with A and ending with Z. I have decided to do a little blurb on composers for my challenge! The format will be similar to my “Recent Recommendations”, it will function as an introduction and reference guide to composers. I’ll be covering experimental and contemporary composers, some of which will be established composers while others will be close friends and may be a little more obscure. The main goal will be to bring music I find to be really interesting and exciting to new listeners. Today, I will begin with the letter A! I am a day behind in the challenge so tomorrow I’ll post an update for both the letter B and the letter C.
A is for Adams! I’ll be discussing the work of one of my favorite composers: John Luther Adams. John Luther Adams is an American composer who spends most of his time in Alaska. Until recently, he had be living in Alaska for several decades before moving to New York. Adams’ music is what he describes as “Sonic Geography”. Adams’ music is always about place. While he music is about place the music is not evocative or programmatic, it truly is place itself. The first time I ever had the revelation of hearing Adams’ music as being a place is his solo piano piece Among Red Mountains. I remember sitting and listening to the many rhythmic pulses and tempi clashing against one another and thinking “This sounds exactly like the way the mountains in Red Rock Canyon look”. In someways it’s almost impossible to explain how Adams is able to create these places, it’s an experience that has to be heard. I have always listened to his music and imagined it as one massive piece. Every so often I try to graph out realizations of how all his pieces could be listened to in an order to create a kind of meta-piece (perhaps I’ll post a few of them in the future).
In the Fall of 2015 I had the pleasure of playing his piece Inuksuit in Connecticut with about 30 other percussionists. It was one of the most life-altering musical experiences of my life. I remember when it began to rain and I was drenched in a matter of seconds. as I was covered in water all I could think about was the way the rain falling on leaves sounded with the shimmering of the triangle rolls.
Below is a list of pieces I recommend listening to by John Luther Adams:
Inuksuit for 9-99 percussionists
Become Ocean for orchestra (winner of the Pulitzer Prize)
Become River for chamber orchestra (this hasn’t been recorded on a CD yet however there is a recording on youtube from the Ojai Festival)
Strange and Sacred Noise for percussion quartet
The Earth and Great Weather mixed media opera
The Place Where you Go to Listen an installation in the Fairbanks Museum (recordings/excepts on youtube)
In addition to these pieces there is also a fantastic interview with the composer on the Meet the Composer podcast presented by Q2
John Luther Adams has also written two books: The Place Where You Go To Listen and Winter Music. In addition to his books there has been a book of critical essays about him and his music entitled: The Farthest Place (Which has an essay by a composer who will be featured in my AtoZchallenge!)
My initial interest in composing Stairway Echoes came from the many times I have walked up and down the stairs of The Hartt School and listened to the stairway’s sound environment. The two most interesting sounds that can be heard are the footsteps of people going up and down the stairs and the voices/conversations scattered throughout all four floors. These sounds truly came alive when I would stand on the top floor and sounds from the bottom floor would resonate up to me. This allowed for the initial attack of the sounds to disappear almost entirely. I began to wonder what an extremely resonant instrument would sound like in that space. I immediately thought of the glockenspiel due to its extremely long decay time and complex overtones.
My hope was that by playing the glockenspiel on the bottom floor, the top floor would hear little to no attack. Instead, they would hear a sort of “harmonic cloud” created from the various excited overtones. My hope was that this (in combination with the natural sound environment) would create a really unique and interesting experience for the listener. I considered this to be the first piece in which I consciously thought of the performer as an installation. The duration of the piece is open, but should last at least an hour. This duration allows for communal meditations or discussions to evolve naturally over time.
The piece becomes an individual experience for every listener, if they choose to listen (it is probable to assume at least a few people will pass by without listening at all). This individuality became extremely apparent after my first experience performing it. Many people were very interested and came to me after the performance to tell me about the various phenomena they heard throughout each floor. Many people were extremely fascinated by the sonic changes throughout each of the floors, and intentionally listened over long periods of time to hear the gradual changes occur. Others stayed for a few minutes then came back later to experience a drastic change. People told me they heard many sounds that weren’t (intentionally) there. One of the most interesting “phantom sounds” was that rather than pulsing dyads in the right and left hand they heard single note arpeggi going up and down the range of the instrument.
Some listeners were not as thrilled to have a disturbance in the routine life of school. A few people complained about the noise and felt it was quite rude of me to “practice” outside of a designated practice room. Others were worried or annoyed that the music might be mistaken for the fire alarm. Even with several people being displeased, I think overall people seemed to be interested in the event.
My experience as the performer was very different from the listeners. I could not hear any of the ‘harmonic clouds” or “non-existent arpeggi”, in many ways I was envious of what other listeners were able to hear. So much so I am now in the process of organizing a second performance with a different performer so I may be a more active listener. The sound world is still interesting to listen to as the performer, but the physical and mental process of performing is much more interesting than the listening in this particular instance. After about thirty minutes of constant playing it truly becomes an out of body experience. The meditative process takes over and focus becomes intensified. It was not until after the performance that I realized how taxing the piece is both physically and mentally. While the piece has no traditional technical challenges, playing non-stop for an extended duration (of at least an hour) requires a special form of virtuosity. D.T. Suzuki once said to Cage, “If something is uninteresting after two minutes, try it for four minutes, if it is still uninteresting try it for eight minutes, etc.” With this piece (and other static pieces with long duration) I find that even if the first two minutes are interesting, the next four minutes will be extremely interesting in a new way, regardless of a change or lack thereof. After about forty minutes (more or less depending on the person) the ears, the mind, or perhaps the soul seems to be changing the sound to the listener. An experience seems to slowly emerge after intensely listening to very subtle music for an extended period. This may be the cause to the “non-existent arpeggi”. It is my hope that my music, even beyond this piece, will create this experience for the listeners.
A link to excerpts from the premiere performance has been provided below: