Tag: chamber music

Progressive Chamber Music

[Ed. Note: Later this week (October 14-15, 2017), Sirius Quartet will present their second annual Progressive Chamber Music Festival for two nights at the Greenwich House Music School in New York City. We asked the quartet’s four members to tell the story of the evolution of the group into a post-genre ensemble and why they decided to create their own music festival. Founding violist Ron Lawrence describes how the quartet came into being and the underlying aesthetics that inform what/how the group plays as well as the music festival they curate. Second violinist Gregor Huebner explains how the quartet evolved into a group of composer-performers. Cellist Jeremy Harman, the quartet’s most recent addition, describes why he joined the group seven years ago. And first violinist Fung Chern Hwei explains how the idea for a festival emerged over a conversation between the four of them while they were on tour in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Along the way, each describes their own personal musical journeys and the directions those journeys have taken as a result of playing music with each other. As with the four separate parts that seamlessly weave together in a string quartet performance, whether it’s pre-composed or improvised, their four independent narratives inform and enhance each other.-FJO.]

The members of the Sirius Quartet standing in front of a wall.

The Sirius Quartet (from left to right): Fung Chern Hwei, Jeremy Harman, Ron Lawrence, and Gregor Huebner.

Ron Lawrence

The conflict/merging of the sacred and the profane has been a major theme in western culture since the rise of Christianity.  In the modern world, one expression of this conversation has been the gradual breakdown of the barriers between contemporary academic music and popular and folk music traditions.  The aesthetic of the Sirius Quartet and our Progressive Chamber Music Festival is an expression of this ongoing blending.  We created the festival to be an annual opportunity to showcase the diversity and depth of the community of like-minded composer/performers.  On a more prosaic level it is an attempt to create a new “bin in the record store” for this mulatto style (perhaps labeled “omnivores’ delight”).

The Sirius Quartet revels in the musical smorgasbord that the digital tidal wave has brought to the internet.

The Sirius Quartet revels in the musical smorgasbord that the digital tidal wave has brought to the internet.  With a few taps on a keyboard, anyone can access the entire canon of humanity’s musical experience.  The opportunities for cross-fertilization of musical styles, performance techniques, and creating new social contexts for musical performance are abundant.  The Sirius Quartet has been dedicated to exploring this new world, and the artists we’ve presented during the Progressive Chamber Music Festival for the past two years all embrace and explore these possibilities.

However, there are dangers in the digital tidal wave that has washed over the new millennium.  Beyond the obvious steering of a complacent audience into the “if you like that, you’ll love this” cul-de-sac, the configuration of the software programs and their default settings creates a huge temptation to allow the machines and plug-ins to make crucial aesthetic decisions.

Without making a conscious decision, the medium can become the message.  For example, the editing process can dictate what should be musical/emotional decisions.  The click map is a wonderful tool when writing music to picture, but expressing rubato is time consuming.  It’s easier to just loop some cool beats and lay it on the click map.  The technology has dictated the musical style. Plug-in technology is also insidious.  Rather than make a conscious decision about the color palette, the composer/producer will just plug in the funky ’70s Fender Twin bass sound from his or her library.  It would take hours of painstaking listening to get under the hood and tweak the software to find an original sound. Once again the technology has preemptively dictated choices, homogenizing the style. The composers/performers of Sirius and our colleagues use improvisation and the spontaneity of extended techniques to combat this homogenization.  We want our music feel homemade and give the audience the sensation of “fresh from the pot.”

I think my personal journey to becoming a creative musician began while driving around Michigan as a teenager with my car radio blaring rock and roll. I reveled in the breathtaking tonal and emotional palette of the electric guitar. When I arrived in New York in the early 1980s, the classical conservatory training of instrumentalists was increasingly specialized and recording techniques were creating a style and sound that worshiped velocity and close-miked sizzle over warmth and soulfulness.  There was a “correct violin sound” and one’s education and technical training focused exclusively on producing that timbre and emotional quality.  I yearned for that wider palette of the electric guitar. As a listener, I was as drawn to Sonny Boy Williamson or Bata drumming as I was to Babbitt or Boulez.  New York, always a nexus for the melting pot of cultures, gave me the opportunity for an almost anthropological exploration of the roots of popular and folk music styles.

Playing with a few charanga and tango bands taught me that each particular style has its own unique technical challenges distinct from the classical tradition.  Not only does each folkloric tradition have a unique rhythmic feel, but one’s physical approach to the instrument must be flexible enough to step outside of the classical concept of “good violin” playing.  As a performer and composer, choices of bow distribution, quality of attack and decay, and tonal variety inform the rhythmic feel and emotional content of any style.

Eventually, I was asked to join the Dave Soldier Electric String Quartet.  As a mainstay of the downtown, Knitting Factory music scene, Dave introduced me to that diverse, eclectic collection of urban, postmodern creative “folk” musicians.  Here was my wider palette.  When the Soldier Quartet disbanded, I founded the Sirius Quartet as a vehicle to continue these explorations for composers/performers.

Gregor Huebner’s reharmonization of Lennon & McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” performed by Sirius Quartet

Gregor Huebner 

I joined the Sirius Quartet around 2004, shortly after I started working with jazz pianist Richie Beirach.  Richie and I recorded the albums Round about Bartók and Round about Federico Mompou, which were very much about exploring the intersection of composition and improvisation in more of a jazz context.  At the time, Sirius Quartet was really focused on contemporary classical and avant-garde jazz composers.  As a player and a composer, this was a perfect group for me to explore my own musical identity and ideas.  I started composing pieces for Sirius which included both the extended techniques of the contemporary classical “language” as well as the spirit of improvisation from my jazz experiences with Beirach, Randy Brecker, Billy Hart, and George Mraz, with whom I play in a quintet.

These days we are a string quartet which writes its own music and incorporates improvisation in many different forms.

When Jeremy and Chern Hwei—two fantastic composers and improvisers—joined the quartet, it felt like focusing on our own music was the way forward. So these days we are a string quartet which writes its own music and incorporates improvisation in many different forms.  That is my own personal definition of what we are calling “progressive chamber music” as it applies to Sirius and we can stretch that term very broadly to include all kinds of creative small ensemble music, which is the focus of our annual festival.

Jeremy Harman’s composition More Than We Are performed by Sirius Quartet

Jeremy Harman

I grew up spending equal amounts of time immersed in classical music via cello lessons, playing in my school orchestras, and playing in a quartet with high school friends, as well as the rock/metal world, which was a very different circle of people, most of whom were self-taught and were more focused on writing original music.  I always felt equally at home in both worlds, and at the same time, maybe like in each world that I wasn’t able to fully be myself as a musician due to both collective and personal misperceptions that these two were incompatible.  Throughout my life, I’ve sought to bridge this gap on a personal level, and when I auditioned for Sirius Quartet in 2010, I found some like-minded string players who each came from a pretty unique background of musical influences, but who shared my desire to build bridges between genres, and more specifically to blur the lines between supposed high-brow and low-brow art and music.  We all have a classical background, but each of us have spent our lives reaching beyond that in our own ways, which have included exploring various types of improvisation, from soloing over chord changes to playing completely free with no premeditated musical goals or expectations, exploring alternative and extended techniques of playing to widen our sonic palette, and composing our own music which we hope reflects our unique identities as both individuals and as a quartet.

Each of us have spent our lives reaching beyond our classical backgrounds.

With seven years in the group, I am still the newest member of the Sirius Quartet, and most of its history predates me.  Initially the quartet came out of the Soldier String Quartet run by violinist Dave Soldier in the late ’80s as Ron has already mentioned, but as the resident “rookie” here, I think they did some very interesting work as part of the early Knitting Factory/“downtown” scene, working with artists such as Elliott Sharp and Nick Didkovsky and playing a lot of music that was more on the experimental side.

As has been said, in recent years, the quartet has focused more on original works by members of the quartet itself and has leaned more toward the jazz side of things, collaborating with a lot of phenomenal musicians including Linda Oh, Steve Wilson, Richard Sussman and Rufus Reid who all have written really incredible music incorporating the string quartet into more traditional jazz ensembles and instrumentations.

As a quartet, I think we occupy a somewhat unique position in the New York City music scene. So we wanted to put together a festival that brings together musicians from the various corners of the musical worlds we occupy.  There are already some fantastic music festivals in the city, but we thought there was plenty of room for another one.  If there were a Venn diagram that existed and each of these festivals occupied their own circle, I think that the circle that the Progressive Chamber Music Festival would occupy would have significant overlap with all of them.

Violinist Fung Chern Hwei playing with other members of the Sirus Quartet.

Fung Chern Hwei

The genesis of the Progressive Chamber Music Festival happened one fine October morning in 2015.  The place was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we were on tour and had a day off.  Before the sun displayed its full equatorial glory, we were enjoying breakfast at a South Indian-Malaysian roadside food stall—more commonly known as a “mamak” stall.  Words were exchanged over a topic as old as the quartet’s two-decade long career: How does one define the musical direction the quartet is taking? How does that fit into the current musical landscape of the music scene in New York and elsewhere?  Many of our fans and listeners would agree, it can be difficult to place the group in a certain category.  Sirius has a fascinating lineage of former members who have developed their own projects writing and/or performing contemporary classical music and/or various non-traditional genres—Todd Reynolds, Meg Okura, Jennifer Choi, Dave Eggar, just to name a few.

The current incarnation of the quartet is primarily focused on music that is internally written, as three of the four of us are composers.  We all compose in different styles and methods, since each of us came from a slightly different musical background.  The end result is, I think, an eclectic body of music that pulls listeners in many directions and hopefully both challenges and intrigues them.

We don’t rule anything out.

We don’t rule anything out in the music we write: tonality, atonality, groove, form, etc., and we like to incorporate improvisation in various ways to achieve various goals in our music.  This could range from creating vamps in the midst of otherwise through-composed music (to bring about a change of pace or vibe) to finding ways of embellishing or improvising on a previously written part in one of our pieces, to linking various movements and/or pieces together with free improvisation, which we’ve found can create a nice heightened sense of focus in the audience since what is composed and what is improvised becomes less and less distinct.

We have had the absolute pleasure to work with accomplished creative jazz musicians like Uri Caine and John Escreet, both of whom in their own way share our affinity for line-blurring. They have each written some amazing music that we have performed together over the years which consists of very interesting mixtures of composed and improvised material.  I certainly don’t think this is unique to our quartet; I think there is a growing movement of creative musicians of all stripes blending these elements in a myriad of really interesting ways.

Getting back to our breakfast in Kuala Lumpur, we didn’t necessarily come to any explicit conclusions when talking about our place in the larger world of creative music, but we found the discussion to be really enjoyable and it gave us a chance to reflect upon and really appreciate the musical community that we are a part of.  New York City has long been an incubator for cross-genre pollination and experimentation in all corners of the music community. It is not difficult to find artists and groups, many of them personal friends of ours, who fall outside of the mainstream categories of “concert” or “art” music.  So someone probably half-jokingly mentioned putting together a festival with a bunch of friends and colleagues whose music resonates with us and who we respect very much as artists, and we thought it actually sounded like a good idea!

Currently the festival is a total DIY operation, but the goal is basically to give each artist the chance to do solely what best represents them and their creative identity without having to compromise anything.  The name “Progressive Chamber Music Festival” retains the ambiguity of the types of music presented, therefore giving musicians absolute freedom of expression, while at the same time it clearly defines the philosophy that I think we and our musical comrades stand for—progressiveness within but also regardless of convention.  We hope to challenge the common notion of what chamber music should be, while inviting old and new voices to partake.

Ron Lawrence, Gregor Huebner, Jeremy Harman, and Fung Chern Hwei standing in back of empty chairs.

Summer Residency Snapshots: The Composer / Performer Mind Meld

Last week I gave some background on the Avaloch Farm Music Institute and explored how being involved in creative residencies impacts collaborative musical work. During the first week (July 10-18) of 2016’s New Music Initiative, I had the chance to observe how two ensembles of composer/performers craft fluid, group-developed music.

Invisible Anatomy is a New York-based composers collective dedicated to large-scale multi-media shows. Its members—Brendon Randall-Myers, Paul Kerekes, Dan Schlosberg, Ian Gottlieb, Ben Wallace, and Fay Kueen Wang—are also cunning and acerbic performers, the collective’s name is a nod towards the physical bodies of performers and the invisible presence of composers on a concert stage, a celebratory collision of what cellist/composer Ian Gottlieb calls “the immediacy of a composer who also expresses himself with his own instrument.” While the group’s electric/acoustic instrumentation is similar to the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the strength of Invisible Anatomy’s previous multimedia shows (2014’s Body Parts and 2015’s Dissections) is the diversity of their sonic approach, which veers without warning from dynamic, hocketing pulsar (Paul Kerekes’s Pressing Issues) to slow motion sonic vivisection (Ian Gottlieb’s Threading Light).

The Process

While Dissections and Body Parts were continuous shows, the constituent musical numbers were independently composed works stitched together in what Dan Schlosberg calls an “abridged composer-performer model.” During their week at Avaloch, the boys of Invisible Anatomy (Fay Wang was unable to attend) decided to generate new material for their forthcoming Transfigurations[1] through a more improvisational compositional model.

Since the members of Invisible Anatomy are gifted performers with what Paul Kerekes calls “composer-y” brains, why not harness their collective strengths as orchestrators and developers of musical material and manipulate each other’s ideas in real time? After a few days of improvising and becoming more comfortable with each other as performers, Invisible Anatomy settled into a “transfiguration” rhythm, using minuscule nuggets of material as starting points in order to (as Brendon Randall-Myers puts it) “collectively build this thing which everyone has equity in.”

Paul Kerekes brings two musical ideas into rehearsal: a chord progression and a fragment of one of Fay Wang’s pieces that he had extracted and “transfigured,” a snappy scale passed among the group. Kerekes shoots his progression (a “numbered sequence of inquisitive, vague, and suggestive verticalities” is probably more descriptive) to each member’s iPad.

Idea no 2 (before)

Paul Kerekes’ initial sketch for development in rehearsal with Invisible Anatomy

The boys take turns at the helm, each offering a broad theme for the next run through—“hocketed, without attack”—which they apply to their instruments while buttressing with their own thoughts. Brainstorming is quick and polite and perhaps a bit ADD. Minute and enormous changes are equivalent, and the work appears non-teleological until “Paul’s” piece is set with the firmness of an underdone quiche. It’s a disfigured, sickly chorale constructed of sighing, groaning, articulation-less sounds sliding and sliming (in the best possible way). Schlosberg and Kerekes’s piano and keyboard playing melts into Randall-Myers’s guitar, Wallace’s bowed vibraphone, and Gottlieb’s sickly long tones. By the end of the week, the group has generated almost 20 minutes of their new show using this working method–a flight of musical follies touching down briefly amidst austere harmonic totems, absurdist cowboy music, and vaudevillian settings of warning labels.

What’s immediately noticeable during Invisible Anatomy’s rehearsals is that there is no functional boundary between performer and composer. They aren’t afraid to get dirty with each other’s ideas and tend to treat everything as their own composition. A deep awareness of each other’s compositional and performative strengths allows them to connect the dots more quickly and create more idiomatic music with grace.

I’m struck by two things. First, I am entranced by how Invisible Anatomy’s serpentine creative process results in work that reeks of form, structure, and development. At the same time, the lack of waste makes me jealous. As a percussionist steeped in a more conservative collaborative method—note learning, making idiomatic suggestions to composer friends, learning revised parts, taping over hastily reprinted pages—it’s a fantastic time saver.

Invisible Anatomy

Brendon Randall-Myers, Ian Gottlieb, Paul Kerekes, Ben Wallace, and Dan Schlosberg of Invisible Anatomy

Invisible Anatomy’s dynamicism and playfulness is mirrored in another group concurrently in residence at Avaloch. Triplepoint Trio (Doug Perry, Sam Suggs, and Jonny Allen) exist somewhere within contemporary music and jazz, and each member is a classically trained performer, improviser, and creator. This drum/vibraphone/bass trio is made up of Avaloch veterans: they’ve attended as a group in 2016 and 2015, and Doug Perry and Sam Suggs have also come with other groups.

For Perry, Allen, and Suggs, arrangement, composition, and performance are almost the same act. During Invisible Anatomy’s stay at Avaloch, Triplepoint was developing pieces by Perry and Suggs, each of which mobilized the unique talents of the group. Doug and Sam brought ideas ranging from a single chord to a fully fleshed out arrangement to the group. Through improvisation, the edges of the work are gradually hardened, and the piece’s “instigator” tends to have the final say over the large-scale structure.

What’s great about Triplepoint Trio is the way in which these skills seep into their performances of more “fixed,” predetermined music. While at Avaloch, the trio workshopped a new piece by Michael Laurello, written for Fender Rhodes, bass, and vibraphone, and in 2015 they used their stay at the farm to work on music from Invisible Anatomy’s Brendon Randall-Myers and Paul Kerekes. In each case, the composers created bounded material, but the performances were improvisational, spontaneous, and joyful.

Triplepoint Trio

Doug Perry and Jonny Allen of Triplepoint Trio rehearse

A Focus on Process

Both Triplepoint and Invisible Anatomy were productive collaborators during their time at Avaloch. So what? Was there something different about being here, surrounded by apples, blueberries, corn, and cookies, when compared to their normal rehearsal spaces? Did physical space have an impact on their creative work?

Obviously, being at a residency has logistical benefits. Ensembles are able to leave their percussion forts and jungles of electronics set up during their stay, saving a lot of time. Ensembles that have been to Avaloch tend to point towards the value of being “away” to create, having a dedicated time and space for a specific project.

Lastly, it seems as though the lack of pressure to leave with something concrete allowed Invisible Anatomy to focus on refining their creative process. For ensembles of composer/performers, neither the tight, goal-oriented schedules of summer festivals nor the creative isolation of writers colonies fit.   At Avaloch, both Triplepoint Trio and Invisible Anatomy were able to stretch their legs creatively while being inspired by the diverse community around them. For Invisible Anatomy’s Ian Gottlieb, the difference was clear: “At a seminar or festival, part of the reason to go is to walk away with something: a recording, or some networking experience; here the highlight is on process.”

Next time, I want to take a look at a few collaborators for whom physical proximity allowed for speed in composition and interpretation. Stay tuned!

1. I’m sensing a theme in titles…

Eleanor Cory: What I Really Want To Do

Eleanor Cory is one of the most unassuming composers I have ever encountered. I had seen her at new music concerts all around New York City for many years before I made the mental connection that she was the same person whose music I knew from recordings on CRI, Soundspells, and Albany.  When I finally started having conversations with her during intermissions at some of these concerts, I was struck by how much she valued listening to other people’s music. This prompted me to revisit her music, mindful of that devotion, and as a result I began to hear the subtle interplays between instruments in her carefully crafted chamber music in an entirely different way. It turns out that it is the way that she hears her own music.

“There is dialogue in my music; the instruments are people in some way,” Cory explained when we finally had a chance to talk to each other in the presence of a video camera in her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment on a mid-July afternoon.  And as far as being influenced by other composers goes, she never lets her ego get in the way of where the music needs to go. As she elaborated, “I like to put things that don’t immediately seem to belong together into the same piece.  From [listening to] one piece I may get a dramatic shape, and from something else I might just get some great chords.  There are many ways of using the same chords.”

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory's String Quartet No. 3.

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory’s String Quartet No. 3. Copyright © 2015 by Eleanor Cory. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
All rights administered throughout the world by American Composers Alliance (BMI). Used with permission of the composer.

One of the biggest inspirations for her has been jazz, even though she has never aspired to be a jazz musician:

I didn’t think that I have a natural ability to do it.  I came from a very typical suburban family. … I wasn’t the kind of person that could hear jazz and then reproduce it.  Maybe that’s what I thought had to happen. … I heard this music when I was teenager.  I lived in New Jersey and my brother would bring me with his friends to all those clubs, like Birdland, so I had all that music in my ear.  But you couldn’t do that at Columbia University.

Her years of compositional training—first at Sarah Lawrence College with Meyer Kupferman then with Charles Wuorinen at NEC, and finally at Columbia with Bulent Arel, Chou Wen-chung, and Mario Davidovsky—gave her a very deep immersion in the 12-tone method. But despite this meticulous grounding in sets and combinatoriality, Cory’s phrases echoed bebop. And then she had an epiphany that encouraged her to go deeper in that direction from a seemingly unlikely source: the doyen of 12-tone composers, Milton Babbitt, with whom she had never studied.

“A piece of mine was on a concert at Merkin Hall and a piece by Milton was on the same concert,” she remembered.  “At the intermission, we were on stage talking about our pieces.  At one point, he looked at me and he said, ‘What I really like in your music is the bebop jazz influence.’  He knows that music so well.  And this whole part of me just relaxed.  I can do this!  … Suddenly I found these kind of overlappings. I could go from one to the other. Then I began just saying to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to sit at the piano and I’m going to play chords.  Chords that I like.  Period.  I’m just going to play whatever’s in there.’  And so many of them came out. I wasn’t using rows anymore.  This was really exciting.  Then I realized, if you took them apart, many of them were the same chords that might be 0-1-3-9s—you know, this stupid language—or 0-2-5-8. I could practically play all these chords and they would be the same chords, but in different inversions.  My ear was in both places, but they were coming together.”

Last year, Naxos American Classics released a disc featuring some of Cory’s most recent works. Her compositional language has grown even more eclectic. There are suggestions of minimalism in the frenetic conclusion of her Third String Quartet from 2009 and there’s even some effusive neo-romanticism in her 2012 Violin Sonata No. 1. (“I can’t believe I never wrote a violin sonata!  I think maybe I was scared to do it because there were so many great ones.”) But the jazziest of the pieces is, fittingly, Things Are, a 2011 duo for flute and piano written in memory of Milton Babbitt.

The cover for the 2015 Naxos American Classics CD of music by Eleanor Cory

The latest CD devoted exclusively to Eleanor Cory’s music was issued last year on Naxos American Classics (8.559784).

A conversation at Eleanor Cory’s apartment in New York City
July 8, 2016—3:30 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: You seem to place tremendous value on listening to other people’s music. I’ve seen you in the audience for so many different concerts I’ve attended, for probably nearly 20 years.

Eleanor Cory:  Wow, that’s a long time.

FJO: It’s always made me curious about how many performances you attend.

EC:  Maybe one or two a week.  Occasionally there’ll be some crazy week where there will be more than that.  But sometimes there are big spaces where I don’t go to any; there just isn’t anything in particular that I want to hear.

FJO: And yet you seem open to a really wide range of music. I’ve seen you at many performances by the more established new music ensembles uptown, but I’ve also run into you at some more experimental things either downtown or in Brooklyn.

EC: I like getting ideas and just being there.

FJO:  I also know that you’re a big fan of jazz. Somehow, I can hear all of that when I listen to your music, even though you’re not composing in those styles. You’ve absorbed these other musical languages and have made aspects of them part of your own vocabulary.

I think that by nature as a composer, I like to put things that don’t immediately seem to belong together into the same piece.

EC: I think that by nature as a composer, I like to put things that don’t immediately seem to belong together into the same piece.  From [listening to] one piece I may get a dramatic shape, and from something else I might just get some great chords.  There are many ways of using the same chords.  But I also just like going and seeing people, then talking to composers right after their pieces are played, just to ask them questions on the spot, or to tell them how much I liked the piece.  I’m curious and, by nature, I’m always asking people questions.  People say, “You ask too many questions!”  Sometimes it’s interpreted as butting in or stepping on someone’s privacy.  I just like to be aware and maybe I’ll get some ideas.  Maybe I’ll try something that’s out of my box.

FJO:  In terms of out of your box, it was interesting seeing you at National Sawdust during the New York City Electronic Music Festival, since as far as I know you don’t compose electronic music.

EC:  But my husband [Joel Gressel] does.  He wasn’t on that particular concert, but he wanted to go to some of them.  Alice Shields was on another concert, and she’s a friend of both of ours. And Tuck [Hubert Howe] is an old friend.  They went to Princeton together, so we’ve known him a long time, too. So we figured, let’s go hear his piece.  And there aren’t too many purely electronic music concerts these days, I don’t think.

A portrait of Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory sits next a sculpture in Cory's composition studio.

A portrait of Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory sits next a sculpture in Cory’s composition studio.

FJO:  So has electronic music influenced you as a composer in any way?

EC:  I think it has. Back when I was at Columbia, I took one course with Mario Davidovsky and it was so wonderful.  He would just dance around.  It was the old days where you had to cut little snippets and then tape them.  I had no ability.  It just wasn’t my thing.  And computer music with Charles Dodge—not at all.  I had another teacher for a while who’s been dead for a long time named Bülent Arel, and he did a lot of that.  There was something about the notelessness of some of it.  And I’ve heard a lot of it.  Of course a lot of people do it with real notes, but it was mostly those guys that were doing these interesting sounds that I thought was very interesting—that wildness, things really fast that are not playable by human beings.  Maybe part of it, for me, is getting that feeling, that energy, trying to get the instruments a little bit out of what they usually do.  Maybe that’s analogous to these electronic sounds.  Maybe living with my husband. He does all kinds of strange sounds, although he tends to use electronic sounds more orchestrally.  That’s another whole story.

Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory laughing while playing on a piano together.

Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory playing piano four-hands on June 16, 1973, the eve of their wedding (photo courtesy Tamar Cory Gressel).

FJO:  Now, if you’re really deep into working on a piece, do you feel the need to create some kind of separation between you and other people’s music?

EC:  I don’t think so.  Sometimes if I’m deeply into a piece, it’s really nice to get away from it and go to hear something else and not think about it.  I think I compartmentalize like that.  And I do a lot of other things to put the piece aside.  I may do some reading or some physical activity.  I may sit with friends and talk about music or not music.  Then I come back to the piece.  And a lot of times, I do think that a lot of other things that I do feed into the music. If I’m having a really animated conversation, I might just have an animated conversation with a bunch of instruments. I also go to poetry readings pretty often, and that’s all musical kind of thought—to me a lot of it is.  So I think that’s also something that has an effect on what I’m doing.

FJO:  That’s clear even in the titles of your pieces.  You wrote a really nice piano trio which you called Conversation, and it does in fact sound like one to some extent.  So was there an actual specific conversation you had with people that inspired you?

EC:  I don’t think so.  It was just thinking about how people interact with each other. So I just thought of the instruments as talking to each other, then picking up ideas from each other and giving them back, or talking at once—you get a sort of more chaotic thing.  Slowing down and speeding up, little time to think, then getting back into it.  A sudden wait.  Those kind of moments. It starts maybe as words and then suddenly they’re notes.  There is dialogue in my music.  The instruments are people in some way.  Not for every piece, but I want the people playing those instruments to connect with one another as though they were people in a conversation.

FJO:  Of course, there’s a delicate balance between being mindful of the musicians for whom you are initially writing and creating something that could go on to be performed by many other musicians.

EC:  If I know the actual players I’m writing for, then of course I do kind of think of them playing it.  And I definitely think, “What does this one do really well?”  And I think of something I may have heard them do.  But I don’t think it goes too far.  It’s just a way of getting started with an idea.  Then you’re back to notes, rhythms, range, tempos, and the usual stuff of music.

Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory on a bench in a park.

Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory (photo by Tamar Cory Gressel).

FJO:  As to the usual stuff in your music, I certainly hear elements that are clearly tonal or modal and others that seem dodecaphonic. And, in particular, harmonies and phrasings that bear a strong resemblance to jazz even though your music does not incorporate improvisation.

I’m going to sit at the piano and I’m going to play chords that I like.  And so many of them came out. I wasn’t using rows anymore.  This was really exciting.  Then I realized, if you took them apart, many of them were the same chords that might be 0-1-3-9s—you know, this stupid language—or 0-2-5-8. … My ear was in both places, but they were coming together.

EC:  Well, I had such a heavy dose of 12-tone stuff with Charles Wuorinen—rows and retrogrades.  So that was in my ear. And Babbitt’s music, but I didn’t study with him.  In fact, I’ll tell you one very relevant story.  A piece of mine was on a concert at Merkin Hall and a piece by Milton was on the same concert.  At the intermission, we were on stage talking about our pieces.  At one point, he looked at me and he said, “What I really like in your music is the bebop jazz influence.”  He knows that music so well.  And this whole part of me just relaxed.  I can do this!  It’s what I really want to do, because I heard this music when I was teenager.  I lived in New Jersey and my brother would bring me with his friends to all those clubs, like Birdland, so I had all that music in my ear.  But you couldn’t do that at Columbia University.  Suddenly I found these kind of overlappings. I could go from one to the other. Then I began just saying to myself, “Okay, I’m going to sit at the piano and I’m going to play chords.  Chords that I like.  Period.  I’m just going to play whatever’s in there.”  And so many of them came out. I wasn’t using rows anymore.  This was really exciting.  Then I realized, if you took them apart, many of them were the same chords that might be 0-1-3-9s—you know, this stupid language—or 0-2-5-8. I could practically play all these chords and they would be the same chords, but in different inversions.

My ear was in both places, but they were coming together.  I was comfortable with using them, and then I could choose my own order.  I didn’t have to have the I chord then the IV chord; I could just say, “Well, let’s try this one. I’ll change the range, and I’ll put this note up an octave.  Then I’ll scrunch them all together.”  I wasn’t writing any melodies, just putting together a progression based on my ear basically to see what would happen.  And I liked it.  Other people liked it, so that was good.  Then I made melodies out of chords, and put things on top of each other.  I often write words before I start writing music.  I’ll write a story that I want to tell, which isn’t really about people or anything; it’s just the moods that I’m going to have and then interruptions, people arguing, etc. I’ll just have these thoughts of what I want the music to be like.

A Steinway grand piano with an open score on its music rack.

An old Steinway grand piano resides in the middle of Cory’s living room.

FJO:  These narratives seem so important to your creative process, and sometimes you’ve offered hints of that with titles like, as we spoke of before, Conversation. There are many other pieces of yours whose titles allude to this same line of thinking—Interview, Pas de Quatre, even pieces like Play Within a Play and Chasing Time. But it’s less apparent when you title something, say, String Quartet No. 3, which just tells people it’s the third somewhat long form piece you’ve composed for two violins, a viola, and a cello, or Violin Sonata No. 1 which is pretty recent so I was surprised that it was your first one!

EC:  Isn’t that amazing? I can’t believe I never wrote a violin sonata!  I’ve done bigger groups, or smaller, just not a violin sonata.  I think maybe I was scared to do it because there were so many great ones.  If you write a sonata for solo bass, that’s different.  So I just decided to do it, and that’s why it was number one.

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory's Violin Sonata No. 1

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory’s Violin Sonata No. 1. Copyright © 1991 by Eleanor Cory. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
All rights administered throughout the world by the Association for the Promotion of New Music (BMI). Used with permission of the composer.

FJO: So if there is a back story to any of these more abstractly titled pieces, do you feel it’s important for listeners to know about it?

EC:  They can read my program notes, but I don’t think it is.  I have program notes that are poems, if a piece is written about a poem.  But I hope it doesn’t matter whether they get “the” story, whatever it was. I want them to enjoy the piece, and to feel emotional things. So I don’t think I care, although I will sometimes put in a program note something about voices interacting and sometimes I don’t.

FJO:  Now, along those same lines, using rows versus not using rows—once upon a time, it was very important for composers to say this is based on such and such a row, and now people tend to shy away from talking about that because that way of thinking about music somehow got vilified. Very few people these days seem to acknowledge that they’re writing 12-tone music.  You even said you were happy to escape the row but, from what I can hear at least, these compositional techniques—or at least the melodic and harmonic possibilities that they open up—still inform your language to some extent.

EC:  Oh, that’s interesting.  I don’t think so.  I think of it as being quite separate.  I associate it so much with being a student, and being a brand new composer, and being just happy to be a composer and being told what to do by Charles Wuorinen.  This is what everybody’s doing now.  You better get to it.  This is what everyone’s doing, and so I’m going to do this, too.  Taking my own chords, using my own ears, and getting jazz in was a big rebellion for me against what I had been given.

FJO:  It was interesting for me to read in the autobiographical essay that you shared with me the other day that when you first started writing music at Sarah Lawrence College, Meyer Kupferman told you not to worry about theory or harmony, and that your initial reaction was that you didn’t know what to do. But you had to do something because the piece was due the following week.

EC:  Right.  Don’t come in here unless you have one.  It was very scary. It was really just a “one note, then another note, what am I going to do now” kind of thing. But I think that was wonderful. I somehow wanted to do the class. I didn’t have to take that class.  I just thought maybe I’d like to try composing, because we did all this improvising. Everybody had different instruments.  There was nothing about “now we’re going to be in G major.”  It was just “now we’re going to have a fox going up a tree” or “now we’re going to have a flame.”  Then we would have to listen to each other, and if the bass started doing something, then I’d have to do this on the piano to respond to her.  And a violin would come in and do a line over it. It’s just as though we were dancing almost.

We were just kind of improvising with our bodies and whatever instruments we played.  Some of them were scratching on their instruments, or playing them upside down—people doing funny sounds, some of what now happens all the time, these strange sounds from flutes, and there was no judgement.  We just did these things.  And then they got more and more specific, and we began to have piano concertos or flute concertos, and the rest of us would be the orchestra.  So it got you feeling about how music goes.  We’d all heard music, but to have actually tried to write in the style of Mozart or something would not have been possible at that point, especially without knowing theory.

FJO:  So you started out as a pianist, and your initial background in composing came out of improvisation.  And you also have a deep love of jazz. It’s interesting that you did not pursue being a jazz pianist. You probably could have.

EC:  I don’t think so. It would have been so far from my imagination because I don’t think I knew of any women jazz players, not that I was thinking about that too much.  I just thought it was something you were born with.  I still almost think that.  Some people can just sit down and improvise jazz.  I don’t have that.  Does that make sense?

FJO:  Yes and no.  Because you also wrote in that essay that you were initially not aware of any women who composed music and that did not stop you from becoming a composer.

EC:  But I never gave it a thought.  I did with jazz.  But maybe that was just another way of saying I didn’t think that I have a natural ability to do it.

FJO:  But you do. I think it’s worth talking about this in greater detail because I think it speaks to what leads people down certain paths. Role models are extremely important. In the year 2016, there are tons of prominent female composers—though of course women have been writing music for thousands of years.  But most concerts of older classical music still feature music exclusively by men. There’s also a tremendous gender disparity in jazz. As a young person wanting to engage in these kinds of activities, it can be difficult to find a way to identify with it.  Yet you still found a way to identify with being a composer but not with being a jazz musician.

A childhood photo of Eleanor Cory.

A childhood photo of Eleanor Cory. (Photo courtesy Tamar Cory Gressel.)

I knew the words to all the songs. I listened to it all the time. I always had Dave Brubeck and all these people on my machine. And I just loved it. But at that stage in my life I also wasn’t really thinking about being any kind of composer.

EC:  I came from a very typical suburban family in New Jersey.  Music was in the house all the time because my father loved music, and we went to concerts.  So I got reinforcement for playing the piano and for loving music. Then I went to a girls’ school because a lot of people from that culture went to girls’ schools.  So I went to a boarding school that was a girls’ school and then I went to Sarah Lawrence.  While it didn’t occur to me to write music—because all composers were men—as soon as this was presented to me, I was very happy with it.  I mean, I think I was nervous and afraid, but I didn’t think about not doing it.  I very much wanted to do it.  So why didn’t I want to do jazz?  I don’t think that was really anything to do with being a woman.  I wasn’t the kind of person that could hear jazz and then reproduce it.  Maybe that’s what I thought had to happen.  I guess I could have just started studying it or however people start to do it.  I don’t know why I thought that I loved it so much but I couldn’t do it.

FJO:  But then decades later, that love came out in your music in your own way.

EC:  Because it was in there.  I knew the words to all the songs.  I listened to it all the time.  I always had Dave Brubeck and all these people on my machine.  And I just loved it.  But at that stage in my life I also wasn’t really thinking about being any kind of composer.  Maybe I thought I was just going to graduate and not compose anymore.  I was going to teach music to kids.  That’s what I would do with a music degree.  So I was teaching in this school and I wasn’t really composing.  Then I started to take other classes in other places, and I started composing again.  I had a teacher at the Longy School and then I went to NEC.  But I think it was just something that was in my life; I was still more of a pianist.

Eleanor Cory sitting on a bench in Straus Park

FJO:  So in terms of finding mentors, at some point you learned about Ursula Mamlok and Joan Tower and I know that connecting with them was very important to you.

EC:  When I got to Joan and Ursula, I really liked their music. That was the first time that I felt in synch with composers in general, and women composers in particular.

FJO:  What was interesting about Meyer Kupferman being your first teacher was that even though he was a 12-tone composer, he was also deeply interested in jazz. Every piece of his was based on the same tone row, which he used because it yielded particular jazz progressions.

EC:  That’s what I learned to do, too.  I learned to do collections of pitches that would yield these kinds of jazz things.

FJO:  So long before Babbitt said that he liked the bebop influence in your music, which you said gave you the license to really explore that direction, you had already been exposed to a model for doing that.

EC:  Yes, exactly. And Meyer was part of that, definitely.

FJO:  This also brings us back to your whole conceptualization of music as a dialogue between different musicians, which is a common trait both of small combo jazz and classical chamber music. It’s perhaps no surprise that you’re predominantly a chamber music composer.  You’ve written a few orchestra pieces, but it seems to be less of a focus for you. I’ve only heard one of them, Canyons.

EC:  They just haven’t been recorded.  It’s such a big deal to get them [recorded].  There are two others.  I should be better at sending them out.

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory's orchestral composition Canyons

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory’s Canyons. Copyright © 1991 by Eleanor Cory. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
All rights administered throughout the world by the Association for the Promotion of New Music (BMI). Used with permission of the composer.

FJO:  But certainly the orchestra is less amenable to the kinds of dialogues between equal participants that are so central to your personal aesthetic. The structure is much more hierarchical.  It’s almost more like military formation. So maybe your sensibilities are not necessarily there, which might be why you haven’t done more.

EC:  I don’t think that would be a reason why I wouldn’t write for orchestra.  The orchestra has all the colors and all the interesting doublings, and all that spatial stuff. But how things come along are that people say they want this piece; you have a deadline and you have to finish it.  And it’s not as though orchestras are coming along.  Although Composers Concordance has an orchestra, and they just asked me write a piece.  I had never been asked to write an orchestra piece by anyone.  And I would like to have it played.

FJO:  But perhaps, dare I say this, much as I like that one orchestral piece of yours I know, Canyons, it sounds very different from the rest of your music.

EC:  You think so?  That’s interesting.  How?

FJO:  It’s dealing with massed sonorities so it doesn’t engage in the same kind of interplay that your music usually does.

EC:  Oh, I see what you’re saying. But I think of the crux of my music as being so harmonic, and the harmonies are there.  And I was thinking of instrumental groups interacting with each other.  The violins are going to talk to the horns. I probably was thinking in those ways as well as building up big sounds; it’s always about something kind of dramatic happening.  Maybe it’s not always analogous to human beings. But I see what you’re saying. I’m going to listen that way to the orchestra piece and see how that’s different.

FJO:  You’ve written a band piece, too, but I’ve never heard it. I’m curious about it.

EC:  Well, I was teaching at Kingsborough Community College, and at the point that I got there, they had a huge music program. They had a band and good players.  It was amazing.  They had a whole orchestra, too, and I wrote for that orchestra, too. So that was why I wrote it.  I had to make it easy because there were students playing. It was a fun thing to do.  But I don’t think I would say I want to write a band piece now, though I’m sure if I did I could have a better time getting it played than orchestra pieces.

FJO:  You’d have a much better time, I think. The band world is much more conducive to doing new pieces than orchestras are, by and large. You managed to get a solid recording of one of your orchestra pieces, but you had to go to Poland for it and, I imagine, to pay for it.

EC:  Well, that recording was conducted by Joel Suben.  He connected with the orchestra and got a very good price.  Then I had faculty grants from the City University of New York, so I could finance it. That really helped a lot.  And he knew the piece; it wasn’t some guy just reading it off.  That made a huge difference.

The cover for Eleanor Cory's CD Images.

A CD devoted to the music of Eleanor Cory on Meyer Kupferman’s Soundspells Productions label (CD-116) featuring her orchestral composition Canyons performed by the Polish Radio Nation Symphony conducted by Joel Eric Suben
amazon-badge itunes-badge

FJO:  They’re fabulous musicians and it’s great for our music to cross international borders, but this is yet another example of this huge body of orchestral music by American composers that has never been done by an American orchestra. The whole structure of how an orchestra operates makes it so much more complicated to bring new pieces to life—the limited rehearsal time, the budget, the basic things that go into making orchestral music happen at this point in time.

EC:  It’s just impossible.  We can blame the audiences.  That’s what people do.  Nobody wants to hear this crazy new music. Orchestra-going people just want to hear the same old, same old.  Isn’t that the usual line that you hear?

FJO:  But is it really true, or is it something else?

EC:  I don’t know, because now we’ve got a lot of European orchestra composers.  Kaija Saariaho, for instance.  Her music’s just crazy wild, and people love it.  She’s very successful.  And I’m really happy about that.  That gets back to this co-existence of very different kinds of music. People are not saying you have to do this kind or that kind. Everyone’s finding a place for themselves in different places.

FJO:  In terms of finding a place in different places, you mentioned that you go to lots of poetry readings. I know that you write poetry as well, and you’ve been working on publishing a book of poetry.

Wall to wall bookshelves surround a work station with a laptop and a chair.

Just a couple of the many bookshelves in Eleanor Cory’s apartment.

EC:  I’ve been doing that for a while. I’ve always had little notebooks and have written in them when I was on the subway. It was not really a diary—like, today I did this—just ideas.  And then, I don’t know why, all of a sudden I just decided I’ll take a poetry class at the 92nd Street Y.  I was writing more and more poems.  Then I went to the MacDowell Colony, and there were some poets and we were all talking about poems. Finally I said, “Well, I’ve written a few poems.”  And they said, “I want to see your poems.”  And I said, “Well it’s so hard, because I’m already doing one art. How could I possibly be a composer and also write poems?”  They said, “That’s ridiculous.  I also do something.  I’m a painter, but I also whatever.”  So they looked at my poems and they said, “These are good.  You should keep writing poems.”  And I think that’s what did it—them saying, “Don’t worry that you are never going to be as good a poet as you are a composer.  Don’t even think about those things.  It’s just another side of you.”  Then I really had some good teachers.  I met all these other people, and we all got to be friends.  Most of them had not been poets before, and we just all get together once a month and read our poems to each other. We have little readings and they say, “You’ve got to send your poems out.”  So I’ve had a bunch of them published.  And now I’ve got this book ready and I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to get that published.  But it could happen.

FJO:  Now, in terms of your setting other poets to music, you wrote a piece for chorus and brass ensemble with a text by Wallace Stevens, whose poetry can be very tricky to set because of the irregularity of his phrases.  You made it very musical.  I wonder if the experience of being a poet affects you as a composer when you treat someone else’s words, if perhaps you have a greater sensitivity.

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory's composition Of Mere Being

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory’s Of Mere Being (poetry by Wallace Stevens). Music copyright © 1987 (revised 1997) by Eleanor Cory. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
All rights administered throughout the world by the Association for the Promotion of New Music (BMI). Used with permission of the composer.

It was interesting the first time when I was setting my own poem to music. I had to be the subjective outsider.

EC:  I think so. It was interesting the first time when I was setting my own poem to music.  I had to be the subjective outsider.  It had to be somebody else over here who wrote this poem.  But then I did a piece last year for Ensemble π, where they had this theme. So I set one poem written by a prisoner who had gotten out of prison, and then the other poem was one of my own.  I think I was hearing the music a little bit as I was writing the poem.  I think I knew my instruments, and I was just hearing a line every now and then as I was writing the poem.  You know, the violin would like to do this.  I’m much more conscious of doing more metrical poems than I used to.  They used to be sort of abstract, because those were the poets that I knew.  But now I feel like I should study meter just like I studied key signatures and scales. So I’ve learned more about poetry and now sometimes these musical things are in my head as I’m writing.  It’s much easier to mix them. Or I don’t have to worry about it as much.

FJO:  It’s funny because we initially were talking about the breaking down of styles and pluralism in today’s music world.  Besides this rarified world we find ourselves in, in almost every other musical genre—whether it’s punk rock or bluegrass—there isn’t such a separation between writing words and writing music. People either collaborate on songs together or they write songs by themselves, words and music.

EC:  Yeah.  I’m going to write a song.  That’s what they’re doing.  And the words and the music come together for these guys.  For me, this is sort of a new thing.  But I see it’s kind of ass backwards because I wrote this other stuff for such a long time.

FJO:  Now once you have a published book of poetry out there, there’s a possibility that some other composer would set some of your poems to music.

EC:  That would be great.  I’d love to see it.  I’d be really curious to know what they would do with it. This is a fun idea to think about.  If there were other composers who wrote poetry and they set each other; I’m setting your poems and you’re setting mine.  It could become a whole new thing.

FJO:  You’ve got visual art all around this apartment.  You don’t paint as well?

EC:  Oh, gosh no.  I totally could never do that.

FJO:  But one of your daughters is a painter.

EC:  She paints live at people’s wedding for a living and makes a huge amount of money.  But she also does her own art.  You knew it the minute she started putting things on paper.  Everyone would say, “What? She can do that?”  She would make people that looked like people.  It’s just like a musician that sits down and plays something and you just know they’ve got it.

A sculpted head

A sculpture by Cory’s daughter Tamar Cory Gressel.

Musicians at Work: Ensemble Residencies as Social Relationships

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

Over the last few decades, many American schools of music have embraced the repertoire and missions of new music ensembles. DePauw, Oberlin, Eastman, Mills College, and even Indiana’s Jacob’s School of Music have opened their doors to the new generation of composers and performers creating new music today. While this is hardly news to the readership of NewMusicBox, it marks a significant change in attitude among American higher education institutions. Take, for example, musicologist Susan McClary’s assessment from 1989 that “both popular and postmodern musics are marked as the enemy, and there is still considerable effort exerted to keep them out of the regular curriculum.” Nine years later, Robert Fink summarized his take on the influence of classical music’s institutions thusly: “For the first time, the production and consumption of contemporary art music has broken quite free of institutionalized classical music.” Fink was writing about groups like the Bang on a Can All-Stars and their proclivity for performing outside the hallowed spaces of leading institutions.

In contrast to these dour proclamations, today’s schools of music increasingly view new music as a vital and attractive addition to their education mission. A manifestation of this shift is the ensemble residency. Academies across the country routinely hire musicians to teach students both the art and business of professional new music-making. Last year, I had the opportunity to explore the interaction between ensembles and institutions. I spent time with three groups at different schools: Third Coast Percussion at the University of Chicago, the Playground Ensemble at Metropolitan State University Denver, and Eighth Blackbird at the Curtis Institute of Music.[1]

I begin with a scene from my fieldwork in Chicago with Third Coast Percussion:

It’s 5:25 p.m. and Third Coast Percussion is running through their music. The quartet has spent most of the day here, in their studio space on Rockwell Avenue in Chicago, collaborating with composer Jonathan Pfeffer. The composer prefers to write music for people he knows well, and he spent the last two days experimenting with the group and discussing how the piece might work. Pfeffer left a few hours ago, and the quartet has since moved on to music for an upcoming concert. A brief pause occurs after they finish the piece, the members gathering their thoughts.

“We kind of settled into a tempo, and I think we should just roll with that” says Peter Martin. David Skidmore observes that the crescendo at measure thirty could grow louder. They discuss the dynamics and phrasing for a few minutes, but at some point, without my realizing it, the conversation drifts to the old Nickelodeon show, You Can’t Do That on Television. This type of break is not uncommon for these good-humored performers, but it lasts only a few minutes.

“We should, like, take a day off,” David says.

“Like in 2017?” replies Robert Dillon, a sarcastic grin spreading across his face.

The joke is funny, but rings true. The past week had been especially busy, with residency activities at the University of Chicago, a rehearsal with the Chicago Youth Symphony, and collaborative project with Pfeffer. Besides late night meals and occasional rehearsal jokes, the four percussionists have gone without a break for about nine days, often working long hours and hauling equipment from one locale to another. Phones are always close at hand as members check the progress on upcoming projects, contracts, and gig schedules. After laughing off Rob’s joke, they run the piece again, this time with the lights out as they’ll perform it.

Composer Jonathan Pfeffer working with Third Coast percussionist David Skidmore on the Kalimba.

Composer Jonathan Pfeffer working with Third Coast percussionist David Skidmore on the Kalimba.

I describe this scene in detail because it is typical to a work routine found among Third Coast Percussion, Eighth Blackbird, and the Playground Ensemble. Long days of work followed by rehearsals for quickly approaching gigs was common to all three ensembles. Performers often strove for a high level of musicianship that requires focused attention and lengthy rehearsals of difficult music. Humor was used frequently to lighten the mood, but nothing could stop the relentless approach of deadlines.

When every moment has potential meaning, it can be hard to relax.

These musicians are, to invoke the buzzword of our time, “entrepreneurs.”[2] They “create success” for themselves, an approach touted by arts consultant Astrid Baumgartner. They innovate, collaborate, and embrace what psychologist Carol Dweck dubs the “growth mindset.” Obstacles are transformed into creative guidelines, and programs created to attract audiences with enticing themes. Entrepreneurialism is celebrated by many in the arts scene, but the reality is less sunny than the image often projected by consultants and administrators. Because it valorizes flexibility, opportunism, and social relationships, entrepreneurialism demands constant work. When every moment has potential meaning, it can be hard to relax.

Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird work together.

Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird worked together in the summer on creating a special touring show for the upcoming season. From left to right: Third Coast Managing Director Liz Pesnel, percussionist David Skidmore, eighth blackbird percussionist Matthew Duvall, and production manager Rachel Damon.

And work is constant in a small flexible ensemble. During my fieldwork with these three groups, I saw people working at all hours of the day, often leaving one site to report to another. Even breaks could be filled with work: phone calls to arrange the details of an upcoming gig, meetings with collaborators or students, or attending the premier of a friend’s piece. In one case, I sat down with two musicians for a casual lunch and they started discussing an approaching show, prompting one musician to quip, “Sorry to make this a work lunch!” The flexible nature of these ensembles, a seeming hallmark of the new music scene today, requires constant attention to the dozen or so obligations that, like plates spinning on poles, are poised to fall without warning. A grant application is due. Did you send me that budget? Can you help set up chairs for a second? I need to practice that one part. We have a concert and need some spoken notes. Could you prepare something?

Within the residency, tailoring is the working method of the flexible ensemble. Like consultants in the business world, these musical entrepreneurs maintain an influential if somewhat ambiguous relationship with host institutions (Sennett, 2006). At each residency, musicians designed projects (concerts, presentations, and teaching activities) that were somehow tailored to the needs of the institution and the abilities of the ensemble. Work included a variety of teaching and performing activities, as dictated by the nature of the institution and the contract for the residency. This tailoring required regular communication between ensembles and institutions, a somewhat challenging prospect depending on the number of people involved on each side of the consultant relationship. Furthermore, an ensemble’s impact upon an institution was confined by the temporary nature of the residency itself. None of these musicians were actually full-time faculty members, and their ability to shape institutional policy and goals remained limited by their transience. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that ensembles have a strong and infectiously positive impact upon an institution’s students.

In addition to economic and logistical support, residencies provide crucial symbolic capital.

For all three groups, residencies are a major part of professional life and economic livelihood. The two touring ensembles—Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird—rely heavily on residencies for their income. Residency activities such as teaching and master classes are often important offerings used to secure gigs within the network of music institutions. Such work varies greatly in length, ranging from a few hours of teaching, lecturing, or coaching all the way to weeks of activities spread out throughout the year (or years, as in the case of Eighth Blackbird’s Curtis residency). For the Playground Ensemble, a single residency provides limited financial support, but gives the group access to percussion equipment, rehearsal space, and performance venues.

Cellist and Playground Ensemble member Richard vonFoerster gives feedback to the composer.

During an open reading session for student compositions, cellist and Playground Ensemble member Richard vonFoerster gives feedback to the composer.

In addition to economic and logistical support, residencies provide crucial symbolic capital. The currency of artists for some time, symbolic capital takes the form of prestige and reputation. It is, in essence, the value of your name. Ensembles leverage relationships, prizes, grants, and endorsements from critics and other influential taste-makers to secure future work. The prestige ascribed to a given institution serves as a sort of sociomusical business card in conversations with insiders and outsiders, as Third Coast Percussion member Robert Dillon told me of their Notre Dame residency:

There’s nothing better than being able to go somewhere and say that you’re tied to this larger reputable institution. For people who know nothing [about new music], if we walk in someplace and say we have ensemble residency at the University of Notre Dame, it’s like, “Wow, you guys must be great!” And if you’re talking to presenters or managers, then they know the person who runs the [DeBartolo] Performing Arts Center [at Notre Dame], and so that’s even better.

Members of all three ensembles described a similar view of residencies. The prestige and respect perceived to be held by the institution was, in effect, transferred to the ensemble and provided evidence of the ensembles’ legitimacy and respectability (see further Kingsbury, 1988 and Cottrell, 2004).

Like other aspects of flexible artistic labor life, residencies are developed through and contribute to social relationships. They allow ensembles to foster new contacts and project ideas. During fieldwork, I witnessed plans for future projects flourish in institutional spaces. Students told me about the important lessons they had learned from musicians, and teachers and administrators hailed residencies as part of a broader shift in institutional culture. This was especially true at Curtis, where composition faculty and director of the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble David Ludwig had spearheaded a broader shift in curriculum. In an interview with me, Ludwig described a new emphasis on teaching Curtis students:

how to be self-motivated, how to have artistic intellectual curiosity and apply that to being in the community and to engaging people. It shows a very different way of thinking […] because the school wouldn’t have even thought of that pre-internet, pre ideas of engagement.

Within this context, Eighth Blackbird figured in many ways as a model for the socio-musical entrepreneurs Curtis now seeks to create. Along similar lines, Prof. Peter Schimpf, Chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Music, described his vision: “I want Metro to be sort of a hub [of musical activity].” Playground, for Schimpf, offered a new music spoke, as it were, on this hub of musical offerings.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency. From left to right: Lisa Kaplan, Yvonne Lam, Nick Photinos, Matthew Duvall, Michael Maccaferri, and former member Tim Munro.

At all three institutions, ensemble members became, to varying extents, part of the educational life and community of the institution, carving out nooks and crannies, as it were, for themselves and for interaction between themselves and students. These types of social relationships were viewed by all as highly valuable when considering the overall value of the residency. The residencies thus reified these relationships into contracted work.

For over thirty years now, musicians, arts workers, and presenters have been building a vibrant scene of musical activity that provides much needed reform to classical music and an alternative to the stodgy programming common within classical music. Creating this scene requires constant energy, constant work, and constant maintenance of social relationships. Projects and programs must be tailored to unique needs, tweaked after they start, and thrown out when they falter. Though rarely examined in the popular press, residencies are an important site in the production of the new music culture so many of us love.

John Pippen

John Pippen

John Pippen teaches courses in ethnomusicology, jazz, and music and culture at the College of Wooster. His primary research has been an extended ethnographic study of the new music scene in Chicago. Pippen has presented his research at meetings of the American Musicological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Society for American Music, and College Music Society, among others.

1. For this publication, I have omitted specific details because of the sensitive nature of musicians’ networks. An important issue that remains to be fully explored in the academic literature, musicians often prefer to keep the details of gigs (fees, contracts, struggles) out of public view.

2. Many in new music are wary of this term, as am I. I have spoken to musicians of varying stature who express sincere doubts about the accuracy of the way Baumgartner and others use “entrepreneur.” Others are hesitant to invoke a term they view as connected with neoliberalism (a view I share).

Stay Tuned: Celebrating Ben Johnston’s 90th Birthday with his 10 String Quartets

[Ed. Note: Today, March 15, 2016, is the 90th birthday of maverick American composer Ben Johnston. To celebrate this major milestone, the Kepler Quartet—which has spent the last 14 years working closely with Johnston to learn and record his music—has finally completed their third and final installment of the world premiere recordings of his entire oeuvre for string quartet on New World Records which will be released on April 15, 2016. Though Johnston’s ten string quartets are thoroughly idiomatic and often extremely beautiful, his music offers some unprecedented challenges to would-be interpreters. For more than half a century, Johnston has eschewed today’s common practice tuning of equal temperament in his music and has instead explored just intonation (intervals tuned to precise numerical ratios) which derives from the overtone series. Most of the quartets use intervals as complex as those derived from the 13th harmonic in the overtone series, but one quartet goes as high as the 31st harmonic. Another quartet, the Seventh—christened “the Mount Everest of String Quartets” by Kyle Gann and a work which has never been previously performed let alone recorded—contains more than 1200 distinct pitches. This is a hundred times the amount of tones that most string players are ever asked to play. So how did the Kepler Quartet tackle this music? We asked the quartet’s second violinist, Eric Segnitz, who was also the producer of the recordings, to offer his personal perspective on the process. We’ve also included some short video clips featuring Ben Johnston and the members of the quartet as well as a brand new video clip that was recorded during the final recording session.—FJO]

Video by Ross Monagle
Ben Johnston has been called a genius, a hero, a visionary. And by the standard criteria, that is all true. New advances in a domain of knowledge? Check. Sacrificing or not compromising for personal concerns, achieving feats of ingenuity for the greater good? Check. Able to envision past, present, and future in a parallel universe that recognizes beauty as it already exists? Check. He even dares you to go on that journey with him.

This year marks composer Ben Johnston’s 90th birthday, and the passage of fourteen years since the Kepler Quartet (in which I play second violin) began to record the entire cycle of Johnston’s ten string quartets. Much has been written about Johnston’s music, so I will concentrate here on the history of these recordings.

By virtue of our recording project, the Kepler Quartet has had a privileged window into the essentially spiritual quest in Johnston’s music. At age 90, a full fifteen years after he stopped writing music, Johnston has come to a place in his life where his main goal is to have a positive impact on his environment. He has come to embrace a philosophy that there are two ways to live. He has forsaken the so-called “hero’s journey”—a linear approach to life that mirrors melodic values, in favor of another, richer way of being: to work towards pure, honest relationships with others by using a vertical, harmonic approach concentrating on perfect intervals, the advantage being that it produces less discord, increased resonance, and maximum clarity—to borrow the title of the 2006 book of Johnston’s collected writings.

This harmonic approach cannot be achieved at our society’s breakneck pace. It requires deeper consideration, more serious engagement, and—above all—slowing down. I remember when I was coached by Rudolf Kolisch and Zoltan Szekely, the respective founders of the Kolisch and Hungarian string quartets, the groups that first brought the Schoenberg and Bartók quartets to the public. Besides being awestruck, I remember thinking at that time, “Man, are these guys slow!” They were ultra-methodical, and could spend three days on the opening of a Mozart string quartet, or two months staring at a Bartók score before picking up an instrument. Those were memorable experiences, but also ones that could drive a headstrong, career-anxious youth nuts.

Now I understand.

As St. Thomas Aquinas put it: “It is better to enlighten than merely to shine.”

By necessity, the Kepler Quartet is not currently a performing quartet. We have been a stealth unit, secluded in a remote church in the middle of a cornfield, rehearsing with the composer to make recordings. We’ve needed to approach these works much as they were written: contemplated intuitively, at a distance from society, with the belief that what is “normal” does not apply—not with this music.

Ben Johnston and the members of the Kepler Quartet

Ben Johnston (bottom left) with the members of the Kepler Quartet. Brek Renzelman and Karl Lavine (top row), Sharan Leventhal (middle row). and Eric Segnitz (bottom right). Photo by Kae Hubred.

St. Tom again: “It is better to give the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.”

The cover of the Kepler Quartet's first CD devoted to the music of Ben Johnston (New World Records 80637-2).

An excerpt from String Quartet No. 4 “Amazing Grace” (1973) as performed by the Kepler Quartet: Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz (violins), Brek Renzelman (viola), and Karl Lavine (cello). From the first disc in the series, Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 9 (New World Records 80637-2) released in January 2006. Streamed with permission.

Whatever possessed us undertake a task of such Brobdingnagian proportions? We premiered the Tenth Quartet in 2002, working with Johnston on a concert series for the Milwaukee-based new music group Present Music. The collective gasp of the audience after each movement sent a clear message. Similarly, anyone who has played his Fourth Quartet (“Amazing Grace”) will tell you, as the final variation begins, a life-affirming catharsis occurs–one of the special moments in music, like the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when all hell breaks loose. What is behind that? How can that possibly happen? What musician wouldn’t want to know more about that? When you discover that Johnston’s Fourth Quartet was conceived entirely (harmony, rhythm, structure) based on a specific set of organic ratios, it’s even more mind-boggling. And when you learn that the work was written in response to a personal crisis, it takes on a universal quality. Our collective and individual relationships with Ben were very natural from the beginning; he had so much to give, and we had so much to learn.

Did we know it would take fourteen years? Obviously not. The project started as an impulse to record the work we premiered. We talked to ten record labels. Seven were interested, and a few suggested that we do the entire cycle. The consensus was that somebody had to do it, but that early in the project no one really had any idea what they were talking about. (Our code name was Project Rabbit Hole.)

Kepler Quartet: Ben Johnston’s String Quartets 1, 5, and 10 from Jon Roy on Vimeo.
This project could never be done again, certainly not with the direct guidance and mentorship of the composer. Three of the members of the quartet live in Wisconsin; Brek Renzelman and I both live in Milwaukee and Karl Lavine lives in Madison. Early in the project, Johnston and his wife Betty relocated to a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, to be closer to their son Ross. Ever since then we’ve had constant access to Ben’s intellect and generosity—a resource that can never be replaced.

Other groups, however, now have these recordings made under his guidance as a resource. We’ve already begun to see the effects. Someone once told me that if something can be measured, it can be made. The recordings provide information—and encouragement—for other groups to explore these compositions.  An incredible oeuvre of music, once largely inaccessible, is now available to the world, an open secret. Judging from breakthroughs in the past thirty years, we can anticipate rapid advances in technology, education and performance standards—it all goes hand-in-hand.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the La Salle, Concord, Fine Arts, Walden, New World, Stanford, Composers, and Kronos quartets for the tremendous work they’ve done on Johnston’s music. They are our heroes! We’ll be another link in that chain now, and feel honored to be part of the continuum.

St. Francis of Assisi wrote: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

The cover for volume 3 of the Kepler Quartet's recordings of the complete string quartets of Ben Johnston (New World Records 80730-2).

A sneak preview from the first movement of the world premiere recording of “the Mount Everest of String Quartets”—String Quartet No. 7 (1984)—performed by the Kepler Quartet. From the final volume of the series, Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, and 8 (New World Records 80730-2), which will be released on April 15, 2016. Streamed with permission.

A good starting point is to explain our process, and why it has taken four people fourteen years to do this. Kyle Gann half-jokingly referred to the Seventh Quartet as “the Mount Everest of string quartets.” We understand his analogy; each quartet is a steep and rocky climb, often exhilarating, and the more we learned (the higher we climbed), the slower we got.

First, we do the math.

That is, we translate pitches from the score into numerical cent values.  I’d always heard about the correlation between music and arithmetic;  I understand it better now. Johnston devised an ingenious notation system for Just Intonation which is practical yet defiant. It always reminded me of a quote by William Blake: “I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s; / I will not Reason or Compare: my business is to Create.” Johnston’s notational symbols tell the harmonic function of the note as well as the exact number of cents, which can be measured with a standard electronic tuner. But the performer needs to decipher as many as seven different pitch qualifiers per note, in an assortment of configurations, depending on how high Johnston has composed in the overtone (or undertone) series (as opposed to the usual single half-step,  sharp #  or flat b). Understanding exact pitch relationships is essential, which meant preparing from scores only—we never read from individual parts.

Then we listen.

This required commissioning MIDI realizations of these scores. Luckily, we’ve connected with Andy Stefik and Tim Johnson, who have vast expertise working with digital synthesis. The materials they created for us never served as a guide in rehearsal or recording, but were used individually by each member. In general, MIDI is nasty to listen to, but in this case it functioned as a can-opener for the brain. When we would hear one, we would realize the extent to which we had to unlearn all those years of tempered-scale indoctrination, and open up the mind to new possibilities. After all, we named our group after Johannes Kepler, the astronomer and mystic who intuited the leap from Pythagorean musical intervals to predicting the elliptical orbit of the planets.

Johnston SQ8 rehearsal snippet from Jon Roy on Vimeo.
Of course we rehearse.

Not as easy as it sounds, especially when the players and composer live in different cities around the country and have to coordinate busy freelance schedules, not to mention personal lives. The rehearsals generally are a lot of slow tuning and hard listening, more balancing of chords than I’d ever dreamt possible.  Each new quartet presented its own unique and intricate Gordian Knot. At times we became entangled ourselves, but eventually, the solution would emerge. We consulted with Johnston constantly, which entailed many philosophical discussions, because the pitches are only byproducts of the emotional nuances Johnston sought. Always, there was philosophical underpinning to those emotions, and always, Johnston helped us to find it.

Johnston’s critiques were always leavened with large doses of humor—which is an integral part of his music and personality—and social commentary. In one breath, he talks about world events, and in the next, about what is happening on the working farm where he lives with his wonderful caregiver and her large, bustling family.

Then we start recording, but in our own way.

We’ve had a no-holds-barred approach to making these recordings. We would tackle a phrase in multiple ways, to satiate any self-doubt. We have what we call a “three-drink-minimum,” always recording three times as much material as we need. There were so many things to remember at these sessions and a few things to forget. Our earliest recording sessions at an indie rock venue featured a rat rustling in a paper bag, a beer keg completely emptying onto a carpet, and noisy snowblower repairs in July!

The CD cover for the Kepler Quartet's second volume of string quartets by Ben Johnston (New World Records 80693-2).

An excerpt from Ben Johnston’s only quartet in 12-tone equal temperament, Nine Variations a.k.a. String Quartet No. 1 (1959) performed by the Kepler Quartet. From the 2011 CD Ben Johnston: String Quartets 1, 5, and 10 (New World Records 80693-2). Streamed with permission.

Intonation has always been the highest priority in these recordings because that’s what defines Johnston’s masterpieces. But everything else had to be right to create a cohesive artistic statement.We’ve taken seriously our mission of accurately documenting these works the way Johnston conceived them. I remember when we began the First Quartet, I asked if Johnston wanted a Webernian crystalline approach or a more full-throated romanticism. He raised his eyebrows and said, “Both. I want it all!” When asked about production values, Johnston replied that he sees these recordings as reinventing the art of chamber music. It’s “more like a film than a stage play.” There is some hyperbole in his words, but also some truth—no Pixar magic, just a lot of hard work to make the best recordings we can. We’ve come to view in a positive light the fact that Johnston’s quartets demand scrupulous attention to detail. There’s more to consider about this music on many different levels, and it’s all good.

Engineering is critical.

I brought some studio experience to the project, though it mostly falls into the category of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” We’ve been extremely lucky to have had another genius as a full partner in this endeavor. Ric Probst is a brilliant engineer, cajoler-in-chief, and something of a psychologist as well, managing all our quirks, keeping things moving, bringing perspective to the table. Throughout the project, he cheekily skewered the digital editing process, and our classical pretensions, using his unusual and lengthy background to do so—a reminder of where this stuff fits on the spectrum. Once, when we were caught up in some frustrating minutiae and badly needed perspective, he said, “I remember editing Bootsy Collins hits in Cincinnati, and having bits of reel-to-reel tape spread on the floor in front of me.” Then, nodding at a computer running ProTools, “This is [expletive deleted]!” The man’s great ears, great skill, and wry wit saved the day many times. No one deserves more credit or thanks than Ric.

At this point, I’ll take a moment to thumb through my Kepler flip book and introduce the three indomitable spirits whose sacrifice and devotion have made this possible. I met our first violinist, Sharan Leventhal, when we were in high school youth orchestra together. I remember my first impression: “She’s such a brilliant player; she doesn’t even seem to play the same instrument as the rest of us!” I met the violist Brek Renzelman just after he graduated from Indiana University, when he won a titled position with the Milwaukee Symphony. He’s been the glue for the quartet, in both a musical and administrative sense; the most conscientious “inner voice.” For ten years, cellist Karl Lavine was my comrade in the trenches for Kevin Stalheim’s Present Music; we played 60 different programs of new music together. During Karl’s tenure with Present Music, Brek was also a regular, and Sharan guested frequently. As a foursome, we performed a lot under the Present Music banner, and even recorded the Kamran Ince quartet Curve for Innova during that period.

And then came the Big Bang for our project: the premiere of Johnston’s Tenth Quartet in 2002.

While scouring a music library looking for something else, I found the score to Johnston’s Tenth Quartet. Research revealed that not only had the piece never been played, but that it hadn’t even been commissioned! A very good omen if you believe that real art is “what you are compelled to do.”

I timidly phoned Johnston, who was newly retired from the University of Illinois and living in North Carolina, and I invited him to Milwaukee. He graciously accepted even though he’d only previously worked with more established quartets. It still strikes me as an act of blind faith for him to have entrusted a nascent, unknown group with an important premiere, much less the recording of his entire quartet cycle.

Fast-forward fourteen years.

St. Augustine: “The reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”

The final step: going public.

When we are done with recording and engineering, the record label finishes the process: mastering the disc, preparing the notes and packaging, and distributing. Once again, we’ve had the very best of luck to end up on New World Records working with the visionary Paul Tai. He understood the importance of this project way before we did, and steered us clear of obstacles many times, with unwavering patience. The future of this music is in good hands.

St. Gregory: “The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things.”

The composition of these ten quartets spanned a 36-year period in Johnston’s life. Modest man that he is, he would never claim saintly status—or genius/hero/visionary status for that matter. But it’s hard not to notice the constant evolution and steady growth through all ten quartets, moving ever closer to his altruistic ideal of the harmonic way of living.

The very first quartet was written before he composed exclusively in Just Intonation and shows him to be a masterful composer already, one who kept adding tools to his toolbox. About that constant evolution—whoever commissioned a piece thinking it would be like his previous work was in for a surprise. Johnston seems to have spent his whole life asking the big questions, seeking answers anywhere and everywhere. And yet that rock-solid Johnston DNA is found in every note that he wrote from the first quartet onward.

If our project had indeed been a film, it would have had a large ensemble cast, each member with a significant role to play. It took a whole network of idealistic people to make this happen: the composer, the quartet, the engineer, recording studio and venues, fiscal agent, record label, publisher, MIDI mavens, arts organizations, funders and fundraisers, media specialists, advocates, caregivers, family members, and especially, our spouses—those with us and those departed. They have been most generous, patient, and constant, the true saints of this project.

We fervently hope listeners will take the time to delve into Johnston’s music. It’s a wonderland waiting to be explored—a new way of hearing that will never leave you. Not a rehearsal passed without a moment when four seasoned professional musicians had to lay down their instruments, and just say, “Wow!”

Pondering the completion of this recording project, stray thoughts led me to a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

One great poem should be born of
the sum of all your poems, recording
more than the surface reality, more than
“what’s passing by the window.”

Find the further reality, if there is one.

It’s not up to Johnston, or the Kepler Quartet, to say what that further reality might be. We’ve shared our particular window. Now we all get to sit back and be astonished by whatever happens next.

I once asked Johnston how he had gravitated towards studying with people of such disparate aesthetics as Harry Partch, Darius Milhaud, and John Cage and managed to incorporate influences from jazz and folk music to serialism, from Gurdjieff to Catholicism, from Renaissance music to rock opera, to achieve something so intensely personal. His reply was very telling. “Well,” he said, “I just wanted to invite everybody to the party!”

From all of us, happy 90th birthday, Ben! Thank you for inviting us to the party.

Ben Johnston and Eric Segnitz.

Ben Johnston and Eric Segnitz. Photo by Kae Hubred.


A note of thanks to the Wisconsin Alliance for Composers for acting as our fiscal agent throughout the project. And thank you to all the wonderful supporters of this project—foundations, our Kickstarter family of contributors, private donors—and special thanks to two angels who have asked to remain anonymous for now.


Additional links worth exploring

There’s some essential information on Just Intonation in “An Introduction to the String Quartets of Ben Johnston” by Sharan Leventhal, originally published in American String Teacher (Volume 64, Number 3, August 2014).

Perhaps the best overall introduction to Ben Johnson is to watch him present his own 101-minute autobiographical lecture “Who am I? Why am I here?” on April 15, 2006 at Scripps College in Claremont, California, during the 2006 Microfest, an annual festival of microtonal music in Southern California.

More details about Ben Johnston’s book of collected essays, Maximum Clarity, is available in Frank J. Oteri’s 2007 conversation with Ben Johnston on NewMusicBox.

The Kepler Quartet’s website includes more detailed biographies of individual quartet members.

Booklet notes by Bob Gilmore for the previous two New World CD releases are reproduced here and here. And here is a link to Kyle Gann’s notes for the upcoming third release.

Finally, Jon Roy has maintained a fascinating blog about Ben Johnston called A New Dissonance which documents the preparation, rehearsal, and recording of these string quartets and also collects other online Johnston resources.

Daniel Wohl: The Seamless Ideal

Daniel Wohl

Composers often pick up nearly unshakable identifiers in the press that follow them like a tagline. For Daniel Wohl, that call-out has been praise for the remarkably seamless integration of the acoustic and electronic timbres that thread his compositions. It’s a talent that generated significant buzz after the 2013 release of his album Corps Exquis, and it’s a modifier that will likely only cling more tightly in the wake of his full-length follow-up Holographic.

Which is all well and good since it is remarkable. Wohl says that while some artists make use of placing these sounds in opposition, they’re all just sounds to his ear, without distinction. It’s a way of working that comes naturally and simply offers him an enhanced palette that he finds more engaging.

“I feel like a lot of things are born out of being dissatisfied with something,” Wohl acknowledges, further explaining that electronics make acoustic instrumentation more exciting to him, while instrumentalists add vital energy, especially in live performance situations. “And so why not [use all of them]? You can do all of that today, so it doesn’t make sense for me to have arbitrary distinctions between the two.”

In an age of boundary dismantling, this sounds entirely sensible, but the distinctions he makes between live and recorded performance is equally compelling. Taking the album version of Holographic as an example, several of the works were created independently for live performance. These and the other pieces included on the disc were later recorded by a range of (often their commissioning) ensembles—Iktus Percussion, Mivos Quartet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Olga Bell and Caroline Shaw, and Mantra Percussion. (Lucky Dragons even pops up with a writing credit on the closing track.)

Holographic is an album and live performance co-commissioned by Baryshnikov Arts Center, MASS MoCA, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The album was released by New Amsterdam Records.

“When I’m writing commissioned works, I definitely think about the album as well,” Wohl admits. “I think the album is a great way to bring it all together,” allowing each work to have a longer and more polished life and to be heard by a much larger group of people. “For me that feels like a very comfortable place for what I’m doing because the studio becomes an instrument and you can really fine tune. I don’t always have the luxury of recording, but it’s great when it works and makes sense.”

The recording for Holographic wrapped last September, but the work was not yet finished. Wohl arranged the music to suit a touring ensemble (after stops in New York, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Minnesota, one show remains on February 27 in Los Angeles) consisting of percussion trio and string quartet, plus Wohl himself holding down the electronics. During a weeklong residency at MassMOCA in early January, Wohl further refined the performance with the live players and added the final essential element—a visual accompaniment special to the live presentation created by Daniel Schwarz.

While Wohl considers the album complete without the video work, he finds that the live performance is enhanced to the point that “I don’t think I would do it without the video.”

Even for the well initiated, laptops in performance can seem an enigma. Here, Wohl and Schwarz sit together within reach of the other performers on stage, Wohl’s MIDI designed to communicate with Schwarz’s visual software. In terms of content, the setups mirror each other in a sense—some of the material pre-rendered and some of it mixed live, allowing in-the-moment control over movement, shading, dynamics, and other effects.

It leaves Wohl the room to be involved enough in the performance to feel like he’s another performer on stage playing his part. “Definitely not as much as a violin,” he’s quick to point out, “but certainly I feel like I’m having an impact on the way the strings are reacting to the electronics.”

Still, why leave room for mistakes?

“I don’t really have a conceptual problem with someone who presses play, but I like to be entertained while I’m doing it so I leave as much as I can handle to the live process. But someone could probably handle more than I can, and other people just want to sit back and enjoy the performance themselves.”

On reflection, Wohl’s most distinctive skill may be his knack for balance even more than blending, the music swinging across a wide range of timbres that can carry a piece without slipping the noose of his control.

Born and raised in Paris (his father hailed from Los Angeles, if you’re wondering where his accent is hiding), then educated at Bard College, University of Michigan, and Yale, Wohl recently made the jump from New York to LA, for “no real good reason except that I wanted a little bit more space and better weather,” he jokes. But on a more serious note, he underlines that commonality of being moved around by the economics of being an artist—the seemingly straightforward yet complex equation involved in securing the time and space to create new work.

“People ask your reasons why you’re making things, and sometimes you have some and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s really simply, ‘I’m making something,’ and your intuitive, creative approach is all it’s about.”

It’s something that makes him self-conscious at times, but he suggests that perhaps artists are simply searching for some sort of ideal. “Sometimes we get close to it and sometimes we fall short, but we’re all looking for this idealized version of what this music could be.”

Part of that ideal for Wohl is in that mix of acoustic and electronic sounds, which he feels reflects a broader cultural conversation. “We’re looking for something that’s interfacing with technology but just stays human—doesn’t lose the flaws and what makes us interesting.

“That’s an ideal we’re looking for in our computers, but also in the music we’re making.”

RighteousGIRLS Release gathering blue

RighteousGIRLS is the New York-based duo of flutist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi. Their debut album, gathering blue (New Focus Recordings), was released today and features compositions by various contemporary/classical and jazz artists including Andy Akiho, Ambrose Akinmusire, Pascal Le Boeuf, Christian Carey, Vijay Iyer, Dave Molk, Mike Perdue, Jonathan Ragonese, and Randy Woolf. The project was funded in part by New Music USA.

Emily Bookwalter: This album seems like a huge undertaking; there is such a wide variety of artists represented, each with their own unique aesthetic and musicality that you’ve managed to capture so convincingly. To what extent did these artistic differences affect your creative process in putting this all together? For example: Was there a lot of improvisation in some of the works that required working more directly with those composers over extensive periods of time? Or with the walls between genres disappearing more and more, did you find that all the works, for example, had elements of improvisation?

Gina Izzo: When Erika Dohi and I first talked about recording an album together back in 2013, we had already been performing as a duo for about three years and wanted to document that—but were in a sort of musical transition. At the time, we had been thinking a lot about the downtown music community in New York City and were actively going to concerts and listening to a lot of different styles. Through this experience, we have developed a unified language as a duo—one that emerged from our curiosity with sound, improvisation, and live/recorded music. The artists we discovered during this time are those we approached for gathering blue.

Although the artists featured on this project come from different backgrounds, we chose to collaborate because we share similar musical values. It was a privilege to work closely with these composers/peformers, and it allowed us to shape each work and to better understand each piece. There is a common thread, a feeling, that links the music allowing a piece like Ambrose Akinmusire’s Anzu, Christian Carey’s For Milton, and Vijay Iyer’s Accumulated Gestures to work in context with each other.

gathering blue has thirteen tracks (a mix of notated and improvised music) and three guest artists—Andy Akiho, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Justin Brown—who play with us in improvised trio settings. Through a series of postproduction interludes linking disparate pieces, the complete album has a continuous flow. Each interlude developed by composer/producer Pascal Le Boeuf, is derived from material pulled from throughout the album (compositions, improvisation, outtakes). You’ll hear parts of Justin Brown’s improv from Iyer’s Accumulated Gestures in the intro to our opening track GIRLS, and parts of the improvised steel-pan on Akiho’s KARakurENAI used in the interlude Robe Threader, while …Out of the Blue, which closes the album, is actually Robe Threader with the audio reversed. These interludes allowed us to reconstruct, improvise, and pull from our experience on each piece, threading together the individual voices.

Emily Bookwalter: gathering blue is your debut album and includes nine (!) commissioned works. Did you feel that this was a huge risk—to not only commission but then to permanently document an entire album of unknown music? Or did this bold first statement seem like a natural course for RighteousGIRLS?

Gina Izzo: For me, the album was more a sweep of personal discovery than a risk—a metaphor about our gathering of colors and weaving them together to represent a collage of our musical values.

The album is titled after the Lois Lowry novel, gathering blue. I read this novel at a young age and came back to it later in life with a different perspective of what it might mean to “gather blue.” I don’t feel that either of us set out to do anything “bold” on this album—we don’t really approach music in that way—but rather, to reflect our development and identity as an ensemble. Over the five years Erika and I have been performing together, this seemed to be a rather natural course for our first album—and although the nature of the project is risky, the quality of the artists and their contributions was always a solid conviction.

Emily Bookwalter: RighteousGIRLS is a fantastic example of the genrelessness we’re beginning to experience within new music. You’re hardcore improvisers with classical training, and you regularly call on the traditions of jazz, classical, world music, and beyond. But how do you define yourselves as musicians? How did you choose this path?

Erika Dohi: Living in New York City for the last ten years has exposed us to various genres of music. We both go to tons of shows, some featuring new musicians we’ve heard about, and others where our friends are involved.

Music scenes can change quickly, and we like to be there to notice what’s changing, how, and why. That can affect our own musical direction. We feel extremely lucky to be in the middle of a rapidly transforming artistic environment where audiences are constantly being challenged.

Speaking of my own experience, I found a kind of genrelessness at The Stone, one of my favorite venues. A personal change for me was hearing [Vijay Iyer’s] Fieldwork for the first time there. I had never heard anything like it. Something about the unusual texture, rhythmic complexity, and incredible subtlety of their collaboration inspired me greatly. It didn’t seem to fall into any particular category of music that I had heard before. Hearing Jason Moran and Tyshawn Sorey play free improv at The Stone was also a turning point for me. I think that was the first time I experienced “free improv.” I heard these shows when I was just a freshman at the Manhattan School of Music. They changed my life. It was fascinating for me to discover a sound that could not be labeled.

It’s also important for us to know what’s “hot.” Even if our music doesn’t follow what’s trending, we like to be aware.

Our music has changed a lot since we formed the duo back in 2010. It continues to evolve, and we’re evolving in our own ways as individual musicians, too. I can’t think of a way to label our music, although of course there are elements of jazz, classical, more free improvisation, etc. We try to never limit ourselves. We want to keep growing.

Emily Bookwalter: You’ve performed and will no doubt continue to perform in a variety of styles and venues around the country. What have some of the biggest rewards and challenges been thus far in your music-making? How do you feel your unique voice has been received?

Erika Dohi: We’re challenged constantly. I’ve had some opportunities to play in more specifically “jazz” settings through saxophonist Brad Linde and the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra in Washington D.C. At these gigs I would read off chord charts, which I wasn’t really comfortable doing. I just hadn’t had that training. Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes actually scared me. There’s a style and feel, and it takes time to own that. They’d call out rhythm changes on every gig and I’d improvise over them, too.

It really is the scariest thing, when you’re put on the spot, on stage, to play in a way you’re not used to, or play in a style you’ve never tried. But it pushes me to confront and get rid of that discomfort, and to see through a different musical lens. That kind of experience is so important for growth.

We ask a similar kind of bravery from our audiences, who can face the discomfort of hearing sounds they might not be accustomed to. For Gina and I, programming is extremely important. Our shows tend to have a variety of types of music. We like to program more tonal, accessible music that can be more easily understood, alongside more complex, dissonant works that might disturb or challenge the listener. We’ve gotten very positive results. I love when we get to introduce new music to completely unfamiliar audiences who end up really enjoying the more challenging stuff. We hope to always play for open-minded audiences who are ready for anything. gathering blue is a good example of how we program.

2015 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest Winners Announced

Photos of Nina C. Young, Alex Temple, and William Gardiner

The 2015 ACF Winners (pictured left to right): Nina C. Young (photo by David Adamcyk), Alex Temple (photo by Marc Perlish), and William Gardiner (photo by Jiyeon Kim). Photos courtesy DotDotDotMusic.

In partnership with the Los Angeles-based new music ensemble wild Up, the American Composers Forum has announced the three winners of the 2015 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest, their fourth thus far. Student composers William Gardiner (Yale University), Alex Temple (Northwestern University), and Nina C. Young (Columbia University) have each received a cash prize of $2,500 and are putting the finishing touches on eight- to ten-minute pieces for wild Up which will be performed at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) on September 11, 2015. American Composers Forum will also host two open rehearsals with wild Up and the winners on September 10 at LA City Colleges’ Clausen Recital Hall. The three composers were chosen by the members of the ensemble from a pool of 450 applicants.

“The Forum is thrilled to connect these talented composers with the extraordinary musicians of wild Up,” said ACF President and CEO John Nuechterlein. “Similar to our previous collaborations with eighth blackbird, JACK Quartet, and So Percussion, the opportunity for composers is invaluable to their work as young professionals, and the discovery process is equally exhilarating for the performers. We’re also excited to showcase this program at REDCAT for the large and diverse community of composers and performers in Los Angeles.”

“We are so thrilled to be working with Alex Temple, Nina C. Young, and William Gardiner, three young composers with exceptional talent and crystal-clear voices,” added Chris Roundtree, artistic director and conductor of wild Up. “We found their pieces through a blind selection process in which six members of the band voted in each of a half dozen rounds of vetting. What the American Composers Forum has done in bringing us all together is incredible.”

The objective of the annual competition is to encourage creativity by student composers who are currently enrolled in graduate and undergraduate institutions in the United States. In addition to the three winners, the following composers received honorable mentions:

Josh Archibald-Seiffer (University of Washington)
Vincent Calianno (New York University)
Andrew Greenwald (Stanford University)
Tonia Ko (Cornell University)
Shih-Wei Lo (University of Washington)
Alyssa Weinberg (Curtis Institute of Music)
Katherine Young (Northwestern University)

The competition began during the 2010-11 season as the Finale National Composition Contest, partnering with the group eighth blackbird. ACF has since produced two more competitions, in tandem with the JACK Quartet (2011-12 season) and So Percussion’s Summer Institute (2013-14 season).

(—from the press release)

In the Darkness: The Glowing Sound of a Wild Rumpus

VIDEO PREMIERE! The night before its first public performance, Wild Rumpus gathered in a California church and made a video for Nick Vasallo’s The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time…. Vasallo had this to say about the making-of:

Composing for a new music group is a challenging endeavor. One strives to write something musically inventive, or technically challenging, perhaps contextually relevant, or socially aware, and maybe esoteric…sometimes all the above! Lately I have been really trying to separate any expectations or presumptions and just write in the most direct manner I possibly can to get the aural result that I want. I think the first step to this is trust. Wild Rumpus is a wonderful collection of talented Bay Area new music performers. I knew I could (and needed to) trust them to interpret my music and make it their own.

Another approach I have been using lately is finding the title of a work before deciding what the music will be. The title for this piece, The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time…, is loosely adapted from one of the last lines of the movie American Beauty. I began thinking: what if I took a moment, an energy, and let it grow as organically as I could into a huge moment, and then stretched that moment out? To do this I needed to change time perception continuously, from one range to another, from a rhythm into a pitch, or a tone or a noise into a formal structure. I also decided early on to compose the music entirely using duration, so the performers would use a timer to follow the music. This approach probes into the nature of duration itself, particularly as it relates to human experience. I needed to convey that the dynamic of duration is not only change but growth through change. When the brain receives a lot of new information, it takes a while to process it all. The longer this takes, the longer that period of time feels. Reciprocally, time seems to move faster if there is less to process even if the same amount of time has transpired. With this piece I didn’t want to merely stretch out sound to make it seem like a long time, but I wanted to play with the cognitive process. Most of this was empirical and intuitive, myself being the guinea pig. It is fascinating hearing how others perceive time in this piece. People I’ve spoken to tell me the first five minutes feels like only a few, perhaps due to the complex sonorities occurring. And I build up to these moments with extreme simplicity so there is a continuous change in time perception.

After composing the full score using an Excel spreadsheet and a stopwatch, I began writing out each part. It was like writing a story from the perspective of each individual character (musician) using the global narration (score) as a guide. Each performer’s part had a timeline on the left side of the page and musical indications on the right. For the first reading all the musicians took out their smart phones and pressed a timer at the same time. Nathaniel Berman, Wild Rumpus’s conductor, merely counted off the moment for the performers to press start on their phones. Thankfully, Sean Dougall (the talented husband of Wild Rumpus’ Co-Director Jen Wang) coded a clever full screen timer that the entire group could follow on a laptop. So, now the laptop is the conductor.

The night before the world premiere at Composers, Inc.’s annual !BAMM! 2015 concert, all the members of Wild Rumpus, audio engineer Zach Miley, videographer Taylor Joshua Rankin, and I went into a dark, cold church in Oakland, California, and recorded The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time… into the wee hours of the night. This video is the result of the entire process. So, go into a quiet and dark place, turn the volume up, and enjoy!

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.