Category: Headlines

And the 89th Academy Award Composer Nominees Are…

The nominees for the 89th Academy Awards have been announced, including nods in the category of best original score to composers Mica Levi, Justin Hurwitz, Nicholas Britell, Thomas Newman, and the team of Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka.

In December 2016 it was noted that scores such as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s notable contribution to Arrival would not be eligible.

Winners will be awarded during a ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday, February 26, 2017.


Mica Levi
Justin Hurwitz
Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka
Nicholas Britell
Thomas Newman


from La La Land; Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
from Trolls; Music and Lyric by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster
from La La Land; Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
from Jim: The James Foley Story; Music and Lyric by J. Ralph and Sting
from Moana; Music and Lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda


Sylvain Bellemare
Wylie Stateman and Renée Tondelli
Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright
Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman


Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye
Kevin O’Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie and Peter Grace
Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A. Morrow
David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson
Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Mac Ruth

Matthew Browne Wins ASCAP Foundation Nissim Prize

Matthew Browne has been named the recipient of the 37th annual ASCAP Foundation Rudolf Nissim Prize for his composition Cabinet of Curiosities (2015-16), an approximately 23-minute work for saxophone quartet and orchestra which was completed in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts in Musical Composition at the University of Michigan and was written expressly for the Donald Sinta Quartet who premiered it with an orchestra of students from the University of Michigan School of Music conducted by Thomas Gamboa. The Prize—which was established through a bequest to The ASCAP Foundation by Dr. Rudolf Nissim, former head of ASCAP’s International Department—is presented annually to an ASCAP concert composer for a work requiring a conductor that has not been performed professionally. A jury of conductors selects the winning score.

Recent recognition for Browne’s music has included an ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer award (2014) and BMI Student Composer award (2015). He has been a winner of the New England Philharmonic Call for Scores (2014) and the American Viola Society’s Maurice Gardner Competition (2014). He has also been selected for residencies at the Mizzou International Composers Festival, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s First Annual Composers Institute, and—most recently—the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s Edward T. Cone Composition Institute (both in 2016). Browne holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Music Composition from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and a Bachelor of Music from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The jury also awarded Special Distinction to three additional composers:

  • Saad Haddad of Northridge, California for Takht (2016), for sinfonietta (approx. 12 minutes)
  • John Liberatore of South Bend, Indiana for this living air (2015), for solo piano and percussion orchestra (approx. 16 minutes)
  • Jonathan David Little of Surrey, United Kingdom for Terpsichore (2005) for full orchestra (15 minutes)

The judges for this year’s Nissim Prize were: James Blachly, Music Director of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra (Johnstown, PA), the Experiential Orchestra and Geneva Light Opera (Geneva, NY) as well as co-Artistic Director of The Dream Unfinished (a social justice orchestra based in New York City); Gerard Schwarz, Music Director of the All-Star Orchestra, Music Director of the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina and Jack Benaroya Conductor Laureate of the Seattle Symphony; Lidiya Yankovskaya, Artistic Director with Juventas New Music Ensemble (Boston, MA), Music Director with Commonwealth Lyric Theater, conductor with the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, where she has previously served as Music Director with Harvard’s Lowell House Opera, and assistant conductor/chorus master with Opera Boston and Gotham Chamber Opera.

(—from the press release)

American Composers Orchestra Appoints Edward Yim as President

The American Composers Orchestra, the only orchestra in the world dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promulgation of music by American composers, has announced the appointment of Edward Yim as president, effective February 21, 2017, succeeding Michael Geller who held the position from 1996 to 2016. As ACO president, Yim will serve as chief executive officer, reporting to the board of directors through the chairman. He will be responsible for all aspects of ACO’s operations, including a leadership role in fundraising. He will also work in close partnership with the orchestra’s Artistic Director Derek Bermel and its Music Director George Manahan in evaluating existing activities and designing new programs that achieve and advance the mission of the now forty-year-old institution which, to date, has been responsible for performances of music by over 800 American composers, including 350 world premieres and newly-commissioned works.

“I am excited and honored to serve as the new president of ACO,” Yim said. “Composers are my heroes—ultimately everything we do in music depends on their innovation, authenticity and passion. The chance to dedicate myself—alongside the talented board, staff and musicians—to these artists is a dream. Together, we will honor the legacy of American music and, even more importantly, serve as an incubator and advocate for today’s voices. I am thrilled by this opportunity to champion American composers striving to write vital, original work for the 21st century.”

Edward Yim is currently the vice president for artistic planning for the New York Philharmonic. As the senior staff director in charge of programming, he has collaborated across the organization to create and maintain the organization’s artistic profile by initiating long-term project development, engaging guest conductors and soloists, and coordinating repertoire for a year-round schedule of concerts in New York, international touring, and media activities. He has also worked closely on the New York Philharmonic’s partnership with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Previously he was senior vice president and director of the Conductor and Instrumentalists Division at IMG Artists and served as director of artistic planning for both New York City Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Yim holds a BA in Government from Harvard College, an MBA from Case Western Reserve University, and is a graduate of the League of American Orchestra’s Management Fellowship Program. He has served on the boards of New Music USA and the International Contemporary Ensemble, and also consults to Music Accord, a consortium of presenters which commissions contemporary chamber music for American artists.

(—from the press release)

A Model of Generosity and Wisdom—Remembering Karel Husa (1921-2016)

Karel Husa on his 80th Birthday

I first heard Karel Husa’s music in 1973 as a 17 year-old freshman piano major at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The faculty String Quartet played his Pulitzer Prize winning piece, String Quaret No. 3. Though I wasn’t yet a composition major, I had been composing since I was 8 years old. My own stylistic bent was definitely grounded in the more traditional: my first musical loves were Chopin and Gershwin. Husa’s quartet wasn’t like anything I had ever heard before. I was immediately struck by its dramatic thrust, its imaginative colors, but above all by the masterful unfolding of motives building phrases, phrases building sections, and sections building movements; in other words, true rhetorical traction, a complete unity of form and content. I see now that the force of Husa’s musical ideas transcended style and taste.

Several years later, during my studies in Paris with Husa’s former teacher Nadia Boulanger, I turned my attention to graduate school. I somehow got a hold of the University of Michigan Wind Ensemble recording of Music for Prague and Apotheosis of This Earth, conducted by Husa. Again, though the character of this music was markedly different from the direction I was taking, I found myself completely in thrall to the unfolding dramatic line of both pieces. Many years later, as an active composer and teacher now for over three decades, I understand something I only intuitively sensed: Husa was a master of what Boulanger called “the long line”—meaning that a work unfolds in such a way that expresses an absolute concentration of thought and feeling. I had learned that from Boulanger; Husa’s music was confirmation. I decided to apply to Cornell to study with Husa, as so many did during his nearly 40-year teaching career at Cornell and at Ithaca College.

Though a masterful conductor himself, he said to me: “You can compose. If you can compose, why would you want to be anything else?”

As a mentor and teacher, Husa was a model of generosity and wisdom. After my first year I had a crisis of confidence because I had not composed much music, and was also dealing with important questions of personal identity. I had effectively withdrawn from the program. Husa seemed to intuitively understand all of this. He invited me to visit him at his summer home in Interlaken, New York, to talk through my dilemma. I was considering focusing on theory teaching and conducting in my graduate studies instead of composing. Though a masterful conductor himself, he said to me: “You can compose. If you can compose, why would you want to be anything else?” I realize now that Husa was affirming what Virgil Thomson so insightfully described in his book The State of Music: “Music is an island with four concentric circles, the inner circle and summit being Musical Composition.” His encouragement helped me gain some much-needed perspective on my situation. I recommitted myself to my studies with him, and soon experienced a true artistic “breakthrough”, composing a twenty-five minute string quartet under his guidance.

Husa was also an extraordinary teacher of conducting. The skills I learned in his class inspired me to pursue for a time a career in conducting along with composing. My memories of singing many of the major choral masterworks under his direction, such as Handel’s Messiah and his own Apotheosis of This Earth, are among the most vivid of my student years.

In his later years, Husa’s composing slowed down, but his generosity towards his former students continued, recommending them for grants and teaching positions. I spoke to him just a few weeks before he passed away on December 14th, and he was completely alert, questioning me about my activities with the warmth and attention that marked every interaction I ever had with him.

I have rarely experienced such a fusing of emotion with musical expression.

I particularly remember watching Husa conduct a rehearsal in 1980 of Music for Prague with the Interlochen Wind Ensemble. I was standing in the back of the stage, where I could clearly see his face. At the moment in the first movement when the three trumpets enter on a unison D, the look on his face was a terrifying and thrilling combination of anger and absolute power. He was seeing as if for the first time the Russian tanks rolling into Prague. I have rarely experienced such a fusing of emotion with musical expression.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had contact during my formative years with a man of Husa’s gifts and humanity.

Karel Husa standing surrounded by a string quartet rehearsing in his home.

Karel Husa giving advice to a string quartet consisting of North Carolina Symphony musicians, including his granddaughter, Maria Evola, right, during a rehearsal of his Pulitzer Prize winning String Quartet No. 3 at his home in Apex NC on October 29, 2006. (The other musicians, from left to right, are David Marshall, Elizabeth Beilman, and So Yun Kim.) Photo by Takaaki Iwabu, courtesy G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers.

A Man at Home On the Road—Remembering Mose Allison (1927-2016)

Mose Allison. (Photograph © Michael Wilson)

If you live, a day will come
If you live, a day will come
When the sun will shine and the crops will grow
And you’ll think that you’re a not gonna worry no mo’
But if you live, your time will come
Your time will come.

—Mose Allison “(If You Live,” from Mose Allison Sings, Prestige PR 7279, 1963)

I don’t know any musicians who don’t love Mose Allison. Like Ray Charles or the Staples Singers or the great blues and jazz artists who’ve stood the test of time, his appeal cuts across all musical boundaries.

—Bonnie Raitt (from One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison by Patti Jones, London: Quartet Books Ltd., 1995; back cover)

I got my first call from Mose Allison around 1982 or ‘83. I can’t remember much detail about the call and lost my records about six years later in a fire. But I remember him asking if I was the person who bore my name, which I answered in the affirmative. He then introduced himself and asked if I’d be able to join him at a particular place (which I don’t remember) on a certain date and time (which I don’t remember either). I’m sure I said that I had heard him in 1976 with drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Rich Gerard at the El Matador in San Francisco and I remember that he said George Marsh, one of the great West Coast drum gurus who I had the good fortune of playing with while I was in my teens, gave him my number. When I heard that George recommended me, I accepted the offer without hesitation.

There would be no rehearsal but Mr. Allison (who insisted that I call him “Mose”) assured me he’d bring charts and that I should bring a music stand. He hired a conguero as well (whose name I, of course, don’t remember). I had a few weeks before the date and, because I was familiar with his work, didn’t get as nervous as usual for me in anticipation of working for a new client. I’d first heard “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” on the radio when I was in high school (it was a big hit among folks involved in San Francisco’s anti-Vietnam War scene) and I would catch some of his sets when he played The El Matador. I was fascinated by the work of Addison Farmer, the bass-playing twin brother of trumpeter Art Farmer, on Allison’s “Parchman Farm” and “Swingin’ Machine” and spent a lot of time practicing with the radio where Mose’s music made not daily, but frequent, on-air appearances. So I was sure it’d be smooth sailing once we hit the stage. But I had a little trouble getting to the venue, a rustic restaurant/bar that looked like it may have been an inn at one time (and I don’t remember the name of it, either), and showed up fashionably late—with enough time to set up and play, but not much time to talk over the charts Mr. Allison—I mean Mose—wanted me to read.

They were well-calligraphied, accurate, and organized in a leather binder with two, three and even four tunes per page, which were each given a large page number. Instead of calling a tune by name, Mose would call the page number, either out loud or by holding up the appropriate number of fingers, which could look a little odd as the book had over 30 pages. To call the charts “terse” would be an understatement, they were the barest of bare-boned and meant to be read by one person: the bassist (of course, he carried a set of charts for guitar and other transposing instruments when needed; but they, unlike the leather-bound bass book, were kept in manila folders). The bass charts consisted mostly of chord symbols above slash marks, peppered with the notes that were essential to the tune as well as directions about when and how to play them. Mose was considered by many to be a “blues artist” and a large part of his material was blues—which he usually didn’t bother writing out, but rather leaving a space in the stave for directions like: “C-minor (or major) Blues” or “Calypso Blues.”

Mose wasn’t one to insist on how one was to play his music, other than the few indispensable notes in some bass lines and the chord progressions, which were very open to interpretation. But that wasn’t an indicator of a laissez faire attitude towards his own music: he was very particular about certain elements that he wanted to hear. The way he explained these elements to his sidemen, however, challenged some of their basic instincts. When we sat down in the club’s “green room” during the first break, he looked at me, smiled and began explaining to me what he didn’t have time to say before we started:

“When we get into the blowin’ during the blues numbers, go to the flat-six chord before the five, unless the chart states otherwise. And don’t play the third of the chord unless it’s preceded, or followed, by the other third.”

A nice way of saying that I had done the first set almost entirely wrong!

To be sure, I understood the part about going to the flat-six chord: instead of going straight to a G7 (if you’re in the key of C) in the ninth measure of the 12-bar form, you play an A♭7 for a measure and then play G7 in the tenth; it’s a tritone substitute for the minor-two chord (D-minor 7)—pretty basic, but jazzy stuff! But he could tell that I was a little confused about the thirds and elucidated:

“That means that if you play the major third of a chord in your bassline, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the minor third and, conversely, if you play the minor third, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the major third.”

I’d do my best over the next 30 years to follow that directive, but leaving out thirds for three sets can be tricky. Sometimes, when I made the error, I’d play the “other third” the next time the chord came up. That seemed to resonate with Mose, so I tried separating the thirds by a chorus, which seemed to be okay as well. When I tried to use the major third on one tune and the minor third on another one, however, he let me know it didn’t work. Once, when we were opening for Al Kooper at the Bottom Line, I played a chorus using just roots and fifths, first one, then the other. Mose, who was not one to heap liberal amounts of praise, congratulated me for the first time: “Ratzo, you’ve just inspired me to create a new rule: No alternating between roots and fifths.”

The bass players were in charge of the book during the gig and sometimes had to explain the contents to new drummers—when Mose wasn’t looking. I once booked Mose at a club, Just Jazz, in St. Louis with Mark Wolfley, a fantastic Cincinnati-based percussionist who I met while he was studying at the New England Conservatory. Since I knew he could read music, I offered to share the book on a tune he didn’t know. As I was turning my music stand so that he could see the chart, Mose, who also was a lexicon of off-color aphorisms, leaned into his microphone and declared, “No, don’t do that! Givin’ sheet music to a drummer is like givin’ whiskey to the Indians!” (Of course, Mark’s next drum solo employed a war-dance rhythm as its principle motive.) It would be a mistake, though, to assume that he had no aesthetic rubric to share with his drummers. In an unpublished interview conducted by Marsh, the matter is explored:

GM: How many different drummers would you say you play with in any given year?

MA: Maybe 30 to 40 drummers a year. I play over 200 nights a year. Most of that is scattered all over the country and Europe. Very seldom will I play more than a few days or a week with the same drummer.

GM: What things do you look for when you hire a drummer?

MA: The first thing I ask a drummer is to not play a back beat. No heavy back beat. And I’d just as soon not have the sock on 2 and 4. And I don’t like rim shot patterns where the drummer hits the rim on 2 and 4 or just 4.

For those unfamiliar with jazz or blues, the rhythmic patterns described above are considered the virtual backbone of the genres (the last, hitting the rim on just the fourth beat of the measure, is what happens on “If You Live”). Hearing jazz or blues without these elements is, for many, akin to hearing the music of Beethoven with no major scales. But, in One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, he goes on the record comparing the backbeat to “construction work,” suggesting that: “the backbeat is another form of pollution, bad air.” He once told me that he thought of the genre(s) that featured the abhorrent backbeat as “Le Blues Banal, with the emphasis on Le.” His reasoning was explained to Marsh:

Over the years I’ve come to regard these as “automatic marker” type things and being unnecessary. The concept of the drummer as time keeper is sort of passé anyhow. All the musicians in a jazz band are supposed to be timekeepers…. The drummer should embellish the time while he responds to the soloist. He … isn’t the sole proprietor of the time. For me the whole idea of jazz is for everybody to be swinging with the time. It should release the drummer from that role of a “mechanistic” time keeper who plays only automatic patterns and things. It frees the drummer to do more things. It also frees me so that I can go into different time figures.

I think that it was the “different time” that brought me to my knees on that first night. We opened with an instrumental number called “Promenade.” If you’ve been clicking the links, you heard the stately and relaxed original version from his 1959 Prestige release, Autumn Song with Addison Farmer and drummer Ronnie Free, which bears as much resemblance to what we played as lemonade does to tabasco. Comparing the version of “Swingin Machine” from the second paragraph above with the one preceding this paragraph illustrates their dissimilarities: the latter’s tempo is much faster (and gets even faster) and Allison is fairly free with the form, digging into an open-ended extemporization over the tonic chord until the time seems right and then playing the turn-around back to the tonic. He repeats this ad infinitum and finishes by playing the song’s bridge for the last time. Listen to “Promenade” and notice that, while the chord progression is more involved than in “Swingin’ Machine,” the blowing follows the same idea of playing over one chord until a cue to move on. Mose’s tempo for “Promenade” that night was at least q = 220 (compared to q = 118 in the original). We played it a little slower later, but never as slow as on the recording. It’s a fact that Mose Allison loved to play long solos at break-neck tempos—something that I can find exhilarating as well—but taking my first bass solo after accompanying a 10-minute Mose Allison tour-de-force was … humbling. I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened during the opener throughout the rest of the set, which didn’t help with sight-reading his Spartan bass book. It seemed like every time I looked up from the book for help, Mose had a grin that was masking a chortle.

Things went a little better during the set break, after we’d talked about thirds. That discussion included instructions on what kind of bass lines to use on the blues: “Unless the chart says otherwise, you shouldn’t walk” (play one note per quarter-note—another jazz and blues signifier), “try to use something like the calypso [lines suggested in the book].” I prayed that all I had to do was channel Addison Farmer and I’d make it to the parking lot with most of my dignity. What I remember about the second set is that it went pretty much the same as the first, only this time I didn’t get sucker-punched by the opening tune and I knew some of the ones he called (or signed—he would save his best-known stuff for the last set; I assume to keep the die-hards in their seats). In other words, I had no excuses! When it was over he paid me in cash, took the bass book back, said “it was nice working with you” and was gone before I had the instrument in its case. I was sure it was the last time I would get to play with Mose Allison.

Which is exactly how I felt after the second gig with him. It was at Folk City on West 3rd Street in the Village. This time Mose hired Scott Napoli, a deep-swinging drummer who, as the saying goes, “makes it look easy.” He held me together for the two nights we were there. Looking back, I see that my problem was that Mose had evolved as a pianist since he made the recordings I was familiar with from the 1950s. In them you can hear his allegiance to the diatonically-informed post-bop “cool” school, highlighted by long bop-ish lines that displayed an even more confident command of melodic invention than his very capable trumpet playing. By the time I heard Mose at the El Matador, though, he was accessing the style less and, for all intents and purposes, quit playing trumpet (I recently learned that his horn was stolen and he took it as some kind of sign). By the time I got the first call he had pretty much stripped his playing of anything resembling even a hint of bebop cliché. I thought I knew what the singer-pianist Mose Allison played like, but this guy with the white hair—who sorta looked like Mose Allison and sang a lot like Mose Allison—played piano like no one I’d heard before. I started to realize that my strategy of infusing Addison Farmer into my on-the-job audition wasn’t going to help the job of accompanying the pianist Mose Allison (but I still dig Addison Farmer’s playing)! For the rest of the night I would be searching for the bailing-wire to hold together the crack (me) in his swingin’ machine. In retrospect, I know I switched to the right strategy: go with the drummer. I decided to examine how Scott negotiated Mose’s rules with the hope that it might help me imagine an effective strategy to deploy, should he employ me again. (Thank you, Mr. Napoli!)

For the next five years I was absolutely convinced that every gig I played with Mose was the last. I tried calling the bass player who I was ostensibly subbing for, Dennis Irwin, to ask him about his experiences, hoping to get pointers, but he would just start singing the middle verses of Allison’s tunes and the subject would change to something else. I was starting to hear the songs in my sleep because, like most people, I felt like they were written with me in mind. Mose had the ability to expose in the space of a chorus or less, basic truths about daily existence that most of us tend to ignore. He was so good at this that an extremely musically erudite friend whom I had comped into the Iridium Jazz Club to see us was so taken by the prose of Mose that, after he got drunk, he gave me a very nice note, almost a little letter, to pass along saying he needn’t worry, all will get better! For me, the songs “What Do You Do?” became an admission of my own inextricable part in the woes of life and “Hello, Universe” a prayer to the Most Magnificent that, despite all my concerted efforts, things are all right, while “How Much Truth” disclosed the hard evidence they’re not. But then, right after we played at the Bottom Line, where the new rule was invented, he said, “See you on the next one!” I barely knew what to say—and I don’t remember what I said. Maybe it was: “Cool, when will that be?” If so, he probably gave me a general idea of when he planned to be back in town and that he’d call soon to let me know the particulars, which was pretty much how things went for the rest of my tenure.

The Bottom Line was also the first time I accompanied Mose with Tom Whaley on drums. Up to then, and besides from Scott Napoli, he’d used Paul Motian (we’d later record two records with Mose: Gimcracks and Gewgaws and The Earth Wants You) and Jamey Haddad. I met Tom previously, around 1981, in New York City. He was part of the Red Rodney/Ira Sullivan Quintet and our paths crossed in the mix-‘em-and-match-‘em milieu of New York’s jam session network. My new “partner-in-time” had several years of experience working for Mose with Dennis Irwin on bass (they would also record with him) and he knew the book (as much as any drummer was allowed to) forward-and-backward. Tom had already figured out how to negotiate the terrain of Mose’s blues and piano playing, which meant that I could devise accompaniment strategies focused more on interacting with Mose in the moment and less about marking the progress of his charts. From then on it wasn’t about playing the book, now we could get down to making music!

Mose was a guiding light for truth, justice and the jazz life. He was serious, funny, swinging and always—always—himself. He never, in all the time I knew him, changed to please somebody else or to become more commercial. This made him a hero to many (including Van Morrison) who not only loved his hip musical story-telling but also his ethos. He was totally focused on playing the piano and making the 9pm hit each night with as much integrity as possible. He lived for the gigs and for the road. Recording was more or less a necessity, but it was the piano and the music that drove him. An honorable man, down to his socks. We will miss him terribly, but of course, we have his music to help us through these hard times. – Ben Sidran

The reason Mose played with so many drummers per year is that he was in the practice of using “pick-up” bands in the cities he played. It was a common practice, back in the day, for bandleaders to reduce their overhead by “picking up” local musicians, instead of taking a band on the road.

I don’t believe that Mose did this merely to save money. Mose became accustomed to traveling light early, since he was born in an era and area when and where leaders toured their localities with bands whose personnel could easily be replaced. These “territory bands,” although they waned in popularity with the advent of radio and the record player, were the norm. Mose was a jazz man at heart who mostly played with small groups and employed improvisation in his music and improvisers as accompanists. And he preferred his accompanists to not know his book as well as he did. He liked to mix-and-match his sidemen; it added to the uncertainty he craved, an uncertainty that kept the experience of playing the same music 200-plus nights a year as fresh as possible. Having a group of core musicians in key locations throughout the world assured Mose that he could maintain the sense of comradery that was essential in presenting his unique contribution to music, but it could (and never will) replace a regular touring band as quintessential to that end. This becomes obvious when considering how the tradition of jazz club performance in America has evolved (or, if you wish, devolved) over the last sixty years. Gone are the times when a jazz musician might play for several months in one location (the average now is a couple of days with many venues booking several bands in a single evening). The four- and six-week runs that were commonplace in the 1960s became two- and three-weeks long in the ‘70s and the one- and two-week runs of the ‘80s shortened to one week or less in the 1990s and so-on up to now. While this might be a godsend to a senior-class touring musician when it comes to getting one’s rest, it minimizes how much an audience can immerse itself in the artist’s live performance process. The ramifications of this are numerous and profoundly far-reaching, but what is pertinent here is that Mose wasn’t able to develop the same rapport with his bands that he could on the longer nightclub stays.

Mose did what he could to make the best of it. He knew that his repertoire was steeped in the blues, but it was a different kind of blues than the majority of what the culture machine considers “commercially viable.” For one thing, the instruments of choice for the overwhelming majority of blues singers who also play one is the guitar and/or harmonica, not the piano or trumpet. (For a long time, the most prevalent keyboard instrument for blues groups has been the electric organ.) Because the instrument(s) that one chooses to study profoundly influences the kinds of music one learns to play, most of the blues you hear are played in E, A, G and D: keys which lay well on the guitar.

But the home key of the piano is C and for the trumpet: B-flat, so a tune like Richard M. Jones’s “Trouble In Mind,” which was originally presented in the key of E by Bertha “Chippie” Hill and Louis Armstrong (many blues players and so-called “blues players” play it in A, G, and D as well—but, if you’re fact-checking the links, know that many guitar players tune their instruments a half-step lower) is played by Mose in B-flat and F, both very common keys for jazz musicians when playing blues. In One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, Mose gives the impression that he made a study of a wide variety of music, especially if played on the piano. Yet, while he data-mined Scriabin as well as Ellington and Meade Lux Lewis, he never resorted to imitating their styles. Instead, like so many of the jazz musicians he was exposed to (e.g. Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, et al.), Mose took what was idiosyncratic about his playing and made it iconic, incorporating the raw materials found in the music he studied into a sound all his own.

As Ben Sidran alluded, artistic integrity was Allison’s bottom line, and he found that playing in jazz clubs with jazz musicians satisfied his (pun intended) standards. For Mose, who lived the first 18 years of his life in rural Mississippi (he was born on his grandparent’s farm), jazz was the music of Duke Ellington and Lester Young and had its roots in the playing of Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Sidney Bechet, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and (according to his biography) his personal favorites: Nat King Cole and Erroll Garner. (Mose called his first band the Nat Garner Trio.) But, while the genre blues (often, and I believe mistakenly, called “the blues”) wasn’t as popular nationally as jazz, it was ubiquitous in the area where Mose grew up and he was very (again, according to his biography) familiar with the recordings of Memphis Slim, Tampa Red, Big Maceo, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, and Roosevelt Sykes.

I was lucky to be Mose Allison’s “regular” bassist living in what could eventually be called his hometown, New York City. (Mose lived on Long Island for most of the time I worked for him.) I was over at his home a couple of times and got to know his wife Audre and two of his kids, John and Amy. We played regularly at Iridium, The Jazz Standard and, while it was open, Fat Tuesdays in Manhattan. We did a stint or two at The Blue Note, Visiones (before it closed) and Jazz at Lincoln Center (before it moved to Columbus Circle). These were top-line venues for jazz in Manhattan and usually packed with fans (although when Fat Tuesdays started to go under, we played a few empty nights) ranging from curious tourists to the royalty of rock.

I look at my stint with Mose as having two stages. The first was when I was a hardcore drinker and the second was after I stopped imbibing altogether. As I stated before, there was a point early on when I thought certain tunes he performed were written with me in mind. One of them, Johnny Fuller’s “Fool’s Paradise,” kept me on something resembling the straight-and-narrow while I removed alcohol consumption from my daily routine, which included relocating to Indianapolis, Indiana from 1990-93. While there, I commuted back to New York to play Mose’s jobs there and booked two Midwest mini-tours for him. The first, in 1991, included two days in at the Blue Wisp in Cincinatti, The Place to Start in Indianapolis, Bear’s Place in Bloomington, and Just Jazz at the Hotel Majestic in St. Louis (where I tried to share the book with the drummer). The second, in 1993, included drummer Stan Gage, who worked with Mose in New York before Tom Whaley. We returned to Cincinatti and St. Louis, but the venue in Indianapolis closed (we were actually the last act to play there; now the room is called The Jazz Kitchen), so we played at a theater, The Vogue, and finished the tour at The Tuba Club in Kansas City. The last was an eye-opener for me: not only did the audience talk the whole time we performed, but at one point a customer sitting close to the stage lit a cigar and blew smoke at Mose while he was singing. That incident was one of the (many) deciding factors in my decision to move back to New York.

But working with Mose away from home was also inspiring. He and his wife drove out from New York to Cincinnati for the first date (and acted like they were on theirs). She took their car to visit family somewhere not horribly far away while he rode with me for the rest of the tour, flying back to New York from St. Louis. I learned something about levels of knowledge, attaining or not attaining them, and a lot about booking tours. (After the 1993 tour I began writing a song I’m prepared to never finish: “Don’t Hire Your Boss.”) After returning to New York I continued working with Mose, but I never tried to book him again. Instead, I passed along recommendations and contact information for new venues—my days as a booking agent were done. There was an incident, though, that forever changed my views about American music that should be related here. In looking for local support for the first tour, I approached the Indianapolis Jazz Society. They informed me that they considered Mose a blues musician and rejected my advances, suggesting that I go to the Indianapolis Blues Society instead. I asked around for information about that organization and was directed to the local radio station, WFYI-FM, where I should talk to Jay Zochowski, a champion of Indianapolis-based bluesman Yank Rachell and the on-air-host of the blues program, Nothin’ But the Blues (and where I hosted a show, Jazz Focus, throughout 1992), who agreed to interview Mose the day of our appearance at The Place to Start. But Mose was tired from the drive from Cincinnati and said I should do the interview instead. I checked with Jay and he agreed. During the interview, he inquired if we’d be playing Parchman Farm and, fortunately, I had already asked Mose about this because it was one of his biggest hits, but we never played it. When I asked him why this was he began with another aphorism:

It’s like givin’ matches to children. The Parchman Farm is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a maximum security correctional facility. If you go there and ask, the inmates all claim that they’re innocent. Each stanza of the song is one of their excuses for bein’ there—the last one goes: “I’m gonna be here for the rest of my life / an’ all I did was shoot my wife.” As I went around the country singin’ it, people would come up and tell me how they could sympathize with me! Turns out there’s a lot of people who are into that, so I don’t play it no more.

For the next tour I approached the Indianapolis Blues Society to help underwrite the night at The Vogue and Zochowski was the person to talk to that year. He explained that, as far as the Society was concerned, Mose wasn’t a real blues musician so they couldn’t lend support. However, Lady Luck appeared in the guise of an Indianapolis jazz fan, Mary Rose Niemi, who generously stepped up to the plate to cover the event. I thought we’d sell enough tickets to pay her back and recover some traveling expenses, but we had an empty house. Zochowski gave us no mention on his show, and the jazz community wasn’t much help either. The Vogue doesn’t even include the date in its roster! I was bellied-up until we got to St. Louis. On our way to St. Louis, I asked him about whether he considered himself a jazz or a blues musician, since there seemed to be some controversy about that among music experts. He laughed: “Well, I’ve been tryin’ to figure that one out, too—good luck!”

I still resided in Indianapolis when we recorded The Earth Wants You, but the session convened over three days at Paul Wickliffe’s Skyline Studios in New York City. Wickliffe pretty much let the artists “do their thing,” mostly listening for glaring errors and watching the clock, but our producer, Ben Sidran, ran a very different ship. A pianist-singer-songwriter (among his many hats) whose work is highly informed by Allison’s, Sidran was involved from the project’s inception and planned well for the date. He and Mose presented thirteen tunes in four different settings: piano and bass with (1) drums and three horns; (2) drums and guitar; (3) drums and harmonica; and (4) congas and guitar. The first day was dedicated to recording Mose’s horn charts: Bob Malach (as noted earlier) on tenor saxophone with Joe Lovano on alto and Randy Brecker on trumpet. I had a bit of down time while the horns rehearsed their parts and spent it mostly drinking coffee and hanging out. On one trip back from the coffee machine I detoured into the control room. Ben was talking with a lean, dark-haired fellow who he introduced as Jon Paris, a harmonica player checking out the music for date’s final gathering. I believe, and the discography in Jones’s biography agrees, that this is Mose’s only studio recording with harmonica (there may be others recorded after One Man’s Blues was published, but I couldn’t find any). We exchanged pleasantries until it was time to record. On the second day, we recorded with John Scofield on guitar and Ray Mantilla on congas for half the session and Motian on drums for the other half. On the third day, I came in expecting to see Paris, but was introduced to a fellow named Hugh McCracken who, I was told, played guitar on a lot of sessions and “doubled on harmonica a little.” One of my shortcomings is names and bios and I had no idea who McCracken was. It wasn’t until I attended his memorial that I learned that he had a reputation for being non-punctual, showing on occasion as much as a day or two late. I surmised that this was why Sidran, anticipating a potential problem, had Paris there: as backup! The long and the short is that McCracken played great, the session went really well, despite the decision to use the recording studio world’s tightrope-without-a-net method of recording direct to two-tracks, so everything was done “live” without overdubs. I found a place to sublease in November, drove back to Indianapolis and packed my bags.

As usual, The Earth Wants You wasn’t a huge commercial success, but some of the tunes resonated inside the music community, especially “Children of the Future,” that couches an anti-war theme as an apology to children who come from “mixed” (aren’t they all?) partners from groups who are killing each other. Many are the times I’ve found myself accompanying someone on it. My favorite is the title track. It advances the blatant truth of “If You Live,” but with fresh rhetoric; it’s the blatant truths Allison exposed in his words that attracted me to his music in the first place. But don’t think he would fink on himself after cutting down a cherry tree, many are also the times I heard Mose say that he was proud of the song; but, when pressed for why, he would usually and deadpanly deliver: “It took me three months to find the name of a village in Vietnam that would rhyme with ‘done you wrong’.”

Mose grasped the obvious: that we are all victims of circumstances of some kind, but he was blessed with an ability to understand what those circumstances really are and cursed with the need to identify them in words. Despite his borderline nihilistic leanings, Mose acted with the knowledge that most of us are trying to do the best we can with whatever we have, even if that isn’t much. He set his moral compass to treat everyone with an even-keeled application of “do-unto-others-as-you-have-them-do-unto-you.” Although I was proud of our work on The Earth Wants You, I was not so proud of how the last Midwest tour worked out. I began to feel, once again, like the Swingin’ Machine may have swung shut, even though I was back in New York. But Mose kept calling with things to do.

For the most part I was available, but sometimes a prior commitment would require sending a sub, usually Mark Helias or Ron McClure. Even so, I was surprised when, in late 2000, Mose called me to do another record date with him. When he called with the particulars he disclosed that this would be his first self-produced, or mostly self-produced, recording project. Knowing that he was more in-control of this project than was his norm was a profound honor for me. Paul Motian would, again, be on drums, but this time the “guest” forces were reduced to two: Mark Shim on tenor saxophone and Russell Malone on guitar. And he gave me the introduction to the title track “Gimcracks and Gewgaws,” a 14-bar blues with no IV chord. Mose’s wordplay, like his humor, is subtle on this tune and reaches beyond the lyrics as he “drops” a beat at the end of his solo and returns to singing with: “Well, I guess I dropped it on the floor.” This was the first album Mose recorded since the publication of One Man’s Blues and could be said to represent a new chapter for him. Besides taking a more direct part in the financial affairs of the project, he presents new original compositions, except for “Somebody Gonna Have to Move” and records two “oldies,” W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and Russ Morgan’s “So Tired.” The material is presented by quartets: piano, bass, drums and either saxophone or guitar. The one exception is his solo performance of “Old Man Blues,” a reworking of “Young Man’s Blues,” which The Who turned into a rock ‘n’ roll classic. The new lyrics tell a bitter downside of the situation Mose humorously addressed in “Certified Senior Citizen”: how growing old changes one’s relationship with society. Of course, he supplies the underlying reason: “The young man knows how to wheel and deal / The young man’s got that sex appeal / The young man is the man of the hour / Thirty Five years of purchasing power.” We recorded two ballads that impressed me mightily: “Texanna,” a lament to the grandmother he never met for reasons he’ll never know and the masterpiece, “Numbers On Paper.” While I don’t believe that Mose wrote anything with me in mind, I have a similar relationship with my grandfather that he describes in “Texanna” (he was estranged from his wife long before I was born, and the only person who knew him, my grandmother, wouldn’t talk about him). But what is impressive is how well Allison tells the whole story without need for programmatic explanations (like the one supplied here); with a fearless application of words that his audience may not understand: “You were taken from your baby child / But he grew into that same profile / Just a lonely photograph / Of my mystery distaff.” But “Numbers On Paper” is nothing less than an examination of the single most dehumanizing thing a society does to its citizenry: apply numbers to them. He opens the song by reminding his listener that, at first, we almost gleefully accept the process while at the end, he suggests that in the end, we’ve lost our identity because of it. He uses a bittersweet tone that had become more apparent in his conversation. About a year after Gimcracks and Gewgaws was released we were talking during a set break and politics reared its ugly, yet popular, head. I proffered my opinion: “it seems like these guys read 1984 and told each other, “hey, we can DO this.” Mose kind of smiled and offhandedly, “yeah, but who would-a thought they’d make it fashionable! And Mose, who was a fashion unto himself, was no fan of it! That was something clearly stated in “Who’s In, Who’s Out” from The Earth Wants You.

Mose memorized his book and composed in his head. He would work on tunes over long stretches of time, sometimes years, and keep it all straight in his memory. So I was a little surprised when he started to mess up his lyrics. (This link contains another coincidence that shakes my core a bit and I’d like to share: the bassist, Kelly Sill, is playing the bass I used on my first gig with Mose!) At first, he would just repeat a verse, which isn’t that strange; it happens a lot more than most artists would like to admit. But there came a time when he called a number and would start a tune from a different page. I knew the book well enough to roll with that, but then he brought in a tune, “My Brain,” and I knew something was afoot. He had gone on record saying that his tunes pretty much conveyed everything he wanted to pass on to his public.

One of the last times I played with him was a tribute that Elvis Costello and Amy Allison had put together at the City Winery. Mose and I played at the end of the concert. We got through it without any incidents worth mentioning and he conveyed his borderline nihilist philosophy to great applause. He brought his lyrics along as a safeguard, but he didn’t need them. But throughout 2012, his condition worsened and he retired from the stage. My last conversation with him was later that year to congratulate him on being named an NEA Jazz Master. I told him that it was a great thing that he was finally being recognized for his contributions to American Music. He intimated that he guessed they finally figured out how to get him to play for free. I laughed. I told him that if he needed an extra testimonial, I’d be happy to supply one. He laughed (I talk a lot worse than I write). I think that we knew that we’d never play together again. I would bump into his daughter Amy on the streets of New York and offer to come out and hang, play some, but I never heard back about it. I think that he had no interest in watching his sidemen try to convince him that everything was cool with the music, being with his family was enough.

When I look back at the great bassists Mose Allison used on his records: Taylor LaFarge, Addison Farmer, Bill Crow, Aaron Bell, Henry Grimes, Ben Tucker, Stan Gilbert, Earl May, Red Mitchell, John Williams, Bob Cranshaw, Chuck Rainey, Clyde Flowers, Jack Hanna, Putter Smith, Jack Bruce, Dennis Irwin, Bill Huntington, Tom Rutley, Roy Babbington, and Bill Douglas—I feel more humbled than when I did on my first encounter with him; so many of them are legend to my craft. The list doesn’t include the non-recording bassists, the ones he would call to join him for a week or two per year in their hometowns: Kelly Sill, Mel Graves, Rick Kilburn, Ron McClure, Kelly Roberti, Charlie Haden. We all met a guy whose words were prophecy and whose piano playing was so special that it rang in your head for weeks, months, years. We were part of Mose’s “60 years of on-the-job training” and knew that we were better players for the experience. We accompanied and created music for a man who was, for the industry we’re proud to be part of, uncategorizable. I, honestly, haven’t played a blues of any kind for 30 years without thinking about Mose Allison. I guess, if I ever do, it will be time for me to retire as well.

I want to thank: Ben Sidran for the citation that is included in this remembrance; Tom Whaley for spending hours on the phone helping me get my timeline straight, Bill Goodwin for putting me in touch with Tom and talking about Mose’s directions to drummers; George Marsh for sharing his interview; Amy Allison for loaning me her copy of One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, and for taking the time to talk to me about him when he no longer did; and finally John Allison whose remembrance of his father I’ve included below in its entirety.

A few Words about My Dad, Mose Allison

By John Allison

I often get the question, what was Mose like at home? My answer to that is, the man you see performing and the man you hear singing those lyrics, that is the man he is was at home. My dad had no hobbies, did not golf, did not play tennis, and did not spend money on a single hobby that I can recall. He spent his time listening to music of all sorts, the stranger the better, he did some yoga stretching in the morning and some Tai Chi that sometimes embarrassed us kids when we had company over. He liked to run at the track in his younger days, then switched to swimming and actually had a schedule of high and low tides for the Long Island Sound; the beach was just a couple miles from home. Other than that, in his free time he liked to cook and read books, many books. He made lists of “to read” books on small pieces of paper. Mose read esoteric type books with content about the cosmos, the Human Brain, books with titles like, The Fabric of Reality, A Field Guide to the Invisible and The Nature of the Universe. And yes, he did play the piano at home, but he only played repetitive hypnotic runs to keep his mind sharp and his fingers limber.

Mose was one of the least material persons I have ever known. He was not one to ever be seen shopping with the exception of grocery shopping. His entire wardrobe took up 5 feet of space in his closet, most clothing purchases being made by my mom. He called me long distance one time to tell me his luggage was missing and in his luggage contained his only belt. He described the belt to me in detail, hoping I could assist him in finding an exact replacement. I also recall the time my mom replaced our 20 year old couch with a new one. My dad’s space in the den was at one end of this old couch. The new couch was placed in the den and the old couch was placed in our foyer by the door awaiting a ride to the local Thrift store. When I walked in the door, dad was sitting on the old couch at his usual space at the end of the old couch reading his book. Mose eventually warmed to the new couch.

My dad never had much of a record collection. I started buying records when I was 9 years old. I could play a song over 40 times and each time feel a sense of elation. Dad was different, he listened to a song once and it made a connection in his brain, like a mathematical equation, and that was all he needed, that one time. That to me is very strange. To this day I have many favorite songs I still play over and over. With dad, one listen was all it took.

About receiving awards, I know Mose always has appreciated praise but never let it get to his head. He did not believe in the show off, look at me, I’m great, attitudes that run so prevalent through the entertainment world. I was with him in Sedona AZ when he received a beautiful Lifetime Achievement Award, he smiled and thanked those responsible then handed the award to me and said, “I am not carrying that on the plane.” When I asked him why he did not want to go to the Grammy Awards after he was nominated, he replied, “I don’t believe in renting shoes.” In reality he may have already been booked at a small club in Des Moines, OH, and Mose, after 65 years of what he called, “On the Job Training,” never missed a single gig.

Mose preferred the setting and intimacy of a jazz club and that is where he really earned a living. The record companies all tried to cash in and make Mose a commercial success. Mose wanted nothing to do with backup girl singers and A&R men arrangements. He wanted to sing his songs his way at the places he liked best. Atlantic tried to get him to Muscle Shoals, Mose declined. Burger King offered him a huge payday for one day’s work. He told me, “I ain’t singing about no hamburger.” Mom was not happy.

I knew a club owner and promoter that told me, “After 35 years of promoting shows, Mose was the only performer to ever to give me money back.” The promoter had paid Mose but lost money on the show. Dad gave him some money back, why? Because Mose was also interested in keeping his club going so he could keep coming back to play.

In 1989 I accepted a Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame award on his behalf. Mose had a gig somewhere else that date so dad wrote a little something for me to read to the crowd after accepting his award. It read:

There are very few places in the world where a person could have heard as many different kinds of music as I was able to hear growing up in Tippo, Mississippi. Also, the aphorisms, the ironies, the speech patterns with their exaggerations and understatements have served me well and are still a part of my dialogues with myself. If it takes a village to raise a child, then I was certainly raised by Tippo, Mississippi.

Ten years before Elvis got to Beale Street Mose had already been there, getting Zoot suits made for him and performing on keyboards with the BB King Orchestra at Mitchell’s Hotel, a blacks only club in 1947. Dad told me years ago that he first heard rock’ n roll on Beale Street in 1942 from the band Tuff Green and the Rockettes. Mose also remembered hearing a matinee solo performance at the Orpheum Theater by harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson that made a huge impression on him.
Mose was in New York City in 1956 playing piano with the giants of jazz, Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Zoot Simms, Stan Getz and others. After a short time Mose presented a cassette tape to Prestige Records. The executives at Prestige loved what they heard and immediately had Mose in the studio recording. What Mose gave them was a suite of sketches, songs, evoking the atmosphere of his home town, Tippo, Mississippi. Mose called it his Cotton Country Suite, the record company renamed it, Back Country Suite. Songs from that era included; “Parchman Farm,” “Blues,” “One Room Country Shack,” “Highway 49,” “The Hills,” “Mojo Woman,” “Devil in the Cane Field,” and “Creek Bank.”
From that first record Mose was receiving critical acclaim from audiences and critics alike. Mose went on to record two more albums that same year. It was 1957. Today there are over 50 albums to choose from. My dad wrote over 220 songs. Most folks know four or five. My advice, listen to more Mose!

One of my favorites from his Grammy-nominated album on Blue Note Records, Ever Since The World Ended, is titled “Top Forty.” This song to me represents the way my dad looked at the business of the recording industry.

When my dad passed, he was comfortable and with family. We each got to kiss him, tell him we love him and that it was OK to let go, go home. So he did. No one gets out alive. Dad was 89 and his was a life well-lived. I only feel very fortunate and grateful to have had such a cool dad. I get to ride the turnrows of Mississippi and listen to Mose and I can do that till the day I “go home.”

Finally, a reporter once asked Dad, “You were socially relevant before Dylan, satirical before Newman and rude before Jagger, how come you are not a big star?” Dad simply and honestly replied, “Just lucky I guess.”

Proudly Disruptive Yet Guilelessly Generous—Remembering Elliott Schwartz (1936-2016)

Elliott Schwartz at the piano surrounded by scores of his music.

Forty years ago, as a grad student composer, I had learned about Elliott Schwartz’s more heretical works from the mid-sixties to early seventies—Elevator Music, for example, with twelve groups of student musicians on twelve floors whose music waxes, blends, and wanes as audience members ride up and down with open elevator doors; or Telly for TVs, radios, pre-recorded tape and a variety of conventional instruments.  At that point I thought of Elliott as one of the more aggressive, proudly disruptive composers of the day (usually assumed to be a good thing among my peers at the time). But it was after reading his refreshingly informal, conversational Listener’s Guide to electronic music that I began to realize that Elliott had a different passion, which was to welcome everyone—whether aficionado or skeptic—into his own personal, life-long exploration of the physical, cultural, and psychological spaces where music reveals and transforms who we are. Ever since then, in my periodic association with him as co-author, presenter, and friend, I’ve come to marvel at, aspire to, and now mourn the loss of Elliott’s unique mix of intellectual brilliance and guileless generosity in wanting to let the whole world in on music’s big secrets.

Those who have watched him speak to a group—of students, colleagues, or especially “lay” listeners—will always remember with delight those signature moments when Elliott (demonstrating from the keyboard with his Mephistophelean goatee and thick glasses) suddenly catches himself in mid-sentence, looks straight out with widening eyes, and proclaims “but instead we find something quite surprising…”

There is much that he hoped would surprise, enlighten, and delight us all: that music can make perfect sense and be completely unexpected in the same instant; that musical perception can be radically altered by what our other senses encounter when we hear it; that performance ritual and the norms and values it projects are as central to the experience of a live performance by the New York Philharmonic as to, say, an Ashanti healing ceremony; that the future of music flows mysteriously but inexorably from a sometimes affectionate, sometimes fractious conversation between its past and present. These are among the ever-unfolding discoveries that animated Elliott’s life and career, and he was convinced that a deep dive into such phenomena could make the music of any tradition, old or new, vitally interesting to anyone.

For Elliott, though, such pursuits were most urgent in his own journey as a composer. And since about 1990, the most consistent feature of his music has been an interweaving of past and present musical languages through collage, quotation, improvisation and moments of theater. These are integrated into a musical discourse—by turns hard-edged or lyrical, brutal or whimsical—in which the historical emerges from, recedes into, and otherwise haunts the new, as if today’s music were in a dreamlike, at times nightmarish internal struggle with its antecedents. There have always been high points in Elliott’s repertoire, but to my ears, his music has become more focused in this direction with time, and ever more clear-eyed and compelling. He did indeed have, as he said shortly before he died, “so much more music to write.”

Until his artistically gifted and beloved wife DeeDee left us unexpectedly about three years ago, Elliott continued to travel the country and the world by invitation, his music being recognized both overseas and at home as iconic and exemplary in the musical library of American modernism. Given the long and distinguished list of composers, performers, and scholars whom he has mentored and with whom he has collaborated, I can only believe that his music will be kept alive and inspire us for decades to come. My hope is that, after the grieving, all of us who remember the persistent (if somewhat mischievous) twinkle in Elliott’s eye and who live our lives in music will carry that big-hearted spirit—and that deep and relentless curiosity—into all our future endeavors.

Elliott Schwartz and Daniel S. Godfrey

Elliott Schwartz and Daniel S. Godfrey

Magical Yet Practical—Remembering Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)

“Over, under, and with a twist” — this was how Pauline Oliveros described the technique she was demonstrating for coiling an audio or video cable for efficient storage or transport. This was also my personal introduction to Pauline in the fall of 1977, when I arrived at UC San Diego as a graduate composition student. All incoming grad students were required to take a kind of basic training course—taught by Pauline that year—that instructed us in the essential survival skills for a composer in that department. The “Over, under” method for coiling cables (which is also good for staying on good terms with your technical staff – another important but often-overlooked ability) was one of two practical skills covered that first week. The 2nd was tape splicing, a procedure now only practiced the way anthropology students are taught how to make a stone arrowhead by chipping obsidian or chert.

I first became familiar with Pauline’s work I of IV as a teenager in the late 1960s from the LP release on Columbia’s Odyssey label that also included Richard Maxfield’s Night Music and Steve Reich’s Come Out. This disc (along with Terry Riley’s In C) changed my life.  I had also spent most of 1972 through ‘74 hanging out at the Center for Contemporary Music (at Mills College and then under the direction of Robert Ashley), which was the institutionalized evolution of the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center of which Pauline was a co-founder. The Tape Music Center’s recording archive was available at Mills, and I was able to hear many of those early electronic works by Pauline and many others. In fact, my decision to select UC San Diego for graduate school was made in large part because Pauline was on the faculty there along with composer Robert Erickson, whom I had seen listed as both Pauline’s and Terry Riley’s teacher.

Close on the heels of those first two practical assignments was another of a rather different character: to keep a dream journal for the whole semester. This was a process that required learning techniques of awareness during dreaming that facilitated remembering one’s dreams upon waking and then getting them down on paper. (This was, after all, well before personal computers.)

While Pauline was fully grounded in the practicalities of making music, she was always able to connect directly to a place that can reveal mystery and magic.

While it was not evident to me back in 1977, that mix of the extremely practical (how to coil an audio cable and splice tape) and whatever its opposite might be (the dream journal) in many ways exemplified something essential about Pauline.   While she was fully grounded in the practicalities of making music, living and thriving in the physical world, she was always able to connect directly to that place in our less-than-conscious experience of the world—a place where we experience the moment more deeply than we assume possible and a place that can reveal mystery and magic.

I am somewhat at a loss for the right term here, as the easy words to describe Pauline’s work and impact all evoke the “spiritual” realm.  While that is certainly how many people experienced much of Pauline’s later work, such as the Sonic Meditations or Deep Listening, I don’t think the term “spiritual” gets at the truth of this place for her. I believe her inspiration was more a recognition of the potential for depth and magic in every moment of experience, whether it be listening, playing, or any other human endeavor.

It took me some time to arrive at this viewpoint about Pauline. I’ll admit to being a “spiritual” skeptic, having lived through the self-indulgent and shallow spirituality that seemed emblematic of the 60s and 70s.  So, it was with some reluctance that I participated in my first session of Sonic Meditations with Pauline at UCSD’s Center for Music Experiment (then in a WW2-era Quonset hut) in the fall of 1977.   A group of perhaps thirty graduate and undergraduate music students sat on the carpeted floor, and Pauline gave us simple instructions for how to listen and then select our own pitch to sing.  I vividly recall my own transition from guarded observer to immersed participant, as her simple instructions quickly yielded what I can only describe as transcendental sonic and temporal experiences.

Over the course of that year, I participated in a number of additional sessions of Sonic Meditations, as well as some performance events co-created and led by Pauline and her partner at the time, Linda Montano.   In all of these experiences there was, in the transition from observer to participant, a move into a vibrant present moment that for me has always been the goal of performance.

By the early 1980s Pauline had departed from UCSD (simultaneous with the department’s change of emphasis towards computer music technology and a more Euro-centric practice of composition). She became one of the founders, along with Robert Ashley, of New Music America.    This festival, which was almost like a convention or trade show for the experimental wing of American contemporary music, was mounted by a new producing team and in a different city each year.   One could say that John Cage was the godfather of the festival and Pauline the godmother.  I recall that when the collaborating team of each new festival was being developed, Pauline was—with a mix of both humor and deep truth—given the title of the “chaplain,” an acknowledgement that she provided, in addition to leadership and artistic vision, a moral compass for the whole community.

With her passing, we celebrate her life: a complete and uncompromising life lived with inspiration, creativity, compassion, and without boundaries.

The last time I saw Pauline perform was with the Deep Listening Band at a festival of New Albion Records artists at BARD College in the summer of 2008.    It had been a number of years since I had listened to Pauline’s work and some of my skepticism about the “spiritual” resonance around her work had returned.  The DLB closed the multi-day festival (where I had earlier performed In The Name(less) a work for my Invented Instrument Duo with Joel Davel), which was produced in the remarkable Spiegeltent.   There on stage was a grand piano and a large collection of instruments, including Pauline’s big accordion, miscellaneous toys, a trombone, didgeridoo, plastic pipe, reams of electronics, and a trio of “old folks.”   But from the first sound through the entire hour-long performance, Pauline, along with the amazing trombonist Stuart Dempster and pianist David Gamper, wove a dense tapestry of sound (mostly improvised) with such clarity, depth, sensuality, and humor that it came to me that THIS music, which exemplified the “deep listening” aesthetic, was in fact the source and inspiration for numerous other artists’ explorations of drones and slowly evolving musical textures.  I left the concert laughing with pleasure—these “old folks” totally rocked!  And Pauline left us with what “old folks” are supposed to give us:  wisdom.  With her passing, we celebrate her life: a complete and uncompromising life lived with inspiration, creativity, compassion, and without boundaries.

2017 Grammy Nominees Announced

The Recording Academy has announced the nominees for its 59th annual Grammy Awards.  The list of luminaries includes many people who should be familiar to readers of NewMusicBox, and not just the nominees for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, although three of the five 2017 nominees have been the subject of NewMusicBox covers.

Jennifer Higdon, who has previously received this award in 2010 for her Percussion Concerto, has been nominated again this year for her opera Cold Mountain whose world premiere performance by the Santa Fe Opera was released on Pentatone Music. The disc has also been nominated for Best Opera Recording as has the Los Angeles Opera’s recording of The Ghost of Versailles by John Corigliano (also on Pentatone) which is additionally under consideration for Best Engineered Album, Classical (Mark Donahue and Fred Vogler, engineers).

Michael Daugherty, who received the BCCC nod in 2011 for his piano concerto Deus ex Machina, is a contender again with another concertante work, his Tales of Hemingway for cello and orchestra, which was released on an eponymous all-Daugherty disc by Naxos in a performance by Zuill Bailey with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero. Bailey is also up for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for his performance of that work, as is Leila Josefowicz for her performance of Scheherazade.2 by John Adams on Nonesuch, and the entire Daugherty disc is additionally being considered for Best Classical Compendium as is Universal Music’s collection of two suites from Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen.

Christopher Theofanidis, who has yet to receive this award, is also under consideration for his Bassoon Concerto which was included alongside more standard fare by Mozart and Hummel on an Estonian Record Productions disc featuring bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann with Northwest Sinfonia led by Barry Jekowsky. The remaining two BCCC nominees are Mason Bates (for his orchestral work Anthology Of Fantastic Zoology recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Riccardo Muti) and C. F. Kip Winger (for Conversations With Nijinsky recorded by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under Martin West for VBI Classic Recordings). Other nominated classical recordings include Cedille’s collection of four Steve Reich works performed by Third Coast Percussion (Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance) and the New York Philharmonic’s all-Christopher Rouse disc (Best Orchestral Performance). Even among the nominees for Best Historical Album there’s an American composer, albeit not for his own music—Dust to Digital’s re-release of The Library of Congress collection of field recordings of traditional Moroccan music, which were made by late Paul Bowles, is in the running for Best Historical Album!

But that’s not all…

Fred Hersch has been nominated for two awards—Best Improvised Jazz Solo and Best Jazz Instrumental Album (for Sunday Night at The Vanguard) —and Ted Nash for three: Best instrumental Composition, Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Capella, and Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album (for Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom). Also nominated for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album is Real Enemies by Darcy James Argue.

A complete list of the 2017 nominees is available on the official Grammy site. The winners in each of the categories will be announced on February 12, 2017 (though most of the ones cited here probably won’t be mentioned on the nationally televised CBS broadcast).

Andrew Norman Wins $100K Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition

Play, a 47-minute orchestral work by American composer Andrew Norman, is the winner of the 2017 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The $100,000 prize, which is open to living composers based anywhere in the world, awards outstanding achievement in a large musical genre–choral, orchestral, chamber, electronic, song-cycle, dance, opera, musical theater, extended solo work, and more–and is granted for a work premiered during the five-year period prior to the award deadline (i.e. the time period Jan.1, 2011 – Dec. 31, 2015 for the 2017 award). Previous recipients include Witold Lutoslawski, György Ligeti, Joan Tower, John Corigliano, Toru Takemitsu, John Adams, Pierre Boulez, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Kaija Saariaho.

Andrew Norman’s Play explores the relationship of choice and chance, free will and control. The three-movement work investigates the ways musicians in an orchestra can play with, against, or apart from one another; and maps concepts from the world of video gaming onto traditional symphonic structures to tell a fractured narrative of power, manipulation, deceit and, ultimately, cooperation. “Play combines brilliant orchestration, which is at once wildly inventive and idiomatic, with a terrific and convincing musical shape based on a relatively small amount of musical source material,” said Award Director Marc Satterwhite. “It ranges effortlessly from brash to intimate and holds the listener’s interest for all of its 47 minutes—no small feat in these days of shortened attention spans.”

Play was commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, with funding from Music Alive, a national residency program of the League of American Orchestras and New Music USA. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project performed the piece’s premiere in 2013, and released a recording on its own label.  Since then, the piece has garnered considerable attention and critical acclaim. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, and critic and musicologist William Robin said it “might be the best orchestral work that the twenty-first century has seen thus far.”

Norman, a Los Angeles-based composer of orchestral, chamber and vocal music, draws on an eclectic mix of instrumental sounds, notational practices, and non-linear narrative structures in his work. His symphonic music has been performed by leading ensembles worldwide, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw, and the Orchestre National de France.  Norman has won both the Rome Prize and the Berlin Prize, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2012 for his string trio The Companion Guide to Rome. He recently was named Musical America’s 2017 Composer of the Year. Norman’s music is published exclusively worldwide by Schott Music.

In December 2013, Alexandra Gardner spoke with Andrew Norman for NewMusicBox.

All 2017 Grawemeyer Award winners will be announced this week, pending formal approval by the university’s board of trustees. The University of Louisville presents the prizes annually for outstanding works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology, and education, and gives a religion prize jointly with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The 2017 winners will present free lectures about their award-winning ideas when they visit Louisville in April to accept their prizes.

(–from the press release)

The Electric Heat of Creativity—Remembering Donald Buchla (1937-2016)

In 1962-63, in a vacated Elizabethan house on Russian Hill, Ramon Sender and I joined our equipment to make a shared studio; this became The San Francisco Tape Music Center. After the house burned down in 1963-64, we moved to Divisadero Street where we spent days and nights wiring a patch bay console we had got in the AT&T graveyard; we needed to tie all our equipment together. A bit like Dr. Frankenstein, we were putting all kinds of discarded equipment together to create an instrument that would allow for the composer to be a “studio artist.” The device or devices could not have an interface that was associated with any traditional music making, especially not a black and white keyboard.  It would have to have the capacity to control all the musical dimensions as equal partners. We thought, we talked, and we read. Our first imagined system came from what we knew about graphic synthesis.

A bit like Dr. Frankenstein, we were putting all kinds of discarded equipment together to create an instrument that would allow for the composer to be a “studio artist.”

We knew the work of Norman McLaren and were aware of many of the other experiments taking place. Drawing seemed like an intriguing approach to a personalized music maker.

We outlined the following process:

• Create a pattern of holes on a flat round disc
• Spin the disc with a variable speed motor.
• Pass light through the rotating disc.
• Convert the resulting light pattern to sound by placing a photo cell to receive the light pattern passing through the disc.

A pattern could be made for each sound; the size of the pattern would represent amplitude; the shape would result in timbre and the speed of rotation would be some kind of frequency change.

Our soldering skills, starting from zero, quickly grew to modest, but, alas, never to excellent nor even good.  Where and how were we to start?

Instead of continuing our Frankensteinian kludge approach to hunting and gathering in electronic graveyards, we decided to put an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle to find someone who might be interested in building our device. The first person to answer the ad seemed to have some sort of eye dysfunction; his eyes were focusing on two different and constantly changing places at the same time. Unaware that the ’60s drug scene had begun, we described what we were after.  The fellow seemed interested and, after waiting several days without another answer to the ad, he was the only one we had. So we gave him a key to the studio and told him to go ahead and see what he could do.  On arriving at the studio the next morning, we were horrified to discover that he had cut a bunch of wires in the back of our newly wired patch-bay. We took back our key and began the tedious task of putting the patch bay back together.

A short time later, another engineer appeared. He seemed quite normal; that is, he appeared to see and hear in appropriate ways.  We presented our idea and, quietly, he said, “Yeah, I can do it.”

The next day he arrived with a machine; a paper disc attached to a little rotary motor mounted on a board and a couple of batteries a flash light, a small loud speaker, and a small amount of circuitry. He turned it on, and it made a nasty sound!!! Amazed and thrilled, we declared, “It Works!” And he dryly responded, “Yeah, but this isn’t the way to do it.”  That was the arrival of Don Buchla!

A handwritten drawing on a piece of graph paper showing the foot pedal, motor, lamp, lens, and audio output for the light synth.

Don Buchla’s original drawing of the Light Synth

After this, Ramon went on to work on upgrading the studio and I immersed myself in the task of understanding what Don was talking about. He introduced me to the world of voltage control. An entirely new vocabulary was suddenly entering my ears.  The only vocabulary I had for musical sounds were a handful of Italian words—piano, forte, crescendo. This new vocabulary consisted of words from outer space—transistors, resistors, capacitors, diodes, and integrated circuits.  Don was “the man who fell to earth.”

I bought the Navy manual on electronics, but, after starting it, realized that I had to take a step back and get some basics and bought the Navy manual on electricity!  The bedtime reading was intense. After a few weeks of the basics of electricity, I plunged into the manual on electronics.  After a bit of scanning and surface exploration, I found myself struggling with that new vocabulary of transistors and diodes. It took a lot of aspirin [for the nightly headaches] and searching, to be able to follow what Don was explaining.  The long nights morphed from struggling with the steepest learning curve I have ever experienced to a dialog between myself and Don in an attempt to conceptualize a new composer’s creative tool. With Don’s help, even with only a rudimentary understanding of electronics, it was possible to see the power of control voltage as shaping the energy of musical gestures.  Traditionally the result of the fingers on the keyboard, the arm energizing the bow that energizes the strings of a violin, the air blown into a flute, could be understood as metaphors for gesturally-shaped control voltages. It was elegant; it appeared to satisfy the characteristics of all musical dimensions; pitch, amplitude, timbre, timing, and—a brand new dimension—spacial positioning.

With Don’s help, even with only a rudimentary understanding of electronics, it was possible to see the power of control voltage as shaping the energy of musical gestures.

The idea, suddenly, and without aspirin, was coming into focus. We worked regularly for almost a year; I would describe the functionality I thought was necessary to do something musically and Don would look up as if looking at the ceiling or somewhere within himself, return his gaze to me and say, “I made a module that does that.” Was he saying he made it some time ago and had just remembered it or had he designed it at that moment? I never knew and when I would ask him, he would always just smile; that coy half smile of his. But, somehow, within a few days he would bring me a drawing of the new module.

With every meeting a new module would arrive, and eventually he designed an entire analogue computer-like music making machine. It was all on paper. We would need $500 dollars for him to make it.  With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation we finally were able to pay for the parts.  Don never built a prototype; he just arrived one day with the entire machine. At the bottom of every module it read, “San Francisco Tape Music Center, Inc.”  I was upset that we were suddenly in “business”; “OK” he said, and the next ones he made were called “Buchla and Associates” and the now historic Buchla 100 was born.

Within a few weeks of the delivery and public unveiling of the 100, I moved to New York and installed a large 100 system.  There I worked (played, really) with it continuously creating Silver Apples of the Moon and The Wild Bull.  My relationship with Don remained constant, but now, over the phone. I kept finding things that we had not considered or just plain got wrong.

He would say, “I just made a new envelope generator with a pulse out at the end of the envelope.”

“Great, how soon can I get it?”

Don: “I have already mailed it to you.”

I would call him and say, “Could you make a module that would allow me to convert my voice into a control voltage?”

Long pause. No doubt he was looking at the ceiling.

“I have made that.”

A week later one of the first envelope followers arrived and, in addition to knobs, I could use my voice and finger pressure to control all the dimensions of music.

The Buchla 200

The Buchla 200

Within a few years of back and forth additions to the 100, he went on to make, what many of us consider to be the Stradivarius of analog machines, the Buchla 200.

Many of us consider the Buchla 200 to be the Stradivarius of analog machines.

Don had an unusual genius in the creation of interfaces. In adapting our hands to a rectangular piano keyboard, it takes the first several years to master the art of using the thumb. It made sense as the evolution of music and musical instruments morphed together through time.  But, with the explosion of electronic technology in the second half of the 20th century, we no longer needed to be bound to music or the instruments of those traditions; yet the piano keyboard was brought forward and became the instrument for the new technology.  As McLuhan said, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”  Don’s answer to a new interface for a new music was Thunder, his ergonomic interface.

A photo of Buchla's Thunder interface

Buchla’s Thunder

It went on and on, but for me, the three most revolutionary interfaces were: Thunder; Lightning, a baton that could be waved in the air producing a “joy stick” X, Y array of voltages; and his “Kinesthetic Multi-Dimensional Input Port Module with Motion Sensing Rings” that produced X, Y, Z control voltages.

For me, the three most revolutionary Buchla interfaces were Thunder, Lightning, and the Kinesthetic Multi-Dimensional Input Port Module with Motion Sensing Rings.

After a lifetime of designing and building, Don went back to his masterpiece of the 1970s to create the 200e. He had been eager for me to have the 200e but I resisted.  In 2010, my opera Jacob’s Room was going to get its premiere in Austria.  The sponsors wanted me to make a short European tour of solo performances with the video artist, Lillevan, who had done the live video for the opera, but from the late ’80s, I had made a transition to computers and stopped performing in public. So I decided to give the 200e a spin and flew out to spend a few days with Don as he showed me how it worked and I picked the modules I thought I could use.

I took it with me to Europe to tour with Lillevan and made a patch in the hotel the first night I arrived.  With no real time to work with the 200, I had decided to work mostly with sound files on my Mac using Ableton but maybe still use the 200e in some way.  Our first concert was at the Modern Art Museum in Liechtenstein. I did the whole performance with only the Mac, but at the end of the concert, the audience kept cheering, “How about an encore?” Lillevan said. “An encore?! I had never done an encore, what could it be?”  I looked at the 200e, made a few adjustments to the patch and said, “Let’s do it.”  It was as if it was 1966 in my studio on Bleecker Street.  I turned and knobs even repatched as I played.  I was ecstatic; the audience was ecstatic.

Don and I had remained close for 53 years, although for about 30 years, the friendship was without the virtual electric connection we had in the early days.  But since that performance in Liechtenstein until his recent death, we shared again that wonderful electric heat of creativity.

A group of six musicians playing very bizarre looking instruments.

Don’s “popcorn” performance at the 1980 Festival of the Bourges International Institute of Electroacoustic Music.

Ramon and I had brought Don home from the hospital after his cancer treatment and I began to fly out regularly to be with him and his wife Nannick Bonnel. He was determined to live as fully as he could for as long as he could.  Early in his recovery when he was home from the hospital but still not able to walk, I remember calling him from the airport to tell him that I was on my way up to see him in their hilltop house in Berkeley.  My greeting was, as always, the idiotic “How are you doing?”

“Great!” he said, “I just got back from a walk.”

“A walk?” I said in true amazement, “My God! I would have trouble walking on that incredibly steep hill. Where did you walk?”

“Oh,” he answered proudly, “I walked from the bedroom to the kitchen; it didn’t take so long!”

We both laughed.

Over the next several years, with a lot of help from Nannick, he got himself around. Every time I performed in the Bay Area, I stayed with them and he came to performances.  He also did his own performances from time to time and traveled up until the last few years.

Donald Buchla (left) and Morton Subotnick at NAMM.

The picture above is at the NAMM show when he was signing on to a company that would be selling his equipment.  He continued to create complex imaginative modules, the last one being the “Polyphonic Rhythm Generator”; a set of interconnected rings of sequenced pulses which was his homage to the great North Indian Tala tradition! He just kept going.

Toward the end he began using a walker. When I came out to visit, he wanted to go to the Berkeley Museum. It was a very rainy few days, but he walked, one tiny slow step at a time, to their car. Nannick got his wheel chair into the rear while I helped him into the car. I tried to help him, but he waved me off fiercely as he pulled himself slowly from the walker into the front seat.  We went to the museum and I wheeled him from painting to painting; bringing him as close as possible to every painting so that he could see it.

After that, we decided to go to a movie! Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. It was at a theatre in Berkeley on the 2nd floor without an elevator.  While Nannick found a place to park the car, Don and I walked up those stairs, one painful step after another.  In the theater we had to go up again to get a seat. He sat forward staring at the screen, trying to comprehend and see. After we began the painful steps down.

I saw him again a few months later; Joan was able to make the trip with me. Don was clearly deteriorating rapidly. He wanted to go out to a restaurant where we could see the sunset over San Francisco.  We went, even more painfully, wheelchair to walker, step by step.

He finally gave into the big sleep.  Rest well, my dear friend!

Morton Subotnick and Donald Buchla

One of the last photos of Morton Subotnick and Donald Buchla together.