Category: Analysis

No Strings Attached: A Prism on the Saxophone Quartet

The four members of PRISM Quartet holding saxophones

The current line up of the PRISM Quartet in instrument range order (from left to right): Timothy McAllister (soprano saxophone), Zach Shemon (alto saxophone), Matthew Levy (tenor saxophone), and Taimur Sullivan (baritone saxophone). Photo by Jacqueline Hanna.

The 2014-15 concert season has marked the thirtieth anniversary of the PRISM Quartet, arguably the preeminent saxophone ensemble of its kind currently active in the United States. With over 200 commissions and many times that number of premieres to its credit, PRISM has presided over what future music history textbooks might just look back on as a golden era for the sax quartet medium. After all, three decades ago, when tenor player Matthew Levy founded the group alongside a trio of like-minded University of Michigan student colleagues, prevailing conditions were very different: not only was the repertoire scantier, spottier, and considerably less diverse, but as most observers would probably agree, the genre was still looking for its artistic footing. For much of its relatively brief lifetime, the saxophone quartet’s primary reason for being had been to offer chamber music experience to an instrumental demographic traditionally starved of it—a perfectly noble enterprise, but not one likely to arouse much enthusiasm outside circles of Vandoren and Rico brand reed partisans. This is something Levy, an astute observer of trends in the field, recognized early on, and these days his candid assessment is that “the pool of music that existed when PRISM was founded simply could not sustain the group, and would not have enabled us to achieve artistic or commercial success.”

The Kronos Quartet was initially a horizon-expanding point of reference—aptly so, given Levy and Co.’s interest in keeping lines of dialogue open with non-European musical traditions. Today, of course, when the very notion of genre seems passé, no one so much as bats an eyelid at the word “fusion.” But projects like PRISM’s Heritage/Evolution, an ongoing collaboration with some of the outstanding luminaries of the jazz saxophone world, have the inside track in comparison with your average multiculti venture: the saxophone, lest we forget, is the original fusion instrument, first designed for buttoned-up use in the conservatory and marching band, but subsequently assuming pride of place in the American vernacular, from vaudeville and jazz to rhythm and blues and 1980s adult contemporary. Perhaps the most important step taken by PRISM and similarly aligned ensembles, then, has been to at long last embrace the instrument’s polyglot, mixed-breed character, without, of course, jettisoning any of the virtues of the chamber music ethos. It isn’t a question saxophone insiders take lightly, since the contretemps over the instrument’s soul has been simmering for over a century, with equally strong opinions voiced by the proponents and opponents of classical domestication (in a linguistic inversion typical of jazz argot, still tellingly referred to by some players as “legit” style). Such was the intensity of the saxophone debate during the 1920s, PRISM soprano player Timothy McAllister recounts, that “there was a coup to stop its infiltration” into symphony orchestras—“infiltration” having been a very real prospect in the days of Gershwin and Weill.[1]

But the point at issue also transcends style, since the saxophone really owes its genre-hopping adaptability to its technical properties, and not the other way around. This is particularly evident when it comes to quartet commissions on the gnarlier end of the aesthetic spectrum, altissimo and multiphonics being only the tip of the iceberg of distinctive sonic resources readily obtainable on the instrument. PRISM baritone player Taimur Sullivan explains:

I would lobby that the saxophone is the instrument most suited for contemporary composers. From the brilliant power of the instrument, to the softest sotto voce playing, to the visceral, raw quality of its extended techniques, the flexibility of timbre, dynamics, and articulation is enormous, and is incredibly surprising to newcomers to the classical side of the instrument.

The vastness of the saxophone palette is such that PRISM thinks nothing of tailoring their approach to timbre, vibrato, phrasing, and all the other interpretive parameters to each individual piece (for proof, listen to their recent collaborations with Music from China back to back with the Heritage/Evolution recordings). As a medium still very much trying to win converts over to its cause, you might say the saxophone quartet simply can’t afford anything less than total commitment. In this sense, at least, it easily outdoes its stringed-instrument cousin: while new and untested repertoire remains the exception for all but a handful of string quartets, it is the very lifeblood of the until-recently canon-less sax quartet. Consequently, saxophone music has been, and continues to be, one of the contemporary scene’s principal growth sectors.

French Roots

Historic photo of the four original members of PRISM standing in front of a bus kiosk with instrument cases.

The original line-up of the PRISM Quartet from 1984 to 1993 (pictured from left to right) was Matt Levy, Reggie Borik, Michael Whitcombe, and Tim Miller.

It wasn’t always like that, as one of PRISM’s favorite war stories indicates. Levy recalls Michigan faculty composer William Albright catching one of the Quartet’s earliest shows and commenting, “You guys sound great, but you have to stop playing that French shit!” By “French shit” Albright was not so tactfully referring to the corpus of music commissioned by the first modern saxophone ensemble, the Quatuor de la Garde Républicaine, founded in 1928 by Marcel Mule, one of the twin titans of 20th-century classical sax playing. (Sigurd Raschèr was the other.) Mule’s innovation was to look beyond the operatic transcriptions that had been earlier quartets’ bread and butter, and to lobby local composers like Eugène Bozza, Alfred Desenclos, Jean Françaix, Joseph Jongen, Gabriel Piernè, and Florent Schmitt. As fate would have it, though, the foundational work in the genre didn’t come from a Frenchman at all, but from an old world Russian on the run from Stalin—Alexander Glazunov. Given his dyed-in-the-wool traditionalism, Glazunov’s interest in Mule’s then-relatively untested formation is hard to account for, but all the same his 1932 quartet quickly established itself as the yardstick for all self-respecting saxophone foursomes. (The Glazunov remains a keystone of PRISM’s repertoire, for all their programming innovations.) While it’s easy to be snarky about this music—one latter-day reviewer aptly likened it to “a meeting between Tchaikovsky and Guy Lombardo”[2]—it does effectively exploit the organ-like qualities of massed saxophones and hence, as Glazunov proudly observed, “just would not sound right” on other instruments.[3] This is not something that can be said of most of Mule’s other commissions, and for better or worse these works would probably lose little if performed by a string quartet. More problematic still is that for all their breezy harmony and neoclassical wit, the fruits of Mule’s labor were not universally memorable.

Even so, Albright’s brusque remark is probably more apropos of the pre-Mule quartet literature, a little-known slice of 19th-century chamber music created largely on the initiative of Adolphe Sax himself. Sax, who was no mean businessman, was conscious that his eponymous invention would need repertoire, and appealed to his Conservatoire and Paris Opéra colleagues for contributions, particularly those in emulation of that most “edifying” of chamber genres, the string quartet. In his dissertation on the subject, Timothy Ruedeman estimates that at least eighteen quartets predated Mule, almost all by French or Belgian composers, with two-thirds of these written at Sax’s direct behest.[4] Few of the composers in the Sax stable are remembered today, let alone held in any particular esteem; most were purveyors of light, quasi-operatic fare in the Donizetti, Halévy, and Offenbach vein. For example, an informal survey of music by Jean-Baptiste Singelée, the writer of what is thought to be the first-ever sax quartet, reveals that only those pieces of his including a saxophone are currently available on recordings. That this repertoire was all but forgotten even by Mule’s time is hardly surprising, as most of it was conceived in the spirit of a promotional vehicle for Sax’s new product line. For that matter, the same goes for the music produced for the quartets of Sousa associate Edward Lefèbre, the foremost saxophonist in Gilded Age America. (Lefèbre too was a keen promoter; one of his publicity booklets made the bold claim that “the Saxophone quartet with its mellow or soft and beautifully blending parts appeal [sic] to the heart like a divine choir of voices accompanied by a skillfully played grand organ.”)[5] If there is one thing that offerings like Singelée’s Premier Quatuor make clear, it is that so long as four-part functional tonality was the dominant musical language, there would be no intrinsic (as opposed to taste-based) reason to opt for a quartet of saxophones over a quartet of strings, the latter being able by their very nature to more fluidly and effectively render such harmony.

Jazz Cues

It took a pair of 20th-century developments to bring the saxophone quartet into its own. One was the breakdown of tonality and concomitant splintering of the mainstream into micro-languages, many of which no longer took the string ensemble as its normative sounding body. Already, some of the Mule commissions had tentatively broached the issue; their overall style found a receptive ear in the United States, where French-inspired neoclassicism had become something of a lingua franca. (Nor did Raschèr’s presence in America after the start of the Second World War hurt matters.) Warren Benson, Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, and Alec Wilder are among the notable figures who enriched this conservatory-oriented tradition after midcentury. Arguably more significant, however, was the second major development, the slow but steady penetration of massed saxophone sonorities into the sonic panorama of American popular culture. In particular, the era of the “saxophone craze,” the late 1910s and 1920s, was the heyday of the Six Brown Brothers, an all-saxophone ensemble that got its start in the Ringling Bros. circus. Peddling music hall and frothy “novelty” numbers, supplemented with a generous helping of pantomime and sight gags, the Brown Brothers did much to raise the saxophone’s profile, if not to legitimize it in the eyes of the highbrow.

More lasting in effect was the prominent role the saxophone family played a few years later in big band charts by Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. Capable of extraordinary feats of expressivity, with “vocalizing” effects dispatched with easy unanimity, this style of arrangement reached an apex in Woody Herman’s late-1940s “Four Brothers” band, so named for its celebrated sax section, of which Stan Getz and Zoot Sims were members.

In the jazz field, interest in instrumental multiples all but went dormant during the small-group 1950s and 1960s, making what happened next—a unprecedented boomlet of unaccompanied saxophone groups—all the more unexpected. Formed in 1976, the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) has been without doubt the most well known such formation. Comprised in its prime of four bona fide virtuosos (Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, David Murray, and Hamiet Bluiett), WSQ had the audacity—and the chops—to go without a rhythm section, and yet they often swung harder and grooved deeper than many of their accompanied peers. This was due in no small measure to baritone player Bluiett, who variously takes up some of the responsibilities of an upright bass, a drum set, a tuba, a talking drum, a fretted electric bass, and many more besides.

A photo of a performance by the World Saxophone Quartet

Three of the founding members of the World Saxophone Quartet—David Murray (far left on tenor), Oliver Lake (second from right on alto), and Hamiet Bluiett (far right on baritone)—performing in concert with British saxophonist Tony Kofi (second from left, here playing alto) in 2007. Photo by Andy Newcombe.

Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Günther Huesmann in Das Jazzbuch perceptively write:

The development of pure saxophone groups particularly demands new ways of playing the low instruments. The baritone saxophone serves, often as harmony instrument, to carry the ensemble, and yet it must satisfy the requirement of being a fully functional and equal member of the group.[6]

On October 5, 2006, WSQ in a lineup featuring Bluiett and Lake with James Carter and Greg Osby performed at Lovejoy High School which Bluiett had attended six decades before.
Tellingly, two of the most vital groups in the WSQ mold—the Brooklyn Saxophone Quartet and the short-lived Saxophone Liberation Front—were founded by a baritone player, the late Fred Ho, whose quartet pieces blended composition and improvisation with an irresistible storytelling flair. Like Ho the man, the music on his quartet album Snake-Eaters is absolutely inseparable from the larger-than-life, Mack truck sonority of his instrument. Along with the venerable Rova Saxophone Quartet, which has been bridging the free jazz and post-Cage experimental traditions for decades, these ensembles have had as their common denominator the fierce determination never to force the saxophone to be something it isn’t.

The members of ROVA holding their saxophones.

ROVA: Jon Raskin (baritone, alto, and sopranino), Bruce Ackley (soprano and tenor), Steve Adams (alto and sopranino), and Larry Ochs (tenor and sopranino). Photo by Myles Boisen.

As might be expected, recent decades have seen a healthy number of quartets written by composers in the “new music” tradition engaging with the rhythms, harmonies, and timbres of jazz. As Levy granted, “when writing for the sax, a composer who never wrote a lick of jazz might be inspired to try his or her hand at it.” Yet the more successful examples are probably by those composers who tend to draw on popular modes of expression even when saxophones aren’t involved. Particularly effective have been works by Richard Rodney Bennett (Saxophone Quartet), Moritz Eggert (Skelter), Graham Fitkin (Stub), Lee Hyla (Paradigm Lost), Martijn Padding (Ritorno), and Michael Torke (May, June, July), all of which call for a harder-edged saxophone sonority worlds away from the demure Glazunov.

Not unalike have been notated quartets by jazzmen like Paquito D’Rivera, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Liebman, and Phil Woods. But the standout in this sub-genre would have to be Louis Andriessen’s breathless Facing Death, based on darting, angular Charlie Parker riffs. Ironically, the music was first written for amplified string quartet, even though Andriessen readily conceded that “bebop is not at all idiomatic for string instruments.”[7] Subsequently transcribed for saxophone quartet, Facing Death makes for an unwitting object lesson in some of the ensemble’s strong points. That the saxophone quartet has since caught on in a big way in the Netherlands, where Andriessen’s punchy, vigorous idiom rules the roost, should come as no surprise, though the extent to which Jacob TV has made a specialty of it may. His catalog includes no less than seven quartets (PRISM has devoted an entire album to his work), and most are accompanied by samples and prerecorded speech sounds in his usual irreverent, hip hop-inflected manner.

Few of the pieces written in this spirit, however, demand improvisation. Most that do were created for Rova, whose members initially hoped to commission the likes of their composer “heroes” Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi, and Iannis Xenakis. But as Rova’s Larry Ochs recalled, they quickly brushed up against the reality that the principal figures of that generation “didn’t create works for improvisers, or if they did, that was really in their past work.”[8] Undeterred, they found one of their most eager collaborators in free improviser Fred Frith, who fashioned an album-length suite under the title Freedom in Fragments (1993). Frith’s work here is Mingus-like in scope, with more than his usual share of jazz trappings, and he gives the performers ample freedom to shape not only melodic contours but also the overall character of sections. Comparing Rova’s take on the number “Boyan’s Problem” with the alternative version by the ARTE Quartett is indicative, with latter group snarling where the former wails, Rova sounding rather more like a soul horn section. Though much shorter than Freedom in Fragments, Annie Gosfield’s Brawl (another Rova commission) does something analogous: by forgoing a too-heavily notated score, Gosfield effectively “emancipates” the instrumentalists, letting the rough, bluesy sound of the saxes shine through to a degree that is usually alien in classical playing. And while PRISM could no doubt go toe-to-toe with Rova in these pieces, attitudes on improvisation nonetheless continue to vary widely within the quartet community. Because not all classical players ever master, or even become conversant with, improvisation in the jazz tradition, its admissibility into new works really remains up to the commissioning quartet in question.

Score excerpt from Annie Gosfleld's Sprawl showing microtonal notation and improvisatory elements.

The following passage from Annie Gosfield’s Brawl shows how compositional and improvisational elements are woven together.

Bucking Stereotypes

By contrast, an equal, if not greater, proportion of composers seem inclined to tune out the instrument’s popular associations altogether, instead treating the powerfully homogenous sound of four saxophones as abstract clay waiting to be sculpted. This tendency has been fostered especially by the commissions of the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet—unlike Mule’s ensemble, not founded until 1969—and subsequently by European groups XASAX and Quatuor Habanera. It began particularly to gain steam in the mid-1980s, when a succession of accomplished mostly-modernists such as John Cage, Friedrich Cerha, Franco Donatoni, Hugues Dufourt, Michael Finnissy, Lukas Foss, Philippe Leroux, Paul Méfano, Per Nørgård, Bent Sørensen, Erkki-Sven Tüür, and—yes, finally—Iannis Xenakis threw their hats in the ring, crafting ambitious, challenging quartet statements without making any negative accommodations to the medium. That Xenakis, for example, could work his ear bleeding, hyper-abrasive magic in XAS, his piece for the Raschèrs, spoke volumes for the genre’s viability, and by implication for the existence of untapped, saxophone-specific expressions of even the most “difficult” compositional ideas. Beyond that, what appears to link many of these offerings is their shared approach to instrumental interaction. Instead of melody-and-accompaniment or even a four-way conversational principle, they “use the saxophone quartet as a continuum,” PRISM alto player Zach Shemon observes, “that spans uninterrupted from soprano down to baritone saxophone.” While ensembles of like instrumental families (or in purer form, instrumental multiples) have attracted considerable attention from composers in recent years, the near-uniformity of timbre the saxophone quartet has in the hands of its best practitioners makes it particularly well suited to such investigations.

The Rascher Quartet holding their instruments which include a curved soprano saxophone.

The Raschèr Quartet in 2014: Kenneth Koon (baritone), Elliot Riley (alto), Christine Rall (soprano, note that she is playing a curved soprano), and Andreas von Zoelen (tenor). Photo by Felix Broede.

Yet paradoxically, some of the most fascinating efforts from the past quarter century have effectively rendered the classic saxophone sonority unrecognizable. Olga Neuwirth’s Ondate I, from 1998, is emblematic. It begins with the arresting, totally unplaceable sound of the soprano and alto saxophones entering quietly on their highest possible notes—potentially very high indeed, given how far altissimo playing can extend the instrument’s range. Neuwirth goes on to exploit these strange strains in ways that actually suggest the tricks of an avant-garde string quartet, with extreme vibrato evoking Ligetian cluster tremolandi, color (fingering) trills the likes of unison bariolage, and growling and overblowing akin to molto sul ponticello. Of course, this is only the starting point, and Ondate I achieves its uncanny effect just as well when the listener isn’t making mental cross-reference to string technique. And though very different in idiom, related in effect is the piece Albright eventually composed for PRISM, his Fantasy Etudes, a group of sharply drawn character pieces shrewdly designed around the notion of instrumental “breath.” To this end, Albright casts the quartet “against type,”[9] as he put it, variously reimagining it as a giant set of Highland bagpipes, a wheezing harmonium, and a quirky miscellany of car horns, train whistles, and (even) Canada geese.

Kindred observations also apply to Lei Liang’s more recent YUAN, which seems obliquely and almost in passing to conjure up myriad Chinese instruments (the guqin, pipa, sheng, and erhu). As with Neuwirth and Albright, though, these games of allusion are only the pretext for a rich expressive journey, in this case one centered on a Yao folksong heard in the soprano part. In fact, YUAN is equally noteworthy for its wide emotional range. Liang parts ways decisively with the idea, voiced by some of the saxophone quartet’s detractors, that the medium’s affective horizon is intrinsically limited to qualities like vim and vigor, verve and vivaciousness. Together with Liang’s Memories of Xiaoxiang, for alto sax and tape, YUAN reflects on the violent legacy of China’s Cultural Revolution—an extremely personal subject for the composer. That Liang finds the saxophone an apt conduit for these poetic impulses may be traceable back to his biography: he did not grow up in the West, and hence may be less predisposed to hear the instrument through the filter of its pop cultural resonances.

Then again, no such thing pertains to Martin Bresnick, whose 2007 PRISM commission Every Thing Must Go represents an expressive breakthrough of a different sort. Including a remembrance for his maître Ligeti constructed using ribbons of non-tempered, overtone series scales, as well as a tender chorale movement that seems deliberately (and without a shred of irony) to harken back to Glazunov, Bresnick’s piece fills a significant gap in the literature. Perhaps it has something to do with his longstanding regard for and interest in the saxophone quartet medium, which he has found attracts “musicians of extraordinarily high tradition.”[10]

Nor is Bresnick the only composer who regards four saxophones as an eminently suitable medium for memorial music: so too do Fabien Lévy (see his Durch, for Gérard Grisey) and Henri Pousseur (his Vue sur les jardins interdits, for Bruno Maderna). Also creditable in this regard is Terry Riley’s meditative just intonation suite Chanting the Light of Foresight (1987), inspired by an 8th-century Irish prose epic. One of a number of sax quartets penned by Riley, the piece sustains the attention beautifully for nearly an hour (monotony, as even PRISM will readily admit, is always a hazard in all-saxophone programming). It hardly seems coincidental that Riley was once a saxophonist.

Electronic Manipulations & Concerti

Electronics are another means of “disguising” the saxophone quartet. The locus classicus is Alvin Curran’s sprawling Electric Rags II, conceived for Rova, which sees the ensemble pitted against a virtual encyclopedia of sampled sounds activated in real time. Ochs ventures that this kooky patchwork of a piece “might be an American classic some day.”[11] For the purposes of illustration, however, we can take two more modest works from opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum: Daniel Wohl’s Microfluctuations in Plainchant (2012) and Franck Bedrossian’s Propaganda (2008). Prompted by the amplified saxophone sonorities of the 1970s-era Philip Glass Ensemble, Wohl seamlessly integrates his quartet with a flickering, pulsing patina of Day-Glo pre-recorded sound, the reeds sizzling with electricity, as if passed through a vocoder.

On the other hand, Bedrossian’s sonic ideal seems to be the crackles and pops of rebarbative punk guitar, though he too shows an interest in composites of the two entities. In fact, both composers seem to have picked up on an oft-remarked attribute of classical saxophone timbre—its curious, disembodied neutrality. (Puccini, it is to be recalled, capitalized on this quality as long ago as Turandot, where he used saxophones to double a boys’ chorus, thereby creating an illusion of dreamlike distance.) Bedrossian discusses the phenomenon:

The saxophone quartet has always aroused my curiosity because it constitutes a quasi-electronic instrument in itself. The homogeneity of timbres, their elasticity and the capacity for merging are such that one might, at times, believe that the saxophones are naturally the object of electro-acoustical transformations. Consequently, the idea of combining this group with the elaboration of synthesized sounds enabled me to develop this impression of flexibility.[12]

The “processed” timbre of massed saxophones, their adeptness in mediating between various sound states, the ease with which they can take on attributes from other instruments: these factors make the classical sax quartet an exemplary arena for electronic research.

Though likewise an under-explored dynamic, the saxophone quartet holds its own gracefully in a concertante role. Not only, as already observed, can a skilled player blend most effectively with other instrumental families, but unlike the other woodwinds the saxophone also has the decibels to power over a full orchestra. One of the most resourceful specimens so far has been Steven Mackey’s PRISM-commissioned Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (2005), which takes advantage of these facts in such a way that the instruments are nevertheless allowed to remain their brash, outspoken selves. Among the other effective quartet showcases are William Bolcom’s Concerto Grosso, Brett Dean’s Water Music, and Nicolas Flagello’s Concerto Sinfonico, as well as the concerto by Michael Nyman, where the soloists are—counter-intuitively—amplified, a move designed to give the orchestra “a self-contained life of its own (seemingly) allowing no real possibilities of dialogue with the quartet.”[13] Nor is the orchestra the only possible backdrop for solo saxes: quartet vehicles with strings (Chen Yi’s Ba Yin), wind ensemble (John Casken’s Distant Variations), and even Balinese gamelan (Evan Ziporyn’s Kekembangan) have also proved convincing. Meanwhile, an inspired wrinkle has been introduced courtesy of the Raschèrs, who encourage composers to produce unaccompanied quartet versions of their concerti, thereby ensuring that the ensemble gets plenty of mileage out of even these large-scale commissions. Philip Glass’s popular concerto is undoubtedly the best known such dual-pronged piece, though it is true as well of other Raschèr concerti like Cristóbal Halffter’s Concierto a cuatro (Fractal), Mathew Rosenblum’s Möbius Loop, and Charles Wuorinen’s Concerto. PRISM even went on to adopt this practice with Mackey.

Excerpt from the score of the quartet version of Steven Mackey's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

Excerpt from the score of the orchestral version of Steven Mackey's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

The same passage from Steven Mackey’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral in both the quartet and orchestral versions.

Given the proliferation of so much new repertoire, transcriptions no longer loom as large as they once did in the programming of many quartets. However, even PRISM makes an exception for the likes of Salvatore Sciarrino’s Pagine, a set of unusually creative arrangements of pieces spanning Gesualdo and Scarlatti to Gershwin and Cole Porter. But not all groups have proved themselves so ready to steer clear of transcriptions—particularly when it comes to Bach. Saxophone quartet performances of the Baroque master have a substantial track record, and Bach arrangements remain much prized as an aid in the refinement of ensemble balance and intonation. As it happens, more than a few composers have been attracted to the “inauthentic” sound of this music rendered by saxophones, with the Raschèrs recalling Xenakis (of all people) being particularly charmed with their take on Bach.[14] Most telling, however, was the reaction of David Lang, who wrote his Revolutionary Etudes after hearing Die Kunst der Fuge recorded by the New Century Saxophone Quartet:

What impressed me the most, however, was the monumentality of the project. There is so much light music for saxophone, music that can’t make up its mind if it should be classical or jazz, if it should be serious or funny, restrained or aggressive. A lot of this music is truly enjoyable—I don’t mean to say anything bad about it. This Bach project, however, is on an entirely new level—it is asking to have the saxophone taken seriously, for all that it can do.[15]

Happily, more new quartet music than ever seems to be doing just that. Composers are increasingly mindful of the chameleon-like versatility that is the stock-in-trade of elite quartets like PRISM, and as a result statements like this one from Sax’s biographer—“next to the string quartet, a quartet of saxophones provides what is perhaps the most satisfying blend of kindred instruments”—read as oddly quaint today.[16] The last few decades have proven that the saxophone quartet can easily stand on its own two feet, and damning it with faint praise has fortunately become a thing of the past. Instead, interest in the genre shows no signs of flagging, and new quartets have been written during the last year alone by distinguished figures as diverse as Michael Daugherty, Peter Eötvös, Georg Friedrich Haas, and Julia Wolfe. And although PRISM doesn’t look as though they’re ready to hang it up anytime soon, adventurous, rule-breaking new saxophone groups in their image such as the Anubis Quartet, h2 quartet, and New Thread Quartet seem to crop up almost every day. Levy spoke of a “collective hunger for new music” in the saxophone community: suffice it to say that they’re still nowhere near stuffed.

The members of the New Thread Quartet playing their saxophones against a wall.

The New Thread Saxophone Quartet (from left to right): Zach Herchen (baritone), Geoffrey Landman (soprano), Erin Rogers (tenor), and Kristen McKeon (alto).


1. Tim McAllister, quoted in Michael Segell, The Devil’s Horn: The Story of the Saxophone from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool (New York: Picador, 2005), p. 258.

2. Alan Penchansky, “Closeup: Harvey Pittel Saxophone Quartet,” Billboard (October 4, 1980), p. 106.

3. Alexander Glazunov, quoted in André Sobchenko, “Letters from Glazunov: ‘The Saxophone Concerto Years’,” Saxophone Journal 22.1 (Sep.-Oct. 1997), 67. Given his subsequent use of the saxophone in Romeo and Juliet, Lieutenant Kijé, and (most bizarrely) the Ode to the End of the War, Sergei Prokofiev’s appraisal of the Glazunov is worth quoting: “It was entirely obvious that with a stronger contrapuntal structure and with a greater attention to color and certain other devices, a saxophone ensemble has every right to exist and can even stand up quite well in a serious piece of music.” Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, ed. Harlow Robinson (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), p. 309.

4. Timothy J. Ruedeman, “Lyric-Form Archetype and the Early Works for Saxophone Quartet, 1844-1928: An Analytical and Historical Context for Saxophone Quartet Performance” (PhD diss., New York University, 2009), p. 22.

5. James R. Noyes, “Edward A. Lefebre (1835-1911): Preeminent Saxophonist of the Nineteenth Century” (DMA diss., Manhattan School of Music, 2000), p. 150.

6. Joachim-Ernst Berendt & Günther Huesmann, The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century, 7th ed. (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2009), p. 349.

7. Louis Andriessen, Program note for Facing Death (1990).

8. Larry Ochs, “How Do You Connect with Composers to Write New Works for You and How Does That Fit in with Your Other Activities?,” NewMusicBox (February 1, 2001).

9. William Albright, “William Albright Introducing World Premiere Performance of Fantasy Etudes,” track 15 on Music for Saxophones by William Albright (2008), Innova Recordings 687.

10. Martin Bresnick, quoted in Susan Fancher, “Martin Bresnick’s Every Thing Must Go for Saxophone Quartet,” Saxophone Journal 33.6 (Jul.-Aug. 2009). Ingram Marshall’s response to Every Thing Must Go is intriguing: “Saxophones are not my favorite instruments and the idea of a sax quartet is not a good one in my view, but Martin’s Every Thing Must Go slow movement just kills me, every time I hear it, and has changed my mind about those hopelessly hybrid instruments”; “Ingram Marshall’s Quiet Music for a New England Summer,” WQXR (July 2, 2014).

11. Larry Ochs, quoted in Andrew Jones, Plunderphonics, ‘Pataphysics, & Pop Mechanics: An Introduction to Musique Actuelle (Wembley: SAF Publishing, 1995), p. 90.

12. Franck Bedrossian, Program note for Propaganda (2008).

13. Michael Nyman, Program note for Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (2001).

14. Carina Raschèr, quoted in James Noyes, “Raschèr Saxophone Quartet,” Saxophone Journal 23.6 (Jul.-Aug. 1999), p. 38.

15. David Lang, Program note for Revolutionary Etudes (2006).

16. Wally Horwood, Adolphe Sax, 1814-1894: His Life and Legacy, rev. ed. (Baldock: Egon Publishers, 1983), p. 184.

The four 1995-2001 PRISM members holding their instruments and standing in front of an abstract painting

From 1995 to 2001, the members of PRISM were (pictured from left to right): Tim Ries, Michael Whitcombe (1962-2013), Taimur Sullivan, and Matthew Levy. (Tim McAllister joined the group in 2001 and Zach Shemon joined in 2007.)


A photo of Matthew Mendez

Matthew Mendez

Matt Mendez is a New York-based critic and composer. He is active as a musicologist, and has published scholarly articles on John Cage, Joseph Beuys, and Peter Ablinger. Matt also writes program and liner notes.

The Opposite of Brain Candy—Decoding Black MIDI

Niche music genres are nothing new. They existed before hipsters, before Stravinsky, and before Mozart. However, in the last two decades there has been a blossoming of niche music genres, made possible by technological advancements such as personal computers and Digital Audio Workstations as well as decreasing costs to build home studios and widespread use of the internet. As more and more people are creating music, they are subjugated less and less to the genre-defining artists of the status quo. The result is the emergence of countless niche genres, each with its own unique following.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating niche genres to recently surface is Black MIDI. Created by self-proclaimed “blackers,” Black MIDI exists almost exclusively on YouTube in the English-speaking world, with total video views numbering in the millions while total subscribers for teams (groups of blackers who collaborate on Black MIDI tracks) remain less than 50,000. Black MIDI is presented on YouTube as a video recording of a MIDI file containing millions of individual notes played back through a sequencer.

The term “Black MIDI” refers to the moments in a piece where the notes, if displayed on a traditional two-stave piano score, are so dense that there appears to be just a mass of black noteheads. The increased density of notes also affects the computer, which is sometimes unable to process all of the notes within a particularly complex section. The goal of Black MIDI is to approach this processing failure without actually crossing that line. “We try to make it insane—but not too insane,” says Jason Nguyen, the person behind the major Black MIDI distribution YouTube channel Gingeas.

The origin of Black MIDI can be traced back to Japan in 2009 when the first blacker, Shirasagi Yukki @ Kuro Yuki Gohan, created the first black MIDI and uploaded it to the Japanese video site Nico Nico Douga. The piece is based on U.N. Owen Was Her?, the theme song from the extra boss level in the Touhou Project, a vertically scrolling Japanese shooter video game. The use of Japanese video game music has since remained iconic to Black MIDI.

For the next couple of years, Black MIDI spilled over from Japan into China and Korea, where it continued to grow. It was not until 2011 that the genre took off in the West, the first major hit being this upload by YouTube user Kakakakaito1998. Typical of Black MIDI’s early style, the video features a traditionally notated two-stave piano score rather than a MIDI piano scroll alone.

Once Black MIDI made its way to the West, it was not long before blackers began refining the creation and presentation of their niche form of art. Blackers sought to solidify their identity, which led to the creation of Guide to Black MIDI and Impossible Music Wiki, the latter of which was created by Nguyen and the other blackers with whom he frequently collaborates. Both sites serve as an introduction to and codification of Black MIDI.

Blackers also began pushing the limits of their art, adding more notes (numbering in the millions) and making the visual presentation as important as the sonic presentation. Black MIDI became a marriage of visuals and sound, a cascade of colors and patterns paired with an ordered complexity of notes. While the popular songs of choice remained music from Japanese video games, blackers also started making black MIDIs based on recent pop songs.

As computer-processing power increased, Black MIDIs also became larger and included more notes than before. In addition, much of the software was updated to 64-bit, which positively impacted RAM usage and allowed playback of even larger files. The continued growth and evolution of technology also allowed blackers to develop tricks to fill their videos with more notes.

“My videos are edited for no lag,” says Nguyen. “They aren’t real-time: I record the MIDI program slowed down, and then speed it up in a video editor.” This technique takes less of a toll on computer processing power and RAM.

In addition to software and visual changes in Black MIDI in the West, English-speaking blackers established their own team, BMT (Black MIDI Team). Teams, including BMT, consist of a number of blackers who serve various roles, from blackening songs to creating the videos and hosting them on YouTube. This collaboration creates a virtual production and distribution chain that ensures blackers get their work out to as many people as possible through several main YouTube accounts—including Gingeas—while also being credited for their work. Additionally, while BMT is separate from the other major teams that exist in China and Korea, they frequently collaborate with each other on videos and MIDI tracks.

The lack of a major Japanese team brings up an interesting observation: Black MIDI has since disappeared from Japan where it originated. According to Nguyen, Japanese blackers “are analogous to those TV shows where there’s a mysterious founder of a civilization that is not really known throughout the course of the show.” The Japanese blackers have now assumed this role of a silent creator. Although the forebears of Black MIDI are long gone, the Black MIDI community has spread around the globe and is thriving.

One can’t help but draw comparisons between Black MIDI and Conlon Nancarrow’s studies for player piano. Both Nancarrow and blackers have tested the possibilities of note density in their pieces, creating astounding polyrhythms and textures in the process. In addition, the method of note entry is essentially the same between the two. However, Nancarrow’s medium was acoustic while the blackers’ is digital. In some regards, black MIDI could be construed as the 21st century’s response to Nancarrow.

Despite this apparent connection to Nancarrow, the Guide to Black MIDI claims it does not exist and that Black MIDI was an independent evolution: “We believe that references to Conlon Nancarrow and piano rolls are too deep and black midi origins must be found in digital MIDI music world” [sic]. Notwithstanding the blackers’ contentions, there are obviously significant similarities between Nancarrow and Black MIDI.

More recently, other artists have been creating music from a combination of both Nancarrow’s acoustic techniques and the blackers’ digital techniques to achieve intricate musical effects. For example, electronic composer Dan Deacon has written multi-layered player piano tracks that create an acoustic sound more complex than Nancarrow and are only made possible through the addition of modern MIDI technology and a Digital Audio Workstation. While Deacon’s style is entirely different from both Nancarrow and the blackers, the techniques he employs remain the same.

Though only one of many niche music genres that are internet-exclusive, Black MIDI stands out as unique. The simple melodies and tonal harmonies combined with the possibility of near or total computer processing failure are captivating. Additionally, Black MIDI’s connection to visual art adds a third dimension that makes the art form even more engaging. For a genre that has only existed for six years, it is difficult to tell where black MIDI is headed or where its influence will plant its seed, but for the time being I’ll enjoy the ride and listen to this along the way.

A Reuniting Repertoire–The Guitar Music of Ernst Bacon

An excerpt from the manuscript of Ernst Bacon's solo guitar composition Episode

An excerpt from the manuscript of Ernst Bacon’s solo guitar composition Episode. © Ernst Bacon. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

What follows is a story of discovery. It tells of a prominent composer’s forgotten works, unearthed after decades of neglect. And, it recalls how an instrument’s dearth of repertoire has been partially filled. It explains how a historically significant repertoire was conceived as a reuniting gift. For me, this journey began as a casual, musicological meandering, developed into a hunt for forgotten music, and transformed into a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of music, art, fathers and sons. It begins about four years ago.

On a crisp September evening, I performed a guitar recital in the almost ridiculously picturesque town of Tamworth, New Hampshire. With just under 3,000 residents, Tamworth is a sleepy little spot. Drive a minute, and you’re through it.

My recital was a small event; an intimate house concert consisting of pleasing, standard repertoire. Afterward, I chatted with audience members. Each conversation was casual and lovely. One, no more remarkable than the rest, was with a woman who asked if I knew of her longtime, now deceased friend, Ernst Bacon. While I haven’t been back in touch with this audience member—her name is Dale and she runs a lovely bed and breakfast in Tamworth—my sense was that this was a casual question; small talk at a musical event and with visiting artists. At any rate, in the moment, neither of us took her question and our conversation as particularly impactful, as best I could tell.

About Ernst

Two women and two men standing, one (Ernst Bacon) holding a folder.

Left to right: An unidentified friend of Ernst Bacon’s sister (who took the photo), Mary Prentice Lillie (the 1st wife of Ernst Bacon and the mother of Joe Bacon), Ernst Bacon (second from right) and Carl Sandburg in 1927. Photo courtesy of the Ernst Bacon Society

Now, Ernst Bacon was a first-rate, American composer whose considerable output was well recognized during his lifetime: he received a Pulitzer Scholarship in Music (Pulitzer scholarships were offered before the annual music prize was instituted), three Guggenheim fellowships, and grants from institutions such as the National Institute of Arts and Letters and The National Endowment for the Arts. Bacon was also closely associated with some of the leading artistic figures of the day including Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, Carl Sandburg, and Ansel Adams. His music, like Aaron Copland’s, helped forge an American sound that attempted to capture the spirit of America as expressed in its poetry, folk songs, history, and geography in the first half of the 20th century.

However, as a guitar composer, Bacon is virtually unknown aside from his single published guitar piece, Parting. Long out of print, Parting is fragile, intimate, stark, and subtle. Lasting not five minutes, it has been easily overlooked by most guitarists. However, it so happens that as an undergraduate, I fell in love with the piece. At its center point, just after an understated cadenza, the prevailing counterpoint texture arrests and a serene chordal progression emerges—but only for a moment. After eight bars, the piece returns to counterpoint and again is fragile and stark. This passage and the work as a whole really impacted me on a deep, emotional level, way back then.

So, four years ago, in New Hampshire and just after my performance, Dale and I chatted for a few minutes—about Ernst Bacon and Parting and, I’m sure, other, unrelated things—and that was that. Except that I had a long ride home and after hours of listening to NPR, my mind wandered back again to this one conversation. I asked myself why, after such a remarkable piece like Parting, Bacon never returned to the guitar. Once home, with no intention of finding anything but because I had not yet identified a topic for my now looming doctoral dissertation, my wife and I started poking around online for information on Ernst Bacon.

When we somehow Googled our way to the Library of Congress’s website, I immediately realized that I had stumbled onto something. There, in the Washington, D.C. holdings, were listed ten pieces for guitar. Original manuscripts, holograph scores, and sketches that had never been noticed or aired—this was exciting stuff that begged to be inspected.

I had never heard of the works. So, I asked around and checked various resources. These pieces were almost completely unknown. Nonetheless, it turns out that while Bacon was busy composing chamber music, dramatic works, symphonies, and art songs, while he was extending his reach as a teacher (with posts at Eastman, San Francisco Conservatory, Converse College, and Syracuse University), and while he was collecting awards and accolades for his work, he was also compiling a more private repertoire.

Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, while Bacon was busy and at the height of his career, he was engaged in writing stunningly original guitar music. Almost all of his guitar works were gifted directly to his son, Joe, for him to edit and play. And almost fifty years after the first gift was penned, I had stumbled across my first clue to this repertoire’s existence.

Road Trip No. 1: Washington, D.C. (June 2011)

On a whim and with my topic-less dissertation still hounding me, a buddy and I decided to take a road trip down to D.C. and visit the Library of Congress. There, in the bowels of the library, I found a treasure trove—amongst the writings, letters, programs, clippings, and various other materials were ten guitar pieces in exquisite, unpublished, manuscript form. The works, many of them on fragile, oversized manuscript, were deemed by the staff too delicate to photocopy. So, for three days, as I inspected and absorbed as much as possible, I took pictures of each page with my phone and emailed them to myself.

While the library’s holdings were well organized, there were a few riddles and wrinkles unearthed on my trip. Along with these ten “unknown” guitar gems were a few pieces miscategorized and misrepresented: with brief glances at the scores, Whisperella and Jota are clearly revealed to be piano works, not guitar pieces as they are identified in the holdings.

More interestingly, I found a piece called Tin Lizzie in the library’s holdings categorized as a piano work. However, the exact same manuscript is found in the library with the title Coon Hollow. In essence, the manuscript in question is ambiguous. Adding to the confusion, while the Library of Congress lists Coon Hollow as a guitar work, Madeline Salocks (Bacon’s second daughter) has in her possession a score with the same title that is an entirely different work—a piano duo for four hands.


Coon Hollow as performed by Bradley Colten on the album, Ernst Bacon: The Complete Works for Solo Guitar (Azica Records ACD 71294)
© and ℗ Azica Records. All rights reserved. Streamed with permission.
Finally, in Library of Congress’s holdings, I came across an entry for a 40-page Concerto Grosso with the descriptor “string orchestra and guitar.” Needless to say, a major concerto for the guitar composed in the 20th century would have been a compelling discovery. Sadly, a quick inspection of the score revealed the entry as erroneous. Evidently, a smudge on the subtitle was misinterpreted: instead of “Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra and guitar,” the actual indication on the score reads, “Concerto Grosso for string orchestra or quintet.” After a few moments of excitedly skimming through the score, I came to realize that no guitar part would emerge. Really a cataloguing error more than a misattributed work, in the moment it felt like a devastating near-miss for the guitar repertoire.

Parting plus

While the “Concerto Grosso” was an emotional loss, another twist at the Library of Congress proved more exciting: amongst the unknown works in their holdings, I spied Bacon’s one published guitar work, Parting—the piece that I recalled in my New Hampshire post-concert chat, and the work that I fell in love with as an undergraduate.

Here, at the Library of Congress, were four manuscripts for Parting, each a developmental version leading to the published score. On one of these versions there is a bold, hand-written Roman numeral I placed just before the title. At first I took little notice of this marking. But as I leafed through the other works, I found a Roman numeral III on a piece entitled Quiet Hallelujah, and a Roman numeral IV on a manuscript entitled The Morning Star.

Roman numerals I, III, and IV demand a II, but it was nowhere to be found. Another piece in the library’s holdings, Fulfillment, seemed a perfect fit for this series in regard to texture, tonality, and material. However, many of the work’s harmonies were anemic and there was decidedly no Roman numeral on the manuscript. Fulfillment felt like another near miss; if it had a sounder structure and richer harmony, and if it had been marked with a Roman numeral II, a fully formed suite for guitar would have emerged from history and would have been a centerpiece in this newly unearthed repertoire. But, like the “Concerto Grosso with guitar,” this didn’t seem to be so.

An Improbable Discovery

I have always assumed that history must be rather good at sorting things out. It seemed to me inevitable that the great works of art, the ones that we prize, are in good order unearthed, valued correctly, and cherished. Conversely, for some art that is esteemed in its time, history, I have thought, is good at reevaluating and downgrading, if appropriate.

And so, my having stumbled upon these great works for guitar (and they really are great works)—pieces that are so desperately needed for the instrument (namely, 20th-century American music)—seems remarkable. After nearly 50 years, shouldn’t they have already been found? Why had no one before me engaged with these works, tended to them, and brought them to life and to the larger guitar community?

The answers to these questions are inherently complex. First, I now harbor doubts regarding my assumptions about history’s abilities. Sometimes, perhaps history just misses. Great works and great artists may still lay hidden. This strikes me as both exciting and sad. Second, perhaps sometimes those who are uniquely positioned to reveal the great works are stymied by complex situations.

During my time of discovery, happily, I developed warm correspondences and relationships with a few of Bacon’s family members, including his widow Ellen, three of this children (Joe, Arthur, and Madeline), and his grandson Sam.

Based on these few relationships, I imagine that Ernst instilled in his children restless curiosity, fierce intelligence, and strongly held opinions on a vast array of topics. As friend, author, and librettist Paul Horgan remembered in his unpublished manuscript To Remember Ernst Bacon, the composer himself bristled with “… energetic views of such various strands of life as the sovereign arts of music, literature, painting and architecture; the morality of education; the splendor of landscape… the leaven of humor; the power of tenderness and the love of women and children and friends; the practice of politics and the need to judge it fiercely; and over all, the abiding radiance of honor.”

From what I’ve seen, this also depicts the Bacon family: “energetic views,” “fierce judgments,” and “radiant honor.” With such traits, and having such a group of active, engaged thinkers, it’s surprising that this repertoire has been neglected. Perhaps with the manuscripts in different locations and held by different family branches, things went unnoticed. Maybe it took someone outside the family, a dispassionate middle man, to unearth, restore, and advocate for the works.

Joe and Ellen (Bacon’s last wife) have been my point persons within the family for this repertoire. Joe has, by far and away, the largest collection of his father’s manuscripts, and he understands completely the importance of this repertoire. He has tended to and cared for the works. A few of the manuscripts have Joe’s editing marks, and Joe has reported to me that he, on occasion and locally, has performed a few of the works including the serenely beautiful Fulfillment at his father’s funeral.


Fulfillment as performed by Bradley Colten on the album, Ernst Bacon: The Complete Works for Solo Guitar (Azica Records ACD 71294).
© and ℗ Azica Records. All rights reserved. Streamed with permission.
Ellen, for her part, is the steadfast advocate for Ernst’s music and legacy. She campaigns tirelessly for her late husband and his vast musical output. This made her a good next step in my journey of discovery.

Road Trip No. 2: De Witt, New York (January 2012)

Ellen Bacon is the president of the Ernst Bacon Society. In a short period of time, she and I developed a warm correspondence via email. She was enthusiastic about my hunt and invited me up to her home near Syracuse to discuss the guitar scores. This visit was invaluable in regard to learning about Bacon’s music, his family, and the man himself.

Ellen’s home is a testament to her advocacy for Bacon’s music. Throughout, scores are piled high, rooms are filled with notes and articles, and Bacon’s artwork and music occupy nearly every surface. While these materials look overwhelmingly disarranged, Ellen can put her hands on any scrap, score, or note at a moment’s notice. She seems to have perfect recall of Bacon’s themes and compositions and is an expert on the (lamentably scant) research that others have done on Ernst Bacon-related topics.

As she keeps a nocturnal schedule, my visit with her consisted of a lovely, free-association chat from the hours of approximately seven in the evening until two in the morning. We discussed the works I had uncovered, Bacon’s family, friends, and the ups and downs of his career. As we spoke over many hours we moved from room to room, inspecting and discussing the manuscripts and articles that Ellen had collected over the years. The evening was like a private tour of a monothematic museum in slight disarray. It was wonderful.

At one point, passing through a narrow hallway, I noticed a picture frame hanging on the wall with a manuscript in it. I asked Ellen about the work and she casually mentioned that it was an unpublished piece that Ernst had written for her on their wedding anniversary.

The full title of the work is Vocalise in Canon on a Name. Wedding Anniversary, Dec. 31, 1984. At just 23 measures, this two-voice canon is nothing if not brief. The work indicates no instrument. In fact, there is no reason to believe that it is a guitar work. However, it is easily realized on the guitar and she offered it to me in the spirit of sharing.

After a long evening of conversation and discovery (and a short nap to clear my head), the dawn broke and I quietly let myself out of the house, secured the door, and left Ellen asleep for the day. I then promptly experienced a car fire that left me stranded on a barren and frigid stretch of Interstate 81 for almost two hours. My travel time almost doubled from what should have been a four-hour trip home to New York City; I spent the remaining hours of the day first snacking from a vending machine in a small-town gas station and then in the cab of a tow-truck, rambling slowly home with my slightly charred car trailing behind me.

But, I was far from dispirited. My visit brought me priceless background information on the composer and I netted a “new” work for guitar, the delightful and intimate Anniversary Canon.


Anniversary Canon as performed by Bradley Colten on the album, Ernst Bacon: The Complete Works for Solo Guitar (Azica Records ACD 71294).
© and ℗ Azica Records. All rights reserved. Streamed with permission.

All along, the incomplete Roman numeral series kept me frustrated, but only pointillistically. I still felt that the Library of Congress’s Fulfillment wasn’t, as a piece, what it should be and I imagined that it must somehow fit into the Roman numeral series of other works. But, I was busy filling in other gaps and holes in my knowledge and following up on many, many other leads.

I’m sure that I must have mentioned the incomplete Roman numeral series to Ellen Bacon at some point in our correspondence. Regardless, almost a year after my Library of Congress visit I received a ream of paper in the mail. The package, from Bacon’s eldest son Joe, contained many copies of works—many of which, by that time, I recognized. However, amongst these sheaves was a copy of Fulfillment.

Where the Library of Congress’s Fulfillment was anemic and problematic in regard to structure, this version was lush in harmony and fully formed. It was immediately impactful, an attractive and deeply satisfying piece. And, in a bold declarative hand, it contained the Roman numeral II at the top of the page, just before the title.

A handwritten manuscript of Ernst Bacon's guitar score for Fulfillment showing a roman numeral two to the left of the title.

An excerpt from Joe Bacon’s copy of the manuscript of Ernst Bacon’s solo guitar composition Fulfillment which clearly shows the Roman numeral two to the left of the title. © Ernst Bacon. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Bacon never explicitly indicated that these four works (Parting, Fulfillment, Quiet Hallelujah, and The Morning Star) were conceived as a set, and there is no cataloging evidence that anyone ever assigned them as such. In fact, the first of these, Parting, was published on its own without reference to the others. Nonetheless, the Roman numerals seemed to me to indicate the composer’s desire to organize the associated works as a series. My supposition was buoyed by the fact that these four works contain many similarities and coordinate remarkably well, in regard to tonality and material content, with each other: each work begins with a clear statement of its main theme, has a parlor-like quality to it, and is organized with clearly delineated sections that frequently return to the same melodic material. Moreover, all four works are Americana in spirit.

While intriguing, a unifying pathos and common aesthetic are hardly proof of Bacon’s intent to present these pieces as a group. But, in the 1968 published version of Parting, a footnote on the first page of the score reads, “A freely used tune from G. L. Jackson’s Another Sheaf of White Spirituals (University of Florida, 1952).” This note references an obscure and out of print anthology by George Pullen Jackson.

I searched for and found Jackson’s anthology in the New York Public Library and indeed, the main tune from Parting is in the anthology. Excitingly, so too are the tunes from Fulfillment, Quiet Hallelujah, and The Morning Star. In fact, the manuscript score of Fulfillment that contains a Roman numeral also contains Parting’s exact footnoted reference to Jackson’s anthology. While Bacon’s footnote correctly described his borrowing as “freely used,” the relationships are clear and without question.

Considering the Roman numeral series, the shared anthology source, and the similarities regarding tonality and material, it is clear that these four works were conceived as a set. And so, with Joe Bacon’s counsel, I have reunited these pieces and named this re-assembled work Four Pieces for Guitar.

Road Trip No. 3: Fairfax, California (November 2012)

It’s difficult to overstate how exciting this find was for me. Not only had a flawed piece been instantly transformed into a beautiful work, but also four disparate pieces had been joined and now formed a 19-minute Americana suite for guitar. In a phrase, I had been fulfilled with Fulfillment. This discovery focused my mind to more research and toward another excursion.

Just north of San Francisco, in his detached studio space a few steps from his home and atop a gently rolling, leafy mountain, Joe Bacon received me for a day-long visit. He and I reviewed the guitar manuscripts in detail. I played through the works and, as best he could, Joe filled me in on the story of the repertoire’s coming into existence. Toward the end of my visit, we uncovered yet another piece in Joe’s study—a scrap of a paper that Joe had forgotten about. It was, in fact, the first piece Bacon wrote for the guitar. Jotted down on a scrap of paper during the 1964 holiday season in Joe’s home, A Christmas Canon is a vocalise with “Joseph Bacon” highlighted and paired with notes in the first bar. It contains a simple dedication to Joe, too: “For Joe, with love, Pop.”

Lasting under a minute, it’s brief—just as Anniversary Canon is—and also unusually charming, understated, and intimate. In fact, considering the entirety of Bacon’s guitar works, these two diminutive canons—A Christmas Canon and Anniversary Canon—seem especially poignant. The unearthing of both works felt like something out of Indiana Jones: Both pieces were manuscript scraps, held in disparate and private collections on opposite ends of the country. Both pieces demonstrate the composer’s technique and skill, for sure. And both are personal and intimate in their dedication.

These works, more than the others, offer a window into Ernst’s relationships with those he loved. In their first measures, these two pieces vocalize familial names (Ellen’s and Joe’s), and both works were written in and for a moment and dedicated to a relative. They also serve as bookends: A Christmas Canon (1964) is his first guitar work, written for his first son. Anniversary Canon, written in December of 1984 and dedicated to his last wife, is amongst the final guitar works he composed.

Bradley Colten and Joe Bacon standing together

Bradley Colten with Joe Bacon

Not Just a Repertoire

So it turns out that I had indeed unearthed the lost and forgotten guitar works of an American master composer—in total, about an hour’s worth of music.

So, this story is about a rediscovered repertoire, but not only.

Upon engaging with these works, I did not at first realize that I had also stumbled upon a great story of fathers and sons. It turns out that as I was pursuing Bacon the composer, I came to understand a bit of Bacon the father.

Ernst Bacon had six children from four different marriages. As Joe, his eldest son, grew up, Ernst was absent. Ernst and Joe’s mother (Mary Lillie) divorced, and father and son became separated by a continent (Ernst on the East Coast and Joe on the West). In these years, in his father’s absence, Joe developed an interest and then a passion for the guitar.

Despite the absence, both father and son longed for a closer relationship. As Joe entered adulthood he found himself on the East Coast, and he and Ernst renewed ties. As a composer, Bacon had expressed no discernible interest in the guitar. But, almost at the exact moment he learned that his first son took to the instrument, Bacon began writing guitar works. Many were explicitly dedicated to his son, almost all were passed along to Joe at one time or another.

Of the seven guitar manuscripts that contain dedications, all are addressed to Joe. Each offers not just an important illustration of Bacon’s impetus in writing guitar music but also an insight into his disposition toward his son: A Walk in the Hills and Anything are joined with a common title page. On it, Bacon writes, “A Walk in the Hills for Guitar, also ‘Anything’. Dedicated to my son, Joe. Pop.” And then: “edit and improve as you like.”

Cambiatina for Guitar contains the short postscript, “For Joe, mit Liebe, Pop,” and Bacon’s Jack Sprat for voice and guitar has an even more direct dedication. It simply reads, “For Joe and Wanda.” Bacon’s last work for guitar, Marinio, was composed in 1988. Again, simple and direct, Marinio’s postscript reads: “For Joe, 1988.”

A passage from the original manuscript of Ernst Bacon's Marinio showing its dedication to Joe Bacon.

A passage from the original manuscript of Ernst Bacon’s composition Marinio featuring a handwritten dedication to Joe Bacon. © Ernst Bacon. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Bothin Street contains perhaps the most interesting of the dedications. In addition to its simple subtitle, “to Joe Bacon,” this piece contains an implied dedication as well. The work’s title refers to the street where Joe lived for some time, and written below the work’s last line, Bacon pens a brief vignette that notes “No. 74.” This is the address on Bothin Road where Joe resided. (Joe’s address was actually Bothin Road. In conversation, Ernst often mistook the name and would frequently substitute Street for Road. Considering this, the work Bothin Street is technically speaking, mistakenly titled.) The full text of the postscript follows:

By this time the cars are asleep, most lights are out – only one glowing at No. 74 where music and philosophy are in silent debate, with occasional distracting thoughts, in Goethe’s words, “Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan.”

The Goethe reference—“The Eternal-Feminine draws us upward”—is the last line of Faust (Part Two) and refers to woman’s ability to inspire and enlighten the rest of humanity. The vignette as a whole paints a vivid picture of an intimate evening with music and philosophical debate. One can easily imagine a reunited Joe and Ernst engaged in such an evening together. The work captures this mood evocatively with a slow-moving, single line that grows then subsides; this line seems at times to be two divergent voices in conversation.


Bothin Street as performed by Bradley Colten on the album, Ernst Bacon: The Complete Works for Solo Guitar (Azica Records ACD 71294).
© and ℗ Azica Records. All rights reserved. Streamed with permission.
Clearly, Ernst was interested in forging a new relationship with his son and Joe has mentioned to me that he himself was eager for this to happen. Happily, Joe and Ernst did reunite and it’s not an overstatement to say that these guitar works exist today because of that reuniting.

Joe is quick to mention that while the works were perhaps born from his father’s desire to connect with him, Ernst surely also desired that these pieces be performed and enjoyed by guitarists everywhere. I imagine that as father and son reunited these compositions served as conversation points. They may each, in a real sense, be viewed as intimate gestures—musical offerings, from father to son.


With a grand piano in back of him, Ernst Bacon is sitting at his desk which has a score manuscript on it.

Ernst Bacon at work

The guitarist in me is excited and energized about the newfound repertoire and I am working to have it reach a larger audience. As a son and a father, I am captivated by the personal aspects embedded in these pieces.

In Bacon’s music I hear a unique American voice—one that has been sorely missing from the guitar repertoire. Publicly, the works will surely fill a hole for the classical guitarist. Privately, they helped reignite a relationship. The fact that the pieces helped forge an American sound and that they are symbols of paternal love is, for me, a weighty thing.

CD cover featuring a photo of Ernst Bacon in the upper left corner and Bradley Colten in the lower right corner.

The cover for Bradley Colten’s Ernst Bacon guitar CD released on Azica (cover designed by Lauren Monchik Paull)

My work these last few years has been, in essence, to steward this intimate repertoire toward public consumption. With the Bacons’ blessing, I have systematically unearthed and catalogued this family treasure trove. After much research, a fair amount of traveling, loads of editing, and practice, I have recorded a disc—ERNST BACON: The Complete Works for Solo Guitar. It was recorded in Cleveland last May and is available on the Azica Record label. Another of the composer’s sons, Arthur, studied photography with the iconic photographer (and Ernst’s longtime friend) Ansel Adams, and his stunning photo of his father graces the disc’s cover.

Along the way, I also completed a dissertation on this topic, which includes edited scores and analyzed repertoire. I hope that my edited manuscripts will soon be picked up for publication. Certainly there is a need for excellent guitar music from America in the 20th century, and as I’ve begun to perform these works publicly I have received an ever-increasing number of requests for scores.

This article is slated to be followed by others, as well as with interviews in print and on air. Lectures and recitals of Bacon guitar music are, happily, beginning to fill my schedule. This is all exciting for me personally, but mostly, I feel it expresses a larger interest and intrigue in this remarkable repertoire and fantastic story of discovery.

To be sure, for the community of classical guitarists, it really is a phenomenally exciting find. One that I hope and suspect will gain great attention, with the works being widely performed and appropriately celebrated. More poignantly, the Bacon family has been delighted and moved by my efforts.

Long underappreciated—even neglected—Ernst Bacon may be on the verge of a new beginning of popularity. And this due to the most unlikely of reasons: this gifted, reuniting repertoire.

THE GUITAR MUSIC OF ERNST BACONThe following is a complete listing of Ernst Bacon works for guitar arranged chronologically. The specific date of each composition is indicated, when known. At the end of this list, incomplete and misattributed works are noted, non-chronologically.

1960s (five works)
A Christmas Canon (1964)
Four Pieces for Guitar:
Parting (publ. 1968)
Quiet Hallelujah
The Morning Star

Early / Mid 1970s (four works)
A Walk in the Hill

Late 1970s (four works)
Just Wondering
Nuka for Guitar
Cambiatina for Guitar
The Erie Canal

1980s (eight works)
Bothin Street
Coon Hollow (1983)
Cambiataria – comodo (1983)
Cambiataria – moderato (1983)
Toro (1983)
Anniversary Canon (1984)
Marinio (1988)
Jack Sprat (voice/guitar) (1988)

Incomplete and undated (three works)
In Habanera style
(Various Sketches)

Misattributed (three works)
The Tin Lizzie – for piano
Guitar Jota – for piano
Whisperella – for piano


Bradley Colten in a black shirt smiling against a red background.

Bradley Colten (Photo by Lisa Sandler)

Bradley Colten has appeared in performance throughout the United States and in Canada, France, Germany and Switzerland as a soloist and chamber musician. He is a recipient of the Andrés Segovia Award from the Manhattan School of Music and was noted with “Performance Distinction” after his studies at the New England Conservatory of Music. Bradley holds undergraduate degrees from both Tufts University and the New England Conservatory, and Masters and Doctorate degrees from the Manhattan School of Music.

Psychedelic Citizenship: Jimi Hendrix as Tone Poet

JSAM Jimi Hendrix

The year 2014 marked the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner, celebrated by the projects of Star-Spangled Music, an educational initiative established by scholars, musicians, and teachers. University of Michigan professor Mark Clague led the project and has also taken a musicological approach to the national anthem in his research, investigating its history as re-imagined by Jimi Hendrix. This article was published in the November 2014 issue of the Journal of the Society for American Music, and has been generously made available to the public by Cambridge University Press. Below, Professor Clague has also provided a brief explanation of his scholarly findings.

READ: “This Is America”: Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner Journey as Psychedelic Citizenship (full text)

Psychedelic guitarist, singer, songwriter, and composer Jimi Hendrix (re)-introduced himself to America at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival on June 18, 1967. Having lost a coin toss, Hendrix was forced to perform immediately after the U.K’s The Who and their ecstatic, instrument-smashing rendition of “My Generation.” Guitarist Pete Townshend brought their performance to a violent climax by swinging his “axe” against the band’s amplifier stacks while smoke bombs flashed. Drummer Keith Moon kicked his set to the stage floor, even as he continued to pound away on the toms that remained while frantic stagehands rushed to save expensive microphones from destruction.

Not to be outdone for outrageousness, Hendrix brought his own hyperbolic performance to a close by suggestively squirting lighter fluid onto his guitar and lighting it aflame. He slammed the burning instrument against the stage and finally tossed the fingerboard of the demolished guitar into the audience. Take that, Townshend!

Such antics made Hendrix a media sensation, yet this celebration of the psychedelic showman is simultaneously a dismissal of his work as an artist. Jimi’s drugged-out, purple-haze persona easily overshadows Hendrix as composer or political thinker. Yet Hendrix was both of these. As an artist, Jimi found more during his 1967 sojourn to London than fame, validation, and band mates Noel Redding (bass) along with Mitch Mitchell (drums). Looking from Europe back across the Atlantic, Hendrix saw his own country anew; he saw a United States torn by racism and war in Vietnam, but also a nation in which music inspired activism. This transnational perspective galvanized a shift in Hendrix’s own artistic consciousness.

At Monterey, Hendrix’s set his guitar on fire as a blazing coda to his rendition of the English rock anthem “Wild Thing.” Today many might hear the title as descriptive of Hendrix himself, but it was fitting tribute to Jimi’s time abroad. “Wild Thing” had topped the Billboard charts in 1966 as recorded by the English band The Troggs. Yet “Wild Thing” was written by New Yorker Chip Taylor (James Voight) and first recorded by an American band—John Christopher and The Wild Ones. Thus Jimi’s cryptic preamble proclaiming the song to be “the English and American combined anthems together” signifies more than just stage banter; Hendrix was making a claim that music could comment on national identity.

Hendrix introduced no fewer than four songs—“Wild Thing,” “Purple Haze, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” and of course “The Star-Spangled Banner” as national anthems of one sort or another. It’s not too much to claim that during the final two years of his life, Hendrix was fixated on anthems, both musically and socially. In music, Hendrix explored his own identity, especially as an American citizen.

Hendrix’s “Woodstock Banner” is among the most iconic moments of rock history—a symbol of the art’s social and political potential. Fans consider Hendrix’s rendition history’s most profound recitation of Francis Scott Key’s anthem; others hear the “Woodstock Banner” as the most infamous. As I argue in the Journal of the Society for American Music, it is both and more. Jimi Hendrix’s played “The Star-Spangled Banner” more than sixty times and, in fact, the “Woodstock Banner” marks just the midpoint in the guitarist’s two-year fascination with Key’s song. Hendrix began playing the United States national anthem at Merriweather Post Pavilion on August 16, 1968, and this obsession ends only with the guitarist’s death in 1970, not long after five performances that July.

Rather than an ecstatic, singular improvisation, Hendrix’s “Woodstock Banner” is a pre-composed tone poem, arranged over the previous year through a series of musical explorations that range from a multi-tracked patriotic fireworks display to a six-minute dystopian tone poem as national portrait titled “This Is America.” Just one of four powerful Winterland Ballroom anthems from October 1968, “This Is America” features free improvisation, rock riffs, squealing cries, and violent feedback-strewn pictorialisms of the words “bombs bursting in air”—today better known from the Woodstock version.

At other anthem performances Hendrix incorporated quotations from popular TV shows such as Bonanza, The Mickey Mouse Club, and the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. The Civil War eulogy “Taps” had further become a main ingredient of Hendrix’s musical commentary. In fact, Hendrix’s interest in the anthem melody seems to begin as framing for this bugle call that honors the fallen. With war in Vietnam and battles for civil rights at home, there were all too many heroes that Hendrix might have intended to memorialize, from Martin Luther King to his former comrades then fighting in Vietnam as members of the Army’s 101st Airborne.

Hendrix saw the Woodstock Festival as a hopeful demonstration of the political potential not only of music, but of America’s youth (that is, his fans). At Woodstock, Hendrix’s anthem was the first of a series of encores that thanked his fans for their attention and applause, certainly, but also for their spirit of community—a revolution that could change the nation and the world.

In its strains of protest, the “Woodstock Banner” stares unflinchingly at violence and discrimination—things that must be changed to realize Key’s lyrical vision of a “land of the free.” In its patriotic sentiment, however, the “Woodstock Banner” offers Hendrix’s own vision of a nation made manifest though psychedelic fellowship. The “Hendrix Banner” is thus less a thing in itself than a musical process of community formation through social commentary. For Hendrix, “anthem” was not a noun, but a verb—a song in motion.

Mark Clague

Mark Clague is an associate professor of Musicology, Afro-American and African Studies, and American Culture at the University of Michigan. His article “ ‘This Is America’: Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Journey as Psychedelic Citizenship appears in the Journal of the Society for American Music (fall 2014) Volume 8, Number 4, pp. 435–78.

He is the producer of the recent recording project Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and editor of an anthem history website and its associated YouTube channel.

Income, Expenses, and Mileage, Oh My! The Musician’s Guide to Reaching Organizational Nirvana In the New Year

White office shelves with folders and different stationery, clos

Well, the “Winter Wonderland” outside has turned into a grayish-blackish-slushy mess and the drug store down the street just swapped out its window display of snowmen and Santas for pink hearts and Hershey’s kisses. Yep, it appears that you’ve survived yet another holiday season and 2015 is officially here!

Now that you’ve recovered from your annual sugar binge and January 1 hangover, it’s time to start making New Year’s resolutions! I’m not talking about the typical resolutions–anyone can resolve to get fit, eat better, or quit smoking. I’m here to address the kind of resolutions that apply to our special breed of self-employed musicians and composers. I’m talking finances, people. It’s time to get real and get organized. Because I know what you all are thinking: This year, I swear I’m going to keep better track of my receipts. I’m totally going to keep a mileage log when I travel to gigs. I’m going to put money aside for taxes. I’m going to organize my income before my 17 different 1099-MISCs come in the mail.

As a Type A, anal-retentive, self-employed cellist, I’m here to help. Hopefully by the end of this little guide, you’ll have the tools you need to get organized to the point that when tax season rolls around, you’ve got a neat and tidy pile of documents to either hand over to your accountant or to help you face those IRS forms on your own. So open up Excel and brace yourself to become a happier, healthier, more on top of it artiste!

Spreadsheet #1: The bacon you bring home, also known as INCOME.

If you’re like me, your professional life can be neatly divided into two categories: a wee smidge of W-2 work, for which your taxes are withheld, and a much larger, more nebulous smattering of “other” work, some of which is reported to the IRS and some that is not. (Helpful tidbit: Even though you think you might be able to get away with only reporting some of your income, doing this is a little sketchy–and by sketchy I mean technically illegal. But look on the bright side: it’s actually in your best interest to report all of the income from both of these categories, because while you might not think you will ever move out of that 200-square foot studio apartment, you might change your mind one day and decide to invest in a chunk of real estate, at which point the more income you can prove you have, the better your chances of appeasing the mortgage gods.) Whenever you deposit a check or receive a direct deposit pay stub, mark it down and file it away.

Income sheet

Most of Sample Sheet A is self-explanatory, but a couple of notes: I like to keep track of both my pre-tax and post-tax income. This way I know exactly how much I’ve made during the year, but I also know how much to set aside (or how much has already been set aside for me) to pay my quarterly taxes. In other words, the pre-tax column is what I earned, but the post-tax column is what I know is in my bank account for real. In the post-tax category, you may have also noticed that some numbers are lighter than others. Any gig that withholds taxes for me gets written in black. The others, written in pink, are just my own arbitrary post-tax estimate (85% of the check). You also might be noticing the other color on this sheet: any non-W-2 income I mark down gets highlighted in yellow. That makes it easier to see all the stuff I have to enter into the ever-confusing self-employment section of Turbo Tax when the time comes.

Are you still with me? If I haven’t scared you away with color-coded spreadsheets yet, then you’ve proven yourself worthy of and ready for…

Spreadsheet #2: So a guy walks into a bar…and calls it a BUSINESS EXPENSE.

Ah, the dreaded RECEIPTS. You know what I’m talking about–even if you are organized enough to save them, chances are you stockpile them in a box and don’t deal with them until April 14 when you have to file an extension on your taxes because going through all the receipts actually took the entire time you allotted yourself to get your taxes done.

As heinous a task as keeping track of all these receipts is, business expenses are your FRIEND. Seriously, they’re like your BFF. The better you keep track of them, the smaller the check you have to send to the IRS. I like to separate my expenses into these five categories:

Travel: Flights to auditions, train fare to gigs, tolls on the interstate, parking fees, etc. The only thing I don’t include here is gas, but we’ll get to that in Spreadsheet #3.

Meals/Entertainment: Any time you eat out with a bunch of colleagues, save that receipt. Also be sure to check out the government’s per diem rate if you go out of town for a gig so you can claim ALL THE MEALS. And as for entertainment, save those ticket stubs every time you go to a friend’s show–you’re networking, so it totally counts as a biz expense.

Repairs/Maintenance: Instrument repairs, private lessons, or anything that you need to repair or maintain!

Supplies: Manuscript paper, reed-making tools, concert clothes, or whatever objects it takes for you to be able to do your job.

Home Office: Application fees, postage, photocopies, or membership dues. Basically anything that involves a computer, printer, or stamp!

You might decide to nix or to add another category–hey, whatever works for you. Just make sure that whatever you include as a business-related expense is actually something you use exclusively for business purposes. Just by existing as self-employed artists, we are basically asking for the IRS to audit us, so tread carefully.

As you can see below in Sample Sheet B, I also like to color-code each category. The pastel color scheme makes opening this spreadsheet reminiscent of going on an Easter egg hunt, but it also serves the slightly-more-helpful purpose of making it easy to group all expenses of a certain color together at the end of the year.

Business Expenses

Even more important than the glorious color-coding of the spreadsheet, however, is to keep your receipts from piling up. Make yourself adhere to a deadline for entering in expenses–it can be once a week, once a month, once you get to ten receipts, or every single time you make a new business-related purchase–but don’t let yourself file those receipts away until they’ve been logged. You know why it’s worth doing it this way? Because once the info is in the spreadsheet, you never have to set eyes on the receipts again–unless you get audited of course, at which point you can dazzle the IRS officer with the beauteous gem that is your Expense Sheet.

Spreadsheet #3: Oh, the places you’ll gig! MILEAGE.

At this point, you’re thinking: “Okay okay, nice colors. But what about the hundreds of dollars I pay at the pump to get to my rehearsals, concerts, lessons, and meetings? Shouldn’t I be saving those receipts too?” Well, you could. But when it comes to doing your taxes, it’s actually simpler to keep track of the miles rather than the gas. In fact, submitting your mileage, more than any of the other expense categories, can make the most difference in saving you some moolah, especially if you’re a super commuter like me. If you’re a transit rider, feel free to bypass this section and create your own system for keeping track of the number of train rides you take for professional purposes each month. For the rest of us gas guzzlers, here goes.


This one doesn’t require too much explaining–just add up all the numbers in column two at the end of the year and voila! A nice easy number to impress your friends with: Dude, I drove 21,547 miles this year! If you’re like me and drive most of the time but occasionally take the train, just mark an X in the Mileage column and add the train fare to your Business Expense spreadsheet. Also, a little pro tip: You might think it’s crazy to remember every single place you went every single day. But that’s the beauty of keeping a calendar! If a month goes by without you logging your mileage entries, just flip through the past month on your calendar and retroactively enter in the miles. Easy peasy! Oh, and by the way, if you play gigs or accept work that does give you a travel stipend, don’t add those miles to the spreadsheet–no matter how gung ho you are about data entry, that could look a bit shady if you get audited.

So there you have it: three spreadsheets, three steps towards a more organized you! I won’t pretend to be the first person out there to suggest a method for artists to keep track of their finances. (Though mine is probably the prettiest. Just sayin’.) In Alex Gardner’s piece last year, she recommended this resource for organizing income and expenses. And if you google “musician tax worksheets,” you’ll find a myriad of organizational methods all over the interwebs. My main piece of advice, though, and my #1 suggested New Year’s resolution for every kind of artist, is to stay on top of it throughout the year so that tax season doesn’t have to get in the way of your performing or your composing. We’ve all got way more important things to do in March and April than stare at a pile of receipts. So good luck, Happy New Year, and Happy Organizing!

The Banjo Faces Its Shadow


Image cc by Nic McPhee via Flickr

Is there an instrument that comes with more cultural baggage than the banjo? For many, it evokes a stereotyped image of the rural white Southerner, as in the scary hillbillies of Deliverance and many a comedy sketch. In the 19th century, by contrast, the banjo served as a caricature of enslaved Africans, gaining wide popularity through blackface minstrel shows. The instrument’s deeper story moves around and between the stereotypes. This is a timbre that cuts to some of the deepest seams of America’s past. To a number of contemporary banjo players and composers, the well of history and associations surrounding the banjo becomes a musical parameter to be bent, subverted, or used to evoke a particular landscape or time.

The Birth of the Banjo

The banjo has its roots in West African instruments such as the ngoni, and possibly some Near Eastern stringed instruments which also feature a stretched membrane over a gourd resonator. African slaves on plantations in southern Maryland were documented playing gourd banjos as far back as the 17th century. Later on, white musicians learned the banjo from freed blacks and slaves and incorporated it into minstrel shows in the 19th century, resulting in the first uniquely American popular music.
The popularity of the minstrel show, coinciding with the start of the Industrial Revolution, led to the mass production of banjos using wooden hoops and metal brackets—materials more easily sourced than the traditional gourds. Minstrel Joel Walker Sweeney, the first white person known to play a banjo on stage, has been credited with adding a fifth string to the instrument. While many believe that Sweeney introduced the characteristic drone string, tuned above the other strings with its tuning peg jutting up from the neck, historical evidence appears to contradict this claim. Sweeney’s more likely contribution is the addition of a lower string, as well as the shift from gourds to drum-like resonating chambers. Beginning in 1848, 5-string banjos made by William Boucher in Baltimore were sold through mail order catalogs. Other companies soon followed, as the banjo was “refined” through ornate decorations and promoted as a parlor instrument for the upper class (accompanied by a de-Africanized repertoire and technique, referred to as “classical” style). Eventually these instruments made their way into the mountains and were quickly embraced by the predominantly English, Scottish, and Irish settlers.

Minstrel songs, incorporating rhythms and melodic tropes from transplanted African music, took their place alongside the old English fiddle tunes, old ballads, and new ballads composed by Appalachian settlers to express the social and economic realities of their environment. This hybrid music came to be known as old-time. More directly transmitted influences from African-American music, particularly spirituals and the blues, continued to enter this repertoire into the 20th century.

The Folk Revival
The popularity of old-time music in its native environment had faded somewhat by the 1940s due to a population shift to factory jobs in cities, along with the widespread distribution of commercial music by radio. Yet even while old-time music was becoming an endangered tradition in its birthplace, it began to be rediscovered by folklorists outside of Appalachia. These scholars, including the Seeger family (composers Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, their son Mike Seeger and his half-brother Pete Seeger) along with John and Alan Lomax, sought out and recorded folk musicians, learning and transcribing their songs.

Seeing the Appalachian ballad tradition as expressing the voices of the downtrodden, Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger adopted this music as a rallying cry for social justice. Lomax organized concerts that brought together many of the folk musicians that he discovered through his travels while field recording, and sang the old ballads himself in union halls as well as ethnomusicological conferences. New songs in the older styles were written by Seeger, Woody Guthrie and others, and thus old-time music began to reach a wider audience. Pete Seeger’s banjo became a symbol of the 1950s and ’60s folk music revival, a new political awakening of the union movement, the civil rights struggle, and later of protest against the war in Vietnam.

A Path Through the Bluegrass

In the midst of this folk revival centered in New York City, an independent revival of the banjo occurred around Nashville, Tennessee. In the 1920s and ’30s, the Grand Old Opry established itself as a weekly live stage and radio show devoted to country music, an urban transplant of old-time traditions to serve the many people who had moved to Nashville from the hills. The radio broadcasts also reached those still living in the country, and served to inspire many younger people to play this music. In the mid-1940s, the musical acts featured on this show began to increase the tempo of old songs to match the energy of the urban environment, most notably mandolinist and singer Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. In 1948 a young banjo player named Earl Scruggs stepped into Monroe’s band and proceeded to redefine everyone’s conception of what the banjo could do. Scruggs developed a three-finger technique of picking, which allowed for a more agile rhythm in the execution of melody than the older downstroke style known as clawhammer. The instrument grew in prominence on the stage from anachronistic musical prop to a lead voice in the new style that emerged as bluegrass. In the early 1960s, the Scruggs technique of bluegrass playing reached a national audience through his recording of the theme for the TV show Beverly Hillbillies.

The fast, energetic finger picking established by Scruggs has become the banjo’s dominant sound image for most people. Depending on the geography and cultural environment in which this sound is received, the bluegrass banjo is often associated with a particular vision of America—either associated positively with the rural landscape, pride, and connection to cultural roots, or negatively to social conservatism or ethnic exclusivity. It is a strong sonic flavor, whichever mix of associations it has for the listener.

Bluegrass technique, defined by crisp rolls (arpeggiation and melodic embellishment across multiple strings) using metal finger picks, became the foundation for many innovative banjo players. In the 1970s, Tony Trischka developed the “melodic style” of bluegrass banjo playing. This style shifts focus away from arpeggiation to full attention on the lead melody, with chromatic embellishments. As a teacher, Trischka has been widely influential, releasing many instruction books and videos, as well as having some prominent players study under him.

One of Trischka’s students was a young Béla Fleck. Toward the end of the ’70s, Fleck adapted the bluegrass technique to harmonic and contrapuntal models from jazz and classical music, leading to a style that has become known as progressive bluegrass or new grass. Fleck is highly regarded as a master of banjo technique on the level of a classical musician, which he has applied to transcriptions of Bach partitas as well as his own compositions, exhibiting a wide stylistic palette. His collaborative exploration of the African origins of the banjo, traveling to West Africa to perform and record with master musicians there, may be experienced in the 2008 documentary Throw Down Your Heart.

Clawhammer Griots
Connections to the musical traditions of Africa may be traced more easily from the pre-bluegrass clawhammer style, which is the dominant tradition of old-time banjo playing. Maintaining a strong rhythmic groove through downstrokes with the back of a fingernail, interspersed with syncopated drone notes on the shorter fifth string (released by the thumb in between downstrokes), creates a strong rhythmic foundation for dance tunes traditionally played by the fiddle. Similar playing techniques with plucked string instruments may be found among griots of the Wasulu people. This connection may be plausibly traced through the little known history of black string bands in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Few if any recordings exist, but we have photographs, letters, and sheet music collections from black banjo players and fiddlers. One example is the Snowden Family Band of Knox County, Ohio—the group that may have taught the song “Dixie” to their white neighbor Dan Emmett, a minstrel singer. The meaning of the song’s lyrics change dramatically when viewed through the lens of this possible history, connected to Ellen Snowden’s childhood experience as a slave in Nanjemoy, Maryland. At a young age she was transplanted with one of the slave master’s relatives to Ohio, while her father remained behind. The black string band legacy has been reclaimed in the past decade through events such as the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. This conference gave rise to the most famous group of black musicians playing old-time music, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Modern Perspectives on Old-Time Music

After the initial folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, old-time banjo went underground. Mike Seeger played an important role in maintaining the fire by finding and promoting master musicians from the hills, revitalizing forgotten performance traditions such as gourd banjo and minstrel banjo through his own recordings, and passing on the craft to younger musicians. The record label Folkways, founded by Moses Asch in the late 1940s and acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, has released many recordings of outstanding artists in this musical lineage who had been discovered and recorded by the folklorists. Meanwhile, the mantle of old-time music has been taken on by a small but strong community that resembles in many ways the dedication and DIY ethos of the new music community.

As a composer and a self-taught banjo player, I have been drawn to the old-time music tradition for a number of reasons. I appreciate the wide expressive palette and range of tempo between dance tunes and murder ballads. I enjoy the ways that a tune can take on a very different sound and feel in the hands of different players, and appreciate that the tradition encourages this kind of personalization. I am also attracted to the variety of tunings used in old-time banjo playing beyond the standard G tuning (gDGBD, the small letter indicating the higher pitched fifth string) that bluegrass players tend to stick to.

Particular songs have given rise to tunings named after them, such as “Cumberland Gap” (gEADE), “Willie Moore” (gDGAD), and “Last Chance” (fDFCD). My own playing and composing for banjo has gravitated toward the relatively more common “Sawmill” or “Mountain Minor” tuning (gDGCD) and the “Double C” tuning (gCGCD, often transposed up a whole step to “Double D” for playing along with a fiddle tune). These tunings in old-time banjo serve to reinforce open-string drones and maximize the sympathetic vibrations within the instrument. Sometimes these drones result in interesting dissonances that are exploited for expressive effect and do not conform to traditional tonal harmony. I enjoy lowering the fifth string to an F# to produce a tritone relationship with the fourth string (bass), following the practice of the old master Dock Boggs. Old-time banjo players sometimes refer to these different tunings as “atmospheres.”


On a more fundamental level, I am drawn to the banjo as a means of grounding creative experimentation within a deep history that is relevant to connections that I am trying to make in my music. The legacy of slavery in the United States is one which is pushed fairly far back in our collective consciousness. The trauma of that institution still reverberates today in our economic structure, systems of social control, and self-segregation within our population. The banjo came into its own as an American instrument in the midst of that experience of slavery. It was brought into the white mainstream consciousness through the blackface minstrel show, a format which also continues to reverberate in mainstream American entertainment. In the process of this African instrument being adopted by popular society in America, it also took on the musical heritage of the English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants. It was embraced as an instrument of the Everyman, especially in the hollers and mining towns of Appalachia, where the banjo became a main outlet for expressing life’s troubles as well as a way of laying them aside through homespun entertainment. For the banjo to carry so many stories within it, charged with painful legacies and conflicting identities, makes it a potentially powerful medium for new music that creatively bends the associations with it.

This understanding of the banjo as an encapsulation of social history is one that makes sense to me when I think about my neighborhood of Hampden, Baltimore. The great bluegrass/country singer Hazel Dickens lived on one of these streets when she first moved to Baltimore from West Virginia, in search of factory work in the 1950s. While living here she met Mike Seeger at a rowhouse basement jam session, and was encouraged to become a songwriter. She remained in Baltimore and Washington DC for most of her life, and yet her songs express a constant sense of longing for the landscape of her childhood home. This tension of country identity and the urban environment is still palpable in the neighborhood today. When I play banjo out on my front stoop I often imagine Hazel’s experience, almost as an immigrant from another country, trying to navigate a new social structure in the crowded city. Hampden was built around textile mills that hired exclusively white workers from the Appalachian/Piedmont region during the 19th century. For many years this community has attempted to maintain an insular sense of itself, built upon its cultural background, as distinct from the city of Baltimore, which annexed it in the late 19th century. After the mills and then the factories pulled out, Hampden went into decline for a few decades. Some of the social tension that followed was translated into racism and suspicion of outsiders. Ku Klux Klan representation in community parades is noted as late as the 1970s. Today, underneath the economic regeneration of the neighborhood’s main street thanks to gourmet restaurants and boutique shopping, there remains a sense of racial tension in relation to the rest of the (predominantly black) city. One of my goals while living here is to start a pirate radio station and live show that will bring together old-time music and hip hop, among other hybridized folk music that mixes identities. It is my hope that through this medium I can make music that dissolves prejudice.

Hill Hop Fusion

The fusion of old-time music with hip hop is a concept that I first encountered through a radio program from the Appalshop organization in Whitesburg, Kentucky, called “From the Holler to the Hood.” This program arose from a perceived need to reach out to the population housed in the numerous prisons that have sprung up in the wake of the declining coal economy in Eastern Kentucky. The prisoners are predominantly African Americans transferred from outside of the region. Appalshop began programming a show called “Calls from Home” during which family members could call in and dedicate songs to loved ones in prison. As the requested songs were mostly hip hop, programmers at Appalshop became interested in the idea of setting up collaborations between hip hop artists and traditional Appalachian musicians. In 2003, a friend of mine from Kentucky played me a tape of one of these collaborations, between old-time musician Dirk Powell and hip hop producer Danjamouf. Since then, the hip hop subgenre known as “hill hop” has been carried forward by the group Gangstagrass, among a few others.


Sometimes the use of the banjo is as simple as the desire to evoke a landscape. Since the 1990s the banjo has made occasional appearances in indie rock as a signifier of a different age, or to cast a rustic or countrified hue over a song. “Chocolate Jesus” (1999) by Tom Waits is a prime example, where the banjo is incorporated as an element of a sound that Waits described as “sur-rural.” Other examples may be found in the work of The Magnetic Fields, Feist, and The Books. In these instances, the raw sound of the banjo stands as an alternative to the technology and pacing of the modern urban environment and to invoke a common folk language.

Cultural Migration

Because of the banjo’s sonic links to ancient instruments from Africa and even further East, the banjo can take on the role of a shape-shifter in its cultural associations. Multi-instrumentalist Jody Stecher brought the banjo into the field of “world music” in 1982 with his album Rasa, which features Indian sitarist Krishna Bhatt, along with vocals by Stecher’s wife Kate Brislin. Through this album, Stecher, Brislin and Bhatt reveal a natural affinity between old-time/early country tunes and the melodic ornamentation of Indian classical music. Béla Fleck made his own contribution to cross-cultural banjo fusion with his 1996 album Tabula Rasa, a collaboration with Chinese erhu player Jie-Bing Chen and Indian mohan veena player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. On this album, musical sources from each of the cultures have a turn at center stage while the other instruments provide tightly composed reinforcement and counterpoint. Through the tight interaction of these three players, we can hear a hybrid of complimentary sounds, transcending the specific associations of any culture individually. The erhu, as a bowed string instrument, may remind us of the fiddle that is so often paired with banjo in traditional Appalachian music. The mohan veena is a stand-in for the guitar, another frequent banjo partner. Fleck’s banjo playing defines a well-balanced meeting point and assimilation of different influences.

Played with a bow, the nasal tone and sympathetic vibrations can sound a bit like a sarangi from India or the Iranian rabab. Played with a pick to produce single-string rhythms and tremolos, it can sound like a Berber gimbri. In Morocco, the banjo has effortlessly found its place in the traditional music of that country. A fine example of this cross-cultural assimilation of the banjo may be heard in the music of the Moroccan group Imanaren, with banjoist Hassan Wargui. In the context of Imanaren’s music, the banjo doesn’t appear to reference its American legacy at all. Instead it seems to be a native timbre to their Berber melodies.

Banjo Experimentalists

In experimental and modern classical music, the banjo’s historical weight is treated with a variety of approaches. Eugene Chadbourne has used the banjo in a way that naturally and seamlessly spans country music, punk rock, and free jazz, with a somewhat antagonistic stance toward the white rural culture commonly associated with the instrument. Equally at home within the structure of blues-based chord changes and uptempo drum beats as within irregular rhythms and spasmodic gestures, Chadbourne’s performances convey an intentionally skewed but well-defined aesthetic that he has pieced together for himself. On another side of the spectrum, the music of Paul Elwood moves between old-time/bluegrass sources and modernistic chamber ensemble sonorities. These two worlds are not always reconciled with each other, occasionally treated as juxtaposed blocks of music (original passages vs. quotation/arrangement), and sometimes heard as superimposed, warring influences over the direction of a long-form composition. When the banjo moves beyond familiar bluegrass riffs and explores a greater sense of rhythmic space and pitch direction, Elwood’s music reaches some passages of incredible transcendence. As a listener, I feel that I have been on a journey of clashing cultures and eventually discover a unified sonic field that moves beyond the past.
On occasion the banjo seems to be treated as a stand-in for a mandolin, which has a longer history in the context of classical concert music. In this approach, the instrument is treated purely as an interesting timbre without any overt inference of folk music or traditional playing techniques. George Crumb’s 1969 song cycle, Night of the Four Moons, is one example of this ahistorical use of the banjo. In this work, it is one distinctive tone color among many in a mixed ensemble, supporting poetic images from the selected texts by Federico García Lorca. Through this set of four songs, the banjo explores a variety of textural relationships with the alto voice, alto flute, electric cello, and percussion. Avoiding the rhythmic propulsion of traditional banjo playing, Crumb creates a new identity for the instrument through isolated gestures, and textures based on call-and-response between the banjo and the other instruments in the ensemble. At times the banjo is made to sound vaguely Eastern, though a particular set of intervals used as a mode. Elsewhere, it fulfills an accompaniment role that suggests an older idiom of Western classical music, but nothing tied to the history of the banjo itself.

The kinship with sonorities from the Middle East and beyond may be easily recognized in the playing of Paul Metzger. This Minnesota-based artist focuses on improvisation and composition with a self-modified banjo which has been expanded to include 23 strings. His playing techniques span classical guitar finger style to orchestral bowed textures, touching on many different sound worlds. Within a single piece there seem to be hints of a number of different cultural heritages, woven together to produce a unified landscape. To hear the full range of Metzger’s banjo palette, take a listen to his 2013 album Tombeaux on the label Nero’s Neptune.

Another improviser, Woody Sullender is a multi-media artist, electronic composer, and banjo player based in Brooklyn, New York. While his most recent work at the time of writing focuses more on installations and electronics, he is one of the most adept improvisers in the somewhat specialized field of experimental banjo. His approach is particularly aware of the instrument’s past associations and seeks to both evoke and counter them. Mountain music is suggested in some of the hammer-ons and other musical gestures, which gravitate to open fifths and minor modes. Yet rhythmically and dynamically, listeners are being guided in another direction. His album with harmonica player Seamus Carter, When We Get to Meeting, is available as a free download.
Baltimore-based musician Nathan Bell states that he uses the banjo “as a shapeshifting tool,” describing a fluidity between stylistic associations along with a range of timbres that he draws from the instrument. Bell shifts easily between different styles of playing: old-time clawhammer technique, finger picks, and bowed banjo all occupy a place in his personal soundscape. Auxiliary percussion, such as antique cymbals suspended from the neck of his banjo, are also frequent companions to the sounds drawn from his main instrument. His 2011 album COLORS is an excellent example of Bell’s use of the banjo as a vehicle for defining a landscape that draws on memory and nostalgia connected with the instrument, while coloring our experience of it with effects processing, noise elements, and slowly moving background voices. Bell’s recorded projects may be heard and purchased from his Bandcamp page.

Renegade banjoist Brandon Seabrook of Brooklyn, New York, also comes to the instrument from a guitar background. He claims not to listen to other banjo players and explains his choice of instrument as a way to bring another level of challenge and difficulty into his music, due to the banjo’s shorter sustain time relative to guitar tones. Above all, his playing is defined by dissonance, intensity, and speed. Repetitive chromatic patterns cut quickly to measured tremolos and dynamic builds, always maintaining a sense of urgency. Seabrook brings an aggressive, punk-meets-free-jazz type of energy to his playing, like a prolongation of the most intense passages in Eugene Chadbourne’s music, sounding nothing like the bluegrass type of banjo virtuosity.
In the realm of notated music, Washington DC-based banjoist and composer Mark Sylvester is deeply committed to promoting the banjo in the concert hall. Sylvester comes to the banjo from a classical guitar background, and while he teaches and is proficient in bluegrass and clawhammer styles of banjo, his own compositions place the instrument squarely in a classical chamber music context. Sylvester’s Trio #1 and Trio #2 occasionally employ finger picking patterns familiar to bluegrass audiences, such as ostinati featuring hammer-ons and pull-offs, but largely gravitate toward a style of writing that could easily be conceived for guitar. Progressions of chromatic harmony predominate over more familiar banjo harmonies derived from the open strings.

Continuing the development of notated compositions for banjo as chamber music, a new album by the Boulder, CO-based Jake Schepps Quintet, Entwined, features long-form classical compositions for the traditional bluegrass string band instrumentation of banjo, mandolin, violin, guitar, and double-bass. The featured composers—Marc Mellits, Matt McBane, Mark Flinner (the group’s mandolinist), and Gyan Riley—explore tight ostinato grooves, expansive melodies, and extended techniques, applied within a comfortable blend of styles. Multi-movement works such as Marc Mellits’s Flatiron provide room to range from ballad-like sections featuring a nostalgic harmonic vocabulary to more contemporary-sounding minimalist syncopated rhythmic layers. While enriching the soil of bluegrass/classical fusion, first tilled by Béla Fleck as well as Marc O’Connor and Edgar Meyer, the Jake Schepps Quintet articulates a wider sound palette without anything sounding self-conscious in its merging of musical cultures. The sound of these instruments together is already well-defined in most listeners’ ears, so that modern classical approaches to form can take advantage of expectations of particular roles within the ensemble while exposing alternate timbres from the instruments. This instrumentation may yet become as enduring for composers as the classical string quartet.
The banjo is suggestive of many different things to different people. It clear that it has had a lasting power beyond just one cultural place and time, and that musicians continue to develop new ways of conceiving its sound. Whether it is overtly addressed or not, classically trained composers creating new music with the banjo enter into dialogue with a folk tradition, a history, and a set of expectations on the part of the listener. To use the instrument in a vastly different way from these expectations is a potential tool for shaking up old ideas about its stylistic limitations or caricatured image. To embrace certain musical aspects of the folk lineage and place them in new contexts may be seen as part of a general shift away from an exclusive view of the classical tradition as purveyor of innovation. Today musical experimentation, complexity, and the development of a personal style can be founded on many sounds that are not connected to the concert hall tradition. While the adoption of instruments from other cultural contexts into classical music has been occurring for centuries, this has only recently taken on some characteristics of a two-way communication between musical cultures. Experimental hybrids are continually being created by musicians coming from folk, rock, hip hop, and many other backgrounds. Composers and new music performers are collaborating with musicians from these other backgrounds, often participating in non-classical performance traditions, and collectively shaping new ways of listening to and participating in the music. Examples may be heard in collaborations between Brian Harnetty and Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Silent City, 2009), or Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon (The Only Tune, 2008).

Where classical instruments and musical structures have been founded on an aristocratic legacy, supported by royal courts or the church, the banjo’s historical evolution has grown out of struggle and conflicting cultures. It can be painful to look back on the history of slavery or the ongoing situations of injustice faced by the people of Appalachia. The banjo may be a reminder of these things, and personal reactions to such a reminder may also bring up prejudices towards one group of people or another. Yet the hybrid cultural heritage of the banjo, kept alive by traditional players and continually reinterpreted by musicians from many different backgrounds, may be uniquely equipped to break through the divisions that separate people. It is an instrument that was originally embedded in the lives of enslaved Africans as well as the rural white settlers later on, and it has assimilated musical elements from both cultures. The tangled thread of minstrelsy that endures in popular media to this day is one that needs to be examined and understood in all of its complexity. Artists and musicians should attempt to examine that shadow and address it in a conscious way in contemporary art. The banjo stands squarely at the intersection of Anglo and African cultures at a formative period in American history, spanning different conceptions of heritage. Perhaps it can also be a tool to help to unravel the pain or prejudice and uplift us to better way of coexisting and collaborating in this world.

Island Exports & Descendants Broaden Jazz Expressions

Photo by Molly Sheridan

Photo by Molly Sheridan

The contribution of jazz musicians of Caribbean lineage is as old as jazz itself. The difference with the current generation is their perhaps more overtly prideful embrace of elements of their native culture in their expressions of jazz, reflecting the more ecumenical nature of the 21st century approach to the genre. There is a growing cadre of jazz musicians of Haitian descent, and other Caribbean arrivals or first gens, who openly embrace elements of that most misunderstood island’s rich musical heritage. Owing much to its historic position as site of the West’s most successful slave revolt, coupled with its often dire economic conditions on the wings of cruel dictatorships, muddled politics, and natural disasters, Haiti has an image that has been cloaked in negativity by the world media for far too long. Consider the Haitian derivation of Yoruba religion, known as vodoun or voodoo, and the misunderstanding and intensely negative connotations that practice has long endured. First and second generation Haitian arrivals, as well as many of their peers from other parts of the Anglophone or Francophone Caribbean, have enthusiastically embraced music and rhythms found in voodoo rituals, such as Racine (or rasin), incorporating these elements in their 21st century expressions of jazz.

For ages jazz from the Caribbean islands has been primarily defined by the dominant strain known as “Latin Jazz.” That potent and well-chronicled form has concentrated on the influence of the Spanish-speaking sector of the Caribbean, particularly the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. This is despite significant evidence of cross-island pollination. There has been much written on so-called “Latin Jazz,” often citing the historic enterprise of Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban hand drummer/vocalist/dancer Chano Pozo as the key touchstone. That partnership was primed by Dizzy’s friendship with trumpeter Mario Bauza starting when they both sat in Cab Calloway’s trumpet section. But little has been written on jazz influences from the English and French-speaking islands of the Caribbean. There have certainly been no books on the order of the John Storm Roberts classics Latin Jazz: The First of the Fusions, 1880s to Today (Schirmer) or The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin Music on the United States (Oxford University Press), and the writings of numerous others like the scholarly Cuban author-critic Leonardo Acosta.

Jelly Roll Morton spoke of the “Spanish tinge,” insisting, “If you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning for jazz.” Haitian rhythms, however, were perhaps of equal importance in early jazz developments. So what of that Haitian tinge, or tinges from Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, Martinique, Barbados, St. Lucia and the rest of the former English and French colonial islands?

This writer recently had an opportunity to more closely ponder those tinges when invited to deliver a presentation on Caribbean jazz at the conservatory in the lovely southern Italy seaside town of Bari, as part of the annual Bari in Jazz festival last May. As I tossed around ideas, how illuminating would it have been to reiterate all the historic facts, partnerships, recordings and copious research that’s been done on the so-called Spanish or Latin tinge so essential to jazz? Listening to an advance of Naked (BBjuiss Records), the latest release from the emerging Miami-based saxophonist Jowee Omicil, who performed on Bari in Jazz as the festival’s lone U.S.-based representative sparked some ideas. Omicil is a first generation Canadian raised in Montreal by Haitian immigrant parents, and his music often reflects that birthright. I determined to focus my presentation on artists whose heritage is in the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean islands, primarily Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, and Haiti.

Later in June, at a 70th birthday celebration, the distinguished Jamaica born and raised virtuoso jazz pianist Monty Alexander, on the heels of his Harlem-Kingston Express Vol. 2, The River Rolls On (Motema), quite convincingly played Alexander’s mento/ska/reggae-based jazz grooves at DC’s Howard Theatre with his Jamaican crew. That performance followed Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles’s joyous performance on the DC Jazz Festival. Subsequent research as well as communications with Omicil, Charles, and saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart revealed a vibrant community of island-proud emerging young jazz artists. Charles and Schwarz-Bart were also guests of Alexander’s 70th birthday band performances in DC and New York. What distinguishes these artists from their Caribbean forbears who’ve impacted the jazz landscape from the early days of jazz is their seemingly more explicit desires to view their jazz perspectives through the lens of their island heritage and subsequently reflect that marriage in their music. Many of their jazz forebears from the islands did indeed evidence some measure of their island heritage in their music, but not as readily as this new generation, reflecting the broadening diversity of jazz as global music in the 21st century.

There is a growing generation of musicians either arriving from the Caribbean islands or second generation Caribbean-Americans who have or are in the process of immersing themselves in the musical heritage of their respective ancestral homelands. They’re bringing their own flavors to the jazz firmament and expanding our sense of Afro-Caribbean jazz expression, Haitian musical culture predominating those influences.

The Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 delivered a great influx of Haitians to New Orleans. Many others who fled Haitian bondage landed in Cuba, so even the island generally credited with having the broadest and deepest impact on jazz was significantly influenced by Haitian rhythms. Turning our gaze to the American city with arguably the greatest impact on jazz development, post-rebellion roughly 3,000 black refugees fled Haiti for New Orleans. Coupled with the approximately 2500 slaves in the New Orleans vicinity who were imported from Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1776-77 and Jelly Roll Morton’s vaunted “Spanish tinge” begins to broaden.

Consider Caribbean island music or rhythmic traditions that have seeped into jazz: calypso (the rather strident, highly syncopated, late 18th century Trinidadian music that arose from the islands plantations), Jamaican mento (an Afro-Jamaican acoustic music construct with a kinship to calypso whose topical lyrics focus on the human condition) and its derivatives ska (characterized by a walking bass line and rhythmic accents on the upbeat) and reggae (with its characteristic offbeat 1 & 3 accented rhythms, staccato guitar chords played on the offeats of the measure, and liberal use of call & response), kompa (the national dance music of Haiti, a modern merengue attributed to the 1950s multi-instrumentalist Nemomas Jean Baptiste), quelbe (an indigenous Virgin Islands form that engages improvised instruments like gourds and washboards), racine (or rasin, a Haitian musical movement that is a voodoo ceremony roots music fused with rock rhythms), zouk (a jump-up Carnival beat from the French Antilles that was popularized in the 1980s by the Haitian band Kassav, a band which influenced late period Miles Davis), Gwo-ka (a family of indigenous hand drums characterized by seven rhythms or dances; the largest of the drums plays the central rhythm while the smaller drum embellishes that rhythm), just to cite a handful. (Note: true to African nomenclature, many of these forms, traditions (e.g. voodoo), or rhythms are known by multiple spellings.)
The jazz festival phenomenon has found a welcome home in many Caribbean islands’ tourism profile. Jazz festivals are hosted on the islands of Aruba, the Virgin Islands, St. Croix, Bonaire, Cuba, Curacao, Guyana, Barbados, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Jamaica, and St. Thomas (which experienced a jazz festival launching in 2014). Some measure of these events may prove inspirational to succeeding generations of island musical youth in terms of their own professional pursuits. Taken island by island we find a growing number of emerging jazz artists making—or poised to make—their marks on the contemporary scene. Many of them have expressed their island heritage in recordings rooted in jazz principles, or have expressed imminent plans to do so. Here’s a representative sampling of some of the more compelling of the Caribbean exports emerging in jazz.


Jean Caze playing a trumpet

Jean Caze

Trumpeter Jean Caze was a finalist in the 2007 Thelonious Monk Competition. When he was a baby his family migrated from the island to Queens, New York, where he grew up. The year prior to the competition Caze (pron. Cos) found himself back home, where he’d been invited to perform with the noted Haitian jazz pianist Reginald Policard. “He has been blending jazz and Haitian rhythms for a long time,” says Caze, “and when I played that music for the first time I felt liberated! I write music with Haitian rhythms in mind, also the Creole language is very colorful and has a very musical sound to it. I use the words to come up with melodies often. In Haitian music there are hundreds of rhythms to choose from. All of the rhythms have West African origins. New hybrid rhythms were developed when West Africans from different regions were grouped together in Haiti as a result of the slave trade,” Caze asserts. “When composing with Haitian rhythms I like to use uptempo 4/4 rhythms named Petwo and Rara. When writing in 6/8 I use Yanvalou. In 3/4, I use Mayi. There are interlocking call and responses in the rhythm of the drums that set it apart from rhythms used in jazz swing.” To best illustrate these traditions Caze offers the following demonstrations from a Haitian drummer.



Caze is currently working on a new recording that he suspects “will stir interest in the music of Haiti, featuring many musicians with diverse backgrounds.” Though his previous release was more straight ahead jazz, this original “Kitem Pran” from his forthcoming release—with fellow Haitian-Americans Godwin Louis on alto sax, Obed Calvaire on drums, and Tiga Jean Baptiste on hand drums—illustrates how Caze has embraced his ancestral traditions in his current sense of jazz.

Like many of his contemporaries, pianist Willerm Delisfort has crossed over freely between pop sounds and the art of the improvisers, where he’s encountered employers ranging from NEA Jazz Masters Jimmy Heath and Curtis Fuller to saxophonist David Sanchez and worldly guitarist Fareed Haque. His family began arriving in Miami in ’75 and Willerm was born stateside in ’83. “As I look back at the nights as a child listening and dancing with my mom to kompa music, I realize I was learning the language of music, the piano simply gave me that tool to express it,” Dellisfort declares. “Kompa is simply the fusion of traditional Haitian music with jazz. It’s usually in 4/4, but as for the traditional part of it, you can definitely hear the roots of it coming from Africa, also its influences all over the Caribbean and in Brazil.”

Willerm Dellisfort playing a grand piano

Willerm Dellisfort

Trained at Northern Illinois University (on a Liberace scholarship), Willerm was mentored by the perpetually swinging Chicago pianist Willie Pickens. Bringing his Haitian roots to that foundation is a natural move. “The incorporation of folkloric music, harmony, rhythm… is almost impossible for me NOT to incorporate!” he insists.

Jonathan Michel, photo by Amara Photos.

Jonathan Michel, photo by Amara Photos.

Bassist Jonathan Michel was raised by parents who migrated separately from different Haitian towns, each landing in Brooklyn. “Growing up I attended and played multiple instruments at a church that worshipped in the Haitian Protestant tradition. In addition to French and Creole translations of traditional hymns, we sang worship choruses composed with traditional Haitian melodies and rhythms,” Michel details, recalling his early immersion. “The rhythms I grew up on helped me to understand and internalize the swing beat that defines American music. I realize that it is the underlying pulse of the ‘swing’ feel that is similar to me. With Kompa it is the underlying pulse of the ‘swing’ feel that is similar to me. If you compare the traditional New Orleans ‘street’ beat to Kompa (the Haitian rhythm style I grew up playing) you hear the same syncopation in the pulse. You can also feel a similar ‘four on the floor’ implication in Kompa that connects with the walking bass element in American swing beat. I did not make this connection until well after I discovered Black American Music [BAM] as part of my musicianship,” Michel declares, subscribing to the BAM declarations famously, and not without resulting controversy, espoused by trumpeter Nicholas Payton.

In addition to working with such exemplary jazz pianists as Orrin Evans, Aaron Goldberg, and Johnny O’Neal, Michel has also collaborated with Etienne Charles and fellow Haitian-American saxophonist Godwin Louis. He declares himself “At the outset of developing my own Haitian music project.”

A drawing of Sarah Elizabeth Charles

The cover for Sarah Elizabeth Charles’s latest CD, Red

Vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles is among a trio of notable young Haitian-American singers poised to make their marks, including Melanie Charles (no relation) and Pauline Jean. Raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, by a Haitian father and French Canadian mother, Sarah credits the tutelage of bassist Vishnu Wood, at Springfield’s Community Music School with really encouraging and pushing her artistry. “He wanted me to compose, arrange, and eventually have my own band and I consistently struggled to meet his expectations.” Growing up, her father kept such Haitian icons as Tabou Combo and Michel Martelly (“Sweet Micky”) in heavy rotation. Martelly is currently the president of Haiti. “It wasn’t until 2009-2010 that I really started delving into Haitian music, folkloric music, with the help of my amazing singer-sisters Pauline Jean and Melanie Charles. I began to arrange very well-known [folkloric Haitian] tunes like “Wongolo Wale” and “Mesi Bondye,” both of which she arranged for her current recording Red (Truth Revolution Records), “and worked on my Creole pronunciation with Pauline and my father.” Last January she played the Port-au-Prince Jazz Festival and “the [Haitian] influence expanded to another level,” she enthuses. Besides leading her SE Charles Quartet, Sarah can also be heard in keyboardist Jesse Fischer’s unit.

Godwin Louis holding a saxophone

Godwin Louis

Born in Harlem and raised jointly in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Port-au-Prince, alto saxophonist Godwin Louis was first immersed in jazz through a jazz guitarist uncle who, urging him in Haitian Creole, insisted that Godwin focus on Charlie Parker. Later, as a Berklee student, after a gig with Haitian trumpeter Edy Brisseaux the elder encouraged Godwin to more deeply investigate his Haitian roots, saying “You are a Haitian-American. Don’t forget about that identity.” When he entered the Thelonious Monk Institute graduate studies program at Loyola University in New Orleans, the Haiti connection hit home. “As soon as I landed in New Orleans, I felt like I was in Haiti. The cultures are very similar, the cuisine, the architecture, I was amazed by it all.” This immersion encouraged further research and “I found out that without Haiti there would be no jazz music.” The scholarly altoist regularly returns to his family homeland to research and further develop his own music, an investigation that was most recently realized in “a series of compositions all based on a research trip to Haiti” that he performed as part of a residency at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan. “The rest of the world is still unaware of Haiti’s contribution to music in the Americas,” a disparity Louis aims to close at least partially.

Jowee Omicil's Selfie with former U.S. President Bill Clinton

Jowee Omicil’s Selfiewith former U.S. President Bill Clinton

Saxophonist Jowee Omicil has made a remarkable transformation from the callow teenaged saxophonist first encountered at a Thelonious Monk Institute summer colony in Aspen in ‘01 to the confident artist whose energetic performance earned him many new friends at Bari in Jazz. Where the Haitian grooves show up most vividly is in his tribute to Michel Martelly, titled “Micky’s Groove Reloaded,” an extension of his original “Micky’s Groove” from his Roots & Grooves previous release. That record also featured the traditional Haitian songs “Wongol” and “Mesi Bon Die”. “Wongol” is half of the traditional Kompa [or compas] groove, with a cadence bass line,” speaking of the influence of a Haitian merengue form that has been the core of a national folk music since the 1800s. “I really mixed different elements from the Haitian/Cuban roots with [Francisco] Mela [the Afro-Cuban drummer and Jowee’s Berklee classmate on the date] to the African roots in the bass line and Lionel [Loueke] on guitar and asked him to dialogue with me in call and response,” Jowee characterizes his work on the track “Mesi Bon Die” with Mela and fellow Berklee and Monk Institute alum Loueke. “Overall it’s really my interpretation of Nat Simon’s “Poinciana,” Ahmad Jamal’s groove Jowee style.”

The lure of Haitian folkloric traditions is not limited to strictly Haitian-American musicians; in the case of hand drummer Markus Schwartz those hypnotic vibes reached all the way to his native Denmark. After migrating to the Bay Area to study he came under the influence of Haitian drum traditions as a result of an internship with an Afro-Haitian dance company. “I realized that playing Haitian rhythms exposes one to a vast cross-section of various African-based musical traditions that have survived in Haiti,” he says. In the early-90s “I was privileged to have the chance to work closely with the members of Jean-Raymond’s band Foula, a pioneering “Voudou-Jazz” ensemble from Haiti.” By ’94 Schwartz had moved to Brooklyn “specifically to put myself in closer proximity to a larger Haitian community.” Once in Brooklyn he began collaborating with such Haitian jazz artists as the ensemble Mozayik, with whom he recorded Haitian Creole Jazz (Zoho) in ’05, as well as saxophonist Buyu Ambroise and singers Emeline Michel (who has also collaborated with Jowee Omicil), Pauline Jean, and Riva Nyri Precil, all Haitian artists based in the New York City area. He has also collaborated with Omicil and Jacques Schwartz-Bart, who guested on Markus self-produced Tanbou Nan Lakou Brooklyn release.

From that recording the track “Gede Drum n Bass” is based on the drum rhythm maskawon, “and is traditionally played in Haiti for the Gede spirits; the intro melody played by the bass is a traditional Gede song as well,” says Schwartz. “On “Danbala,” which features Jean Caze and veteran Haitian saxophonist Buyu Ambroise, “the melody is a traditional song for Danbala, typically played over the rhythm Yanvalou, another 6/8, 3-drum Rada beat, one of the most well-known rhythms and dances in the traditional Haitian repertoire,” says Schwartz. “My drumming is informed mostly by the Yanvalou drumming language, and drummer Jeff Ballard is playing freely, yet inside the groove.” The recording also includes “Tanbou Ti-Roro” a tribute to the legendary Haitian drummer known as Ti-Roro (Raymond Ballargau), who was a powerful influence on the master drummer Max Roach, who traveled to Haiti to study with Ti-Roro.

Trinidad and Tobago

Always stylishly topped with a narrowly-brimmed fedora, trumpeter Etienne Charles’s growing prominence is linked to the evident bliss he puts into his performances and his skill at transforming an audience attitude into a carnival atmosphere, though his music is thoroughly immersed in the improvisational principles of jazz. In his series of recordings on the Culture Shock label Charles’s music has incorporated everything from the traditional carnival chants of figures like Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon) and Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) to Bob Marley to re-imaginings of songs of the calypso king Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco). Growing up in Port-of-Spain, “there was lots of improvisatory music around,” says Charles, “lots of calypsos with improvising, steel pan and many players fusing jazz and calypso. I’m heavily inspired by the classic calypso arrangers, the folk drummers, storytellers, dancers and calypsonians.” Charles’s latest recording, aptly titled Creole Soul (Culture Shock) employs the haunting voice of Erol Josue, a Haitian Houngan (voodoo priest) who practices in Brooklyn, on the two-part title track.

Etienne Charles playing trumpet in a recording studio

Etienne Charles in the recording studio.

That disc also includes his original “Roots,” which is steeped in a rhythmic tradition from Martinique (ancestral home of his great-grandfather) known as belair. Elsewhere Etienne investigates the Haitian mascaron rhythmic tradition, which “inspired the melody and underlying grooves for ‘Midnight,’” the trumpeter reports. The product of a conservatory jazz education, Charles studied at Florida State under Marcus Roberts and completed his graduate studies in the Juilliard jazz program. He currently holds an assistant professorship in jazz studies at Michigan State University.
U.S. Virgin Islands

Ron Blake holding a saxophone

Ron Blake

Tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, who has worked with such notables as Jack DeJohnette, Christian McBride, and Regina Carter, grew up in St. Thomas where his father Tom Blake, an ardent jazz enthusiast, laid Cannonball Adderley’s “Phenix” on him for his 10th birthday after the youngster expressed an interest in playing saxophone. “I think I gravitated towards jazz eventually in my youth because the saxophone was featured more. My [island] heritage influences my musical style and composition entirely. I think that my preference for the most melodic solutions in my soloing and the way I think about composing, even when I’m writing something based on Caribbean grooves, is based in some way on my Caribbean heritage,” Blake insists. Hearing Sonny Rollins dig into his “St. Thomas” celebration of familial roots was an early inspiration for young Ron.

Dion Parson at drumset holding sticks with sea in the background

Dion Parson

In ’08 Blake and fellow St. Thomas musician drummer Dion Parson formed the 21st Century Band, featuring several Virgin Islands’ born musicians, including the dexterous bassist Reuben Rogers and steel pannist Victor Provost. The band enjoys annual weeklong residencies at Dizzy’s in New York, where their second release was recorded. “I was not really exposed to jazz until I was 14 years old,” confesses Parson. “The first jazz group I heard was the Rutgers University Jazz Professors. They came to the University of the V.I. and did a concert and I was completely blown away because I had no idea what these guys were playing.” Hearing that band, which comprised such masters as Frank Foster, Kenny Barron, Ted Dunbar, Larry Ridley, and Philly Joe Jones, convinced Parson to further his studies at Rutgers. After Rutgers, working with New Orleans saxophonist (and Black Indian) Big Chief Donald Harrison on his “Nouveau Swing” record “opened me up to pursuing my Caribbean culture from a musical standpoint,” says Parson.

Reginald Cyntje playing trombone

Reginald Cyntje

The brawny-toned St. Thomas-born trombonist Reginald Cyntje, who matriculated through Howard University’s jazz program, has also performed with the 21st Century Band. Currently based in D.C., Cyntje found jazz through a savvy band director back home. “After learning the mechanics of the instrument,” recalls Cyntje, “I began meeting older musicians, most of whom were jazz musicians. But they played jazz with a Caribbean accent. I heard many jazz standards growing up but they were played with a calypso rhythm. I come from a culture that is strongly influenced by Rastafarian and African traditions. Virgin Islands traditional music is the root of all my current explorations. My latest album [Elements of Life] is a concept album connecting the elements to the human spirit. In many ancient philosophies the five elements were used to connect the cosmos to the internal organs,” asserts Cyntje. “‘Elements of Life’ (title track) is influenced by Quelbe music,” from his homeland, as is his original “Wind.” Quelbe is a folkloric tradition that is known as the official music of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The album also engages the steel pan mastery of Victor Provost, who hails from St. John, V.I.

Here’s a comprehensive demonstration detailing the Quelbe tradition by Virgin Islands musicologist Francis Callwood:


Saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart is the product of a multi-cultural, literary upbringing. The son of two celebrated authors, Guadeloupian novelist Simone Schwarz-Bart and the late French-Jewish novelist Andre Schwarz-Bart, he grew up in Guadeloupe and Switzerland, before moving to France as a young adult. A late bloomer he didn’t encounter the tenor saxophone until he was 24, but his immersion was deep enough to land him a scholarship to Berklee. “I was heavily exposed to all kinds of Caribbean music from birth, and my favorite styles were the roots music Gwo-ka [Guadeloupian hand drums which have inspired a vibrant rhythmic tradition], and Haitian voodoo music. When I became a working jazz musician, I was constantly trying to find a language that would express both sources harmoniously. My record Sonekala [2007 Emarcy] was the first mature expression of this research, as it integrated jazz and Gwo-ka music.”

Gwo-ka is a family of indigenous Guadeloupian hand drums characterized by seven rhythms. The largest of these drums plays the central rhythm while the smaller of the drums embellishes the rhythm, characterized by seven rhythms or dances.
On a 2006 journey with NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston and his African Rhythms quintet to Guadeloupe, as part of the book project that yielded Weston’s autobiography African Rhythms, a musical meeting was arranged between Weston and the Gwo-ka master drummer Kafe. Arriving at the auditorium for the initial encounter between these two masters, we were taken aback by the onstage sight of a complete set of Gwo-ka drums connected in the manner of a traditional drumset, with Kafe seated at the drums much as a trap drummer might, but immersed in distinctive rhythmic traditions of Guadeloupe.
Neil Clarke, the African Rhythms hand drummer and a tireless student of global rhythmic traditions, was subsequently invited back to Guadeloupe to further immerse himself in the Gwo-ka tradition. Neil wrote about that experience .

CD cover for Jacques Schwarz-Bart-'s Abyss featuring a photo of Schwarz-Bart's face in shadow

The CD Cover for Jacques Schwarz-Bart’s Abyss

The title track on Schwarz-Bart’s ’09 release Abyss (Oblique) is the clearest representation of the Gwo ka tradition. Schwarz-Bart describes his latest, the brilliant Jazz Racine Haiti (Motema) as coming “from a fascination with Haitian voodoo chants,” representative of the Haitian racine or rasin ritual, a music forged in the 1970s. Like his frequent collaborator Etienne Charles, Schwarz-Bart also engages the distinctive Haitian folkloric vocalist Erol Josue on his latest recording. “From the Gwo-ka tradition I use a lot of lewoz (war rhythms), toumbiak, Mende, pdjanbel, woule, graj, and Kaladja” rhythms, the saxophonist explains. “From the voudou tradition I use a lot of petwo, Mahi, dahomey, Maskawon, Kongo, Djouba, Yanvalou, and Alfranchi.”

A demonstration of Kongo, courtesy Jean Caze

As musicians from across the globe learn the principles of jazz (many through exported jazz education programs and the vivid and impactful messages carried forth by touring jazz artists and jazz festivals), and view the music through the lens of their various diverse cultures and adapt elements of jazz tradition and expression to their indigenous musical traditions, jazz becomes a true music of the world. Clearly the work of these artists and others of their peers is building yet another branch on the jazz tree; on the limb marked “Caribbean.”

Swinging the Machine

feature 58-38Bandleader and crimefighter Swing Sisson encounters a critic in Feature Comics #58 (July 1942).

Deems Taylor—composer, critic, narrator of Fantasia, well-known classical music personality of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s—didn’t much care for jazz, a dislike he took pains to present as airy unconcern. In his book The Well-Tempered Listener, Taylor examined the practice of “swinging the classics,” making jazz band versions of classical chestnuts. This sort of thing had apparently exercised enough indignation that the president of the Bach Society of New Jersey, Taylor reported, sent a letter to the FCC proposing penalties for radio stations that broadcast such numbers. Taylor gave that suggestion a sympathetic shrug:

If you’re going to suspend the license of a broadcasting station for permitting Bach to be played in swing time, what are you going to do to a station for permitting swing music to be played at all? (You might offer the owner of the station his choice of either listening to nothing but swing for, say, twelve hours, or else spending a month in jail.) You can’t legislate against bad taste.

Taylor’s solution was musical rope-a-dope, completely certain that the unaltered classical repertoire would win out. “I believe in letting people hear these swing monstrosities because I believe that it’s the best method of getting rid of them,” he concluded. “A real work of art is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is.”

Jazz has been taking it on the chin lately, prompted by some questionable bits of “satire” that seemed to give tacit permission for a lot of people to assert insecurity as vindication. Jazz is boring. It’s insular. Nobody really likes it. People only listen to it so other people will think they’re cool. And so forth. As someone whose purview is mainly classical and modernist music, I can only say: pull up a chair and have a drink, we’ve already got a tab going.

The only slice of this commentary worth engaging with was John Halle’s broadside against the current state of jazz vis-à-vis progressive politics, mainly because it replaced the shallow context of a consumerist apologia with the rather more interesting context of a radical critique. (Halle’s thesis: “It’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset.”) But at the core of the article was an assumption about score and performance that is a cousin of Taylor’s. Here’s the crucial passage:

A nadir of obliviousness was reached by the legendary tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson through the inclusion of the standard “Without a Song” in a sequence of classic recordings paying tribute to the then-dominant Black Power movement. Some of the titles of the albums are “Power to the People,” “In Pursuit of Blackness,” “If You’re not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” and “Black is the Color.” So it is more than a little disturbing, in this context, to encounter [in the lyrics of “Without a Song”] the vile Jim Crow racism of the second phrase: “A darky’s born/ but he’s no good no how / without a song.”

As many have pointed out, there’s some slippery cause-and-effect in this paragraph. The album on which Henderson recorded “Without a Song”—1967’s The Kicker—actually predates the more politically centered albums Halle mentions by a couple of years. And Henderson probably knew the song from versions where the lyrics were changed (most notably Billy Eckstine’s suave 1945 recording) or not even there (as with Sonny Rollins’s version on his 1962 album The Bridge).

But the passage also argues a kind of one-way street between intent and performance. The implication is that, no matter Henderson’s intention, the performance is politically regressive because of the original lyrics. The assumption is that the composer’s (or lyricist’s) intent remains paramount, that even a thoroughly transformative performance is still just a reiteration of that intent. To echo Taylor, even a poor work of art, it seems, is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is. There is another possibility, though: the possibility that, no matter Henderson’s intention (or Eckstine’s, or Rollins’s), the performance can offset the lyrics, simply by virtue of who is doing the performing—and how.

* * *

Here’s an interesting thing. Take two weights, connect them with a string, then run the string over a pulley, like this—
You can intuitively guess what will happen: if both weights have the same mass, they’ll just hang there, but if one has more mass, it’ll pull the other through the pulley. This seems trivial, but it’s not, not entirely—which is why the Rev. George Atwood, a tutor at Cambridge’s Trinity College, invented this apparatus in the late 1700s, the better to teach principles of classical mechanics. Playing around with Atwood’s machine, students could measure and learn about rates of acceleration, string tension, inertial forces, and the like. One thing that you can determine with Atwood’s machine is that, in the case of unequal masses (and assuming the pulleys are frictionless), the acceleration on both weights is constant and uniform. In other words, if the masses are equal, the system is at equilibrium, but if the masses are unequal, it’s a runaway system, the weights flying through the pulley, ever faster, until they run out of string or vertical space.

But if you take the two weights, run the string over two pulleys, and start the smaller weight swinging back and forth, like this—
—some unexpected things start to happen. The swinging weight, via centrifugal force—more pedantically, via the apparent force that results from interpreting a rotating reference frame as an inertial frame (somebody would have left a comment)—counteracts some of the gravitational pull on the larger mass. Which means that the Swinging Atwood’s Machine (as it was dubbed by Nicholas Tufillaro, the physicist who first started playing around with such systems back in the 1980s) can end up doing some very counterintuitive things. Even if the masses are unequal, the system can still reach an equilibrium, the smaller mass locking into periodic and sometimes seriously funky orbits:

TufillaroFig4(From Nicholas B. Tufillaro, Tyler A. Abbott, and David J. Griffiths, “Swinging Atwood’s Machine,” Am. J. Phys. 52 (10), October 1984)

To summarize: if you have two unequal masses that are inextricably bound to each other, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the larger mass always dominates the system. The smaller can still counterbalance the larger. It just needs to swing.

* * *

LennysMahler6Leonard Bernstein’s score of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, from the New York Philharmonic’s digital archives.

It’s only a metaphor, of course. Then again, most writing and talking about music ends up, before too long, at metaphors. “Swing” itself, musically speaking, is a pretty vague concept. It has to do with rhythm, but it has to do with so much more than rhythm: it considers the flow of musical experience through the lenses of momentum and vitality. In its most poetic sense, the metaphor is ecumenical. Those old “Mahler Grooves” bumper stickers could be at once a cheeky incongruity and a recognition that, in its own way, and in a good performance, Mahler could indeed groove, that the symphonies could swing in the grandest sense. But even in the term’s more technical sense—that calibration of the ratio between stressed and unstressed notes—“swing” hearkens all the way back to the old Baroque inégale: a variance, a perturbation, a dance of emphasis and de-emphasis that pulls the music forward.

All performance is a matter of emphasis and de-emphasis; it is, on one level, about choice. And, thanks to music’s singular strangeness—grammar and eloquence forever in search of content and meaning—that choice can extend far beyond technical choices on the part of the musicians. Take the case of classical music’s great Beleth, Richard Wagner, who embodied the human possibilities of greatness and ugliness to an exceptionally intense degree. Because his medium was music, performing and listening to Wagner’s work is an opportunity to choose the greatness over the ugliness. When Rollins and Henderson perform “Without a Song,” it is an opportunity to choose the charm and potential of the melody over the reflexive stereotyping of the lyrics. From an optimistic vantage, this ongoing process of choice might be thought of as practice, training players and audience to imagine a better world, the better to achieve it. A pessimist could point out (quite rightly) that such training is taking an awfully long time to translate into concrete change.

We live in a machine. Its gears are money and power. Inequality—greed, racism, misogyny, discrimination—remain institutionalized and persistent. The music this article has been talking about is, culturally speaking, on the margins, however luxurious; maybe to expect these musics, old or new, to alter the fabric of society, however incrementally, is excessively idealistic. (Confession: in that regard, I am an idealist.) But just in their performance, in jazz’s constant reinvention and classical’s constant re-creation, they mount a defense. In swinging, they swing the machine. They mitigate their lesser mass. They, perhaps, prevent the whole system from running away to a catastrophic end. Or, at least, they keep us from being pulled helplessly through the machine.
In a letter published in the February 1941 issue of the Music Educators Journal, a woman named Rosamond Tanner took Deems Taylor to task over his disdain for swing. On the contrary, Tanner insisted, swing versions of the classics were a great way to introduce children to the repertoire: “When the classics are expressed in a form that is understandable and typical of our present day trends and interests, then they are loved and understood, and their themes are not forgotten.” Actually, this is not really that far from Taylor’s position; the end goal is still to eventually encounter the classics in their original form. But Tanner at least emphasized experiencing the classics in performance as much as simply knowing them, instilling in a hypothetical listener the desire “to go to a concert because he knows that concert holds something personal for him—a bond of understanding between him and the music.”

A few years later, Rosamond Tanner, an Eastman-educated organist and a veteran provider of background music for New York City cocktail lounges, was hired for an unusual gig: she became the house organist for the 86th Street branch of the Manhattan Savings Bank, performing for a few hours every day from a balcony overlooking the banking floor. With most banks—including the other branches of the Manhattan Savings Bank—having already adopted piped-in Muzak, Tanner’s job was quirky enough to gain her a mention in “The Talk of the Town” section of the April 24, 1948, issue of The New Yorker. Tanner was hardly a subversive. She was pleased to report how many more accounts the branch had brought in since she had started playing. But give her credit: she could see the machine, and she could see the effect performance could have on it. “I’m a lot more than an entertainer,” she told the magazine. “I’m supposed most of all to offset all the cold-blooded marble and iron bars downstairs.”
*Homepage featured image courtesy Petras Gagilas via Flickr

DarwinTunes and Cultural Reductionism

In 2012, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper with the thought-provoking title “Evolution of music by public choice.”[1] The research, led by Robert M. MacCallum, presented an environment—cleverly entitled DarwinTunes—in which a variety of short, looped sounds were capable of reproducibility, thus generating newer sounds based on certain qualities of the offspring’s progenitors. This so-called evolution was possible with help from almost 7,000 people who, on a five-point scale (“I can’t stand it” to “I love it”), had the fate of the sound loops in their hands. The samples that were most liked survived and had offspring, while the others died and had no further evolutional impact.[2] While MacCallum’s research might lead to an array of interesting implications from a scientific standpoint, it neglects a number of issues that I find significant if we wish to ponder the necessity for such a connection between music and evolution.

The DarwinTunes research claims that “a simple Darwinian process can produce music.”[3] However, it is quite difficult to say which specific samples have evolved more than others when all of them (older and newer generations) are in 4/4 and have the same tempo as well as the same pitch center for the most part—most perceivable changes are both textural and timbral in nature, while some also show a few melodic changes. In other words, if someone were to ask me whether a sound loop is more evolved than another one from the study’s pool of thousands of samples, I would not find myself capable of responding correctly. That is not to say, according to the experiment, that there was not indeed sonic change—undeniably, metamorphosis took place and produced different objective results over time.

In part, biological evolution precisely consists in the ability of a living entity to survive in an unfriendly context. In the case of DarwinTunes, those samples learned to pull through in a situation in which consumer choice set the rules for adaptability. In other words, we may speak of evolution solely within this experiment because the environment where the samples struggled was clearly defined. Music, nonetheless, is a complex cultural product that cannot be treated only as an art of sound organization—many other disciplines of human knowledge contribute a more satisfactory definition to music. Stating that DarwinTunes proves that “selection rapidly evolves music from noise,”[4] among other dubious claims, is problematic to say the least. Therefore, evolution via sexual intercourse might have influenced the development of the sound samples at stake, but such a conclusion cannot be extrapolated to the general evolution—for lack of a better term—of music.

On the other hand, media coverage of the DarwinTunes research may be perceived as a mirror of how our society generally interprets music. Rachel Ehrenberg from Science News writes: “Evolution makes noise into music […] Inspired in part by long-running experiments probing the evolution of bacteria, computational biologist Bob MacCallum and colleagues decided to see if pleasant music could evolve from a cacophonous mess when human listeners acted as the force of natural selection.”[5] Science also presents the study with the headline “Computer Program ‘Evolves’ Music from Noise.”[6] The Los Angeles Times introduces the topic from a slightly different perspective: “DarwinTunes software ‘evolves’ music without composers.” Later on, it goes into saying: “Composers, look to your laurels: A mere computer program can transform a racket of clangs, hums and beeps into a pleasing melody.”[7] Along the same lines, the BBC News headline says: “Music evolution: Is this the end of the composer?”[8] Moreover, the headline of The Sydney Morning Herald ironically claims “With DarwinTunes, who needs composers?” and ends up stating that “pleasant enough music had evolved out of the original noise, […] with chords, rhythms and rather repetitive tunes that would not be out of place in a modern pop song.”[9] mood:blog also announces that “starting with sine waves, MacCallum and Leroi used audience participation (a rating system) to shift the sounds until [they created] more pleasing rhythms and melodies.”[10] Even MacCallum and his colleagues ask themselves in the paper: “What makes the loops of later generations so much more pleasing? The aesthetic value of a given piece of music depends on many different features, such as consonance, rhythm, and melody.”[11]
Media coverage of DarwinTunes
A recurring idea that appears in the vast majority of such media coverage is pleasantness. The only piece of information I have been able to pinpoint that finds the results of the study a little odd is by Michael Scott Cuthbert, a professor at MIT. Cuthbert argues that “[the research] doesn’t give any information about why music sounded differently in the past, why people like different things today, or how music might evolve in the future.”[12] Indeed, it is quite fascinating that this generalized, implicit discourse about the pleasantness of music leads to the unquestioned belief that real musical evolution does exist beyond the study. One of the most explicit examples of this conviction comes from Mark Pagel, a professor of biology at the University of Reading:

We often think that the classic songs are the best and nothing can improve on them. This just shows you the outcome of this great, sorting power of cultural evolution because the Radio 2 listeners are listening to songs that are the survivors of an earlier era; they were the best of their generation and they get played over and over and over again because they were the forms that were the best at competing for our attention. When those songs that we listen to on Radio 2 were first produced in the 70s or in the 60s, there were tens of thousands of other songs at the same time that weren’t as good and we’ve forgotten about them.[13]

The level of blatant reductionism is alarming. I do not have the space to delve deeply into the many issues that Pagel raises, but we certainly should not forget that things are not this simple: Adorno, Benjamin, Finkielkraut, Flotzinger, Harvey, Luhmann, and even Marx (among many others!) have seriously studied music and other artistic disciplines from a variety of perspectives in order to shed some light on whether some aesthetic patterns are more culturally relevant than others. Perhaps one should be more careful before publicly sharing certain views.

A first, dual conclusion could be drawn from both the original paper and its press coverage: (1) more evolved music (I am not sure what this means yet) is more pleasant and (2) music and noise are clearly opposed entities—we might want to ask Hijokaidan, Borbetomagus, or Phil Julian what they think about this dichotomy.[14] To the researchers’ credit, it does seem though that humans have a tendency to search for a certain degree of pleasantness while listening to music, whether the music is noisy or not. When asked why he makes noise music, Lasse Marhaug responded: “Because I like it. I enjoy the sound of dense electronic overload, feedback, and distortion. I like how noise both offers a space to move around freely within, and a feeling that engulfs you. It pleases me both emotionally and intellectually.”[15] Kasper Toeplitz was asked the same question and wrote back: “Then into my life came Japanoise, and noise in general, and music was exciting again! The long developments (more architecture than ‘proper music’), the pure physicality of the sounds (and not their ‘function,’ as you have in rock, jazz, etc.), and the passion. […] It is also good to add that it is one of the purest expressions of beauty, this music. Or pure ugliness, maybe, which makes it beautiful.”[16] I suspect that when the DarwinTunes researchers claim to be able to evolve pleasing loops from noise, they are basing their use of the word “pleasing” on a very particular tradition that by no means is shared by the entirety of humanity. The lack of acknowledgement of their own cultural bias is highly problematic and may lead some readers to question the role of musical evolution even within the framework of the study.

Another shaky issue that MacCallum et al. attempt to answer is whether composers are needed in order to make music. They conclude that “the ability to download, manipulate, and distribute music via social-networking sites has democratized the production of music and may change the balance of [the specialist guilds of composers and performers]. In partitioning these selective forces, our analysis points the way to the future evolutionary dynamics of digital culture.”[17] If we were to understand the figure of the composer as a Romantic, subjective creative force, perhaps it would make sense to claim that the DarwinTunes samples evolved without the need of an independent mind at work deliberately trying to achieve a specific sounding goal. However, composition has changed tremendously since the times of Beethoven. John Cage had already introduced chance operations in the 1950s, thus removing himself from the final audible result. A close collaborator of Cage, David Tudor created his own homemade, complex electronic circuits in order to generate unpredictable sonic outcomes. Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise is arguably one of the most interpretable scores that has been written. Back in the 1990s, Jeremy Leach and John Fitch worked together on XComposer, an intelligent composition software that was capable of generating its own melodic lines. Peter Ablinger, with help from Winfried Ritsch and Thomas Musil, designed Deus Cantando, an installation piece in which a computer-controlled piano generates purely acoustical sounds that resemble a human voice speaking. What I mean to show with these examples is that highly processed compositional procedures—in which the final outcome is not necessarily known by the composer—have been common for decades. As a matter of fact, as long as we understand current compositional practices through the lens of contemporaneity, it would be quite easy to argue that MacCallum and his colleagues were the actual composers of DarwinTunes.

At least for now, I do not think composers are going anywhere.


1. Robert M. MacCallum et al., “Evolution of music by public choice,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, 30 (2012): 12081–12086.

2 A compilation of these samples may be listened to on DarwinTunes’ Soundcloud site:

3 MacCallum et al., 12085.

4 Ibid., 12081.

5 Rachel Ehrenberg, “Evolution makes noise into music,” Science News 182, 2 (July 2012): 12.

6 “Computer Program ‘Evolves’ Music From Noise,” Science, accessed September 3, 2014,

7 “DarwinTunes software ‘evolves’ music without composers,” Los Angeles Times, accessed September 3, 2014,

8 “Music evolution: Is this the end of the composer?,” BBC News, accessed September 3, 2014,

9 “With DarwinTunes, who needs composers?,” The Sydney Morning Herald, accessed September 3, 2014,

10 “The Goods: DarwinTunes,” mood:blog, accessed September 3, 2014,

11 MacCallum et al., 12082.

12 “Tunes without composers: music naturally evolves on DarwinTunes,” Discover, accessed September 3, 2014, on-darwintunes/

13 Armand Leroi, Darwin’s Tunes, podcast audio, August 8, 2012,

14 These artists are known for their noisy, loud music.

15 Aaron Cassidy and Aaron Einbond, edit., Noise In And As Music (Huddersfield, United Kingdom: The University of Huddersfield Press, 2013): 129.

16 Ibid., 145-146.

17 MacCallum et al., 12086.


Joan Arnau Pàmies

Joan Arnau Pàmies

The music of Joan Arnau Pàmies (IPA: [d͡ʒu’ɑnəɾ’nɑu’pɑmiəs]) emerges from underlying issues related to text, sonic outcome, and the distinction between composition and interpretation as categorically different activities. Pàmies explores unconventional notational strategies in order to develop intricate formal processes. He is currently pursuing a D.M.A. at Northwestern University with Hans Thomalla as his doctoral advisor.

Mormon Music after the “Mormon Moment”

Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Organ

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (Public domain photo via Wikimedia.)

The lead-up to the 2012 U.S. presidential election seemed to be the apex of what some called the “Mormon Moment,” with story after story in the news about various aspects of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormons). But even outside of the national electoral spotlight, Mormon politicians and entrepreneurs and thinkers (as well as crooks and crackpots) continue to make headlines. Furthermore, Neon Trees frontman Tyler Glenn, a former Mormon missionary, recently came out of the closet in the pages of Rolling Stone, convert Gladys Knight is on Broadway, and married Mormon Jeff Zausch recently ventured into the wild, in the buff (and with a woman not his wife) on Naked and Afraid – to name just a few. “Mormon Studies” has emerged as a serious academic discipline on university campuses and even the Mormon share of the teen lit market continues to expand. Maybe it wasn’t a moment; we’ve just reached critical mass. I’m old enough to remember when even a passing reference to Mormons in the media became fodder for breathless foyer chat in my own LDS congregation on Sundays; now it’s weird if there’s not a Mormon on So You Think You Can Dance.

CD cover for Gladys Knight's Another Journey

Gladys Knight’s most recent album, Another Journey was released in 2013.

So then, with LDS names popping up everywhere else, where, in this enduring Mormon Moment, are the Mormon composers? That’s a tricky question. Eminent composer and historian Michael Hicks identifies a number of the most prominent figures, at least through the 1980s, in his authoritative history of music in the LDS Church. Glen Nelson, a polymath LDS impresario/publisher/librettist who runs Mormon Artists Group in New York, keeps tabs on current Mormon composers internationally and actively promotes their work. In other words, such a thing exists.

Cover of book Mormonism and Music

It’s been over a decade since the University of Illinois Press published Michael Hicks’s book, Mormonism and Music.

But until fairly recently, the Mormon composers who were known as such weren’t, frankly, all that known outside of Mormon circles. Conversely, those who were more well-known as composers weren’t readily identified with their native religion. Who were these composers whose music (and/or whose Mormonism) had gone unrecognized? And who were the Mormon composers today whose work warranted attention from the wider musical world?
So interested was I in answering this question that I actually undertook a years-long fieldwork project, going so far as to secure employment in the School of Music of the church’s flagship university. (No, that wasn’t really the impetus for my relocation to Utah and Brigham Young University, but it did nonetheless put me in the position of the ethnomusicological “participant-observer”: I hear Mormon composers making or talking about music all day long—quite often, through the walls of my office.)
But before considering the music of my colleagues and their contemporaries, a brief history is in order.

Mormon Composers?

Mormonism is a relatively young religion, which means questions of literal, proximate historicity dominate notions of belief and identity for most Mormons; whereas adherents of other religions are somewhat insulated from the seeming outlandishness of their faiths’ miraculous claims by expanses of time and layers of accumulated history and myth, Mormons’ supernatural stories are less than two centuries old. It’s one thing to believe (or “believe,” in whatever way suits) that God appeared to Moses on a distant mountain thousands of years ago; quite another believe that he also appeared in 1820 to a fourteen-year-old boy in the woods four miles north of I-90 in western New York. As a result, many who were raised in the faith but have become doubtful or agnostic about its claims or disenchanted with it organizationally seem less inclined to maintain an explicit sense of Mormon identity than do, say, less-observant Jews. (Hollywood, for example, is lousy with lapsed Mormon actors, but you don’t hear Ryan Gosling or Amy Adams talking about their Mormon pasts nearly as much as Jon Stewart or Sarah Silverman talk about Judaism.)

Sacred Grove Entrance

Palmyra, New York, site of Mormonism’s origins. (Photo CC by Jake from Flickr via Wikimedia.)

Mormonism has produced a handful of notable composers who have worn their religion on their sleeves, as it were. Several of the most important Mormon composers of the 20th century worked for church institutions, answered commissions for church productions, and composed works that conveyed explicit religious messages or drew on scriptural or church-historical narratives. But despite some fleeting bursts of notoriety, most of these composers did not have a profound and lasting impact on the wider musical world. On the other hand, a few other composers from Mormon backgrounds have garnered greater attention and exercised significant influence, but that influence hasn’t been perceived as being particularly Mormon because they have not presented themselves to the world as “Mormon composers” per se.

Curiously, though, it seems to me that some of the composers least connected with the institutional church and least interested in explicitly articulating anything particularly Mormon through their music are those who have incorporated, on the molecular level of compositional practice, certain techniques and aesthetic mindsets most resonant with the more mystical strands of Mormon imagination. Conversely, those composers who have enlisted music most explicitly in the articulation of Mormon identity—who draw on Mormon historical and scriptural themes, such as Leroy Robertson, Crawford Gates, and Merrill Bradshaw—seem to have adopted musical languages without any sonic devices particularly identifiable as Mormon. As the musical proselytizers of their faith, they have tended to employ neoromantic tonality as a musical lingua franca.
Mormons, Music, and the Quest for Normalcy
Mormonism in the 19th century was marked by its strangeness. Joseph Smith’s followers fled persecution in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois before establishing their secluded Zion in the Salt Lake Valley. Their additional books of scripture, their unorthodox cosmology, and their practice of polygamy until around the turn of the 20th century all reinforced their outcast status. However, in the 20th century, Mormonism made a dramatic and concerted effort to establish itself as part of the American mainstream, and music played an enormous role in this effort. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, an outsized version of the traditional church choir, was eventually heard on millions of radios and television sets. A generational succession of Mormon family musical groups rose to fame, including the Kings, the Osmonds, the Jets, and several family shows in Branson, Missouri. This echoed Mormons’ increasing presence in politics and industry. An image of Mormonism emerged that not only was compatible with the prototypically “normal” American nuclear family, but in fact exemplary of it. (Indeed, some argued that Romney’s electoral prospects were diminished by his projection of a seemingly caricaturistic—and caricaturistically Mormon—midcentury, white, American hypernormalcy.)

Osmonds in 1973

The Osmonds in 1973. (From a CC photo album by Heinrich Klaffs on Flickr.)

Mormons have always zealously sought to embrace the identity of the “peculiar people” described in scripture—a chosen group destined and designed to remain apart from the rest of society to some degree. But at the same time, the church’s proselytizing aspirations and sophisticated media efforts try to establish an outward identity that resonates with the lives of potential converts. Mormonism simultaneously seeks both to fit into and to distinguish itself from the world. “Mormons want to be totally different and also totally normal,” my friend Jacob Baker, a Mormon philosopher, once quipped. “We’re the teenagers of religions.” This dual identity can be discerned in the musical works of Mormonism’s favorite sons (and the wayward ones, too).

Music was central to the Mormons’ effort to “make the desert blossom as a rose” during their settlement of Utah and nearby regions in the second half of the 19th century. Stories abound of pioneers taking great pains to transport musical instruments across the plains while leaving so many other belongings behind.  (My own family tree includes a great-great uncle, John Grimshaw, a multi-instrumentalist who took a liking to the xylophone but, unable to find or afford one in rural southern Utah, used his perfect pitch to carve one out of wagon wheel spokes.) Converts from abroad were encouraged to bring music with them when they emigrated, and a handful of second- and third-generation Mormons made a reverse trek for conservatory training in Europe or the eastern U.S., several of them at the New England Conservatory. Early efforts at cultural cultivation produced a number of local legends in the early 1900s. Evan Stephens (1854-1930), an early director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, penned dozens of hymns and other works. B. Cecil Gates, a grandson of Brigham Young, composed several choral and orchestral works, including an oratorio on the story of Mormon founder Joseph Smith titled The Restoration and a Christmas cantata, The Shepherd’s Vision.

Evan Stephens

Evan Stephens, hymn composer and early Tabernacle Choir conductor. (Photo in the public domain.)

Despite provincial notoriety, however, LDS composers struggled to attain a degree of recognition beyond Mormondom. One exception was Leigh Harline (1907-1969), a Utah native who more or less circumvented local validation by leaving Utah directly after college and establishing a career as one of Hollywood’s prolific composers; he scored dozens of films, including Snow White and Pinocchio for Disney. His authorship of “When You Wish Upon a Star” alone likely guarantees his status as the most-heard Mormon composer, even thoughfor the most part he operated outside of Mormon musical circles. Arthur Shepherd (1880-1958) likewise transcended local acclaim. After his studies at the New England Conservatory, he was coaxed back west to establish an orchestra in Salt Lake City. He composed a number of ambitious works while in Utah, including piano sonatas, concertos, symphonies, and the Overture Joyeuse, which garnered praise and landed performances in prominent national and international venues. But Shepherd’s general avoidance of explicitly Mormon themes in his music drew some criticism at home; eventually, after leaving Utah once again to become the assistant conductor of the Cleveland Symphony, he left Mormonism altogether. He maintained some connections with Mormon musical circles, however, which guarded his place on the internal cultural roster of prominent Mormon artists even after he left Utah to seek his artistic fortunes elsewhere.

Another Mormon trained at the New England Conservatory, Leroy Robertson (1896-1971), managed to gain a degree of international attention, albeit short-lived, for an explicitly religious work, the Oratorio from the Book of Mormon. Robertson’s completion of the work coincided roughly with the arrival in Salt Lake City of conductor Maurice Abravanel, who encouraged Robertson to put the finishing touches on it so he could program it. Having established a successful conducting career in Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera, Abravanel had ambitions to elevate the Utah Symphony from the community group it was at the time—an admirable but still amateur result of Arthur Shepherd’s earlier efforts—to a world-class orchestra. The cultivation of local music, and local good will, was part of his strategy. The Utah Symphony, along with a choir from the University of Utah, premiered Robertson’s Book of Mormon Oratorio in 1953 for an enthusiastic crowd. And as the symphony and Abravanel’s stock rose during the ensuing years, their increasingly impressive discography came to include two critically acclaimed recordings of Robertson’s oratorio, one for Vanguard (1961), the other for Columbia Masterworks (1978). Despite a few performances outside of Utah, however, the work did not find a wide and enduring audience.

Book of Mormon Oratorio LP cover

In 1978 Columbia Masterworks released an LP recording of Leroy Robertson’s Oratorio from the Book of Mormon performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel.

Robertson wrote in a generally tonal style, but with dramatic chromaticism, heavy doses of exoticist modality, and a Wagnerian modulatory and thematic flow–a sound that embodied his serious ambitions and modern training, but that also fell within the aesthetic reach of his co-congregants. This general sensibility was adopted and further developed by one of Robertson’s pupils, Crawford Gates, best known for his score to the Hill Cumorah Pageant, an enormous spectacle based on stories from the Book of Mormon and staged near the church’s birthplace in Palmyra, New York. While pursuing his doctoral degree at the Eastman School of Music in nearby Rochester, Gates was enlisted in 1953 to create a new, original score to accompany a reworkedscript for the production (and to replace the old soundtrack, which had been cobbled together from recorded excerpts of Wagner and Tchaikovsky). The result was a colorful and bombastic 78-minute orchestral and choral work, pre-recorded with dialogue overdub (lip-synced and pantomimed by the cast of hundreds) and played through loudspeakers for thousands of viewers. Gates was enlisted to update the production again when the script was reconceived in 1987.

This has made Gates one of Mormonism’s most-heard composers (probably second only to Harline’s Disney work). Upwards of 100,000 people see the show during the pageant’s week-long run each summer. Moreover, one of Gates’s most iconic leitmotifs has found an unexpected life beyond the pageant’s seasonal run. As part of their research for the hit Broadway show Book of Mormon, creators Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Bobby Lopez attended the pageant, which explains the moment in the song “I Believe” when, on the words “I am a Mormon,” the melody mirrors almost exactly the brass fanfare that opens the pageant, listed here as Prelude No. 2 in the concert version of the piece. (This was pointed out to me both by my BYU colleague Michael Hicks, who reviewed the musical (see p. 233), and by my wife, who heard the theme hundreds of times during the seven years we lived near Palmyra.)

A subsequent generation of LDS composers, many of them musical descendants of the New England Conservatory Mormons, have composed works in a generally similar neoromantic vein. Merrill Bradshaw, a student of Gates, penned The Restoration, an oratorio on Mormonism’s founding. A number of others, including Sam Cardon, Kurt Bestor, and Merrill Jenson, have prolifically applied their cinematic, neoromantic styles to music for film and television, and many younger LDS composers create music for various media and video games.  Even as pulpit sermons warn against the questionable morals proliferating in entertainment media, Mormonism seems to produce more than its share of media-makers.

Still, most of these composers comprising what we might call the “Mormon mainstream,” though known among Mormons and, to an extent, within the commercial music industry, are for the most part neither well-known among the general public nor much-discussed in the wider art music world. I suspect that a centuries-long collective yearning for normalcy produces music that is likewise “normal.” This works well in the commercial realm, or for devotional music meant for believers, or for in-house media or proselytizing purposes, but it’s difficult to simultaneously blend in with a crowd and stand out from it. One might say about musicians what Mormon feminist historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said about women: well-behaved composers seldom make history.

Music and the Mormon Mystical

While mainstream Mormons primarily made music for Mormon audiences (or what they saw as potentially Mormon audiences) or found footing in the commercial music industries, a number of 20th century composers from Mormon backgrounds who left the church’s orbit went on to develop more distinctive musical voices. Furthermore, certain exploratory conceptual interests shared among a handful of these composers suggest that they each gathered certain creative seeds from their early lives and developed those ideas musically, long after leaving behind the religious observances, ritual culture, and other trappings of their childhood religion. The fact that these ideas did not emerge from any actual dialogue between these composers suggests a deep and primarily unconscious influence that took root in their formative headspace.

Several years ago during my graduate studies I attempted to contact the composer La Monte Young in hopes of interviewing him for a term paper I was writing. While conducting research for a seminar on music and cosmology, I discovered that Young had been born into a Mormon family in southern Idaho; I had also come across comments in interviews and liner notes suggesting that his native religious background had informed the eclectic spirituality of his music. My own Mormon-corridor provenance, coupled with my keen interest in minimalism and the relative dearth of scholarship on Young, made his life and music an appealing research topic.

 La Monte Young. Photo by Betty Freeman. (From NewMusicBox’s Betty Freeman Photo Gallery.)

La Monte Young. Photo by Betty Freeman. (From NewMusicBox’s Betty Freeman Photo Gallery.)

Getting him on the phone proved to be a challenge. (For all his focus on stasis, drones, and repetition, anyone who has called him knows that his voicemail message is an extended exercise in through-composition.) Finally, after several messages and attempts over the course of a few weeks, someone answered the phone. (I would realize later it was Young’s life partner and collaborator, the visual artist Marian Zazeela.) She recalled from my voicemail message that I was interested in Young’s Mormon background and wanted to know how serious I was about the topic. “What do you know about Mormons?” she asked. When I divulged that I was actually Mormon myself, her voice changed registers. “Oh, that makes things interesting,” she said. “Let me get him on the line.”

Thus began a decade-long dialogue about music, minimalism, and Mormonism, eventually leading to my doctoral dissertation and a monograph on Young’s life and works. My initial interest in Young’s Mormonism arose from his reference, in a handful of writings and interviews, to the Mormon cosmological emphasis on eternity and infinity—an interest echoed in the immense scope and cosmic patience of his works, as well as the mystical titles with which he labeled and described them. This early influence, he said, laid the foundation for his later mystical and musical explorations, particularly his intensive study of North Indian music. He affirmed this at the outset of our very first in-person interview, speaking about himself in the third person:

There’s no question in my mind … principles of Mormonism did play an enormous influential role in the shaping of La Monte Young and his music.
These concepts of eternity, that souls would be able to reunite, these kinds of concepts were especially intriguing to me. And so there’s no doubt in my mind for even a milli-nothing that they didn’t influence my first work with long-sustained tones and certainly my ideas that things could last for a long time. And sure, I was also gradually becoming acquainted with Eastern thought, but this probably began in the mid-’50s sometime, with reading haiku, and reading the Tao. But it was like something that was an old friend because of the way it had already been introduced to me in Mormonism.

As I examined his music more closely, particularly his magnum opus, The Well-Tuned Piano, and his and Zazeela’s ongoing sound and light installation, the Dream House, I discovered that another arguably Mormon element was at work in them, even though Young had not explicitly identified it as such. Young believed that his intense focus on musical materials at the most granular, fundamentally acoustical level allowed him to use sound to achieve a kind of psychoacoustic transcendence. The pathways that he described between the physical and metaphysical worlds traced a route that, I believed, hearkened back to one particular but utterly pervasive aspects of the Mormon worldview: the idea that there’s an ontological continuum between the mortal and spiritual worlds, and that glimpsing the divine meant to discern the inherent materiality of spirit and the inherent spirituality of matter. (In my book, I explore how this notion has influenced various figures in Mormon culture, from apostle and amateur astronomer Orson Pratt to preeminent acoustical innovator Harvey Fletcher, to a slew of LDS science fiction writers.) For Young, that meant transcending the symbolic or associative nature of musical gesture and, through highly esoteric tunings and other psychoacoustical methods, seek to embody divinity in a more direct way through sound. As I pursued this line of thought, Young pointed me in the direction of a couple of other composers that used related approaches to tuning and acoustics, both of whom, he had learned only a short time before, were also raised Mormon.

James Tenney came from a long line of Mormons, and, like Young, explored the subtle and entirely uncharted creative potential in highly specialized acoustical explorations. Works such as For Ann Rising and Critical Band became pillars of an approach I came to call “Acoustical Positivism.” Though Tenney spoke of his music in far less cosmic terms than Young did, he nonetheless recognized a certain poetic transcendence in the scientifically precise manipulation of sound—and, in my limited communication with him, expressed intrigue at the possibility of its connection to long-latent religious ideas. Another figure, Erv Wilson, descended from Mormons who settled in northern Mexico. He never became a well-known composer in his own right, but remains a highly influential and innovative tuning theorist and instrument builder. He’s reported to have imposed some of his musical ideas upon the LDS missionaries who would occasionally visit to try to coax him back to church. The longer I pursued this line of research the more I would hear from friends, colleagues, and composers about other Mormons (mostly lapsed or former ones), whose musical explorations took them into the realms of microtonality, alternate tunings, and psychoacoustics.
Surprisingly, after a decade of research on Young and his fellow ex-Mormon acoustical positivists, Young stridently distanced himself from the frontier mysticism of his childhood Mormonism, and began recasting his autobiography almost exclusively in terms of his relationship with his longtime guru of North Indian singing, Pandit Pran Nath. He withdrew support for the publication of my book, even going so far as to enumerate his complaints on a website, (Lesson to young musicologists writing about living composers: reserve your domain names.) As I’ve outlined in my responses to his complaints here and here, Mormonism’s public perception changed dramatically during the gestation of my book on Young: the mystical aspects that I believe sparked Young’s early imagination became overshadowed by its increasing association in the public eye with American social and political conservatism. In other words, Young’s autobiographical retreat from Mormonism was a response to the nature of its public arrival.

Mormon Music Post-Mormon-Moment

Perhaps the plateau of the Mormon Moment means that LDS musicians may have transcended the century-long quest for normalcy. Pop star and Killers frontman Brandon Flowers has become famous for his outlandish couture and commanding stage presence, even while dropping subtle lyrical and on-screen shout-outs to his religion (such as the obvious Joseph Smith pose, based on a familiar Sunday school illustration, at the climax of the “Only the Young” video). The Duluth band Low, formed by Mormon husband-and-wife team Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, present a twist on the Mormon family band model. Their version of domestic “normalcy” is not cosmetically flawless and clean-scrubbed in the Osmond mold, but gritty and unglamorously cool. Parker even seems to offer a critique of stereotypical Mormon female domesticity: she sometimes plays the drums standing up, as if stirring pots in a kitchen.

Photo of band Low inside church

Low (left to right): Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and Steve Garrington.

Mormon pop musicians seem inclined not only to subvert their faith’s homogenous cultural stereotypes, but to likewise challenge pop music’s libertine clichés. In recent years, Provo, Utah, has become an unusually successful incubator for bands—many of which have launched careers from Velour, an all-ages venue with so relaxed and reverent a vibe that the rowdiest crowd member might well be a toddler in footy pajamas. Velour also recently recognized the significant overlap between Provo’s art music and pop music scenes by hosting a performance by Gavin Ryan (full disclosure: a former student) of John Luther Adams’s 70-minute solo percussion piece, The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies.

Percussionist Gavin Ryan in performance

Gavin Ryan performing The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies for solo percussion by John Luther Adams at Velour, Provo, Utah, June 30, 2014. Photo by Mindy Burton. Used with permission.

Mormon composers in the art music world today also seem to have entered into an era of post-normalcy. In 2004, Mormon Artists Group (MAG) produced an eclectic piano suite titled Mormoniana, consisting of individual pieces by sixteen different LDS composers, each inspired by a different piece of visual art by an LDS painter or photographer. The collection included pieces by the formerly “mainstream” and traditionally devotional neoromantics, such as Crawford Gates and Robert Cundick, alongside rather more experimental contributions, such as a pointillistic rumination by composer/punk rocker/skateboarder Lansing McLoskey and an electroacoustic work by Todd Coleman. In an essay accompanying the collection “Toward (and Away From) The Mormonistic,” Michael Hicks suggested that if there’s a “Mormon style,” it is to resist identifying any particular style as such. “What is most delightfully Mormonistic about the visual and musical art presented here is that it is all over the aesthetic map.” He suggests that this is not a new, revolutionary type of Mormon culture, in rebellion against a century of assimilation, but rather a return to an older, less acquiescent Mormonistic attitude. He cited as his authority what was known in the 19th century as the “Mormon Creed,” a saying that appeared regularly in print, and, in one case, in stained glass in a temple: “Mind your own business. Saints will observe this. All others ought to.”

McLoskey in front of an elevator

Lansing McLoskey. (Photo by Raniero Tazzi, used with permission.)

I read Hicks’s essay years before returning to Utah, and wondered at the time if his claim, and Nelson’s project, was less a reflection of actual culture than an exercise in wishful thinking—a well-intentioned but overly optimistic effort to imagine an artistic climate more eclectic and diverse and accepting of difference than could reasonably be expected from a culture in which wearing a blue Oxford to Sunday services, instead of a white one, carries a hint of rebellion. I still wondered when we made the move west.Shortly after our arrival, I received an invitation to one of the regular house concerts hosted by one of my new colleagues, Christian Asplund, a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and tireless champion of experimental music and free improvisation. I was astonished to discover the ambitious and innovative music being made there by faculty, students, and visiting artists, in a living room in one of Provo’s quietest neighborhoods, for a shoulder-to-shoulder audience eating potluck from paper plates. By the end of the evening, Asplund was singing madly and passionately into the open grand piano while alternately playing the keyboard, manipulating children’s toys arrayed atop the strings, throwing ping-pong balls into the instrument’s interior, and noisily dropping handfuls of ball bearings onto the concrete floor.

Christian Asplund, part II of Let it Spin (2007)

In my new job I ended up in an office across the hall from Neil Thornock, whose soft-spoken demeanor veiled his capacity for creating utterly ferocious sounds with the least-soft-spoken of instruments. I became acquainted with the newest electroacoustic works of Steven Ricks, which draw variously on Mormon history, Thomas Pynchon, and Buddhist mysticism. (Full disclosure: I ended up writing the notes for these pieces on his Bridge release, Mild Violence.) I discovered Michael Hicks’s own music, having previously known him primarily for his prodigious music-historical work. And I was almost immediately befriended by David Sargent, the composer who, perhaps as much as any other, might be considered the grandfather of this new eclectic phase in Mormon art music. A student of Merrill Bradshaw at BYU during the 1960s, Sargent went on to complete graduate studies at the University of Illinois, then returned to BYU as a professor and mentored subsequent generations of composers (including most of the current faculty).

CD cover for Steven Ricks's Mild Violence

In 2008, Bridge Records released an all-Steven Ricks CD, Mild Violence.

It turns out Mormons have had a hand in contemporary music in other ways as well. Another colleague, Tom Durham, oversees the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, which commissions numerous works and sponsors one of the major annual composition contests in the United States. Biotech entrepreneur and arts advocate Glenn Cornett, a BYU alum, runs Spectrum, which has become one of New York’s cutting-edge new music venues.

Karl Gottfried Brunotte

Karl Gottfried Brunotte

Some of the most interesting developments in Mormon music, however, will be the ones brewing far from the Mormon Corridor and completely apart from the church’s musical institutions. An Australian-American music advocate, Glenn Gordon, organizes and promotes events and publications. Glen Nelson (yes, the Glens of Mormon music become tricky to track) has identified and networked with several LDS composers from Europe, most of whom are as yet unknown in American circles. From a friend who regularly attends the Stockhausen summer courses, I learned about the German LDS composer Karl Gottfried Brunotte, an eccentric regular there.

Leilei Tian

Leilei Tian

Another composer poised to take the music world by storm (and Mormons by surprise) is Leilei Tian. She studied at the Beijing Conservatory, continued her training in Sweden, and converted to Mormonism after moving to Paris to work at IRCAM. She has remained in Paris, and has worked steadily to fulfill an impressive string of commissions for major ensembles. Tian’s works are haltingly visceral and overtly spiritual, with echoes of Crumb, Messiaen, Varèse, and spectralism. Although her discussions of her music generally don’t address her Mormonism specifically or directly, she does speak about her music with an air of quiet premonition and humble but matter-of-fact transcendence, with unapologetic confidence in the sympathetic resonance between sound and spirit. Her vision even flirts with a rather Mormon sense of millennial utopia: post-temporal, post-cultural, post-mortal. As her website bio states:

In Leilei Tian’s music… there is no more conflict between tradition and modernity, occident and orient, masculine and feminine, drama and poetry, imagery and abstraction. For her, musical creation is not just a composition of sounds with various techniques, nor a mere esthetical product of a particular culture, but far beyond is the intuitive manifestation of one’s inner experience and content, namely one’s profound philosophical and spiritual expression that is universal and timeless in nature. Her pursuit for transcendental spirituality is the essential source that provides her inspiration, creativity, dynamic and meaning to her artistic works.

There’s Mormonism to be found there, certainly, but more universal than provincial, rendered in new language, and refreshingly and completely unencumbered by any Mormon musical history or Mormon-American cultural accumulation.

Sâdhana (2000) for grand orchestra. © by Leilei Tian. Streamed with permission of the composer.

For all the frontier patriarchs in the Mormon pantheon, for all the local-boys-made-good who returned from the New England Conservatory to write hymns and oratorios and soundtracks, and for all the effort to arrive at the typical, American, nuclear normal, wouldn’t it be something if the first person to embrace the role of Mormon musical mystic turned out to be a Parisian woman from China?

Some Recent Releases of Music by Mormons
Michael Hicks: Felt Hammers—The Complete Solo Piano Works 1982-2010, Keith Kirchoff, piano (Tantara TCD0314FHM)
Felt Hammers CD Cover

Michael Hicks is well-known as a prolific music historian, having authored books on Mormonism and music, psychedelic rock, Henry Cowell, and Christian Wolff. But he is also an active and influential composer. In this volume of solo piano works Hicks demonstrates an idiomatic diversity and nuanced tactility that pianist Keith Kirchoff, in his extensive and eloquent performer’s notes, describes as “music… about gesture.”
Here is Kirchoff’s live performance of one of the pieces featured on the disc, The Idea of Domes:

Lansing McLoskey: Specific Gravity—Chamber Music of Lansing McLoskey
(Albany Records TROY 1443)

Specific Gravity CD Cover

The titular piece in this collection makes reference to the scientific term for the relative density of physical materials. Aptly, the works here seem to explore particularities of sonic materials with an unusual combination of spontaneity and method: the exact feelings of distinctive textures, thicknesses, articulations, and timbres.
In addition to the newEar Ensemble’s live performance of the first movement of Specific Gravity with synchronized score below, the entire CD can be streamed on Lansing McLoskey’s website.

Stephen Anderson: Isaiah (Mormon Artists Group)
Deluxe packaging of flash drive containing Isaiah
Composer and jazz pianist Stephen Anderson composed this ambitious 49-minute oratorical treatment of the writings of the Old Testament prophet (a favorite of Mormons, since their eponymous book quotes him extensively). As is typical of MAG projects (a previous one of which, in the interest of full disclosure, was mine), this piece comes in unusual packaging: the score, audio and video, and documentary writings and essays, all come loaded on a flash drive embedded in a mockup of an ancient Mesopotamian clay press.
Below is the Carolina Choir’s video trailer of excerpts from the oratorio.

Jeremy Grimshaw is the author of Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young (Oxford University Press) and The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers (Mormon Artists Group), as well as articles and reviews in numerous publications. He teaches at Brigham Young University’s School of Music, where he also directs the Balinese gamelan and serves as Associate Director for Undergraduate Studies. His current projects include a collaborative paper with Ali Colleen Neff on music, race, and Mormonism in digital media, as well as a libretto/screenplay based on the bizarre story of the Dream Mine, which is located just a few miles from his home in Payson, Utah.