Author: Isaac Schankler

The Generalization Generation

Every few months, it seems like another eminent composer expresses dismay about what young composers are doing today. I am already a little nostalgic for 2013, when John Adams accused younger composers of “writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial.” Recently, Kevin Volans was the latest to jump into this one-sided intergenerational fray, asserting that “the standard of composition in the 21st century amongst the young is far lower than that of the 20th century.” But they are by no means the only proponents of this viewpoint. I can detect hints of this attitude in a few recent articles here at NewMusicBox, for example. The symptoms vary somewhat, but the diagnosis seems to be the same: things just aren’t what they used to be.

Where does this attitude come from? If so many seasoned composers feel this way, could there be something to it? I’d argue that what we actually have is a generational bias against young composers that is consistent across aesthetic boundaries and preferences. I’d like to talk about this phenomenon as a whole, speculate about some possible causes of it, and describe how this attitude hurts everyone in new music, not just young composers.

ur doin it wrong

There’s literally no way to win this game.

Not everything in Volans’s speech is completely execrable, and he has some thoughts worth considering about presentation, education, and what happens to composers when they turn 40. But it’s largely poisoned by this contempt for young composers. The thing that makes this kind of contemptuous perspective so seductively persuasive is, paradoxically, the thing that makes it impossible to prove or disprove. One thing all the arguments about young composers have in common is that their authors are careful not to name any specific examples of the mediocrity they see all around them. Part of this is likely due to civility, but it also makes their arguments conveniently elusive. Literally everyone can conjure up examples of mediocre musical experiences they’ve had, and it doesn’t even matter if they’re thinking of the same examples—the point is already proven, or rather, the bias is already confirmed.

And zooming out a bit, in making this argument, composers often seem to criticize contradictory things: the structure’s not clear, the structure’s too simple, there’s too much emphasis on pitch, there’s not enough emphasis on pitch, the pieces are too short, the pieces are too long and meandering, it’s too commercial, it’s too opaque, etc. There’s literally no way to win this game.

kids these days

It’s tempting to dismiss this issue as a subset of the generic intergenerational animosity that currently exists between Baby Boomers and Millennials, but this isn’t a very satisfying explanation. The complaints generally leveled against young composers don’t seem to be the usual Millennial-bashing epithets about work ethic and so on. There may be a tinge of this, but in general it seems like we’re dealing with a more complex cocktail of criticism.

It wasn’t enough for them to rebel against their parents; now they have to rebel against their children.

These criticisms do, however, sound suspiciously like the criticisms leveled against them when they were young, as others have pointed out. Their work was considered too commercial, too crass, self-indulgent, unchallenging, you get the idea. It’s true that this took place in a different era, when anything that wasn’t twelve-tone music was considered heresy. I didn’t live through the ascendancy of serialism, but as a student, I heard countless tales about what a suffocating environment it was, how difficult it was to create under such conditions, how necessary it was to break free from those confines, and how much better things were now. Perhaps reflexively, these composers now seem determined to revisit this trauma on the next generation. Or, to put it another way, it wasn’t enough for them to rebel against their parents; now they have to rebel against their children.

I wonder if this is an outgrowth of what I like to call Underdog Syndrome, where composers feel the need to imagine themselves operating in resistance to a prevailing aesthetic that, when examined, is not actually a prevailing aesthetic. I have come under the spell of this condition myself from time to time, and it is incredibly appealing. It gives your work meaning and purpose to believe you are attacking some kind of established order, even if it makes you willfully oblivious to your own role within that established order. Maybe this is why so many great composers seem to be terribly wrongheaded about certain things. Maybe they need to be wrong in order to create.

It’s curious too that so many of these arguments are couched in the language of craft, when they actually seem to be about aesthetics. When Volans opines that we should pursue “the art of composition” and not audiences, it’s hard to fault such a lofty ideal. But when he rattles off his list of composers who successfully pursued this ideal—“Boulez, Cage, Feldman, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Ligeti”—this concept of “the art of composition” becomes depressingly narrow. Just to choose a couple fairly arbitrary examples, there seems to be no room here for a Duke Ellington, whose widely popular jazz had a very different relationship with audience and commerce, or a Pauline Oliveros, whose Deep Listening presents an alternative notion of craft. In fact, I’d argue that when composers criticize craft, they are often failing to recognize a kind of craft that is different from their own.

Too many bros

This kind of gatekeeping doesn’t just hurt young composers, it also shuts out other potential voices, marginalized voices, voices that could bring new life to new music.

This is where these attitudes start to become actively harmful. When we elevate a certain kind of craft and its formal concerns above all else, this kind of gatekeeping doesn’t just hurt young composers, it also shuts out other potential voices, marginalized voices, voices that could bring new life to new music. It is completely inimical to the spirit of creativity that should animate and drive us. I don’t think it is a coincidence that, in an increasingly diverse society, new music has remained astonishingly insular, especially when compared to most other creative fields.

For his part, it seems as though Volans would like it to remain insular. In a 1992 interview with ethnomusicologist Timothy Taylor, Volans argues:

There’s a real case for being a complete and utter and total elitist… we’ve got to shut the media out of our lives and we should have private concerts and no press should be allowed and no non-musicians should be allowed. And no televisions should be allowed in our homes. It’s a good argument, because what’s happening is the intrusion of press and media and television and those media are totally debilitating everybody with their mindlessness.

This kind of barbarians-at-the-gates mentality is ultimately self-defeating, because there is no end to it. It shuts out the possibility of any unsanctioned influences, and allows no room for growth or change. It effectively deletes the “new” from new music.

Compromise and Conviction at the National Composers Intensive

“This is a piece that does something to you when you play it,” says Christopher Rountree. He’s about to conduct the ensemble wild Up in a performance of a new work by Jennifer Hill, a composition student at the University of North Texas. Entitled in memoriam my liver*, the piece demands that the trumpet player (in this case, Jonah Levy) hold a high C almost continuously for five minutes at a nearly inaudible volume, encircled by hushed, furtive gestures from the rest of the ensemble. It’s a risky gambit—“it’s incredibly physically and psychologically demanding for the performer,” conceded Hill—but one that pays off.

wild Up in concert at the Regent Theater. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

wild Up in concert at the Regent Theater. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

This was just one of many memorable moments at wild Up’s May 30 concert at the Regent Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The event was the culmination of the National Composers Intensive, a program organized by the LA Philharmonic that invited ten young collegiate composers to write for wild Up, as well as attend various rehearsals, masterclasses, and concerts along the way. Hill was one of these selected composers, along with Daniel Allas, Emily Cooley, Natalie Dietterich, Patrick O’Malley, Jose Martinez, Anna Meadors, Laura Schwartz, Andrew Stock, and Wei Guo. All the works were read and recorded by the ensemble, with a few chosen for performance on the final concert.

While readings of student works are not uncommon in the new music world, the Intensive was unusual in that composers had multiple opportunities to hear and revise their works. After composing an initial draft, wild Up recorded read-throughs of the pieces that allowed the ensemble to give video feedback to the composers. After two weeks, the composers submitted a second draft, and during the week of the concert, last-minute changes could be made between rehearsals before the final reading.

National Composers Intensive fellows Emily Cooley, Laura Schwartz, and Wei Guo. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

National Composers Intensive fellows Emily Cooley, Laura Schwartz, and Wei Guo. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Some composers took advantage of this opportunity to make significant revisions to their works. Martinez, a master’s student at the University of Missouri, wrote the salsa-inflected Illegal Cycles, combining piano montunos with aleatoric figures and heavy metal influences. He removed layers of material from the score before the final reading to make the complex grooves more approachable for the ensemble. “During the final rehearsal it came to life…the groovy Latin vibe takes some time to marinate in the brain,” he acknowledged.

Dietterich, a master’s student at the Yale School of Music, received feedback about articulation and added considerable detail to her work Something Twisted before the final reading. O’Malley, a master’s student at the University of Southern California, also made cuts to certain parts in his work Ouroboros and added mutes to the brass to balance the ensemble in certain sections. Allas, also a University of Southern California student, made significant changes to the notation in his composition smear’d. Allas originally used a system of stemless noteheads and dotted bar lines to indicate the approximate placement of notes, while the ensemble favored notating these gestures as complex rhythms. Eventually, he removed the dotted bar lines but kept the stemless noteheads, a compromise that satisfied the ensemble. “wild Up committed fully to the notation style that I settled upon,” said Allas.

wild Up director Christopher Rountree in rehearsal. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

wild Up director Christopher Rountree in rehearsal. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Other composers were more obstinate. Stock, a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, conceived of Roots, Bone, Skin, Ghosts (2) as a set of interlocking parts without a traditional score. “I got some pushback about the layout of the printed materials, but that’s the way they ended up playing it and it worked out,” said Stock. Hill’s high C was a similarly fought-for moment. This is one area where the Intensive distinguished itself from the typical new music reading format. In programs with a single reading session, interesting things often get sacrificed at the altar of practicality, and composers learn to dial back their ambitions. Here the exact opposite was true. It’s easy to imagine a less intrepid ensemble refusing to take these risks, or even sabotaging the performance with surliness, but to their credit, wild Up played these composers’ works with utter conviction.

Alongside the works by Allas, Dietterich, Hill, and Stock, wild Up programmed two works by slightly older (post-emerging? pre-established?) composers Andrew Tholl and Nina C. Young, as well as Public Kaleidoscope by Andrew Moses, a student of the LA Phil’s Composer Fellowship Program for high school composers. Together, these works represented three generations of young(ish) composers. Notably absent from the program were any of the usual suspects when it comes to old guard, established composers, and to be honest, their presence was not missed in this context. All of the music was original and well-crafted, and the students’ works held their own alongside the works of their more experienced counterparts.

View from the stage. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

View from the stage. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

The Intensive was also cleverly planned to coincide with LA Phil’s Next on Grand festival of contemporary music, which allowed the fellows to attend several concerts, as well as schedule masterclasses and lessons with composers James Matheson, Julia Wolfe, Steven Mackey, Michael Gordon, Sean Friar, and Caroline Shaw. In the small amount of free time remaining, the students were able to experience a little bit of local culture. “I also had some very good tacos in downtown LA,” said Stock.

* The full title is actually in memoriam my liver subtitled i hate that you’re stoned all of the time subtitled Coldness and Cruelty: The Art of Masoch subtitled I have dozens of titles subtitled $1 lone star and i;m sry=

Dying From Exposure

Desert walk

You should play for free…you know, for the exposure.
Photo by Maarten van Maanen, via Flickr.

Recently I went to the Traverse City Film Festival, which in addition to showing a wide variety of independent movies, also features musical acts as pre-show entertainment–a nice way to pass the time during those interminable waiting periods before the movie begins. I discovered that many of the musicians were unpaid, or rather, they chose to volunteer their time, depending on how you want to phrase it. I found myself feeling very conflicted about this. On the one hand, the festival is a non-profit organization that depends heavily on volunteers from the community (1600 this year), and it almost certainly wouldn’t function without them. On the other hand, how hard would it have been to at least pay something, anything to each of the festival’s 100 musicians, as a gesture of respect for their time and talent? At an event with so many sponsors and donors, and an audience with a median income of $87,500, it didn’t quite sit right with me, especially considering the fact that founder and president Michael Moore just donated $250,000 to the festival. If each musician was paid $100 (not a huge fee, but not unheard of by any means), the total would represent a mere 4% of that quarter of a million dollars, and that’s not even including the festival’s usual annual budget.

That is not to say I blame any of the individual musicians for making the decision to play for free. Deciding whether or not to do an unpaid gig often involves a complicated calculus of factors, including the nature of the organization running it, the nature of the event, the kind of repertoire, the potential non-monetary benefits of doing it, etc. It’s easy enough to say that we should join a union and agree on standard rates, but unfortunately this one-size-fits-all approach is often out of touch with the reality of musicians’ daily lives, and doesn’t account for the vast diversity and disparity in various musicians’ circumstances. (For evidence of this, look no further than video game and film composer Austin Wintory’s recent difficulties with the American Federation of Musicians.)

It’s also true that these kinds of issues are not unique to music, and happen across the board in the arts (for example, performance artist Marina Abramovic’s questionable uses of unpaid labor). Heck, even musicians have to be goaded into begrudgingly paying other musicians sometimes. (Amanda Palmer is probably the canonical example here, though the recent fiasco with Chicago’s Beethoven Festival is another illustrative scenario.)

But what is not problematic on an individual level can become catastrophic on a larger level, and I worry that we are rapidly ruling out pretty much every scenario that would allow a typical musician to make a living. The logic seems to go something like this:
how musicians get payyyyed (2)
The extrapolated end result of this circular flowchart seems to be a world where there is only room for hobbyists and megastars, and the middle class musician is a thing of the past. Many people would probably be perfectly fine with this, but it sounds like hell on earth to me and most people I know.

How do we then extract ourselves from this seemingly unsustainable situation? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that arts entrepreneurship could be useful here.

There has been plenty of arguing back and forth about the merits of arts entrepreneurship lately, with Aaron Gervais and R. Andrew Lee questioning whether such a thing even truly exists. I think part of this is just semantic anxiety about the word itself, and I too find the word “entrepreneur” and its cousins (branding, marketing, etc.) to be kind of off-putting and skin-crawly and impersonal. But until better terminology comes along, we seem to be stuck with them.

There is also a fear, I think, that if everyone in the arts developed entrepreneurial skills, this would just make the competition for the same resources stiffer, and the net effect for all that extra expended effort would be zero. There are a few reasons why this reasoning is faulty. For one thing, one of the foundations of entrepreneurship in the arts is audience building, especially beyond the confines of the usual audiences. This kind of thing doesn’t just benefit one person or group; it benefits everyone in the field.
To their credit, both Gervais and Lee do acknowledge that all musicians could use some basic business savvy. What they object to is the use of entrepreneurship as a panacea or magic incantation that wishes away real problems and real distinctions. Art is not a commodity in the usual sense, they argue, so applying entrepreneurial skills to the arts is misguided at best, actively damaging at worst. They then suggest some alternatives to entrepreneurship based on personal connection and engaging the most involved parts of your audience, what Lee calls “supporters” and Gervais calls “hardcore fans.”

These are solid suggestions, but I worry that they are not enough. Gervais makes a historical argument by pointing out all the false threats that have been thought to endanger musicians throughout the ages, and it’s true, reports of music’s death have been greatly exaggerated time and time again. And yet Gervais ignores the huge upheavals that have dramatically changed the way musicians make money over the years, from artistic patronage to digital distribution. These things make a difference. Music will certainly survive, but possibly not in its current diversity and quality, and we should care about this.

It’s true that in a free market society, any way to make money off of music is going to be a “hack” of some kind, and isn’t going to represent a 1:1 ratio with that music’s true value, which is subjective anyway. But this isn’t an argument against entrepreneurship — it is an argument for its absolute necessity, at least in a society without abundant public arts funding (like the United States).
In other words, the medium matters. Streaming music services are one kind of entrepreneurial venture that can have a big impact on the livelihoods of musicians. Let’s look at two existing services, Spotify and Bandcamp, and their ability to engage the supporters and hardcore fans that are so important to Lee and Gervais. On the surface, these services are pretty similar on the end user side of things, offering unlimited free streaming to music listeners. Spotify then pays the artist a rate based on the number of plays per month. While these rates are slightly different for free users and paid users of the service, it doesn’t really differentiate between avid and casual listeners for a particular artist. The rate at which Spotify pays out tends to be consistent but small, in fractions-of-a-cent-per-play territory.

Bandcamp, on the other hand, only pays the artist if the listener specifically chooses to purchase and download the album. At first glance this might seem pretty bad — there’s no guarantee you’ll get paid at all! — but in practice it clearly delineates who is emotionally invested enough to actually buy your music. A pay-what-you-want option allows for superfans to pay more if they so desire, not all that different from a charitable donation in effect.

To date, I’ve made over 75 times as much money with Bandcamp versus Spotify. Clearly, one service was made with musicians’ input and interests in mind, and one was not.

This is what I am deeply concerned about when we abdicate our role in arts entrepreneurship. When we let others make these decisions for us, others who may not have our best interests in mind, we leave ourselves open to exploitation. This is why we must continue to advocate and agitate, and not be lulled into accepting the status quo under the false assumption that the status quo cannot and will not change. How music is disseminated and perceived is in fact undergoing dramatic and profound changes right now. While this is terrifying, it also gives us an unprecedented opportunity to shape music’s future, but if and only if we have the will and vision to see it through.

Update: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that Michael Moore donated $250,000,000 to the Traverse City Film Festival. This figure has been corrected.

Loudness Isn’t What It Used to Be: Southland Ensemble and Robert Ashley


One of the most memorable events I’ve been to this summer was Southland Ensemble’s June 8 concert featuring the music of Robert Ashley, presented by Dog Star Orchestra as part of their annual new music festival in Los Angeles. The event was hosted by Automata, a small gallery nestled in Chinatown’s Chung King Plaza, and the space was packed to capacity. There was a palpable sense of energy in the room, which felt transformed into another world for the duration of the smartly staged, almost ceremonial performance. The ensemble chose to perform their selection of Ashley’s works continuously without a break, sometimes even simultaneously. Boundaries were blurred—not just between the pieces themselves, but also between music and theater, between audience and performer, between performance and life. This confusion could have been alienating, but in the hands of these committed players, it was instead bewitchingly mysterious. It made me deeply curious about the origins of the concert and the process that led to their programming decisions, so a few days after the performance I posed a few questions to ensemble members Christine Tavolacci, Eric KM Clark, Matt Barbier, and James Klopfleisch.

The concert was bookended by Klopfleisch performing The Entrance, which calls for pennies to be carefully stacked on the keys of an organ, generating long held drones (though whether the sound is the point of the process or a byproduct is ambiguous). The piece appealed to Klopfleisch’s masochistic side—“it requires tremendous focus and is very physically taxing”—but it also had an exceedingly long possible duration, far longer than they expected the concert to last. Having the piece run continuously during the show allowed them to conceive of it as a throughline that bound the concert together. It also recontextualized the space between pieces, as Clark noticed: “I personally love replacements of silence and changes in perception. During The Wolfman, I was standing right beside the organ yet couldn’t hear it at all. As soon as The Wolfman ended, the organ came back into prominence for me. I loved that sensation.” (To me it also suggested an infinity of sound, implying tones both before and after the performance.)

In a sense, this made She Was A Visitor the true beginning of the performance. One of Ashley’s best-known works, this version featured Christine Tavolacci repeatedly intoning the titular phrase with impressive precision and consistency, while the other performers led the audience in mimicking selected sounds and phonemes from the phrase. Tavolacci found this work to be unexpectedly demanding. “In order to successfully and consistently perform the speaking part for a long period of time, I had to exclusively regard the text as a combination of musical sounds,” she explained. “It is one thing to understand a concept, and another to successfully perform it. The moment that you think that you are reciting the words is the moment that the ostinato could potentially fall apart.”

 

The Wolfman (1964) - James Klopfleisch Photo Credit: Eron Rauch www.eronrauch.com © Southland Ensemble 2014

The Wolfman (1964) – James Klopfleisch. Photo by Eron Rauch

If She Was A Visitor is one of Ashley’s most inviting pieces, The Wolfman is perhaps one of his most forbidding, at least by reputation. The score calls for a vocalist, in the persona of a “sinister nightclub singer,” to be amplified with feedback tuned to the size of the room, creating piercing high-pitched squeals in all but the largest spaces. Here Klopfleisch played the vocalist with appropriate levels of sleaze, while Casey Anderson ran electronics with a unique interpretation of the score. Klopfleisch said that “Casey had the most interesting take on The Wolfman—that even though it is presented as being obscenely loud, loudness is now more relative than it used to be, or rather the technological limitations of the time required the piece to be incredibly loud.” By using software to create digital feedback, Anderson was able to ameliorate the harshest sounds without diluting their power. The result was almost overwhelmingly intense but never painful, and I appreciated being able to hear an incredible amount of detail in the cascading, ever-changing waves of noise.

In Memorian Esteban Gomez (1963) - Casey Anderson (saxophone); Eric KM Clark (harmonium); Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

In Memorian Esteban Gomez (1963) – Casey Anderson (saxophone); Eric KM Clark (harmonium); Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo by Eron Rauch

in memoriam… ESTEBAN GOMEZ and Trios (White on White) rounded out the program. Drones were a prominent feature of both, blending effortlessly with the ongoing organ tones from The Entrance. The first Trio, with Tavolacci on flute, Anderson on alto saxophone, and Matt Barbier on trombone, was especially bracing. Barbier was particularly drawn in by this piece. “Our parts are all to be played as loud as possible, so it was challenging to find ways to do that while also making a combination of alto flute, sax, and trombone sound so all three are audible,” he admitted. “It’s a fascinating aspect of Ashley’s music—the small details don’t always seem to mesh with larger ideas at first glance, and part of the process is to find a solution in the details.”

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Matt Barbier (trombone), Casey Anderson (saxophone), Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Matt Barbier (trombone), Casey Anderson (saxophone), Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo by Eron Rauch

In the second Trio, the overlapping long tones played by Orin Hildestad (violin) and Jonathan Stehney (recorder) were intermittently interrupted with resonant junk percussion played by Klopfleisch. After all this nearly static slow burn, the third Trio was an enjoyably absurdist surprise, with Barbier giving a mini-lecture on the history of his instrument and demonstrating with musical examples. Partway through, a violinist (Eric KM Clark) and violist (Cassia Streb) emerged wearing black tie formal wear and masks to provide off-kilter musical accompaniment. Theatrically, the costuming and staging was inspired, and emblematic of the ensemble’s approach. Throughout the concert, they managed to make creative and enriching additions to Ashley’s ideas, all the while staying true to the spirit of his scores.

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Cassia Streb, Matt Barbier. Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Cassia Streb, Matt Barbier. Photo by Eron Rauch

All of the performed works were from Ashley’s early period in the 1960s. Tavolacci observes that while these works remain “highly influential and pivotal pieces in the canon of American experimental music,” they are rarely performed, perhaps because of their reputation for being more conceptual than musical. Southland Ensemble proved that this is anything but the case, that this is vital music that leaps off the page and takes up residence in our imaginations. Something tells me that I will be living with this music for a long time.

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Orin Hildestad and Jonathan Stehney (far left), James Klopfleisch (right). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Orin Hildestad and Jonathan Stehney (far left), James Klopfleisch (right). Photo by Eron Rauch

Music Criticism is Broken and It’s All Your Fault

One of my first composition teachers, Evan Chambers, made it a point to tell his students that learning how to talk about music was almost as important—and in some ways as important—as learning how to write music. At the time he said it, I believe he meant that verbalizing was a valuable compositional aid that gave shape and purpose to amorphous ideas. But in the intervening years, that thought has grown and taken on new and broader meanings for me. When composers and musicians don’t speak, we allow others to direct the discourse and determine the ways our music is contextualized and appreciated.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; music’s protean ability to accumulate new meanings is a large part of its enduring fascination and vitality. But it’s worth looking at just who is speaking and exactly what they’re saying. Historically, it’s generally established music critics doing this work, and the relationship between artists and critics is often fraught.

Most of the time this is background radiation, but it becomes painfully apparent whenever a critic does something especially cringeworthy, as when Norman Lebrecht expresses his disdain for “Afro-American” music, or when Rupert Christiansen makes nasty comments about soprano Tara Erraught’s weight, or when Mark Swed ruminates on the length of pianist Yuja Wang’s dress, to name a few instances. Some of these are worse than others (I feel a little bad for lumping Swed’s thoughtful essay in with the other two), but I bring them up to show that these aren’t isolated incidents; they are part of a continuing trend.
Rupert Christiansen writing for The Telegraph
The flip side is that these comments tend to generate a lot of discussion that crystallizes public attention around these issues. This is a fairly new thing, with the pace of the back-and-forth greatly accelerated by the internet and where more voices can participate. I find this kind of metacriticism—writing about writing!—to be immensely valuable, with the potential to actually shift attitudes in the long term.

But what does it say about the current state of criticism when the discussion of reviews is arguably more vital than the reviews themselves? It points to something deeply broken and dysfunctional about the current model.

Fundamentally, while the individual gaffes are easy to point out, I believe these problems are systemic. Between the decline in newspaper readership and shifts in culture, the number of classical music critics has undoubtedly dwindled in recent years, but as their ranks have shrunk, their perceived power within the community has remained constant, or even increased. Arguably, the internet is now more relevant than print media, but because new music banks on prestige instead of mass popularity, it still relies on old media to endorse and legitimize it. A good review from a major publication is still a rare and coveted thing, not just for the publicity it provides, but for the cachet it confers. Reviews are capable of canonizing or anointing artists in a way that is difficult if not impossible to achieve through other means.

newspaper reading

Photo courtesy of Miguel Pires da Rosa via Flickr.

This places far, far too much responsibility on the vanishingly small number of active critics working today, and it can create an atmosphere of mutual resentment. The easy answer to this, which is maybe a facile answer, is that more people should be writing about new music, including and especially practitioners of new music. This idea has its share of detractors. A great number of words have been spilled on the virtues and drawbacks of the composer as critic, with the objectivity of composers often coming under fire. Interestingly, this is something Christiansen also invoked when called out for his invective. His comments about Tara Erraught’s appearance were made in the name of “disinterested criticism,” or so he claims—never mind that similar verbiage about male singers had never graced his column. The lesson is clear: objectivity doesn’t matter as much as having a veneer of plausible deniability.

Speaking from experience as a double agent of sorts, this impression of objectivity can be quite challenging for a writer-composer to maintain. I’ll give one example. I recently went to a concert that featured some works by friends and colleagues, and a few works by composers unknown to me. I thoroughly enjoyed all the works by the composers I knew, and disliked everything else on the program. I was reasonably certain that I would have made the same exact aesthetic judgement if everyone was a stranger to me, but I knew on the drive home that I could not possibly write about the concert. If I did so honestly, it would look terribly partisan, and dishonesty was of course out of the question.

Perhaps this is why critics so often employ the idea of “disinterested criticism” as a shield when they are accused of being unnecessarily vindictive, petty, or cruel. Like Fox News’s “fair and balanced” slogan, it doesn’t really denote a commitment to objectivity, but it offers a disingenuous way to continue to be partisan while pretending not to be. Things would be better, maybe, if we were open about our inevitable allegiances. Or as Kyle Gann puts it: “Critics have agendas, or any interesting critic does, and given enough column inches, those agendas emerge.”

All of this indicates to me that concert reviews and album reviews, traditionally the bread and butter of music criticism, should play a much, much smaller role than they currently do. I will stop short of calling them obsolete, since they seem to still be obligatory. But I look forward to a hypothetical future where they are just a tiny part of a vast landscape of compelling music writing.

A fair and obvious follow-up question would be: okay, smartypants, if not reviews then what? Short answer: I don’t know. Long answer: Anything at all. I don’t know what can or should replace or supplement reviews, but this should be an era of experimentation in writing about new music, at least until we figure out what sticks. Traditional media outlets typically have style guidelines and space limitations that are not ideally suited for putting new music in context. (Swed’s reviews for the LA Times are often preceded by lengthy history lectures, leaving little room for discussion of the actual concerts themselves.) But blogs and most online publications are not bound by these same conventions.

Ted Gioia has complained that pop music journalism has degenerated into “lifestyle reporting,” divorced from musical content and musical knowledge, but I honestly think that new music journalism could use a little more lifestyle reporting. I don’t mean that we should be more sensationalist, but we should be better about conveying the fact that new music is the product of individuals with a wide range of personalities and quirks and challenges, and most of these people are not dead. I’m thinking of something like video game journalist Cara Ellison’s EMBED WITH GAMES series of articles. For each article, she travels to stay with “a different important game auteur of our times [to] write about their life, the culture that influences their games’ work, and look at how their immediate environment affects their outlook and design philosophy.” The result is intensely personal and illuminating, and unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in writing about new music, which is often dry and impersonal.
Owen Pallett writing for Slate
At the same time I think Gioia is a little bit right, and we could do with more substantive writing about musical content as well. Written in response to Gioia’s call to arms, Owen Pallett’s semi-satirical pop music theory articles weren’t perfect, but they were interesting, and generated surprising enthusiasm for music theory outside of the typical audience for such things. Clearly, there’s a great hunger for musical insight out there, but outside of academic journals written for a specialist audience, there isn’t much writing about new music that actually satisfies this craving.

A final pertinent question might be: okay then, who will write these fancy hypothetical things? If you’ve read this far then the answer is you. I’m serious about this. Whether you’re a composer or a musician or an enthusiast, I know you’re probably pressed for time and that you are being asked to take on an increasingly overwhelming number of duties. But chances are your perspective is not being represented, and if you don’t share it, who will? Sure, talking about music, like dancing about architecture, is patently absurd. But at least for now, it seems to be a necessity.

Games Played: FRACT OSC

For better or worse, rhythm games that require you to synchronize your actions with a beat are by far the most common form of music-themed video games these days. But this is not by any stretch of the imagination the only way to integrate music into gameplay, and a few interesting game-like things have been taking other approaches recently, like the meditative SoundSelf or the hybrid synthesizer/game console Ming Mecca. This kind of music game isn’t common enough yet to constitute a movement or even a trend, but maybe it’s the germ of one.

FRACT OSC's world

The synesthetic world of FRACT OSC

FRACT OSC is the latest and one of the most exciting additions to this fledgling genre. It describes itself as a “musical exploration game inspired by synthesizers,” and that’s pretty accurate. The game places you in an abstract neon landscape somewhere between Myst and Tron, and the environment is peppered with various kinds of music-making machinery. The gameplay is divided about half and half into puzzles that require manipulation of the environment, and music sequencer puzzles where you’re arranging melodic patterns. The first kind of puzzle, where you’re moving around boxes and redirecting lasers and such, will be familiar to anyone who’s played this sort of game before. But it’s admirable how smoothly the environment will audibly respond to your efforts, adding a layer or two to the ambient soundtrack as you get closer to a solution. This adds to the sensation that you’re in a world literally made of sound, that music is woven into the fabric of its reality.

Sequencer puzzle

One of FRACT OSC’s many music sequencer puzzles

But it’s the music sequencer puzzles that intrigued me the most. These puzzles present you with a piano roll-style display that lets you compose simple melodic and harmonic patterns which get more intricate as the game progresses. Without spoiling the game too much, what I admired most about these sections was how they guide the player to create certain kinds of musical structures, but without dictating specific solutions. For example, I might need a dotted, syncopated rhythm to progress, but the exact timing of that pattern might be open to interpretation. Most impressively, the game manages to convey all of this wordlessly, through carefully constructed audio and visual cues. Another nice touch is that the patterns you’ve created then later appear on other surfaces in the game, underlining the fact that you’re not just an observer in this world, you’re a maker.

As a music teacher (and perpetual student of sorts), I was inspired by the sense of balance in gently guiding the player, which is the same kind of balance I strive for in lessons and classes. Teaching composition is especially tightrope-y in this way. Saying “this is the way things need to be” doesn’t help a student think for themselves, but providing no direction is, of course, no help at all. It’s not unlike the dilemma that a game designer faces—you want to give the player some agency, but you also don’t want them to miss all the wonderful set pieces you’ve created for them.

I couldn’t help but think to myself as I was playing: could this kind of music puzzle be used as an educational tool to help students navigate their own creative processes? So much of composition is already about balancing possibilities and limitations. While it certainly might pique someone’s curiosity to learn more about music, I would stop short of saying that FRACT OSC is educational in its current form. But I can imagine similar strategies that could potentially illuminate ordinarily challenging musical concepts. We could see puzzles based on a visual rendering of the harmonic series, or a synesthetic representation of functional harmony.

FRACT OSC vista

Even the edges of FRACT OSC’s world are populated with discoveries

While the puzzles are the real meat of the game, the world they are situated in is much larger geographically, and you can find yourself wandering fruitlessly from time to time, searching for the next thing to solve. At first I was put off by this, until it suddenly took on metaphorical resonance. Creativity, too, is full of wandering, full of countless, often frustrating detours into cul-de-sacs and dead ends that you thought were highways. To be successful creatively, you have to be okay with this often-circuitous journey. You have to accept getting lost—and this is what the game was seeming to say to me, too. It helps that FRACT OSC’s meanderings take place in such a scenic and animated environment—while searching you might stumble across a breathtaking, surreal vista, or glowing pink crystals and green geodesic domes that emanate reverberant tones, or a fairy circle of levitating oscillators. The game is full of discoveries like this.

FRACT OSC advanced settings

Some of the studio’s “advanced settings”

FRACT OSC also has to walk a fine line between between being too trivial for musicians and too opaque for non-musicians, and this is most apparent in the game’s “studio,” which brings together all the oscillators and modulators that you unlock as you play the game into a reasonable facsimile of a digital audio workstation. You can make credible electronic music with this studio, and export the result as a WAV file or YouTube video, but the interface has some obvious limitations. For instance, the piano roll is pentatonic, there’s no automation to speak of, and you’re stuck with a few preset drum patterns. Still, the synths themselves sound great and are satisfyingly tweakable, especially after unlocking the “advanced” settings, which include a variety of options for filters, LFOs, waveshaping, and envelope shaping. For expert knob twiddlers, you can even get pretty noisy and experimental if you’re so inclined. It made me wish that the synths were available as a VST or AU plugin that could be incorporated into the context of professional audio editing software.

In the meantime, FRACT OSC is something of curiosity that is likely to delight musically inclined video game fans and perplex others. I only hope that it gains enough traction to inspire similar efforts from other game designers.

LA: A Spring 2014 Concertgoer’s Journal, Part 1

If you’re anything like me, you feel a pang of guilt and regret whenever you miss a new music concert. This makes March and April particularly poignant months in Los Angeles, as the concert calendar becomes impossibly saturated. It was my original ambition to write about every show I make it to in March and April, but I quickly realized the foolhardiness of this ambition. I have to content myself with writing about a few highlights, which means that unfortunately I can’t write in depth about some really fantastic events I attended. But with that out of the way, here are a few concerts that made an impression on me in the past few weeks. In true social media fashion, this list is in reverse chronological order:

Maximum Minimalism (Disney Hall, April 8)

LA Phil New Music Group; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

LA Phil New Music Group; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Originally this concert was advertised with the uninspired title “Classic Reich and Premieres” and was much smaller in scope. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but at some point it became a far more interesting four-hour marathon concert featuring a giant katamari of new music ensembles, including venerable visiting groups like the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the Calder Quartet, as well as the LA Phil’s New Music Group and local collective wild Up. This was wild Up’s first appearance at Disney Hall, and it was exciting to see the new and the established side by side like this.

Throughout, there was the feeling that this concert could have been even bigger, too. Multiple performances occurred in the lobbies during both intermissions, too many for one person to catch, and the concert was also preceded by a sensitive performance of William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes by wild Up’s pianist Richard Valitutto.

Claire Chase, flute; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Claire Chase, flute; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Paradoxically, the Reich pieces that were the focus of the original program sometimes felt like the least essential music here. ICE flutist and director Claire Chase kicked off the program with an mesmerizing performance of Vermont Counterpoint that balanced passion and precision, but the Calder Quartet’s performance of Different Trains felt strangely inert in a live setting. ICE’s impeccable rendition of Radio Rewrite fared a little better, but there was only so much they could do with this odd, chimeric beast. Listening to this series of not-quite-arrangements of Radiohead songs, you can’t help but feel that you’d be better off mainlining pure Reich or Radiohead, instead of ingesting a diluted, homeopathic version of both.

By contrast, wild Up’s repertoire choices felt genuinely subversive, as if they were smuggled onto the program under cover of night. Julius Eastman’s Stay On It presented a more inflammatory version of minimalism, with the relentless repetition of an obnoxious eight-note motive alternating with occasional improvisational and/or aleatoric freakouts. (Brian Walsh’s saxophone blaring was both a literal and figurative high note here.) Andrew McIntosh’s Silver and White poetically dealt with subtle gradations of pitch, with microtonal glissandi partially submerged under the oceanic undulations of a quiet, restrained snare drum roll.

The two premieres commissioned by the LA Phil New Music Group and conducted by John Adams were more conventional, confident works by composers in their prime. Mark Grey’s Awake the Machine Electric was a bit like a mashup of Annie Gosfield and Tchaikovsky, with industrial sound effects juxtaposed with Romantic-sounding orchestration and thematic ideas. The resulting combination didn’t always gel, but it was still thrilling. Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) created a bewitching sonic landscape with lyrical strings and winds suspended in a shimmering haze created by long chords held by harmonicas. Sure, she’s used this technique before (e.g. in Still Life with Avalanche), but not quite like this.

Nico Muhly, piano; Andrew Tholl, violin; Shara Worden, voice; Gyan Riley, guitar; photo courtesy Mathew Imaging

Nico Muhly, piano; Andrew Tholl, violin; Shara Worden, voice; Gyan Riley, guitar; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

David Lang’s death speaks repurposes fragments of text from Franz Schubert’s songs to create a complete personification of Death, sung beguilingly by Shara Worden with accompaniment from pianist Nico Muhly, guitarist Gyan Riley, and violinist Andrew Tholl. The last movement, “I am walking,” is the most effective, with its sighing two-chord motive and haunting male backup vocals. At times during the other movements, I missed Schubert’s unfashionable melodrama, which for me at least, often implied a lecherous menace underlying Death’s comforting platitudes. Lang seems to take these platitudes at face value.

The concert concluded with a rare performance of John Adams’s American Standard, played by a supergroup conglomeration of ICE and wild Up. Two of the three movements of this early work have been withdrawn, which may be what prompted Adams to come on stage before the performance to give a half-serious disclaimer about this piece from his “radical” Haight-Ashbury days. “It’s a bit like a 25-year-old coming up to you and saying, ‘I’m your son’,” he quipped.

John Adams, Tyshawn Sorey, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Tholl, and Chirstopher Rountree with members of ICE and wild Up; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

John Adams, Tyshawn Sorey, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Tholl, and Chirstopher Rountree with members of ICE and wild Up; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

That said, it was probably the most exciting performance of an Adams piece I’ve seen in years, possibly because I didn’t know what to expect. Each movement was newly arranged for the occasion with copious poetic license by a different young composer. Andrew Tholl’s arrangement of “John Philip Sousa” was a refreshingly juvenile Ivesian death march constructed from familiar patriotic melodies. Andrew McIntosh’s arrangement of “Christian Zeal and Activity” and Tyshawn Sorey’s arrangement of “Sentimentals” were more introspective and meandering. Throughout the final movement, Sorey seemed to be offering commentary on the performance from the piano, with occasional Thelonious Monkish asides and interjections. It was both puzzling and captivating.
At any rate, it was promising to see the truly collaborative nature of this final leg of the marathon, and its unpredictable mix of the radical and the traditional. As creative chair of the LA Phil, I hope Adams takes cues from his younger self more often.

WasteLAnd (Art Share, April 4)

Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters; photo by Micki Davis

Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters; photo by Micki Davis

WasteLAnd is a new concert series in LA with a strong experimental bent, and their April concert showcased extremes of texture both brutal and delicate. Nina C. Young’s violin and cello duo Meditation, performed by Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters, presented a kind of dialogue between scratchy, aggressive playing and more contemplative moments of repose. Brian Griffeath-Loeb’s …on par with grass & twigs, for three different flutes, prepared piano, and two percussionists, conveyed a fascinating, palpable sense of fragility, as conducted by Nicholas Deyoe with great attention to detail. Christine Tavolacci (C flute), Michael Matsuno (alto flute), and Rachel Beetz (bass flute) produced breathy, almost strangled-sounding tones, with sparse, judicious accompaniment from Steve Lewis (piano), Ryan Nestor (percussion), and Steve Solook (percussion). Fernanda Aoki Navarro’s Emptying the Body featured cellist Derek Stein savagely attacking his soundboard, generating powerful percussive effects and propulsive rhythmic activity.

Each of these pieces were extraordinarily successful at creating and exploring unique soundworlds, but once the limits of these worlds were established, I found my attention drifting at times. I longed for something more overtly teleological or developmental, but maybe this is just an aesthetic preference or limitation on my part.

Mark Menzies’s two songs from his cycle 11 elegies and a love song occupied an unusual place on the program. “two deaths” especially felt like an anomaly, with baritone Ian Walker singing melodiously over a gentle undulating electric guitar riff (played by Nicholas Deyoe) and occasional violin asides from Menzies. “18” felt like a return to form, with Walker’s voice stubbornly, obsessively reiterating a single high note while Menzies’s and Deyoe’s figures created frantic and furious activity all around it. This was riveting.

The last two pieces on the program finally united their extreme soundworlds with the sense of movement and change I craved. Kurt Isaacson’s the way of all flesh for solo double bass, here premiered by Scott Worthington, featured seesawing ostinati that slowly, satisfyingly built in intensity. Worthington’s control over this gradual process was masterful, and transfixing. Finally, Nicholas Deyoe’s Erstickend for two cellos and percussion, another premiere, spun an intricate web of epic proportions out of a skittering three-note motive. Ashley Walters and Derek Stein infused their cello parts with the requisite ferocity, while percussionist Ryan Nestor’s rhythmic interjections added even more tension. The piece concludes with a violent crescendo and snare drum roll — would it be churlish to point out the orthodox effectiveness of this ending?

JacobTV (What’s Next Ensemble, March 28)

JacobTV with What's Next Ensemble; photo by Tina Tallon

JacobTV with What’s Next Ensemble; photo by Tina Tallon

What’s Next Ensemble is perhaps best known for the Los Angeles Composers Project, an annual concert series championing the work of local Southern California denizens. Their last event, however, was an ambitious departure for them, a concert at Cafe Club Fais Do-Do devoted entirely to the music of Dutch avant-pop icon Jacob Ter Veldhuis, a.k.a. JacobTV. JacobTV’s sardonic pop aesthetic occupies a unique place in the current landscape of new music, getting lots of mileage out of marrying clips of recorded speech with acoustic musical accompaniment/counterpoint. Certainly he’s not the first or only composer to employ speech for its musical qualities — Peter Ablinger and Steve Reich come to mind — but no one, so far, has managed to do it in such a topical and witty way. The unpredictability of his subject matter, for one thing, keeps it fresh. Cheese Cake features the ramblings of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon introducing a Carnegie Hall concert, for example, while Grab It! cuts up candid interviews with convicts from the 1978 documentary Scared Straight!

The main draw of this concert, though, was definitely The News, his ongoing “reality opera” that is constantly being added to as current events march on. The News also incorporates video (compiled and edited by JacobTV himself, I hear), and there are wonderful moments when all the multimedia elements came together in a seamless, joyful way, as when a cartoonish evangelical preacher waves his arms about on screen in a panoply of Warholian windows while the ensemble funkily amplifies the absurdity of his words. This tends to work best with lighthearted subjects, and moments that aimed for more gravitas sometimes felt awkwardly mawkish, like the saccharine chords that accompanied a speech about peace by Pope Benedict. The exception to this was a segment devoted to an American ex-soldier’s account of an accidental killing in Iraq. Here the music followed the cadence of the ex-soldier’s powerful words precisely, amplifying them instead of commenting on them: in effect, letting them speak for themselves.

The musicians of What’s Next, led by the unflappable baton of Vimbayi Kaziboni, were downright fantastic in realizing JacobTV’s artistic vision, riding through a couple technical issues and an earthquake (both of which I’ve come to expect lately) with professionalism and aplomb. Ben Phelps, one of the ensemble’s directors, also deserves credit for producing the concert in the first place.

Collapse (Timur and the Dime Museum, March 27)

Timur and the Dime Museum; photo by Tina Tallon

Timur and the Dime Museum; photo by Tina Tallon

Like JacobTV’s music, Timur and the Dime Museum’s Collapse also takes on a newsworthy topic — this time, environmental devastation. This album-length work, presented at Disney Hall’s REDCAT, is loosely patterned after a requiem. These factors make it sound like it could be a dour and dreary affair, but Daniel Corral, the Dime Museum’s accordionist and composer-in-residence, takes an inspired, unexpected approach, turning the whole thing into a psychedelic rock opera of sorts, with catchy hooks, doo-wop harmonies, and a pantheon of stylistic references. This spoonful-of-sugar tactic works wonders for the show, which is more likely to generate delight than despair. I almost feel guilty for enjoying it.

Timur Bekbosonuv, a tenor equally accomplished in both pop and operatic idioms, was captivating as the lead vocalist, generating metric tonnes of charisma and stage presence throughout a variety of costume changes, including a half-dress-half-pantsuit number that deserves special mention (designed by Victor Wilde and the Bohemian Society). But most members of the band got some time at the mic too, and Corral’s score made the most of the myriad vocal qualities in the group. A highlight was the sweet ballad “Honeybee, Come Home,” sung with appropriate naivete by bassist Dave Tranchina.

But the score had its darker moments, too. “The House of Moloch” begins with a deliciously gritty riff from guitarist Matthew Setzer, and if you had told me it was a recently unearthed Diamond Dogs-era David Bowie B-side, I might have believed you. The beginning of the Dies Irae, titled “Demon Chora,” also caught my attention with its moody synths and ominous female voiceover, reciting text taken from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s INES scale. And throughout the show, drummer Andrew Lessman provided the endless, vital engine underneath it all, a constant powerful presence outside of the spotlight.

Vicki Ray Reflects on 20 Years of Piano Spheres

Vicki Ray

Vicki Ray

“I believe in composers,” Vicki Ray tells me. This is exactly the kind of thing that could sound like an empty platitude, but she says it with undeniable conviction—and with the track record to back it up, too. Along with Gloria Cheng, Mark Robson, and Susan Svercek, Ray is one of four pianists involved with the Piano Spheres concert series, a Los Angeles institution that is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Over the years, Piano Spheres has presented 73 premieres (48 of them world premieres), and commissioned 19 pieces through the Leonard Stein Memorial Fund. According to Ray, however, the actual number of commissions associated with the series is harder to pin down, since “sometimes other institutions like CalArts help out, and sometimes I just pay for it out of my own pocket.” (Because she believes in composers.)

Of course Piano Spheres programs older music, too—that is, contemporary music that is no longer contemporary, until we have a better term for this kind of thing. Mark Robson’s recent concert on February 11 covered a remarkable swath of music from the 20th and 21st centuries, including everything from extremely delicate pieces by Beat Furrer, Toru Takemitsu, and Olivier Messiaen, to thorny fingerbusters by Charles Ives and Thomas Adès, whose Concert Paraphrase on “Powder Her Face” sounded something like a diabolical tango buried under layers of dense counterpoint and Lisztian shrapnel.

Mark Robson in performance

Mark Robson in performance

Ray’s upcoming program on March 18, by contrast, is solely grounded in the present. She will play several recent works by living composers, including Hoyt-Schermerhorn by Invisible Cities composer Christopher Cerrone, Six Settings for Solo Piano by local composer and LA Phil percussionist Joseph Pereira, and Donnacha Dennehy’s Stainless Staining. She’s particularly excited to play Dennehy’s music, which doesn’t get a lot of performances on the West Coast, she says.

Ray will also play the winning piece from their spring 2013 audience poll, a new initiative created for Piano Spheres’ 20th season. This poll allowed the audience to vote for one piece from a shortlist of pieces from the last twenty years for each pianist to perform again. When the audience voted for Ray’s own composition, The Waking, her reaction was one of incredulity. “I was shocked, stunned… I swear I didn’t stuff the ballot box!”

This modesty carries over into Ray’s account of how she first became involved in Piano Spheres, the brainchild of musicologist and pianist Leonard Stein. “I had just finished my doctorate, and Leonard just called me up one day and asked me to be a part of it.” She attributes much of Piano Spheres’ early success to the respect and “street cred” that Stein carried within the new music community. (At the time, Stein was also the music director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC, which did much to promote Schoenberg’s music and legacy in Los Angeles.)

Ray with Morton Subotnick and Leonard Stein

Ray with Morton Subotnick and Leonard Stein.

But even with Stein’s participation, Piano Spheres was a risky proposition at first, with the LA new music community being much smaller in those days. Ray vividly describes how things have changed in the past 20 years:

Back then, it was basically the [California] EAR Unit and Xtet in town, and those were the two main new music groups, and then there was the [LA Phil’s] Green Umbrella series, but there wasn’t that much going on, certainly not the unbelievable plethora of small venues that you see here everywhere today. There are so many new groups right now—for example, there’s Gnarwhallaby, and What’s Next Ensemble, and the Hear Now Festival, and all the stuff at Monk Space, and People Inside Electronics, and DC8—and that’s just a drop in the bucket. It just feels like the community’s grown, and it’s more vibrant, and it’s less dependent on big venues and established theories. There’s a lot more self-producing going on.

Part of that vibrancy is certainly due to pioneering groups like Piano Spheres, which started out with a similar DIY spirit. “When we first started out we didn’t have a board, we were just licking stamps and self-producing our own concerts,” Ray recalls. The series started out at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church of Pasadena, but their audiences quickly outgrew the space, and they soon moved to the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, where they continue to host concerts today.

Piano Spheres

Piano Spheres (l to r) Mark Robson, Gloria Cheng, Leonard Stein, Vicki Ray, and Susan Svercek.
Photo by Betty Freeman.

Stein passed away in 2004, just before the series’ 10th anniversary, but by then it had enough structure and momentum to sustain itself. “As word got out, we started to get a lot of solicitations from pianists from all over the world, because there’s really no other series like this.” This allowed the series to host a rotating cast of guest artists from all over the world, a long list that includes Thomas Adès, Kathleen Supové, Christopher O’Riley, Ursula Oppens, Eric Huebner, Joanne Pearce Martin, and Liam Viney.
But as Ray says, “Leonard’s original mission was to showcase pianists from Los Angeles, so that has always been part of the mission. Our main new venture we’re starting is this Satellite Series, where we’re showcasing four younger pianists also from the Los Angeles area. We feel like we want to pass on the legacy that Leonard left us to the next generation.” The inaugural run of the Satellite Series will commence in 2015 with Steven Vanhauwaert, Richard Valitutto, Aron Kallay, and Nic Gerpe as the featured performers.

As for Ray, she has an eclectic range of things to keep her busy in the meantime. Her other performances in the past month have included a gig with jazz composer-improviser Wadada Leo Smith in Mexico City, and a performance with Aron Kallay as the Ray-Kallay Duo at the MicroFest Records Release Party, celebrating the album release of John Cage’s Ten Thousand Things, which earned Ray a Grammy nomination this past year.

When she goes on sabbatical from teaching at CalArts next year, Ray has a few other ideas for things in the works—“I can’t seem to stop starting projects,” she admits. She wants to get back into composing more, and dreams of commissioning a prepared piano concerto from John Luther Adams. She also hopes to start a new local concert series for art song, which would bring her closer to her classical roots as a performer, which she feels often gets overlooked:

You do get pigeonholed…I used to do tons of lieder recitals and traditional chamber music, but people tend to think of you one way, and what can you do? But they inform each other, so you want to keep your traditional sensibility, and your historical link to the past. When I was a student I did standard rep all the time. Now I think if it’s a great piece and I want to play it, I don’t care when it was written.

Sounds Heard: Some American Albums

In the wake of the many “Best of 2013” lists floating around, I wanted to highlight some recent album releases worthy of your time and attention. I didn’t select them for this reason, but it occurs to me that they each say something interesting and distinct about what it means to make American music right now.
William Winant—Five American Percussion Pieces (Poon Village Records)


Buy:
Winant has been a champion of contemporary percussion music for decades and can boast a personal connection to most of the composers represented on this album—Lou Harrison, Michael Byron, Alvin Curran, and James Tenney. This is a fascinating snapshot of mid-to-late 20th-century American percussion music, including pieces as early as Harrison’s Song of Quetzalcoatl (1941) and as recent as Curran’s Bang Zoom (1995), with works from the 1970s by Byron and Tenney filling in the gaps. The recordings themselves span many years, too—Byron’s Tracking I was recorded in 1976, while Tenney’s Never Having Written a Note for Percussion was recorded earlier this year. Taken together, these works lend the album the feeling of a retrospective in miniature, spanning most of Winant’s prolific career as a performer.

Song of Queztacoatl is the lone ensemble piece, and a curiously strident one for Harrison. It alternates between aggressive sections driven by unpitched percussion—tom-toms, bass drum, an insistent snare drum—and more melodious passages inhabited by bell-like muted brake drums, glasses, and cowbells. The Willie Winant Percussion Group (Todd Manley, David Rosenthal, Daniel Kennedy, and Winant) really captures the feverish energy here, and they play with an astonishing unity of purpose—if not for the many layers going on, you might be forgiven for mistaking this for a solo work.

Byron’s Trackings I for four metallophones toys with density; clangorous textures elide into skittering runs and back again. Curran’s Bang Zoom for 13 tuned cowbells immediately conjures up Balinese gamelan music, but without the frantic pace and tempo shifts. Winant maintains a steady, resolute tempo here, bringing out the emergent melodic patterns with incredible clarity.
Tenney’s Never Having Written a Note for Percussion is a bit of an anomaly here, consisting of a single tam-tam roll that crescendoes and diminuendos over the course of nine minutes. Again, Winant’s patience and precision gives the piece a magnificent arc, as disparate layers of sound from the tam-tam emerge and recede one by one.

The record concludes with another Lou Harrison piece, Solo to Anthony Cirone for tenor bells. It is understated, tantalizingly brief, and a perfect epigram for the album as a whole. One striking thing about the entire collection is its strong focus on melodic writing (with the exception of the Tenney). Running counter to prevailing stereotypes, it makes a strong case for melody as a central concern of 20th century percussion music, and Winant is an ideal ambassador for this message here.


Scott Worthington—Even the Light Itself Falls (Populist Records)


Scott Worthington’s Even the Light Itself Falls also looks back to the 20th century in a way, recalling the sparse, gentle textures of Morton Feldman’s music. Scored for clarinet, percussion, and double bass, Worthington’s piece unfolds at a remarkably patient pace—the bass does not even enter until several minutes in. The ensemble et cetera (Curt Miller, clarinet; Dustin Donahue, percussion; Worthington, double bass) plays with noteworthy restraint and control here. Miller’s playing is the most immediately ear-catching, with plaintive yet precise variations in vibrato. Nearly an hour and a half long, it is tempting to put this album on as background music, but the rewards for active listening are plentiful as well.


Various Artists – Rounds (the wulf. records)
Rounds
Purchase directly from the wulf. records
There have been countless free concerts of experimental music at the wulf., a local Los Angeles venue. Rounds is the first release on the organization’s recently launched recording label, and it’s a very interesting choice for a first album. As the title implies, each composition is in fact a round, a melody that overlaps with itself. Of course, this immediately conjures up memories of nursery rhymes, but while many of these pieces do trade on a certain childlike simplicity, the composers also find diversity and depth in these limitations. Most tracks are a capella, though occasionally an instrument or two will double a line for extra support. There are bluesy inflections in Daniel Corral’s Your Storm, raucous nonsense syllables in Eric KM Clark’s Rhythmic Round, clever numerology in Jessica Catron’s Four 3 And, ominous chromaticism in Larry Polansky’s Scarlet Tanager, and so on.


The performances feature a beautifully heterogenous mix of trained and untrained voices, giving individual lines a timbral uniqueness that adds both clarity and character. It also connects the experimental tradition to folk music traditions—in particular, it reminds me of the Sacred Harp tradition of choral singing in the American South in its rawness and realness.

A Drone Too Long

I can’t remember exactly when I first became interested in musical drones, but I think it was around the time I discovered Charlemagne Palestine. I remember being terribly excited about his piano music, with its patient accumulations of plangent tremolo chords. I remember, too, that a lot of people I tried to share this music with seemed completely bewildered by my interest in it. Perhaps because it was so unlike the music I was writing at the time, or perhaps because there didn’t seem to be much apparent craft to his music—it was so simple, so obvious.

I don’t know what to call this kind of music, this music that lives on a different time scale than we’re used to. Pianist R. Andrew Lee has written eloquently about the boredom of minimalism, but not all music termed minimalist has this quality. And there’s plenty of non-minimalist music (e.g. Morton Feldman) that has this quality. It’s not really ambient music, which implies a background role. Instead, this music sticks in your brain in a way that is insistent, even obnoxious at times.

But there’s a therapeutic aspect to it, too. I recently made a pilgrimage to La Monte Young’s Dream House, a white room bathed in purple light where you’re bombarded with sound from four corners. What surprised me was how simultaneously soothing and agitating it was, in a completely non-contradictory way. My visit also happened at the end of a long, stressful day, so I may have been in an especially appropriate state to appreciate it.

The trouble comes when I try to integrate or incorporate this music into my usual modes of listening or composing. It seems to exist completely outside this realm, and the tenuous bridges I try to build between the two seem to collapse under the slightest weight. This is the struggle I faced when I tried to share this music as well, as those with both feet firmly in conventional musical time had no way to approach it. I don’t even think it’s a problem of education or awareness, since I can’t say what led me to this music in the first place. It was like a switch—one day I didn’t get it, the next I couldn’t get enough of it. Is it purely aesthetic preference? Is it neurological? I don’t know.