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.
I am very excited to talk about today’s composer because he is a composer whose work I am still getting to know. Hans Abrahamsen is a Danish composer who I have been listening to for a few months (I had his music before this but, I just started really getting to know it this year). His work is often associated with that of Ligeti’s.
I have not had the pleasure of playing his music yet (the first in this series thus far whose work I haven’t experienced as a performer) though hopefully that will change soon. I was first introduced to his music in the last year of my undergraduate degree at Hartt by Matt Sargent. He introduced me to his piece Schnee which, is an incredibly beautiful chamber work. His music is extremely delicate. The music can be so fragile at times and while it does seem similar to Ligeti, I am often reminded of the composer Henryk Gorecki’s late work (especially his Fourth Symphony).
One of the most interesting things about Abrahamsen is how little his output is (due in part by a hiatus from composing for about a decade). I find it refreshing to see such a successful composer have such a small output of compositions (at least that he considers acceptable to a public audience), each piece carries so much weight and importance. When learning music throughout the ages by composers like Bach or Mozart or Haydn It can often seem like the more prolific a composer, the better the composers works are. I think this can become a distraction to a composer’s truly great works by letting them become lost in a sea of pieces. The amount of refinement and craft Abrahamsen uses to construct each piece is truly admirable and inspiring. I am excited to get to know more of his works and look forward to playing his music someday.
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).
Notice: It has been brought to my attention that WQXR’s Q2 music has already has a segment entitled Current Obsessions so I have changed the title of my “Current Obsessions” to Recent Recommendations.
It may be due in part to my studying with Michael Pisaro, a member of the Wandelweiser group at CalArts, but recently I cannot get enough of the music written by these composers. Wandelweiser is a group of composers/performers/artists that center around silence and create absolutely stunning music. My original intention with this post was going to be to discuss their work and the group, but it seems that recently, many larger outlets have been doing just that. Instead I’m going to use this as a kind of hub of links for more information on the the group (Sort of a small reference guide) as well as some of the pieces I’ve been obsessing over. The biggest hope is to have a discussion about the work created by this group.
This link is to an article on the history of Wandelweiser written by Michael Pisaro and can be found on the Wandelwieser website (which is also linked below):
Gravity Wave (a label curated by Michael Pisaro) as well as Erstwhile Records (which distibutes many of the discs put out by wandelweiser composers including Edition Wandelweiser) Both labels are run by Jon Abbey.
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.