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.
Like most people the first music I heard by Laurie Anderson was her album Big Science I really enjoyed it and I found that it was growing on me slowly. On first listen, I thought it was pretty good and I might have to learn more about her and her work. It didn’t take long for me to realize how much of an ear worm the entire album was. I couldn’t get it out my head and while sometimes that can be frustrating, in this case I loved it. I started to research her work further and discovered Big Science grew out of a four disc live collection entitled United States Live. Laurie Anderson’s music is very autobiographic and has a narrative quality throughout. In someways her work seems like a blending of Opera, Electronics, Pop and Concert Music all in one.
I was fascinated with United States Live for a while before discovering she had a new album coming out which was a soundtrack to a new film she had made. Both the soundtrack and the movie are titled Heart of a Dog and deals primarily with themes of death and loss. It’s a beautiful and staggering work of art. It’s easily one of my favorite albums of all time. Her ability to use her personal stories or current events happening around her to for a larger and more universal message is breathtaking.
Michael Gordon is a composer who is one of the founding members of the Contemporary music ensemble/composer collective/record label: Bang on a Can. Alongside Julia Wolfe and David Lang this group has become a contemporary music sensation.
While all three of these composers have ties to minimalism Gordon seems to standout with many pieces that are complex repetitive droning structures. Sometimes this music can seem to be putting some kind of trance on the listener with its ability to constantly recycle rhythmically complex loops over and over.
Currently, the CalArts Percussion Ensemble is preparing a performance of his piece Timber for 6 percussionists playing 2X4. I have always enjoyed this piece very much, it was one of the first pieces I listened on CD by the Bang On a Can composers and I saw Mantra Percussion perform the piece at PASIC during my freshman year of college. It’s always thrilling to play a piece I’ve had a connection to for a while (similar to the experience of playing Inuksuit by John Luther Adams for the first time). Soon after Timber, a recording of his piece Rushes was released. Rushes is very similar in its construction and sound to Timber. In its concept it’s a sort of sister piece to Timber. The main different being the instrumentation as Rushes is for 7 Bassoons. I have to admit I was skeptical when I first discovered the piece. I thought it was essentially just going to be a rearrangement of Timber however, that change as soon as I heard it. It’s almost bizarre how different the affect of the two different pieces are in sound. The similarities are endless (both instruments are made of wood, more or less the same number of players, similar resonance and sustain in the way the instruments are used, same rhythmic pulsing, same duration, etc.) yet each piece is it’s own unique composition. It’s clear these works are by the same composer but, other than that they are two entirely different sounds.
Shelter (cowritten with David Lang and Julia Wolfe)
Music for Airports by Brian Eno (coarranged with David Lang and Julia Wolfe)
Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony
Gene Takes a Drink (Part of the Bank on a Can Field Recording Project)
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:
The performer acting as a “live installation” has been an idea essential to my recent music. I have always thought of an installation’s defining characteristics as space, duration, and intention.
Space: The location (however specified or unspecified) plays an important role in installations by determining the natural sound world the piece will be surrounded by (nature sounds, urban sounds, etc.). Location will also play a role in how the piece is perceived and who will perceive it. A piece in an art gallery or concert hall will certainly have a different reception/reaction than a piece in a local park or staircase. An audience in a concert hall is anticipating what they will hear, (a program is given in advance with an instrumentation, composer, and sometimes even a duration listed for each work) whereas an installation has the potential to be reactive (the audience may stumble upon the piece and may or may not respond in the moment).
Duration: Installations allow for a chance for extremely long duration. The audience is not confined to remain for the entire piece. This allows for different experiences for each listener. It allows for gradual processes to be created by the composer/artist that various listeners will hear sections of. This can allow for communal experiences among the audience members throughout the event.
Intention: Intention directs the way the piece will be listened to and presented. Busking can be interpreted as a form of installation, (though it is usually closer to a song cycle) however, the intention does not resemble any type of installation. The intention of busking is to play popular music and earn a profit doing so. Installations usually have a more artistic concept, and installations are usually accepting of the natural sound world produced by the surroundings of the piece. Installations usually have an intentional path or plan that may or may not be affected by the world around the piece. A natural occurrence that can be perceived as an installation is in autumn when the leaves of the trees begin to change colors and fall. The leaves are consistent and will fall regardless of the world around them (with some extreme exceptions). They will, however, interact with the surroundings as they fall and touch the ground (they can be blown around by the wind or covered with frost etc.). This synthesis of intentional and natural existence is commonly part of the basis of an installation.
Sound installations are commonly electronic as a method of dealing with the space and duration (they can take very little space and provide an extreme duration without being exhausted like a human performer). While these can be randomized or somewhat indeterminate installations, electronics will always be consistent and perfect. A human performer is naturally imperfect and has his/her own interpretation as well. If these two elements of humanity are focused on, interesting ideas/results can successfully be created in an installation. Stairway Echoes is an example of this. If the bars of the glockenspiel are struck exactly the same each time the “harmonic clouds” may not be as interesting (or may have remained exactly the same throughout). The performers human nature becomes entwined with the installation and fuses with the essence of the piece. This means that the piece will be different with each performer/interpretation and also with each performance even if the performer remains the same. Creating installations based on these “micro-imperfections” adds a spirit to the piece that may or may not otherwise exist.
There are a few pieces in the current musical repertoire that can cause confusion between musical composition and live installation. Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 is an excellent example. If presented in a concert hall is the performance a concert or an installation? Certainly a duration of six hours is long enough to be an installation, (especially when using live performers) but the concert hall has a history and an expectation to it and its audience members. If the space is treated unconventionally (perhaps chairs are replaced with beanbags and the doors are left open to allow people to come and go as they please) does this change the sound world and expectation of the room? This is where intention can further guide us.
These three parameters of an installation all form an approach, which, with a live performer may yield interesting results. By using a person, or people, to perform the installation the piece becomes more reflective of the natural world and life itself. John Cage believed art should relate or become a part of life. Bringing a human element to this type of work is the next natural step in making installations more lifelike.
Lately, a lot of the music I have been writing and performing has sparked different thoughts and ideas which have manifested themselves as essays and other writings on my music and music in general. So I have decided to create this blog! I’ll be posting some essays/writings on here every once in a while as well as some music I am currently listening to and interested in. My hope is that this blog will grow enough to create lots of discussion about music and hopefully we can all learn more about music and art from one another. Please feel free to comment at any time about anything music or otherwise! I’d love to hear from you. My goal is to keep the music in the blog as diverse as possible. Everything from John Cage to Taylor Swift and more.