First things first: this is a beautiful record.
The Diagenesis Duo is comprised of soprano Heather Barnes and cellist Jennifer Bewerse. Ms. Barnes and Ms. Bewerse have been performing as a duo since 2011. Though I have been familiar with both excellent musicians for some time, I was not aware of this particular configuration until I was asked to review this record. Together, they are magnificent.
A duo of voice and cello, you say? Perhaps you’re thinking, “what an odd, if interesting, combination?!” Indeed, there is undeniably a surfeit of music for voice and piano, especially soprano and piano. So much so that the Los Angeles-based unSUNg concert series (a fine one, that showcases LA living composers) specifically requested compositions that were NOT for soprano and piano. While certainly fewer in number than voice/piano offerings, there are of course more than a handful of works for voice and various other instruments. But I can’t recall when, if ever, I’ve heard music for voice and cello. If there was any doubt as to the viability of such an ensemble, this record should lay them to rest.
Hands and Lips of Wind presents the music of 4 composers: Mischa Salkind-Pearl, Harrison Birtwistle, Stephen Lewis, and Adam Scott Neal.
The album is bookended by two movements of Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s Hands and Lips of Wind, whence comes the album’s title. The text of these two movements are poems, in English translation, by Octavio Paz. The composer describes his piece thus:
Octavio Paz’ poems often display enormously evocative imagery contained in few words. I wanted to bring that spirit to my setting of the five poems in this piece. In particular, these poems move effortlessly between images of light and darkness, motion and stillness. These ideas are potentially very musical. My settings approach the poems as complete entities, emphasizing the prevailing affect of each poem.
The opening track, In the Lodi Gardens, is a meditation on this New Delhi garden, park, and burial place. (Paz lived in India when he was the Mexican ambassador to that country in 1962-68.) The music itself, thankfully, in my opinion, does not invoke anything Indian, per se – if anything it reminds me of Hebrew cantorial – but evokes, through Ms. Barnes’ powerful singing, an omnipotent goddess, both warning and welcoming. It is a glorious and intrepid introduction to the power, but also the emotional range of her vocal prowess.
The next work is 9 Settings of Lorine Niedecker, by the English composer Harrison Birtwistle. Birtwistle sets these epigrammatic poems in equally pithy, epigrammatic, at times enigmatic fashion. (Most of the nine movements are under one minute in length, with the longest timing out at two minutes and twenty-four seconds.) They are delicate, at times humorous, and rich settings quite worthy of their careful, sensitive, personal texts. Ms. Niedecker, for those unfamiliar with her work (I had never heard of her), was an American poet, who lived from 1903 until 1970. She was a member of the Objectivist poets (who are not related to the work or quasi-philosophical movement of the same name associated with Ayn Rand and other self-serving greedy bastards.) The Objectivists were influenced by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, among others. The scale of these works can’t help but remind one of the compositions of Webern and Schoenberg, specifically, in the case of the latter, the Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19. The harmonic language is, obviously, quite different. But the overall cadence, the clarity of lines, the power of both the sounds and the silences, create a similar presence and emotional impact.
Next is the three-movement Con Mortuis In Lingua Mortua by Stephen Lewis. As its title (with the dead in a dead language) might suggest, it is an eerie trip to an underworld of foreboding spirits. It is not offputting, not at all, but rather invites us to tread, however carefully, along unknown paths. I can’t help but think of it as a musical equivalent of a Haunted House, where we feel a mix of excitement and fear. We know, or at least try to remind ourselves, that the danger is not real, but we can’t help but be at least a bit afraid. The three movements, Wail, Marche Funèbre, and Totentanz are of diverse character, but all showcase the precision and emotional range of the performers.
Con Mortuis In Lingua Mortua is followed by Adam Scott Neal’s five-movement work, Travels. There is a time-honored tradition of various literary works portraying a character who wanders, seeks, encounters a wide range of situations and personages. (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, even Partch’s Barstow, immediately come to mind.) So here, as in the work of others, we meet a traveler and his meditations on his encounters. The five movements begin with The Universe, and end with The Horizon. I particularly like the order as it resists a more cliché progression from the small to the grandiose and eternal. If anything, it is the opposite. While I suppose it could work in either direction, given the personal, modest and inward quality of much of Travels’ music, I found this order of presentation much more satisfying. A small detail, small but worthy of mention, would be the extended techniques in the third movement, The Wayfarer. These techniques are few and rather modest, just a few tongue clicks, breathy quasi-whistles and some percussive knocks on the body of the cello. Subtle though they may be, I must say, their presence is still strong and immediately felt. I’m loathe to say anything negative at all, but once I heard these sounds I realized that I could have easily taken in some more non-traditional sounds.
The last track is the final movement from the work of Salkind-Pearl’s Hands and Lips of Winds, the first composition of the album. This movement is another setting of Paz, this time his Nightfall. It may be my favorite track, though with so many good works here, it’s really hard to say. This setting is an austere, surgically careful nest of transparent, delicate pitch manipulations, a slowly downward-cascading acoustic construction, with dissonances harsh yet delicious, that give vivid sonic life to the dark, evocative poetry. The piece, and the album, end as a nightfall extinguishes the light of day:
A bird falls,
The grass grows dark,
Edges blur, lime is black,
The world is less credible.
Allow me to say it again: Hands and Lips of Wind is a beautiful record. The singing and playing, are sensitive, precise and, more importantly, inspired. It is rife with poetry, in the best senses of the word, from the texts themselves to the composers’ settings of those texts, to the interpretations of Ms. Barnes’ voice and Ms. Bewerse’s gorgeous cello lines. This music demands your concentration, to be sure. But if you give it that, if you let yourself focus and then fall into the sounds that wash over you, your efforts will be wonderfully rewarded.
This Saturday, May 5th, soon-to-be-Dr. Nick Norton is premiering the first evening length concert of his music at Art Share, in an event titled Music for Art Galleries that is doubling as his PhD recital. Nick is the founder and editor of New Classic LA so felt a bit conflicted about covering his own event, but asked the other writers and me what we thought and we agreed that an interview would be appropriate so that we readers and listeners might have at least some background information on him, as well as some sense of his musical thoughts and activities. I know Nick from casual conversations but only in preparation for this interview did I immerse myself in his music. It was time well spent. Suffice to say, I urge you to check out his online recordings and, if you can, come to his concert on Saturday.
What was your entrée into music? At what age did you realize that music was a part of you? What kind of music spoke to you first and how did your stylistic identification evolve over time?
Whoa, we’re starting with a big one. Okay! I certainly started young with some piano and guitar lessons that didn’t stick. My mom was in film and TV, so I was always surrounded by all sorts of arts and entertainment. I expected I’d eventually become an artist of some sort, maybe a photographer or filmmaker, and I did always like music quite a lot – I remember how excited I was the first time I got to buy CDs for myself. I think things changed late in elementary school, when we moved from Los Angeles to a much smaller town called Newbury Park. It was a sports-centric town that was, at least at the time, pretty cut off from culture, and with how horrible and cliquey little kids are, I immediately became an outcast loner. I’d pretty much watch TV or read every day after school, and would leave MTV on all night back when they used to play music videos nonstop, I think mainly to distract myself from how lonely I was. Though I was totally unhappy for a lot of years, in hindsight I’m incredibly grateful for how that led me into music.
I’m not totally sure of the timeline here, but I remember two very specific events that got me into taking music seriously. The first was a school assembly where high schools kids came and played instruments for us. I heard someone play a saxophone and said “yes, I’ll take one of those please,” and joined the school band. Suddenly I had something to do other than watch TV or read after school! It was magical. The other, perhaps more important one, was discovering punk, probably sometime in middle school. This is cliche, at least among punks, but I went to a couple of shows in garages and at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center and Ventura Theater and thought “whoa, other loners! Maybe we have something in common! And they don’t seem to think I dress weird!” Plus the music was SO different from anything on the radio or that the “outside world” knew about, and so much more raw…I was just immediately in love. Punk isn’t technically hard to play – in fact it’s so focused on community and breaking down the audience/band barrier that it’s not supposed to be – so I started thinking “hey I can probably do that” and picked up guitar again.
It’s funny that you ask how my stylistic identification evolved over time, because as far as I’m concerned I’ve never actually left punk. The thing I realized, though, was that the things that defined the genre for me had less to do with music and more to do with ethics. I was reading all of Greg Graffin’s writings sometime early in high school, where he was discussing freedom of thought and self-determination and how the corporate desk jockey from a family of hippies might be just as much a punk as those of us in studded belts and safety pins, and something really stuck for me. I love punk music, and still do, but the thing I loved most about it was how self-driven it was, and how it didn’t care that it was different from what the masses (read: popular kids) were into. Following that line of interest, rather than the power chords/kick kick snare aspects of the sound (which I do love), I eventually got into hardcore, then really experimental rock. I’d never left the school band though, so was playing some jazz and classical music there, and when I got to college double majored in music and political theory. The timing and environment just worked out in that I was at UCSD and we started studying Cage and the downtown New York scene right around when I was getting into noise and drone bands, so the jump to the “classical” world felt totally natural. Even calling it a separate world of some sort seemed incorrect to me. I probably would have gotten there myself via La Monte Young and the minimalists if school hadn’t done it for me first. I was just like “whoa, there’s a path where you can get a degree in this?” That’s when I started taking theory and history and composition classes seriously, and like to say that I worked backwards into the canon from there. Nowadays if I’m writing a piece with, say, a very traditional classical vibe, I’m still thinking of it as an extension of my relationship with and growth in punk.
Europe. I’m a native New Yorker whose lived in a number of European cities, and as such, it’s something I’m instinctively aware of. But as someone who’s now been in LA for 20 years, my awareness of it is diminishing. I see that you did some of your studies in Paris (at Ecole Normale de Musique, a school I also attended!) and London. How important were those years to your musical development and how did they jibe with, or contrast with, the musical aesthetic you were developing and experiencing in California?
Attending a conservatory-style school in Paris was huge for me. For one thing, it made me realize that if I was going to do the composer thing, I had a LOT of work to do to catch up to these students who had been at it since age 3. I went in with my bachelors and was essentially a remedial charity case compared to the Juilliard kids in attendance. “Sorry, modulation is what now? Why do Germans have their own augmented chord?” At UCSD – like a lot of undergrads, I now know – I had tried to slide through the earlier parts of theory and history to get to the stuff I was into doing, which was largely either total serialism 60 years late or basically minimalism, which I still dig into here and there.
Anyway! I learned a lot there, though perhaps most important was learning how much I had to learn, or how little I knew. Socratic wisdom, if you will. That’s probably the first time I felt a real drive to analyze Bach, and do counterpoint exercises, and actually work hard on ear training. I’ll almost certainly never be as good at that stuff as a lot of those people, but at least it made me bone up on everything that I thought I’d need, which continues to this day.
There’s another side to this first Europe sojourn too: oh my god their music was boring! Other students could run circles around me in class, but if I asked them about a current artist they liked they’d draw a blank, and 90% of their music sounded like Hindemith lite. It was like they were only doing music because they had degrees in it and didn’t know what else to do, and weren’t even particularly interested in it. That’s not true of everyone there – I did make some great friends whose work I continue to respect and enjoy now – but it was definitely the general vibe. I wrote what I now consider to be a childishly-shallow attention-getter of a string trio. Harmonically it was really boring, and the teachers there didn’t seem into it, but it used, like, one extended technique and ended in a surprising way, and at the final concert of the program people – including the teachers – went totally nuts. Like they’d never heard someone tap on a soundboard before and I was a genius. That was completely insane to me, and gave me some resolve to say “okay, you’re doing something that doesn’t really fit with what the people in this classical slice of the world know, and if they don’t get it and they’re uncomfortable with it, fuck em.” But to say fuck them I’d have to catch up with them a little too, and make sure I was doing it well. Hence deciding to go to grad school in Europe and try to get the super traditional training I felt I’d missed.
King’s College, where I did my MMus, went as expected, which was wonderfully. I learned a ton! I loved London and went to concerts every night! I wish I’d kept in better touch with my friends and teachers there, because a lot of them are doing awesome things and I miss them. Rob Keeley in particular was a huge influence on my work today. I once spent like 30 minutes describing the system I was using to generate pitch and rhythmic material to him, and he said “okay, but what does it sound like?” I’d been writing stuff for my bands using my instincts, but most of my concert music up until then was still using algorithms or serialism as a crutch, or a shield against what I thought of as a lack of traditional classical abilities. Rob asking me that kind of made me re-assess my whole “I am in two worlds” view. I think my concert music, if we want to call it that, got a lot better very quickly, or at least suddenly felt a lot more like me than it had up to that point. There’s definitely a “before” and “after” to that lesson with Rob in thinking about my own musical past.
To prepare for this interview, I gave myself something of a crash course in “The Music of Nick Norton.” First of all, let me say that I very much enjoyed that, so thank you. I was familiar with a few of your pieces before but this immersive study made me realize the scope of your musical activities, especially with respect to genre. There are some composers whose music is poly-stylistic within a given piece. I didn’t find this to be the case with your music. Rather, I heard works, compositions, songs, whatever term works, that seemed rather pure with respect to the genre of that particular piece. Is that a fair observation?
I would say so. I try not to be too conscious of genre norms because they can be quite limiting, and instead try to ask “what does this piece need? Will this idea make the piece stronger?” In a lot of cases the result of that is something that makes a lot of musical sense – at least to me – and part of making musical sense is coherence. That said, while there are some polystylist pieces I dig a lot, I am wary of using genre signifiers in an obvious way, which is somewhat necessary in a polystylist piece. It can very easily become “guess the reference” rather than living in the world of the piece you’re hearing.
Genre, for me, has a lot more to do with socioeconomic circumstances or, at best, tone color and instrumentation, than with anything musically abstract, and in writing I often think in musical abstracts. For instance, when I’m writing with my bands Honest Iago or The Newports, I’m not asking “does this fit with a punk sound,” but am instead concerning myself with if enough tension has been built up to justify a release, or if a chord progression has repeated too many times in too exact a way, or something like that. One thing my bandmates have commented on, particularly in The Newports, is my obsession with not giving away your entrances. In almost every single Bach fugue the voice that is about to re-enter rests for a few bars before it does, which makes the entrance that much more exciting. Just like the trombones at the end of Beethoven 5. The other guitarist in The Newports now knows that if we’re gonna write a new section, I’m very likely going to take something out of the previous section so that the new one is fresher. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m the very same composer, using the very same skill set. If I’m wearing black denim and it’s distorted and amplified people call it punk, and if I’m wearing a blazer and there are program notes people call it contemporary classical music, and if the audience is lying on their backs they call it ambient. Whatever.
I will admit that I really enjoy messing with these discrepancies. ASCAP, for instance, arbitrarily divides their divisions into “concert music” and “pop/rock” and “country” and “rhythm & soul.” Concert music pays A LOT more per performance than the popular genres, so I tend to register my bands’ albums as song cycles for voices, two guitars, bass, and percussion, and let them figure it out. I can’t imagine what they would do with Ted Hearne’s piece for Saul Williams and string quartet.
You seem very busy, very willing to divide your creative psyche into multiple personae and work hard on all of them. Is this a conscious choice or just what feels good, right, fun, etc.? Is that something that is or should be more important to today’s musical participants?
It’s all an expression of the same basic passion. My first job, in high school, was as a counselor at Camp Emerald Bay on Catalina Island. I discovered that I LOVE introducing people to new things. Perhaps my favorite feeling is seeing someone else have a moment of realization about a new experience, of having their preconceptions challenged and ending up happy about what they learned. When I began composing and learning about the classical world, I essentially wanted to be the gateway drug between musical worlds for people from both, to let what I thought of as the conservative classical folks hear something in popular music and say “whoa, that actually is very good” and to show the people who are used to rock shows that what happens in the concert music world is vibrant and interesting. At a young age I thought I was unique for having this view, but it sure seems like a lot of interesting musicians are ignoring traditional boundaries these days, and I think that makes for better music for all of us.
It’s really beyond that, though: I started New Classic LA and Equal Sound for the same reasons, and I don’t think I necessarily need to be the composer or performer to allow someone to have that moment. Maybe a piece already exists that would mean a lot to someone, or open someone’s mind, in a way my music wouldn’t. If I think that’s the case, then the best thing I can do is send them a mixtape or take them to a show. This even extends into my love of craft beer, and starting the beer recommendation app Barly with my friends. The number of people who say “I hate beer” and have never had anything aside from a light lager kind of astounds me. Give them a sip of a Belgian quad, or something that fits their palate, and you often get a “whoa, I didn’t know beer could taste like that.” Their mind opens a little, and I really, truly see this as a way to improve the world. “I didn’t know beer could taste like that” or “I didn’t know that music could sound like this” or “I didn’t know that I like kayaking” might, for someone, somewhere, eventually lead to “I didn’t know not all Muslims are terrorists” or “I didn’t realize women are my equals” or, from my own perspective, “I didn’t know some Republicans aren’t horrible.” I’m still working on learning that one. But yeah, it’s really all the same, and I just try to do whatever seems most useful in any given moment or situation.
As to what “should” be more important, I don’t think I’m in a position to judge that for other people. And shoulds are dangerous anyway.
From what I can see, you play in at least two rock/punk bands. Are they side projects for fun or an integral part of your musical persona?
Absolutely integral. However, in both of those bands, the other members have very full non-musical lives, so the bands themselves are becoming a little more like “very very serious hobbies” than anything I’ll be able to do in a full time way. That’s talking from a career standpoint though. As far as writing music goes they’re incredibly important to me. I learn a ton through playing with them, and have a great time – perhaps we don’t talk about having fun enough, but it’s pretty damn important – so I don’t see my work with them really slowing down anytime in my life.
Would narrowing your focus (e.g., just writing “concert music” or just creating electronic works) spoil the fun of it all?
I think I’m incredibly narrowly focused on music. The things that sometimes get neglected are my health, finances, and personal life. That seemed like a worthwhile trade in my twenties. Now, especially with non-musician friends buying houses and having kids and stuff like that, I’m trying to put a little more emphasis on, say, making time to hang out with my girlfriend and her dog, or taking some down time here and there, or caring a bit more about what I am paid than I like to admit. Whenever I’m at home trying to take a break and watch a movie or something on a night when there’s a show somewhere in town (i.e. every night), I do have to turn off the little voice that says “you should really be at that show.” That’s a struggle.
You’ve mentioned community to me. I can’t tell you how important that word, that concept is to me. (I decided to go back to grad school not because I wanted to pursue an academic career but rather I needed to be immersed in a musical community and I wasn’t finding it in the real world.) You’ve got a big recital coming up on May 5th and it seems to me that a large part of your musical community is helping you realize this concert. Who do you consider to be the primary members of your community and what defines it as such?
I don’t really want to name people for this answer, because I am sure I would make someone feel left out, and that is something I am sensitive to. That said, I think the people in the community who I am most inspired by, and most want to work with, are the ones who are working hard to help other people in the community. I think – aside from great programming and performances – the thing that makes wild Up, the LA Phil, WasteLAnd, MonkSpace, and a bunch of our series and institutions here in LA so fantastic, are that they are focused on helping other people. WasteLAnd is NOT the Nick Deyoe show, it’s the “how can we provide opportunities for interesting music to get heard in a compelling way” show. Dudamel and John Adams may be the faces of the LA Phil, but the organization is great because of how many composers they program. They don’t focus on themselves. Hell, I feel weird about not having music by anybody else on my own PhD concert.
You and I have also mentioned the state, if not also the fate, of the musical scene, the community, I guess you could say, of our fair city. At the risk of flattering you (which I’m honestly not trying to do) I would go so far as to say that you are one of the people, one of the factors advocating for, shaping said community. What drives that?
That is incredibly kind of you to say. I am not sure I know what drives it, aside from the whole life-mission thing of trying to open minds that I talked about earlier. The thing is, community is a necessity. You can’t do all the things I want to do without involving other people. And you’ve gotta have humility and recognize that you’ll never be the best at everything, if at anything. You and I were talking about websites once, and you said that my personal one was really solid. That’s because I recognized that someone else, in this case Traci Larson, is way, way better at designing websites than I am. Of course she is! She’s a designer, and I’m a composer. I’d have to be pretty hard headed to think that I can make something as good as it can be when whatever that thing is is not part of my main skill set. If I want to make an awesome record, sure, I can learn a bit about mixing and engineering, or I can recognize that Nick Tipp is better at that than I will ever, ever be. But I’m better at writing music than he is. If the goal is to make a great record, we’d better work together. If the goal is to inflate my own name then I can do it all myself. And it will not be nearly as good. If the work truly comes first, before your ego, the community sorts itself out.
For all the talk of “music” as existing, even thriving in an environment where genre, style, underlying aesthetic or political motivations might seem to create a fractured landscape, I really feel like we’re living in something of a Golden Era. It is certainly not unified stylistically yet I do see it as a rather coherent, happily-multi-headed creature. Do you agree?
I think we’ve always lived in that era, and big institutions are just getting better at recognizing it. That said, the idea of being stylistically unified is a bit scary to me. It implies that some kind of Platonic asymptote for music may exist, and if it does then we can all just quit now. It doesn’t, though. The varying views of what makes music good are what makes music good.
One thing that I found really refreshing about LA’s “classical” scene is the relative abundance of non-traditional venues. One of my first classical encounters here outside of the major venues was through the folks at Classical Revolution. I believe you’re interested in similar issues, involved with similar issues as well, right?
This is something I think about a lot. Here’s the thing: what people in the classical scene call non-traditional venues are actually traditional venues. We have it backwards. How is putting music on at a bar or art gallery or outdoor festival in any way unique or interesting? I go hear bands and songwriters at bars all the time. Those are the places where 99% of the music in the world is performed. That’s normal. It’s weird that a traditional classical venue requires you to dress nicely, pay a lot, and sit there in silence. As far as I’m aware classical music in the modern era is the only genre where audiences aren’t expected to dance or move or react in some way.
I think this is, at its core, a marketing problem for the classical world. People say “we’re playing Haydn – in a bar!!!” and expect the public to show up, because “in a bar” is supposedly the interesting part. It’s not. I can’t stress enough how normal playing music in a bar is. If I asked you to come hear my band, and you asked why, and I said “because we’re playing with amplification and you can drink a beer,” you’d look at me like I was insane. The music has to be the key.
This is a big part of why Andrew Glick and I founded Equal Sound. A lot of the music in the new classical world is fucking awesome, and no one hears it because people have all these preconceptions about what classical music is. The fact that Tristan Perich is on the same shelf at a record store as Clara Schumann, and is marketed in much the same way, is completely absurd. What we want to do with Equal Sound is to essentially hide the fact that what we’re presenting comes from the classical world. Instead of saying “isn’t it interesting that we are putting a string quartet in a cool gallery space,” we are saying “come hear this rad show of music by these interesting artists!” We don’t see ourselves as competing, insofar as there is competition among presenters for attention, with series like WasteLAnd and Monday Evening Concerts and Green Umbrella. We see ourselves competing with Spaceland Presents and FYF and Goldenvoice. We just usually have more violins.
We basically stole this idea from wild Up, and probably from others before them. When they got started they were playing at the Echo Park Rec Center. DIY hipster heaven. If they’d started up with shows at the Broad Stage or something, they’d be just another chamber orchestra playing new music and begging for donations. By putting themselves into the popular music world, they stood out as incredibly interesting and worth seeing. My understanding is that their publicist came up with the idea to never use the word “classical” or “new music” or even talk about “the tradition” and a lot of the members were uncomfortable with it at first, but wow did it work. “Wait, your band has a huge string section? I have got to see that!” But they’ve got the musicianship and programming down to back it too. Sometimes that gets lost in these conversations, but it’s really at the core. A good frame can’t save a bad painting, but a bad frame can ruin a great one.
OK, a quick tangent pertaining to my own music-philosophical anxiety, if I may: Whether there is a unified “scene,” or even if it’s fragmented, positively or negatively, to me, the underlying and more important, even terrifying question is this: What is the role of music, for the individual and in society? Do we need it?
Of course we need it. Or at least I need it – I don’t want to speak for others. But if I had any questions about that I probably wouldn’t be doing this. I love my life in music, and I’m insanely lucky that I get to spend a lot of my time and energy on it. It can, though, at times be incredibly taxing. If I didn’t believe it was a necessary thing for me to be doing, I’d probably relax a little, get a job at a nonprofit or something that has a slightly more tangible or obviously measurable effect on the world or pays a lot more, and just make music as a hobby. That’s not me, though.
How much of music, your music and the music of our community, is political or in any way a critique of our society? (And how much should it be?)
I think hearing music as a critique of society would be up to each individual listener or musician, but I tend to think that for just about everything the meaning is defined by the individual experiencing it, so any sort of objective answer is really impossible.
I will say, though, that to me virtually everything I do is political. Fact is I get to try to make a living in music because I don’t have to worry in my daily life about shelter, food, clean water, being enslaved for human trafficking, getting shot when I walk out my front door, having a front door…I have a fucking iPhone that I get annoyed by when it is slow. The fact that I get to be annoyed by that, compared to how a lot of people live, makes me into an ungodly rich person who gets to make music. And I am very, very far from rich by Los Angeles standards. I think I have to use that privilege responsibly, and use these skills that I am so, so lucky to have the opportunity to have to try to do some good in the world.
At the same time, we do want to recognize sacrifices of people that allow us to do this. My great grandparents crossed Europe on foot with no money. We have to think that they went through a hardship like that so that someday someone like me could be more comfortable, and do something that makes them happy. If I get to draw some dots on a line that I think sound nice instead of going to work in hellish conditions to earn barely enough to eat, then in some way I feel like I’m honoring the aims of all the people who have struggled for better lives for everyone. And in whatever way we decide to approach it, we have to keep up that struggle for others. We owe it to people.
I think to understand the value, the excitement, the momentum towards polystylistic appreciation and acceptance (Kendrick Lamar’s recent Pulitzer win comes to mind), I think it would be wise to understand where that comes from. Was it not borne, decades if not centuries ago, of a strict, urgent stratification, categorization of the various musics? If so, why do you think that was? Is it racist? Classist? And not to be glib, but does it even matter?
It’s absolutely racist and classist, and it absolutely matters. When, to your previous question, I said that I am lucky to have had the opportunity to try, I wasn’t kidding. An artist like Kendrick – and I don’t know his whole history – probably didn’t have a lot of money for music lessons. He also probably – certainly actually – had a far higher risk of getting shot by a cop than I do. Yet he’s making incredibly creative and vital music that is complex and connected to a huge portion of society that many of us with money and degrees often ignore.
The thing we’ve seen in people’s reactions to the win, at least in racist assholes’ reactions, is like a fear of invasion. It’s not totally unfounded, as classical music as a “genre” is, at its heart, a tradition of wealthy European landowners or the most powerful churches in the world paying people to make things for them to put their names on. It is literally designed to be insular and exclusionary. That makes some people feel secure. Someone like Kendrick getting recognized by a big institution for making, I don’t know, really cool art? is a threat to the people who have felt secure with their institutional support.
The funny thing here is that this all actually lines up quite nicely with the “little tiny genre” thing we were talking about earlier. There’s so much awesome music in the world that some classical institutions love to pretend doesn’t exist. And let’s be honest, a lot of traditional academic composers would not really be surviving their own careers without grants and commissions and teaching positions. The socioeconomic structure of classical music is not the way most music-making works, but some of us who work in it or write about it treat it like the way the everything is. And a minority always wants to protect itself.
That all sounds glib, but I’m actually hopeful. Sometimes you need a good kick in the face. Maybe a few people got one and we can all be a bit more open in our listening and understanding now. And it’s not a competition. It’s very possible to love black metal and the Romantic era and hip hop and blues and noise rock and Frank Sinatra with the same passion. Music is just, you know, rad.
So this recital of yours is, if I’m not mistaken, part of your doctoral work as you complete your academic studies. When I was a student, it seemed like the academic path was practically a requirement if you were to function in the modern classical world. But for better or worse (much better, in my opinion) academic participation is considerably less crucial than it was just a couple decades ago. How do you see this, and is teaching and/or additional academic involvement part of your plan?
There are definite advantages to an academic career, or at least the promise of one: economic stability, getting to talk about music with students and colleagues, having summers off, all that. It sounds pretty cool. Unfortunately this is 2018 and actually getting one of those cushy jobs is incredibly unlikely. A lot of people end up teaching adjunct at five universities and having no time for actually making music. Did you see that university in Illinois advertising “volunteer” teaching positions for people with PhDs? That’s exploitation on the face of it, and maybe unions will do something useful, but much as we try to fight it we can’t really ignore the free market. If people are willing to take those unpaid positions there are going to be more of those unpaid positions. As far as I’m concerned the stable academic career path for composers is basically over, and people are just taking a while to realize it. I’m working on other options to essentially get out ahead of the rush.
One thing that I see as a problem is that a lot of people who are tenure track faculty now came up in the world when that was a viable option, and are still advising their students as if it is. I think it’s a disservice to students to let them think that there’s a stable career path there that they can access without an giant amount of work. I respect the people who make it in, but I don’t think it’s for me, at least not yet. It would be an enormous amount of work for something that isn’t my main focus.
The ironic thing here is that I teach at Chapman University and I’m lucky to have that gig. But it has shown me, to some extent, how limiting doing the adjunct life thing can be. I was never late delivering a piece before I started teaching. It’s a little like if I say “I want to be a musician!” and someone responds with “cool, you can be a teacher!” That just sounds so incongruous to me, it’s like telling a kid who wants to be a scientist that they can be a lawyer, or telling a kid who wants to be a lawyer that they can be a farmer. If someone offers me a cool teaching job I’m likely not going to turn it down, but I think my energy is better spent on writing pieces and putting on concerts.
Let’s discuss the actual music, shall we? I’ve seen the program for your recital. You’re presenting quite a varied program. There are many works that are not afraid to be, dare I say, beautiful. Are “beauty” and “beautiful” loaded words? What do they mean to you and how do they (or don’t they) pertain to your music?
I’m not sure. I try to be honest about what I think a piece needs, and take my own ego or any ideas about what I want listeners to think about me out of the equation when I write. Lately that’s had me turning to writing more “traditionally beautiful” music. I will say that, as a person who grew up in weird rock and went to UCSD, that it scares me a bit. Whenever I write an elegant line I’m still like “wait, isn’t this supposed to be more aggressive?” I’m not totally comfortable with that sound yet. If I was, though, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting to me. I can make horrible noises all day if I want to – and I don’t mean horrible in a bad way! Sometimes we need a bit of horror. But right now writing music that is somehow comforting is something I seem to be doing. Wonder what that means.
I feel like I started composing at the tail end of an era where you were either decidedly atonal or dissonant, or you were equally-decidedly consonant, usually in the form of something akin to what was called “The New Romanticism.” I found the stratification limiting, not to mention polarizing. Between your “classical” works and your various electric/electronic/rock/punk, such excluding stratification, compartmentalization, seems considerably less present. Is this a conscious decision rooted in revolt or simply the natural way of your musical expression?
Well, the pieces I sent you were pretty consonant as it’s what I’ve been doing lately. I think I started out being quite inspired by modernist anti-populism, which UCSD is still quite into. Early Boulez was my favorite stuff for a long time, and I definitely have pieces that stem from that tradition, though I haven’t written one in a little while….these days I try not to be conscious of things like that, though, and just write honestly. Sometimes the music gets pretty thorny, but that hasn’t happened in many recent pieces.
Actually I do have a really gnarly mixed chamber quartet that I think I want to rewrite as a piano concerto. That’ll be a cool one.
You seem comfortable with music that is virtuosic and difficult to play (your All The Wrong Notes and Mirror Smasher come to mind) as well as music that is not particularly challenging on a technical level. Do such things, as such, enter into your compositional calculus or is that, as an isolated criterion, not of interest to you?
As artistic expression it’s not particularly interesting to me, except to say that I do think hard-to-play music requires a certain energy level that is harder to attain in stuff that is easy to play. If I want something to feel really intense, I want the musician to feel really intense about it. Making it challenging can be a way to achieve that, but it’s not really the goal. It’s a means to the thing I am interested in, which is more like a musical-final-product sort of thing. I care a lot about that, and whatever means get me there in the most effective way are cool by me.
To follow up, you have a number of really lovely pieces that exist in various guises, whether acoustic or electronic. Quiet Harbor is a simple, peaceful chamber piece with acoustic instruments, evoking the sounds of the water, boats, foghorns, general mood of pastoral, calm space.. On Geology for electric guitar and electronic sounds is similar in its simplicity, its adherence to tonal centers, yet obviously created by a different sonic palette. Beach Song is almost shocking in its folk simplicity. (It reminds me of early 20th century Americana, with a hint of Ives’ modernism. Also some brash rock and jazz inflected interjections towards the end!) Is this simplicity a statement, a reaction, or just how music goes?
Well, it’s somewhat related to what I said about means in the previous answer. Those jazz and rock interventions in Beach Song are there because I wanted some dramatic contrast, and instead of merely using different harmony or rhythms or whatever, I thought I could get an even stronger contrast by mixing in things that are entirely foreign to what it seems like the language might be. I once heard Ted Hearne use the phrase “genre counterpoint” and that stuck with me. I kind of ask myself what my goal is, and then try to figure out the best way to achieve it, regardless of where that leads or comes from.
A note on On Geology: everything in that piece is guitar with some effects pedals. None of the sounds are synthesized. I don’t really care that they are or aren’t, and I’m happy to use whatever sounds are effective for the piece…but aren’t guitar pedals rad?
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that this is far and away the most in-depth anyone has ever gone into my music, and I really, really appreciate it! Answering these questions was a lot of fun, and very interesting, and made me think about a lot of things. Thank you!
I also just want to take a minute to express my thanks to you, and the other New Classic LA writers, for contributing to this site. I had no idea when I started a concert calendar whenever that was that it would turn into this. And I’m thankful every day for the energy you all put in to keep it up.
Just in case anyone is curious about conflict of interest – I am, after all, the editor of this website – I wrote to all the writers and said “I’m having a concert that I want to have covered, but I’m very concerned about posting my own stuff on the site. I don’t want it to be self-serving or biased. Tell me what to do.” What you and Leaha came up with was the fact that if another composer putting on a show like this came to New Classic LA for an interview I would definitely say yes to them and put them through our normal process for getting coverage, which I was about to put myself through, so it felt okay. But if people don’t dig that I get it.
Is Yar perhaps a word, in some other language unbeknownst to me, that means “delicious sonic experience”? After listening to the new album, Yar, by siblings Scot and Vicki Ray, that’s what it means to me.
Neither Ms. Ray nor her excellent playing is new to me. She has been an impressive fixture on LA’s new (and not so new) music scene for many years. She plays or has played with an impressive litany of our best ensembles and players. Her recitals with the PianoSpheres series are always a joy. I confess to being unaware of her brother Scot. He was, I learned from the liner notes of their new release, originally a brass player. And not just any brass player but one who was in the thick of LA’s modern jazz scene. But while still very much enjoying a successful, vibrant, jazz career he uprooted himself, and moved back to his (and Ms. Ray’s) home state of Montana and decided to focus on the guitar. Listening to him play, in various guises and styles, including a lot of slide, would have me think he was a guitarist from the beginning.
Yar is a generous offering, a full 73 minutes of music. It uses that length brilliantly, exploiting a great variety of styles and timbres yet somehow managing to make the record, as a whole, feel cohesive, integral, and logical. But it is more than just a triumph of logic, to be sure. There is a synthesis of the modal and atonal, the consonant and dissonant, the timbrally delicate and harsh, sharp-edged noise. As I said, above, it’s truly a delicious sonic experience.
Only one of the album’s nine tracks comes in under 5 minutes (For Harry, at 4:47). Each piece is a substantial music journey on its own. Thematic elements are present, as is some notion of development and evolution of those elements. Every piece feels complete, fully realized and, by its end, satisfying.
Each one of Yar’s compositions present a unique territory, great fodder for one’s visual imagination. I see the players, surrounded in the detritus of musical instruments, cables, microphones and other electronic paraphernalia, yet I close my mind’s eye and I’m wandering in a new, delicious, hitherto unknown land of visual and auditory oddities. Some are more pleasant than others. But each one is enticing in its own way.
Listening to Yar, from start to finish, is like taking a beautiful tour of the artists the Rays have loved and been influenced by. Was this by design? Was this of primary importance to them? I can’t say. But to this listener, it is the aural equivalent of a challenging but ultimately rewarding scavenger hunt. The musics evoke many great composers and players. Some references are more explicit, some subtly hinted at. There are the helpful ghosts of so many great musical predecessors as well as various industrial machines and devices, perhaps angry with their lot in life, plotting to overtake their human overlords.
Anamorphosis, (the second track on Yar) according to my dictionary is defined as such:
1. a distorted projection or drawing that appears normal when viewed from a particular point or with a suitable mirror or lens.
- the process by which anamorphic images are produced.
- a gradual, ascending progression or change of form to a higher type.
I cite this definition here because, a) you might not be familiar with the word, (I wasn’t), and, b) taken together, both of these definitions do a wonderful, if abstract job, of explaining the work by this name. There are low drones which are then combined with slow-attack sounds fading in and out. Then comes a staccato, stutter-edit treatment of a plaintive vocal track or sample. It more than flirts with Middle Eastern modes and nasal double-reed-implying timbres. It’s cool, sure, but honestly, it earns its place not because of its treatment of what it’s referencing, but rather how it manages to mangle it, turn it into something all its own, unique, and yet somehow perfectly at home amid the other compositions.
Zero Doesn’t Exist is quite restrained but still a vehicle for Scot’s rather blistering solo. He doesn’t expose his technique often, but when he does, it’s impressive. I hear a lot of my guitar heroes from NYC’s Downtown scene, people I’d see in the first Knitting Factory iteration. Ray’s guitar playing pierces, and floats high above randomly recurring noises, from piano wires to other harsh metallic sounds, all above a quite unobtrusive, spacious electric bass ostinato.
I think it a fair assumption that For Harry is inspired by, perhaps a tribute to, Harry Partch. Ms. Ray is no stranger to the prepared piano, and she uses it here to approximate the more percussive elements of Partch’s music (Barstow, among others) while other sounds, from both Rays, fill out the would-be ensemble. Scot’s plucked strings are reminiscent of Partch’s adapted guitar, and these instruments combined with overdubbed percussive elements create a wonderful Partch-a-rama. It made me yearn for Partch’s strict 43-tone octave, but I’ll forgive the absence.
Thrice Ephemeral Journey was inspired by For Marcel Duchamp by John Cage. Cage’s prepared piano is easy enough to hear, and its tribute to his Sonatas and Interludes is clear and explicit enough, and beautifully executed. But Thrice adds another layer or two. In a soft but creepy, lurking percussive woodblock of sorts I hear PIL’s Under The House. And then Bill Frisell walks in, plugs into his volume pedal, and jams along. I’d like to think that Cage would be pleased. (When wasn’t he pleased by sounds like these?!)
In Fear of the Wind I hear something reminiscent of Stockhausen’s Kontakte, or perhaps some of David Tudor’s realizations of Cage’s later works. (Electrified cactus, perhaps?) It’s like a spinning top bouncing on a table while some odd servo-motored device churns in the backgroup, while outside a group of evil aliens play recorders! Demonic voices enter, and then a blistering quasi-rock guitar solo. And maybe that’s Bill Laswell on the bass?
I’m struck by the gorgeous evolution in The Highline, how it develops and unfolds the way Eno’s Ambient music might, but with decidedly less delicate timbres. It invokes the drama and tension of a tightrope walker’s wire, perhaps Philippe Petit’s line across the Twin Towers, tight yet buckling across that distant span, so many feet up in the air, shifting with the weight of its passenger, colored by the winds. Vertigo translated into sound. I much prefer it this way.
Among the many things to like on Yar is its great mix of beauty and noise. This is manifested movingly in Cortege. A cortege is a solemn funereal procession. As we hear the rattles in irregular staccato rhythms against the bell-like, slow-metronomic pulses, one can imagine the casket slowly, religiously carried by the pallbearers through the streets of a dark, eerily desolate town.
Just a few tracks in, and I start to wonder, “What is their compositional process?” And the more I listen, the more this delicious music turns this musing into a burning question. There are obviously real-time duets, but also other overdubs, layers, loops. The formal structures at work here warrant my curiosity, so I continue to wonder: how much of each track is pre-arranged, how much is improvised, how much is added and/or edited after the initial “basic tracks” are laid down?
Of course, how something is made is often not a satisfying question. (In certain situations, it can even be counter-satisfying.) You don’t need to wonder, or ascertain the “compositional process” of Yar. What matters, ultimately, is what we are left with. What is this music, and how does it make us hear, how does it make us feel? It delights with improvisational constructions, austere sonic fields that define their own territories, by way of harmonic language, timbral depth, and instrumental content.
This is a record that you can listen to passively or actively. I usually hate the idea of “background music” (and I hope that Yar isn’t used as such) but I find it to be equally satisfying both in “deep listening” (to borrow Pauline Oliveros’ term) or just having it be part of a more passive, meditative background.
I am genuinely fascinated by the creative process invoked here that resulted in the wealth of musical coolness that is Yar. For all my references to other composers and players, the payoff, the legitimacy, the wonder, all stem from my understanding of these works as not merely a collection of representations of their influences, but somehow some dialectical syntheses of the siblings’ collective musical instincts and influences into something quite unique, quite marvelous and quite beautiful.
To its great credit, despite the very wide-ranging sounds, Yar is devoid of irony, not at all anything resembling a postmodern commentary on anything. But that is not to say that it is always entirely serious or completely devoid of humor. It is, rather, a sincere and genuine exploration of a wide range of sonic possibilities. A collection that isn’t afraid to embrace beauty or ugliness, alone or in combination, without any faux-clever attempt to subvert or invert such subjective classifications. This, like so much of the music itself, is refreshing and extremely rewarding.
Yar is available from Orenda Records at orendarecords.com/orenda0040, and from most music retailers.
If there were any doubts that the LA new-music scene is in the midst of a surfeit of musical and aesthetic diversity, Synchromy and HOCKET’s evening of music, titled Crusoe, on November 5 should certainly quell them. The playing, centering on Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff of the piano duo HOCKET, and later adding a larger ensemble, was truly exceptional: precise, expressive, virtuosic where needed, yet playful, even comedic where possible.
The concert’s first half was comprised of four compositions for piano-four-hands by four local, living LA composers.
Alexander Elliott Miller’s Clock Smasher made for a striking and auspicious beginning. As its title might suggest, the opening motif, in four hands in ascent, burst open a vivid sonic palette that would traverse and transmogrify in interesting and musically satisfying ways.
In his program note Miller makes mention of the “… polyrhythms, many of which do have a sort of ‘tick-tock’ quality, like a room full of out-of-sync clocks.” This is most certainly accurate but it only begins to suggest the variety and vitality of harmonic and gestural realms it creates and explores. Clock Smasher teases us at first with a metronomic, pulsed music which evolves into something ominously hovering, then interrupted by syncopated rhythms infused with quasi-jazz harmonies. Even the mention of the “J Word” is sometimes frowned upon – personally, I don’t frown upon it – but regardless of what that might suggest to you, this is certainly not a jazz composition. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t flirt with tonality, some very lovely melodies and, at times, even hints at something Bill Evans might have mused about at the keyboard. This music, as Miller’s notes suggest, does subvert its own idiomatic tendencies with those irregular rhythms, to my ear something of a this-is-definitely-NOT-jazz insistence, which then somehow, artfully evolves into a spacious, airy coda, punctuated by big, long and spacious chords. A poignant, striking work.
The next piece on the program was Marc Evans’ One Wandering Night. This piece was for a slightly varied configuration of HOCKET in that Ms. Gibson remained on the piano while Mr. Kotcheff moved to an electric keyboard and they were augmented by the addition of two melodicas (played by the composer and Nick Norton).
Fun fact: I went to a Joe Jackson concert when I was a kid, probably around 1980. He whipped out a melodica and declared it “The Instrument of the Future!” Perhaps he was right. I do hear a lot of melodica at new music concerts these days.
Evans’ piece was inspired by Bartok and that came through clearly enough. There is always the danger of being on the wrong side of the line separating homage from uninspired imitation. Fortunately, One Wandering Night falls decidedly on the right side of that line. While the melodicas played a sort of wheezing Eastern European Bartokian ostinato, definitely and pleasantly reminiscent of Bartok’s own take on modal folk melody, the piano and electric keyboard sputtered and interjected their own contrasting bits. I found this particularly satisfying as it reminded me, on a simple level, of Bartok’s own 2-handed piano trickery, where the two hands remain, stubbornly, in their own domain (key, mode, register) despite any discord that stubborn autonomy might produce. And on a more complex level, it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces of music, Messiaen’s jardin du sommeil d’amour, a movement from his Turangalîla-Symphonie. While the melodic and harmonic technique is quite different in Messiaen’s masterpiece, a similar bifurcation and their disorienting affect is in play.
And playful it is. As the piece progresses, the tempo of the melodicas’ pumping melody increases and the interjections become more intense until, like a tired Hungarian hiker on the banks of the Danube, all four instruments slow down until they reach total repose. I must admit to being completely unfamiliary with Evans’ work but if this piece is at all representative of his musical sensibilities, then I definitely want to hear more.
Nick Norton told us from the stage that his Mirror Smasher was a number of things. He said it was “minimalisty” (and as such, “easy to write”), loud, and a work in progress. This piece was, again, for the four deft hands of HOCKET, and in fact even the pitch material itself was produced and ordered by them. The unordered (or, to quote the program, “played about a zillion different ways, as if looking at it in a broken mirror”) pitch set is:
H O C K E T = B G C D E F#
Yet again, HOCKET played beautifully. The piece begins with a clear tonal center, pulsing along as “minimalisty” pieces often do. But not long into the playing, a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds makes its presence known.
Norton’s choice of electronic sounds – both their timbre and idiomatic qualities – were a highlight for me. The combination of the smooth, hypnotic four-handed piano combined with the somewhat Kraftwerky buzzes, gently evolving into higher pitched electronic sounds reminiscent of some of the organ work in Einstein on the Beach really made for a powerful electro-acoustic marriage.
About halfway into Mirror Smasher the volume cranks up significantly. (The composer warned us of this before the performance. There will be no lawsuits.) If there was a hint of Einstein before the knob was turned, now the Einsteinian character felt married to something more like Heavy Metal, even Rock Opera. (Norton’s program note says that the title is a nod to Alex Miller’s Clock Smasher but I couldn’t help wonder if it might, even subconsciously, have any connection to The Who’s Do I Smash The Mirror, from Tommy. OK, probably not, but still…) OK, Rock Opera is misleading at best, demeaning at worst. But Mirror Smasher’s loud second half is formidable, powerful, and I could easily imagine it, as the composer suggested, being extended into a much longer Minimalist work. While different in pitched/melodic material, it reminded me, in a very good way, of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in its powerful, gyrating and relentless sonic attack.
The program’s first half concluded with Jason Barabba’s The Distance of the Moon. The piece takes its title from a story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics of the same name. Calvino’s work is a collection of clever, fanciful tales, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic and nostalgic, often subverting our expectations if not the laws of nature as we’ve come to understand them. Calvino’s Distance of the Moon is a story about the moon, which, once upon a time, existed but a hop away from the Earth, but is now gradually moving farther and farther away. As the two spheres continue to distance themselves from each other, the inhabitants abandon the moon for the Earth. All but one of them, who decides to remain, forever, stranded alone on the moon.
Barabba’s musical interpretation of the story is itself a clever, fanciful tale. But unlike the rather light quality of the short story, it is a significant, weighty work. This is not to say that it isn’t imbued with moments of lightness – it is! – but it is not a mere bagatelle, but rather a significant musical and pianistic undertaking. Distance of the Moon was originally composed for a single pianist (presumably the two-handed kind) but as such it was almost impossible to play. I can all too easily believe this. Even in its two-person version, it is quite challenging.
Stylistically, it manages to explore a number of moods and idiomatic gestures yet still most definitely feel like a coherent, unified work. Moments of romantic, almost tonal passages intermingle deftly with strong, almost Schoenbergian dissonances. Lugubrious night music passages transition into stumbling, irregular rhythms with almost-BeBop melodic lines.
In the end, analogous to the story on which its based, Distance makes us feel the separation, the yearning, the tension hoping, however in vain, for a resolution. It ends, fragile and sparse, in a delicate and beautiful diad. Two notes at either end of the piano keyboard. A deep work, and one that I suspect would definitely reward repeat hearings and analysis.
Then came an intermission. If this had been a meal, I would have felt not full but satisfied. This was a chunk of concert that delivered four works of diverse character yet not, as a whole, illogically incongruent. But wait, there’s more…
The second half began with Mayke Nas’ DiGiT #2. (For the curious, I don’t think there’s a DiGiT #1.) For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ms. Nas is a Dutch composer, born in 1972. I don’t know how her work wound up on this program but it was a perfect palette cleanser. DiGiT is, to my ear, entirely devoid of a single specified pitch for any of the four hands, or four forearms, or two foreheads that activate the piano keys. It is, to be clear, a humorous bit of performance, perhaps a commentary on what we consider to be “high art.” It also allows a piano duo to highlight a different take on virtuosity.
DiGiT centers itself around a variation of our childhood schoolyard hand jive or clapping game that involves an intricate collaborative clapping between two people (usually young girls), while simultaneously singing a rhyme. (Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pop! was the one the Black girls bussed into my Queens elementary school taught me). DiGiT, however, is inspired by another favorite, Oh Little Playmate. It is not only a charming work – one that HOCKET obviously enjoyed immensely – but even a virtuosic one, albeit in a very different way. Piano keys are only played in clusters, but other sounds arise from the intricate interplay of the two pianists’ strikes against the palms, arms, and thighs of themselves and each other. The rhythms are at times satisfyingly smooth, even evoking soft shoe dance moves in their elegance and grace. It’s very much a performance piece, and, if you like, you can see an older performance of it (not by HOCKET, but by eighth blackbird, here:
The concert itself was billed under the title of CRUSOE. The grand finale, so to speak, was Frederic Rzewski’s composition of that name. Rzewski, born in 1938, is seen as a somewhat enigmatic figure of the 20th century avant-garde, someone who studied with “Uptown” and Princeton figures (Babbitt, et al.) yet whose own musical output butterflied effortlessly among genres widely, from serialism to minimalism. His works are coherent and easy to describe in and of themselves. But to describe what a “Rzewski piece” might be is near impossible.
As for Crusoe, where to begin? First of all, it was a delight! Which is not to say that it was necessarily such a delight on the page, but Synchromy upped the dose for our viewing pleasure. The stage was adorned with a backdrop of a deserted island, inflatable palm trees and beach balls. A large ensemble adorned themselves a la Castaway, with everything from light headgear to a stuffed parrot on a shoulder to, in the case of one player (Mr. Norton, on guitar) a full-on shark suit! It was most definitely an aesthetic choice, not one dictated by the score, and I found it to be a wise one which bore much (tropical?) fruit.
Crusoe employs a performing force of unspecified instruments, requires its players to sing and chant various lines about Robinson Crusoe, play percussion instruments, and do other things that might make a Musicians Union bristle. The vocal sections are interspersed among bright, quite lovely pointillistic instrumental episodes. As such, Crusoe is reminiscent at times of some of Harry Partch’s better works, albeit without the microtonal schema.
After various chants, instrumental interludes, spilling of doubloons, breaking of branches, dusting off of hands, tinkling of toy pianos, swords whirred as they are raised in the air, heads patted, feet stomped, the Narrator (sung by Justine Aronson) comes forth to chant the last line. At which point she is pelted by the ensemble with beach balls. The End! (I won’t call the Union if you don’t.)
As I said, Rzewski is enigmatic. And Crusoe is no less an enigma. Did this performance, and this piece, provide any insight into the tale of Robinson Crusoe? No, not really. Did it give me a sense of what Rzewski’s compositional voice was? Well, kinda sorta, inasmuch as only one of his pieces might. But more importantly, it was a perfect end to Synchromy’s ambitious concert, a perfect counterweight to an already diverse and profound selection of our community’s musical wealth.