Tag: experimental music

Raven Chacon: Fluidity of Sound

Banner for the Raven Chacon episode of SoundLives featuring a photo of Raven writing music on a piece of score paper.

Raven Chacon in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded Wednesday, June 8, 2022 at 10:30 A.M. over Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

When Raven Chacon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in April for his composition Voiceless Mass, quite a lot of attention was given to the fact that he was the first Native American ever to receive this accolade. He is also perhaps the most experimental composer to get the nod, and that is true even considering that previous honorees include Henry Brant and Ornette Coleman. But while his idiosyncratic graphic scores are stunningly original in their conception and have been recognized as works of visual art in their own right (several are in this year’s Whitney Biennial), they have a larger social purpose.

“I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education,” explained Chacon when we spoke over Zoom earlier this month. “I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.”

The ideas that generate Chacon’s often highly experimental sound results are charged stories with deep implications about ecological concerns or social justice, such as Tremble Staves, an immersive work about the environment created for the San Francisco-based duo The Living Earth Show, or American Ledger No. 2, a visceral aural as well as visual response to this nation’s shameful history of enforced repatriations which received its world premiere in the parking lot of the Oklahoma Eagle in the Greenwood District of Tulsa.

“It’s thinking about this space that is existing in a city where there’s folks who don’t have privileges and resources,” Chacon said of the latter work. “Also talking about the policy of forcing native peoples from other tribes into Oklahoma. Once these minoritized communities become successful, such as the black community of Tulsa in the early 20th century, they were then driven out. Were forced out. And so sonically, I was interested in seeing what this system does. Does it create chaos? Does it create organization? Does it create a steady beat? Does it create voice? What happens inside of this?”

To hear Chacon speak of sonic experimentation this way makes his often intentionally inaccessible-sounding music extremely accessible. His occasionally jarring sonorities are always a means to an end. It isn’t always something that even he himself finds pleasant to listen to as he acknowledged when talking about his wind band composition American Ledger No. 1:

I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean. And so in the case of American Ledger 1, the chopping of wood signifies the building of ships. It signifies the building of the colonies that happened in the place after the ships arrived. And it has the potential to talk about then cutting down those buildings–chopping them down with an axe, lighting them on fire. A matchstick is another instrument I use in American Ledger 2 and in Tremble Staves. And I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

One of the most extreme examples of this is his early composition Report in which an ensemble of eight people fire shotguns according to a precisely notated musical score. His feelings about that work now and around whether to let future performances of it occur in an era when mass shootings occur somewhere in the United States every week, are understandably extremely complicated.

Because societal awareness is so central to Raven Chacon’s aesthetics as an artist, he has proven to be a natural collaborator, often placing himself in situations where few composers would feel comfortable. For the opera Sweet Land, which was produced by The Industry just before the pandemic lockdown began in 2020, he immersed himself in a total collaboration with another composer, Du Yun, both contributing their own music as well as harmonizing, orchestrating, and further developing ideas of each other. His collaborative sensibilities were on display most recently in the score he composed for Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s documentary film, Lakota Nation vs. United States, which just received its premiere screening at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

“I appreciated not being in the foreground for anything,” Chacon said. “I appreciated being able to reach into archives of things that I have that didn’t fit my normal music. You know, like Baroque fugue or something, why couldn’t that end up in the documentary about the Lakota nation, you know? Because we’re contrasting different times of American history. And sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict. What we’re talking about throughout this documentary is conflict, encroachment. … That was how I approached it because again the last thing I wanted to do was bring new age, reverbed wooden flutes to this score. That’s what’s expected. And so the producers and directors had known my music, and that’s what they wanted. They wanted noise. They wanted the things that one does not associate with native people. Because to do so, might place them in the past. And we’re talking about an ongoing disrespect of Lakota treaties and people that something had to bring it at least into now and into what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

  • As composers, it’s very hard to say what you want to say with instrumental music. You can make the title say what you want to say. You can write program notes all day about it. But ultimately, what does the music have an opportunity to actually convey?

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • In all honesty, I kind of accidentally found myself in that art side of things. I’ve always considered myself a composer first. It’s just that I found opportunities and maybe different attention from that world. And it did come about by way of scores. Some of the graphic notation that I was working with were things that people wanted to exhibit. And I kept telling them it’s just the document to make the music happen.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Every music you listen to, probably everything you’ve ever listened to, will end up in the music you make. ... If you live near a highway in a city, that might influence a kind of music to be made. If you live near a highway in a very rural place, that might end up as another kind of music. And so I think that second one is the kind of music that I end up making.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • often get asked okay, am I supposed to hear native music in here? You know, a particular tribe’s melodies or rhythms, and I say no. I don’t do that. I don’t have to do that actually, if that’s a connection that a listener makes because of all the tropes they’ve heard throughout popular culture, then that becomes their thing that I get to play with. But it’s not something I’m going to intentionally put into a music work.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • The interesting thing about ruins is unless you’re some kind of expert, an archeologist or something, you might not be able to tell how old the ruins are.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I’m not a person who tries to write difficult music to stump people. I’m not a new complexity type of person.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education. I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • If anything is possible, then I should write a piece of music that is going to have limitations on myself. No pitch. No timbral changes. No volume. I can’t control the volume. And maybe no tuning, no harmony. Nothing. No time. Of course, I found you can’t escape time. But everything else I felt I could. What kind of instrument can I find that could eliminate all of these possibilities and choices? And so I was thinking, okay a snare drum. But no, you could play a snare drum very quietly. There’s still a lot you can do with a snare drum. And so I thought, okay guns. You know, being in New Mexico, it’s something we would actually go do on the weekends: go practice shooting. And it’s ten minutes to drive out to the desert and nobody cares what you do. I have relatives who hunt. Friends who hunt. It’s a way of life in rural places.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon

Sarah Hennies: Getting at the Heart of a Sound

Sarah Hennies striking tubular bells

Sarah Hennies was a name that was barely on my radar before the pandemic, but after spending over six months mostly in lockdown I listened to a CD released on New World Records, a label that pretty much always piques my interest, featuring two works of hers, both of which were a little over a half hour in duration. One is a trio for piano, double-bass, and percussion with the peculiar name Spectral Malsconcities which was performed by new music stalwarts Bearthoven. The other is a duo for just piano and percussion called Unsettle performed by the Bent Duo, an ensemble which was also relatively unfamiliar to me. The music seemed to evoke everything I was feeling about this extremely precarious and terrifying time we’ve all been living in, despite the fact that both pieces were composed and recorded before the word Covid became an unfortunate daily household utterance.

I was fascinated and intrigued. I had to hear more of her music and listened to everything I could find, from her early collaborative work as part of the Austin-based experimental rock band Weird Weeds to her multimedia documentary Contralto to extended duration solo and chamber music compositions for various instrumental combinations. Despite the extremely broad stylistic range of this material, it all shared a concern for extremely precise sonic gestures and involved a great deal of repetition, but not guided by any kind of structural process as far as I could discern. Again, very much in the same way days and months seemed to pass over the last two years. I had to speak to her and learn more.

The most significant music has the uncanny ability to tap into a zeitgeist sometimes well in advance of its time although, when I spoke to Hennies earlier this month, she said that she hadn’t associated her time bending compositional aesthetic with our current realities. She did, however, acknowledge the relationship. But everyone listening to this music might come away with a different personal reaction to it and that’s fine by her since how we perceive sound on a psychological level as it unfolds over time is key to the sonic experiences that Sarah Hennies creates, whether it involves hearing layers of counterpoint that are the result of the natural reverberation of a particular physical space or hearing ghost sonorities that aren’t actually there because of the way certain timbres combine.

“Everything for me is about the listening experience,” she said. “I don’t even use quote-unquote systems anymore. … Part of the reason that I like working with repetition so much is that you have this sense that the music is staying in one place, but it feels like it’s developing anyway. And so, it’s like the music is stopped in time, but to me, doing something over and over again, even though the music is not hypothetically changing, your thoughts are changing. Hearing something for one minute is experientially very, very different from hearing it for, let’s say, eight minutes. And so, the listener is changing even though the music is always changing on a micro-level, but essentially you’re hearing the same thing over and over again.”

Sarah Hennies’s scores are extremely economical; the score for the nearly 34-minute Unsettle is a mere two pages. And yet the sonorities feel extremely generous.

“I just think being economical and practical is interesting because you can get at the heart of a sound,” she explained. “I’m not writing melodies and harmonies. It’s like not that kind of music. So it’s about something else.”

  • Hearing something for one minute is experientially very, very different from hearing it for, let's say, eight minutes.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • If I find myself wanting to hear something or do something over and over again, and I can't totally explain why, then that to me is a very, very good reason to put that into music because then you can then externalize those thoughts or see it from a listener point of view.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I just think being economical and practical is interesting because you can get at the heart of a sound.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I'm not writing melodies and harmonies. It's like not that kind of music. So it's about something else.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • The easiest way to get a performer to do what I want without a bunch of extra nonsense is something that has played into how I write music really, really profoundly

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • Everything for me is about the listening experience.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • There's no guarantee that a player is gonna play a mathematically perfect C-sharp every time ... something else that I love doing is playing on inherent imperfections in human performance.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • Simple thing equals complicated experience. Not to make it sound it too dumb, but that's really it.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • There have been a few moments over the last ten to 12 years where I did something, and I immediately thought: oh, I'm somewhere else now.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • It doesn't make sense that Orienting Response would be engaging. You know, it's like 45 minutes of bing-bong, bing-bong. But I just found it addictive or intoxicating.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • That is something that I still feel I'm doing, to be strange in a way that's not aggressive or dissonant for the sake of dissonance.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I very intensely identify as a DIY artist ... I don't have a world as far I'm concerned, except my own.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • This is a semantic thing, but I don't consciously want to go in a new direction.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I don't want to be permanently attached to any organization, or genre, or movement, or whatever. I just want to be out here wandering around by myself and just going where people want me basically.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • My experience generates the music, but that's not the thing that I need people to know about.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I didn't want to be "Sarah Hennies: the Trans Composer."

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • For a long time now I've thought it would be great to write a piece that was three or four hours long.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies

Huang Ruo: Creating Four Dimensional Experiences

Huang Ruo

 

Were it not for the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, last week would have been the 10th anniversary season of PROTOTYPE, a festival held in New York City each January devoted to boundary-pushing new opera and music theater. One of the highlights of this year’s offerings was to have been The Book of Mountains and Seas, a collaboration between Chinese American composer Huang Ruo and experimental puppeteer Basil Twist. I was so excited to see and hear this work, especially after being so deeply moved by Huang Ruo’s hour-long string quartet A Dust in Time which the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet premiered online in October 2020 as the virus raged around the world. (In October 2021, Bright Shiny Things issued Del Sol’s recording of A Dust in Time on a CD that is packaged with a coloring book of Tibetan mandalas which listeners are encouraged to color in as they listen to the music.)

So in late December, I talked with Huang Ruo about A Dust in Time, The Book of Mountains and Seas, and many other works of his. No matter what he composes, whether it’s a bona fide opera or an instrumental work for a chamber ensemble, there is usually some kind of visual stimulation and often an element of theater involved in the performance. For Huang Ruo, music–like theater–exists in a four-dimensional space, which is why it is often difficult to capture his work in a merely two-dimensional medium like, say, most CD recordings. In fact, in one of his most intriguing creations, Sound of Hand, the solo percussionist barely produces an audible sound.

In our conversation, Huang Ruo remembered telling David Schotzko, the percussionist for whom the piece was originally written, “I want to approach it like a Chinese medicine. I want to give you this piece; clean out all your right or wrongs in your system. Just to rebuild you, from nothing to something. From bottom up. So then I created this piece, I want a piece to have the hand, just as the instrument, without holding anything. The hand itself could be the skin of the drum. The cymbal. The surface of a percussion instrument. Sometimes they are moving in the air. People might not hear anything, but they could see everything. It is a performance art piece. It is not just a piece for solo percussionist. … A dancer could do it. A regular person, they could see the score, they could learn it almost like Tai Chi, like a Kung Fu piece. I hope this piece could help people to build their own being, mental and also physical.”

There is a larger purpose in most of Huang Ruo’s work. His recent Angel Island Oratorio is based on poems that were scrawled on the walls by East Asian detainees in the immigration processing center located on this San Francisco island which is the antithesis of Ellis Island and all the myths we’ve been taught of how welcoming the United States has been to immigrants. His 2014 opera An American Solider, which he created with playwright David Henry Hwang, was based on the true story of Private Danny Chen, who committed suicide in Afghanistan after being harassed and beaten by his fellow soldiers for being Asian. The Sonic Great Wall, which was a joint commission from Ensemble Modern, Asko Schoenberg, and London Sinfonietta, shatters the fourth wall between performers and the audience.

There was so much to talk about with him and our conversation all in all lasted an unwieldy hour and a half! But since the performances of The Book of Mountains and Seas have been postponed until next year, we decided to save the portion of our conversation about that piece for a later date. There is still so much material in the hour we are presenting here which we hope will be inspiring to read and or listen to during these unfortunately ongoing precarious times.

According to Huang Ruo, “We need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.  One thing for sure, art and music should continue and should find its own way to be shared, to be created. And of course, doing it online. … We all need to connect, but also we need to be safely distancing ourselves. Now, yes, physically performer and audience might need to be distancing, just for safety reason, health reason. However, the main idea, why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that’s the joy, the tears, that’s the laughter. That’s why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.”

  • Listening to a CD will give you two-dimensional space, instead of four, when you really see a theatrical performance.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • One big lesson I learned during the pandemic is accepting our fate. Accepting where we are, but also learning how to let go of the things we might have to lose.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • The only way we can learn not to repeat the same mistake is by really learning what happened in the past.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • A critic who came to review our opera wrote that both David and I created this very bombastically anti-American work. ... It was absolutely not our intention to create division.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • Each character has their own dilemma, has their own duty to be bound to. It's not just easily black and white, who is right or who is wrong. To me, opera should tell a story more complex than that to let audiences reflect and to think. To find their own answer.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • The true meaning of revolution is not about just being successful, but about keep trying.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • I believe everything happens in our life for a reason.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • To me the idea is to use music to bring down the barrier of what the physical wall normally is.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • I think we need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • Why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that's the joy, the tears, that's the laughter. That's why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo

Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture

Susie Ibarra performing on a drum kit

A week before I finally had a chance to have an extended conversation with multi-genre composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra, she performed at Roulette–her first concert with a group in front of a live audience since the pandemic shut everything down around the world. To say it has been a challenging 16 months for everyone is a tremendous understatement, but for Ibarra–whose artistry has been so deeply shaped by collaborations with other musicians–it could have proven stifling. And yet, this strange period has been remarkably productive for her.

Thus far this year, she has released two albums. First, Talking Gong, a spellbinding New Music USA-funded debut album of her new poly-stylistic trio with Claire Chase and Alex Peh. Then Walking on Water, a deeply moving homage to the victims of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsumani created in collaboration with visual artist Makoto Fujimura which uses the sounds of water as a central musical element. Both of these albums were recorded in studios over the course of last summer as COVID-19 cases were raging; musicians were tested before each session, remained masked whenever they could, and maintained physical distances. Susie Ibarra was also able to continue another strand of her output, her remarkable series of solo percussion explorations. An extraordinary performance she gave in a surreally empty hall at William Paterson College back in February is thankfully still available to stream. And a few months before that, in December 2020, she launched the Composers Now Impact series of composer presentations with a fascinating audio-video stream about her music.

Obviously we talked about these unprecedented times in which we are still living; it’s pretty much impossible not to talk about it. But we also talked about a wide range of other topics during the hour we spent together over Zoom. The very first time I ever heard Susie Ibarra, she was part of the legendary David S. Ware Quartet alongside Matt Shipp and William Parker. So I was eager to find out more about how she found herself in her 20s as part of this legendary free jazz quartet as an equal partner in what many aficionados consider to be some of the most enduring music of the late 1990s. I was also curious to learn more about her stint playing with the New Jersey indie rock band Yo La Tengo and the collaborative improvisatory trio Mephista she performed in with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and laptop artist Ikue Mori.

  • We were all just happy to be in the room and back into our practice of attending or performing concerts. I really missed that a lot.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I played that performance the day before one of my dear mentors passed away. Milford Graves passed the next afternoon. I had a kind of spiritual visit from him while I was playing and in one piece, I ended up playing some rhythms that he had directly taught me.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • Putting gender to instruments has always been a strange thing for me, ‘cause it has affected all of us as human beings. And it’s all these inanimate objects that we culturally have put gender on.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • When I hear younger generations, and their voices, and how they’re able to voice this politically right now, and socially, I’m really happy and hopeful. In my generation, I think there are certain things that just weren’t even touched or addressed.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • It wasn’t that I was buying albums. I had some, but I wasn’t a giant collector. I wanted to go to the live performances.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I was just so happy playing music. It's the best way to keep growing and learning.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • Sometimes when we were playing pieces, you don’t know who’s making what sounds. I love that actually, ‘cause we were all really integrated in playing that music in the moment.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • It was never like: "Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman." I didn’t come from that culture. So I feel really lucky. … But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I grew up with a hybrid culture. So it’s what I know. I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I love rehearsals in any situation. It’s great when you get a lot of players that just want to play, and we want to play and see how it’s going to grow.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • At one point, I was living the winters in the Philippines. It was like having two lives.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • We felt that particularly with water rhythms, listening to climate change, we are personally inviting the listener in to have a more personal experience and to connect, because everybody’s had a connection to water.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist

An undercurrent that runs throughout Susie Ibarra’s career trajectory is that many of the activities she was engaging in–performing in genres such as free jazz, particularly as a drummer–were unusual for a woman back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her memories about that era were particularly illuminating:

“Having been a young musician, I definitely went through it, like with the naivete of all of a sudden having to wake up to that–wow, oh, the world is like this. Because I was raised by a very strong mother. She was a doctor and grew up in World War II in Manila. She’s very bright. She skipped three grades. She graduated from med school when she was 22. It was never like: ‘Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman.’ I didn’t come from that culture. So I was really lucky. Really lucky. Because in that particular style, whatever genre of jazz it is, it’s very socially difficult to a point where you think: Well, I can be empathetic and supportive to issues that are going on, but I also know that what my life path is is different than other people who are born into their life paths. So I also can’t just take on giant, heavy stones on my back that are not going to serve a purpose or be useful for anything. So initially, I think I just loved so much a lot of this music and playing, and I was also raised in a certain way. I didn’t see it that way. But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it. And then it’s the question of: do I want to accept that, or do I want to not accept that.”

Another thing that has given her tremendous strength and perseverance has been her immersion into her Philippine heritage. As she would later learn when she began to spend time absorbing the myriad musical practices in the Philippines, percussion instruments were traditionally played by women. So the way that cultures have gendered certain musical instruments is by no means universal. However, being born in California, raised in Houston, and coming of age as an artist in New York City, no single cultural force has exclusively shaped her approach to making music.

“I grew up with a hybrid culture, so it’s what I know,” she explains. “I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Susie Ibarra
June 18, 2021—Noon EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Native Experimentalists

I started writing this article in what is presently called La Villita in northern New Mexico. These are the lands of Puebloan people, more specifically Ohkay Owingeh, as well as Jicarilla Apache. I’m finishing the article in Muwekma Ohlone lands, presently called the San Francisco Bay Area.

Thanks to NewMusicBox for inviting me to write this article. It’s an honor for me to help bring attention to the vital and extremely varied work of Native artists and communities who are historically, and presently, otherwise too often under-known and overlooked. I’m not an authority on this extensive subject, and I identify as a musician first and foremost. All the same, I recognize that I have accrued some knowledge, personal experience and relationships over the years that I can draw upon. I’m deeply honored to have been entrusted with such a task.

It’s an honor for me to help bring attention to the vital and extremely varied work of Native artists and communities who are historically, and presently, otherwise too often under-known and overlooked.

For years now, I’ve been a regular contributor to First American Art Magazine (FAAM) which is devoted to the work of Native artists of this continent. I’ve also had writings published in Full Moon Magazine (Prague), an Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening for Pauline Oliveros’s 80th birthday and most recently Three Fold Press out of Detroit. I’ve learned so much through these processes and from the various editors! I never set out to be a published writer; it’s been a rewarding adventure for me in a lot of ways.

Here I’ll be focusing first and foremost on three Native experimental musicians (Raven Chacon, Nathan Young, and Laura Ortman) who I have had personal experiences with as well as the scenes and communities that they’ve cultivated over the years plus brief segments on three musicians whose work I have covered as a contributor to FAAM (Warren Realrider, Jacqueline Wilson, and Michael Begay).

I first met Raven Chacon (Diné) in 2010 while on a cross-country tour with my Italian band Tsigoti. Raven was involved in a loose knit organization called Coalmine Kollektiv that presented our show in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since then, we’ve become good friends and collaborators. I’ve covered much of his work in reviews and profiles for FAAM, and we have published works together as a duo including a recent recording of our performance at Array Music in Toronto for my Astral Spirits Traveling Sessions series. As a presenter and space holder for artists, Raven’s been involved in many organizations over the years while maintaining his own community art and music spaces like Small Engine and Spirit Abuse as well as his record label Sicksicksick Distro. I played shows with Raven, John Dieterich, and Jeremy Barnes in both of these community centers and have been able to take in many shows at both that provide opportunities for musicians who have little or no available venues otherwise. On top of that he’s a remarkably prolific composer, working on commissions regularly for performers and performances around the world.

My initial exposure to Raven’s work came from his involvement in Postcommodity, which is a Native artists collective based in the Southwest. At that time the core members included Cristóbal Martínez (Chicano), Kade L. Twist (Cherokee), Steven Yazzie (Navajo/Laguna), and Nathan Young (Delaware Tribe of Indians/Pawnee/Kiowa). The work of Post-Commodity utilizes any and all artistic disciplines and mediums to articulate a myriad of viewpoints, perspectives and expressions. From their website: “Postcommodity’s art functions as a shared Indigenous lens and voice to engage the assaultive manifestations of the global market and its supporting institutions, public perceptions, beliefs, and individual actions that comprise the ever-expanding, multinational, multiracial and multiethnic colonizing force that is defining the 21st Century through ever-increasing velocities and complex forms of violence.”

The collective provided cover art for two albums from my Estamos Project; jimpani kustakwa ka jankwariteecherï by Estamos Ensemble on Edgetone Records and People’s Historia by Estamos Trio (Carmina Escobar and Milo Tamez) on Relative Pitch Records. jimpani kustakwa ka jankwariteecherï is a direct translation of “compositions and improvisations” in the P’urhépecha language which is mostly spoken in rural communities in the highlands of Michoacán, México, where our violinist Julián Martínez Vázquez was born and presently lives. Postcommodity provided a photo of a graphic score made from ground coal, salt, and rock from the dead Gila River which was part of a larger mixed-media installation called Worldview Manipulation Therapy. The piece was exhibited in 2009 at The Ice House in Phoenix. Worldview Manipulation Therapy “… draws upon the ephemeral, transformative and esoteric aspects of tribal ceremonies — central to the Indigenous worldview.” It’s a reexamination of the on-going postcolonial stress enforced by globalization and neoliberalism. The graphic score was the centerpiece of the overall installation incorporating traditional tribal geometries.

Drumhead from the installation Worldview Manipulation Therapy

Worldview Manipulation Therapy – 2009.
Multichannel video, sound and mixed-media installation. Duration: 12 Hours.
from the installation view at The Ice House, Phoenix, AZ.

A bladder of blood was placed inside the cavity of the gutted deer dripping blood periodically onto the drum that was then effected and amplified throughout the plaza. The piece was created in response to the 400th anniversary of Santa Fe from the Indigenous perspective.

The cover for Estamos Trio’s People’s Historia was a close up of a blood soaked Pueblo drum which was part of a public installation in the Santa Fe Plaza in 2010 titled “P’oe iwe naví ûnp’oe dînmuu/My Blood is in the Water” (mule deer taxidermy, wood poles, water, amplifier, drum). The collective hung a deer in the center of the plaza above a ceremonial drum fixed with contact mics. A bladder of blood was placed inside the cavity of the gutted deer dripping blood periodically onto the drum that was then effected and amplified throughout the plaza. The piece was created in response to the 400th anniversary of Santa Fe from the Indigenous perspective. It’s a tribute to the traditional relationship between people and food/nature in the region. “‘My Blood is in the Water’ is a counter-metaphor critiquing the dominant culture’s process of commoditization, demand/supply and convenience.” It is an expression of the continuity between the present Indigenous culture and the past.

A close-up of the drumhead from the installation My Blood is in the Water.

A close-up of the drumhead from the installation My Blood is in the Water.

Through Raven and Postcommodity I’ve developed a friendship and working relationship with Nathan Young (Delaware/Pawnee/Kiowa), and have been exposed to and written about the work of Jacqueline Wilson (Yakama), Michael Begay (Diné), and Warren Realrider (Pawnee/Crow) for FAAM.

Nathan Young is a Tulsa Arts Fellow and former member of Postcommodity. He’s presently enrolled in the Native American Art History Ph.D. program at the University of Oklahoma which is the first and only program that approaches the study of Native American Art from a critical perspective rather than within the field of anthropology. I’ve had the fortune to write about Nathan’s work a variety of times for FAAM as well to spend time in his community both participating in and witnessing his work as an artist and presenter. Since I’m on the road perpetually, I have the opportunity to experience the work of others as I travel. This is one of the reasons I’ve been such a regular contributor to FAAM, primarily when I was writing solely about visual art. Sometimes my touring is dense, moving from one city to the next night after night and sometimes it’s more relaxed and allows me the privilege to spend time within communities and scenes, to both collaborate with and document other artists. My partner ACVilla and I have a duo project, Silver Ochre, which is focused on the creation of video art and documentaries that are engaged in social justice issues and the needs of communities. So all of this lends itself naturally to writing about the work of others. That said, in 2018 I was invited by Nathan to perform a multimedia work of Silver Ochre’s as part of his Tulsa Noise programming which was facilitated by the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. I spent three days there getting to know fellows and faculty as well as Nathan and his work as an artist and presenter. (The fellowship has been in existence since 2015, prioritizing opportunities for Native American artists and artists of color.)

Everyone’s standing around a pickup truck they are using as a big drum. A certain kind of extended technique!

Following those few days in Tulsa, Nathan and I drove up to Kansas City for the opening of his art show “Night Music of the Southern Plains American Indian” at the Center for Contemporary Practice at KCAI Crossroads Gallery. (I wrote about this show in the Spring 2019 issue of FAAM.) Situated in two different rooms of the gallery, one room was dedicated entirely to a sacred experience of Peyote, the culture and the ceremony. The other, much larger room included an old pickup truck facing a projection on a screen. The projection was documentation from the opening concert that was held in the parking lot of the gallery. Nathan invited the Southern Thunder Singers to perform what is called 49 music. These are songs typically sung at after parties the nights following powwows, out on back roads or fields, with everyone standing around a pickup truck they are using as a big drum. A certain kind of extended technique! The truck was then brought into the gallery and placed with its headlights facing a screen on which was projected the documentation of the concert. The show ended a month later with students of Dwight Frizzell’s at KCAI performing a graphic score on the amplified truck. The idea was to perform the truck from a western perspective, with a score that the students interpreted with transducers, baseball bats, contact mics, and chalk while Nathan processed the Elton John song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” through his laptop.

Jacqueline Wilson is a bassoonist and serves on the faculty at Washington State University. She’s just begun recording an album of works for bassoon by Native composers including Raven Chacon, Juantio Becenti (Diné), Gillian Whitehead (Maori), and the late Louis W. Ballard (Cherokee/Quapaw), slated to be completed in late 2022. She also recently commissioned a work for bassoon and marimba called Nocturne by Connor Chee (Diné). With another bassoonist (Stephanie Willow Patterson, Columbus State University), she is preparing a work by Elizabeth A. Baker titled Collective Collaborative.

Performance of Bluebirds by Juantio Becenti in Montezuma Creek UT on the Navajo Nation
Jacqui Wilson – Bassoon
Yuko Kato – Piano

Michael Begay (Diné) is a tireless creative force playing in metal bands like Akklamation, which he and his brother started in 2005, as well as writing commissions and teaching in the Native American Composer Apprentice Project, which has been part of the Grand Canyon Music Festival since 2001.

In 2018-2019 Michael was the Composer-in-Residence with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. Recent commissions include a work for Orchestra Northern Arizona, a solo composition for the Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli, a string quartet for Black Dog String Quartet, and a duo for violin and piano performed by Stefan Milenkovich and Renata Yazzie (Diné) at Northern Arizona University’s Native American Cultural Center. He was invited to study composition at the Peabody Institute beginning in the Fall 2021.

Premiere of Michael’s newest works as a commission by Shelter Music Boston: “Chiaroscuro”, “Hai (Winter)”, “Cloak of Autumn”

Warren Realrider performs under the moniker of Tick Suck and has been a regular contributor to Tulsa Noise. Warren Realrider (Pawnee/Crow) is a multidisciplinary sound artist based in Norman, Oklahoma. He created the Tick Suck noise performance project in 2016 and has since presented his solo works and sound performance collaborations in varied Tulsa and Oklahoma City settings. His piece IIII Kitapaatu, presented at the Tulsa Noise Fest in 2019, is featured in the forthcoming documentary Love and Fury by Sterlin Harjo. Realrider works within the liminal space between object, function, and ceremony to extract sound sources which are then processed and deconstructed utilizing contemporary music technology. Elements of harsh noise, sound art, and indigenous music are blended into compositions improvised in response to the location, context, and space of Tick Suck performances.

Video by Blackhorse Lowe (Diné) at the 2019 Tulsa Noisefest of Tick Suck (Warren Realrider) playing willow, imitation sinew, cymbal with a contact mic, distortion and feedback.

Warren Realrider’s Unassigned Data at the Oklahoma Contemporary Gallery

Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) and I first met through filmmaker Martha Colburn who invited us to provide live musical accompaniment for a screening of her films at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2009. Laura and I had both worked with Martha for some time before meeting. I was so blown away the first time hearing her and my fascination with Laura as a musician continues to deepen every time I have the opportunity to hear and/or collaborate with her. Laura experiments with cross-disciplinary, genre-bending approaches to music and performance, drawing on both her classical violin training and Indigenous musical traditions. While she plays electric guitar, keyboards, pedal steel guitar, makes field recordings, and sings through a megaphone, her main instrument is her singular violin.

Laura Ortman experiments with cross-disciplinary, genre-bending approaches to music and performance, drawing on both her classical violin training and Indigenous musical traditions.

Six years ago, Laura was one of four Native artists who, through the Artist Leadership Program of the National Museum of the American Indian, the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, was invited to create socially engaged art. In turn, she invited me to participate in her residency by sounding the magnificent Echo Amphitheater north of Abiquiú as well as record with her in the studio she was provided at MoCNA. Laura recorded with a handful of local musicians and blended it all together with field recordings she gathered of the city and region. She described this work as a customized soundtrack of Santa Fe. She also continued this approach to sonic engagement with her work commissioned by Issue Project Room she called Dust Dives Alive. The piece is part of the Isolated Field Recording Series which she published on her Bandcamp account Dust Dive Flash.

In 2016 we met up again at Park Church Co-op in Brooklyn. The evening of four sets was to raise funds and awareness in support of the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline #nodapl. Her solo performance of violin and effects was incredibly deep and soaring under the vaulted ceilings and the old hardwood. Not long after that I invited her to participate in my residency at Pioneer Works which culminated in a concert of me in trio with Nels Cline and Michael Wimberly as well as a quartet with Laura, Yuka C. Honda, and Ravish Momin. ACVilla provided visuals which she gathered and created during the residency.

Laura’s album My Soul Remainer came out in 2017 which I reviewed for FAAM. Two years later, as a 2019 Whitney Biennial artist, she delivered a  concert that incorporated all of her sonic abilities to an understandably great reception. In that same period, her video, under the same name, debuted at the museum.

Here’s footage of the concert:

Plus the multimedia piece with the great ballet dancer Jock Soto (Diné):

This article makes it clear that there’s a tremendous amount of exciting work being produced by Native musicians. And of course there’s much more to cover beyond what I have here and no doubt much more to come. I think it’s crucial that the perspective of Native America be witnessed through the work of artistic practices.

 

Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations

The only thing that is almost as exciting as watching and listening to a multimedia performance by Pamela Z is to hear her talk about it, which she does for almost an hour in a fascinating conversation that spans a wide range of topics including: creating and performing during the pandemic; her artistic beginnings as a singer-songwriter and how she transitioned into an experimental composer; a difficult encounter with TSA agents; dealing with constant changes in technology; and her obsession with old telephones.

Although Pamela is a composer who is mostly focused on creating new sounds by new means, it was extremely interesting to hear her describe her occasional frustration with the ephemerality of so many of the devices on which we all have become so dependent.

At one point she exclaims, “There are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space?’”

And yet, those technological changes and sometimes the strange glitches and disconnects that result from them have informed so much of this San Francisco Bay Area-based maverick’s creative work. Attention, a work she created for the Del Sol String Quartet, will forever change your perception of telephones ringing. Baggage Allowance will make you rethink your next airplane trip when it is safe to take one again. She hopes Times3, her sonic installation created for the 2021 Prototype Festival to accompany a walk around Times Square that has now been extended through April 30, 2021, “cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.”

  • The time we’re living through right now is turning us all into filmmakers.

    Pamela Z
  • One of my least favorite things is to see somebody making the awkward effort to make their performance visual just because they think that’s expected.

    Pamela Z
  • I’ve actually been telling people that if they do have the chance to go and listen to the piece in Times Square that I also encourage them to have another listen to it, not in Times Square.

    Pamela Z
  • I suddenly woke up one day and realized that the music I was playing for a living did not resemble what was on my turntable.

    Pamela Z
  • I spend just as much time going to visual art museums and galleries as I do going to concerts.

    Pamela Z
  • Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a cellist and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, “Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one.”

    Pamela Z
  • Nothing dies on the internet. Well, except Flash.

    Pamela Z

Pamela Z’s quest for new solutions which create problems that are also an integral part of the resultant work also informs her brand new Ink, a work which includes some surreal reflections on how musicians interact with notated scores which will be premiered by the San Francisco-based chorus Volti in an online performance on April 24.

Aside from learning more about all of these one-of-a-kind compositions, it’s a delight to hear all of her stories since, as anyone who has experienced her work already knows, she is an extremely engaging storyteller. Our time together over Zoom was a non-stop adventure except for, perhaps appropriately, the occasional internet connection hiccup which we mostly were able to fix in post-production editing.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Pamela Z
March 16, 2021—4:00pm EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between San Francisco CA and New York NY
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce and Jonathan Stone; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Remember the Uncomplicated Joy

A fisheye lens photo of Methods Body (John Niekrasz on drumset and Luke Wyland on electric keyboard) performing in a cabin.

By John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland (a.k.a. Methods Body)

This is a weird year to drop a debut record. We live in Portland, Oregon, a city that has seen more than its share of upheaval lately. In January, after three years of composing and recording, we’d found great label support, honed our live set, ordered vinyl, and booked tours. Then, our record announcement fell on the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Two months later, the record was released just days before George Floyd’s murder. We wept for the world as we went through the motions working on promo and music videos, and the world showed us growing fascism, worst-ever wildfires, and forced sterilizations of the most vulnerable people. Every week of 2020 has shown us something far more important, far more worthy of attention than a record of new music by two white men.

We’ve had the rare fortune of being able to put our most precious energies into our art for decades. We’re lifers. We always thought this in itself was a radical practice: fighting for a life outside of the accumulation of capital, spending our efforts building a community for the arts, and trying to share with our friends and audiences a sense of hope, joy, and inspiration, or offering a new definition of beauty that’s lightyears away from the Gucci-Kardashian-Bugatti-sphere.

But it’s not enough. The same hard questions we asked ourselves after the 2016 election have come roaring back with renewed relevance and force. Are we doing any good? Why should niche art music based on microtones and polyrhythms be important? Should we be taking up any space at all?

  • Why should niche art music based on microtones and polyrhythms be important? Should we be taking up any space at all?

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)
  • Our entire “industry” has essentially disappeared.

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)
  • Art will adapt and go on in new and unpredictable ways.

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)

This year, Portland has been locked down with protest curfews and insane wildfire smoke. One of our housemates was injured by illegally deployed police impact munitions. We had friends of Color buying bulletproof armor or not leaving their homes out of fear of attacks by Proud Boys. And these immediate threats piled on top of our perennial concern: will the American West, and, really, much of the world, continue to be habitable under this kind of worsening climate damage?

We’re learning a lot from our partners and friends. We have it pretty good and so we have a responsibility to re-educate ourselves around justice, mutual aid, and proper communication. We’re supporting our friends in the streets, we’re giving money to liberatory causes, trying to center others’ voices. And, of course, we’re heartbroken. We’ve lost our own lifeblood. We’re not doing the thing we love and have built our lives around: we’re not performing.

Methods Body (Luke Wyland on electric keyboard, left, and John Niekrasz on drumset, right) performing in front of rows of ceiling to floor bookshelves

Methods Body performing in a bookstore (Photo by Jacob Heule)

Our entire “industry” has essentially disappeared. The downtown venue where we first met and played together in 2007 announced it will not reopen. The same goes for our favorite DIY neighborhood spot that has been hosting challenging music for years. How many brilliant ensembles will fold? How many artists are giving up on their dreams this very moment?

The impetus to get to work on our next record is still here, if muddied. We’re both noticing that our expectations for our music have changed drastically. The music we were making even eight months ago feels suspect. Something different is required now. We’ve had the privilege of being together, taking refuge in our instruments, playing and chasing our weaknesses. Trying to remember the uncomplicated joy of just spending time at an instrument. Fighting to feel like it can matter. We find solace in hearing from other musicians who are forging ahead with hope: Ed Rodriguez, Amirtha Kidambi, Holland Andrews, Chris Williams, and many others.

After the last inauguration, John did some speculative fiction about a future in which we might need to assemble resistance cells to oppose fascism. The music in Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard is built upon a bit of that writing:

My friends, however, claimed events would identify them, but to
overhear and accept only one month to prepare us in a very
small room with rubble in one corner

John plays the rhythm and melody of this phrase in a drum ostinato that is eventually taken up by the vocals of Holland Andrews. Luke and Holland improvise over this structure.

One of our collaborators, UVA art professor Lydia Moyer, shot some tests for a dance-theater project inspired by images of Civil War battle smoke. Moyer sent us some complex, smoke-choked imagery and the resonances with our present reality were breathtaking—civil war seems, again, a distinct and terrifying possibility; the US has deployed more toxic gas against its own citizens during a respiratory pandemic than in all the years since Vietnam; COVID is out of control. When Moyer and Leeri synched their imagery to a track on our debut, Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard, the result was harrowing and beautiful.

Of course, art will adapt and go on in new and unpredictable ways. Poets and musicians here have been supporting the Black Lives Matter protests by performing in the streets. The Fixin’ To, a local venue that’s been shuttered for months, is experimenting with limited capacity patio shows, so we gave an outdoor performance for a few physically distanced (and chilly!) friends this month. We’re starting work on our next record. And we will rise up with others to ensure the voice of the compassionate majority is heard.

Methods Body (Luke Wyland on electric keyboard, left, and John Niekrasz on drumset, right) performing in a dimly lit club

Photo by Taylor Ross

On Performing Fluxus in 2020

Karl Ronneburg's performance of Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano"

In the bright and halcyon days of early 2020, my team at Fifth Wall Performing Arts planned something we thought would be fun: a spring concert of Fluxus-inspired works performed simultaneously by our friends in New York City and Ann Arbor. Each location would be livestreamed to the other, where we’d hoped the broadcasts would create a new sense of what Fluxus artist Dick Higgins called an “intermedia” space. These, of course, were the days before Zoom became a household name, before livestreamed concerts became the unfortunate norm. We’d had the venues booked, the artists lined up, and even an endorsement from Meredith Monk—but it was not to be. Like every concert in the spring, summer, and beyond, our Fluxus Fest was cancelled.

So, I took the opportunity to learn more. Though I first became seriously interested in Fluxus back in 2016 through the wild and wonderful world that is Dick Higgins’s “Danger Music” series, the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon me the time and space to begin correspondence with the LA Phil’s 2018/19 Fluxus Festival Curator, Christopher Rountree, as well as Fluxus scholar Natilee Harren. Their feedback, in addition to my own research, led to the remounting of our Fluxus Fest 2020 as a five-week virtual festival—one which finds Fluxus surprisingly suited to confronting the challenges of our time.

So, some questions: What is Fluxus? And, why Fluxus? Why now?

Fluxus was an art collective and movement in the ’60s and ’70s whose artists took up the direct legacy of John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and the Dadaists. In fact, some of the origins of Fluxus can be directly traced to John Cage’s 1958 Composition class at the New School in New York City—on the first day, Cage defined music simply as “events in sound-space”. Among the students in the classroom that day were Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, George Brecht, Larry Poons, Allan Kaprow, and Al Hansen. Soon thereafter, Brecht began making what he called “Event Scores”, which, instead of musical notes, simply contained a list of printed instructions to realize a piece.

  • Like every concert in the spring, summer, and beyond, our concert of Fluxus-inspired works performed simultaneously in New York City and Ann Arbor was cancelled.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Some of the origins of Fluxus can be directly traced to John Cage’s 1958 Composition class at the New School in New York City.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Fluxus artists pushed the boundary of what art could be and who it was for.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Ben Patterson’s 1964 Instruction #2 reads: “Please Wash Your Face”. Fluxus asks, how different are these instructions from signs in public places asking you to “Wash Your Hands”, or to “Please Wear a Mask”?

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Fluxus is protest music, where the dissonance is always cognitive.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • We put together a five-weekend series, featuring over 30 artists from around the country.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist

By 1962, the students from Cage’s class were joined by George Maciunas (a Lithuanian-American who coined the term “Fluxus”), and variously included Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Wolf Vostell, Emmett Williams, Ben Patterson, Takako Saito, Henry Flynt, La Monte Young, Meiko Shiomi, and more—though “membership” in Fluxus was often contentious. Some claimed that Maciunas at one time or another kicked out all but two or three of them, while others say that he had no right to kick out anyone and never did.

The group was active in the USA, as well as Germany, Denmark, France, and Japan, and were an incredibly diverse collective for the time: Dr. Natilee Harren writes that “Participants included artists who were women, who were queer, who were African American, who were from East Asia, and yet these identities were treated with an uncommon fluidity and criticality for the time. An a-national, polyglot community, Fluxus artists were citizens of the world; they traversed a self-defined international network, and the spirit of generosity and exchange in their work countered Cold War paranoia and the retrenchment of national boundaries.”

  • Like every concert in the spring, summer, and beyond, our concert of Fluxus-inspired works performed simultaneously in New York City and Ann Arbor was cancelled.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Some of the origins of Fluxus can be directly traced to John Cage’s 1958 Composition class at the New School in New York City.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Fluxus artists pushed the boundary of what art could be and who it was for.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Ben Patterson’s 1964 Instruction #2 reads: “Please Wash Your Face”. Fluxus asks, how different are these instructions from signs in public places asking you to “Wash Your Hands”, or to “Please Wear a Mask”?

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • Fluxus is protest music, where the dissonance is always cognitive.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist
  • We put together a five-weekend series, featuring over 30 artists from around the country.

    Karl Ronneburg, composer, percussionist, and multimedia/performance artist

Simultaneously irreverent and spiritual, Fluxus artists pushed the boundary of what art could be and who it was for. The format of the Event Score in particular is interesting because of the way it delegates collective authorship to the performers of a work—a concept familiar to classical musicians, but one uncommon in the visual or written art world, where most Fluxus artists originated. By using text instructions, however, Fluxus artists broadened the scope of the score beyond music to include actions, concrete or abstract, that could be performed in contexts far beyond the concert hall. Though some view Fluxus as an Anti-Art movement (and it certainly contained Anti-Art elements), for the most part Fluxus was about decentralizing and revolutionizing the way we think about art. Again, Natilee Harren: “Fluxus artists looked for value in the commonplace, believing that art can be anywhere and belong to anyone. Rather than eliminating art, they sought to dissolve its boundaries in order to infuse everyday life with heightened aesthetic awareness and appreciation.”

PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART. Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON-ART REALITY to be fully (the word fully is crossed out) grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes, and professionals.

From George Maciunas’ Fluxus Manifesto

 

This brings us back to 2020. Spring rolls around, the world shelters-in-place, and life as we know it is over. How can Fluxus address this?

Fluxus as Practice

One of the most famous Fluxus pieces is Alison Knowles’ 1962 Proposition #2: “Make a Salad”. And that’s all there is to it. You just make a salad. I live in a 2-bedroom apartment with my brother, and though we don’t like much of the same foods, we both love salad. I spent a lot of time with him these last 7 months during the pandemic, and salad-making has become kind of a ritual that we perform several times per week. Proposition #2 begs the question: once you know that it exists, are you performing it every single time you make a salad? Thanks to Alison Knowles, I noticed this ritual with my brother, was able to pinpoint it as such, and now my salad-making has a certain kind of mindfulness that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Furthermore, to survive in the Time of Corona, many of us adopted new rituals and had to follow new instructions. Ben Patterson’s 1964 Instruction #2 reads: “Please Wash Your Face”. Fluxus asks, how different are these instructions from signs in public places asking you to “Wash Your Hands”, or to “Please Wear a Mask”? Are hand-washing diagrams not a kind of choreography, not a kind of graphic score? Fluxus reminds us that the daily events we do without thinking are performances, that any time we follow instructions, we are performing a score. Or, as said by Alison Knowles in a 2012 panel discussion: “My belief is that every person who gets up and goes into their day and does their work is coming from some unrecognized belief system that maybe they’ve picked up as a five-year-old, or they don’t look at it anymore. But to address that and work with it is powerful.”

Fluxus as Protest

In many ways, Fluxus is protest music, where the dissonance is always cognitive. Ben Vautier, for example, is known for his artistic practice of signing anything he could get his hands on, a statement on the hegemony of authorship in art not dissimilar to the practice of tagging by graffiti artists. Fluxus works have additionally retained their power today as political statements: for example, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a group of 10 women performed a variation of Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piecein pantsuits in Madison Square Park while the Electoral College cast their votes. Natilee Harren writes: “Indeed, the best Fluxus and Fluxus-related work exposes how our lives are scored, orchestrated, or performatively designed for better or for worse, in both utopian and dystopian fashions.”

Fluxus pieces can also be powerful statements of identity. For example, in the first performance of my Fluxus festival, a trans woman friend of mine performed Yoko Ono’s Laundry Piece, going through her laundry basket to tell us about the clothes inside. A more guttural statement of identity might be Dick Higgins’s Danger Music #17 (to be performed on October 17), which reads: “Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!!”.

Fluxus as Community:

Finally, Fluxus’ power is in its ability to build community. The barrier to entry to perform a Fluxus piece is low (and the streaming technology widespread enough) that my team could reach out to my friends and colleagues across the country to perform Fluxus and Fluxus-inspired pieces from home, embracing the locations we are all in. We put together a five-weekend series, featuring over 30 artists from around the country, and I can’t be more thankful. I wrote my own Fluxus piece, Phone Call#2: “Catch up with a friend”, that I performed on October 10th as a statement of the power of this community and the power of Fluxus to create simultaneous mindfulness and disruption. In fact, Fluxus was an inspiration for the core mission of our company, Fifth Wall Performing Arts: to not just break the “fourth wall” by acknowledging the audience or the stage, but to break a newly-made-up “fifth wall” as well: acknowledging the artists themselves as human beings and not just characters or performers. When we perform Fluxus, we are performing as ourselves, bringing attention to our actions and their consequences. This opens up the traditional boundaries of performance as an artistic ritual, linking audiences with artists as people, vulnerable and in need of connection as we all are.

The week 4 video featured here begins with a clip from Hannah McLaughlin and Raquel Klein’s performance of Gift of Tongues by Emmett Williams (1962): “Sing meaningfully in a language made up on the spot”, performed simultaneously with Danielle Mumpower’s interpretation of Disappearing Music for Face by Mieko Shiomi (1966): “Change gradually from a smile to no-smile.” The clip then cuts to a portion of James Vitz-Wong’s original “I swear this is research” Piece: “Perform a recital while in virtual reality.” This was presented alongside Carlos Durán, Karl Ronneburg, and Grey Grant’s performance of Orchestra by Ken Friedman (1967): “Everyone plays different recordings of a well-known classical masterpiece. [We chose Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.] Each member of the orchestra starts and stops playing different sections of the recording at will.”–performed simultaneously with one repetition of Corey Smith’s performance of Bean Snow by Anne Tardos (1994): “Read the text slowly and deliberately, using a normal tone of voice. Bean snow. Bean snow beans. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow themselves. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow.”

I’ll leave you with a 1960’s vision of community and social distancing: Dick Higgins’s Danger Music Number Three: “Divide a large pack of incense among those present in a moderately large room. Ask each person to burn his or her [or their] incense, without flame, all together. Darkness throughout.”

The logo for Follow Fluxus is a series of boxes which each have printed on them one letter: "F," "o," "l," "l," "o," "w," "F," "l," "u," "x," "u." and "s."

Contrarian Spirit—Remembering Randy Nordschow (1969-2019)

A man in a grey t shirt posing on the beach

[Ed Note: For many years, NewMusicBox has published memorial essays honoring significant people in our field, written by people who had an important connection to that person, either as a student, a long-term collaborator, or—in a few cases—as a member of that person’s family. Reaching out to those authors has long been one of the most emotionally difficult aspects of my work here, but I realize it pales compared to what those authors experience while writing these essays. In fact, many of the memorial essay writers have told me this. But now, I feel the weight of this first hand in trying to shape my thoughts about composer and bon vivant Randy Nordschow, who was a key member of NewMusicBox’s editorial team from 2003 to 2008. It was with shock and great sadness that we learned of his passing on February 15, 2019, after a brief illness. There will be a memorial concert honoring Randy on Saturday, September 14, 2019 at Sunny’s Red Hook (253 Conover Street) in Brooklyn featuring pianist Jenny Lin.]

I still remember the first time I met Randy, which was the day that he interviewed for the position of production coordinator at NewMusicBox. From the moment he started talking to NewMusicBox’s then associate editor Amanda MacBlane and I, more a cantankerous conversation we would have with someone in our new music community than a job interview, she and I instantly knew that he was the right fit for our team. Soon after Randy was hired and started working alongside us, he seemed to disagree with just about everything I said or wrote. But that only convinced me further that he was the perfect fit for NewMusicBox because our goal has always been to embrace all perspectives and our challenging of each other on every possible approach—whether aesthetic, journalistic, or organizational—made NewMusicBox even stronger.

Though my primary connection to him was as a co-worker for this very publication, since that is the prism through which I got to know him, he was also a treasured compositional colleague and eventually became a friend.  So before describing some of my own personal encounters with him, I’d like to ruminate on Randy the composer.

Though he clearly went down the path of maverick American experimentalism, Randy never lost his connections to and obsessions with popular culture.

Born in Los Angeles on December 28, 1969, Randy was literally a child of 1960s California, even if he actually lived for only four days during that decade. Although he would be horrified that I am recounting his academic pedigree, Randy’s years at Mills College (where he received a master’s in music composition) as well as his private composition studies with Alvin Curran and Pauline Oliveros clearly led him down the path of maverick American experimentalism. But his undergraduate degree, from the Berklee College of Music, was in film scoring and Randy never lost his connections to and obsessions with popular culture. The fact that his two biggest heroes were John Cage and Andy Warhol should give you some idea of his aesthetic orientation, though once again Randy—ever the iconoclast—would be mortified at my claim that he had heroes, even though he talked about both Cage and Warhol all the time, perhaps more than any other artistic figures, except perhaps for Peaches!  Before moving to New York City and shortly thereafter joining the NewMusicBox editorial team, Randy was a fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area new music scene, where performers of his music included Fred Frith, John Shiurba, and Matt Ingalls. Although the most dedicated performer of his music was Randy himself, which he did with élan on acoustic and electric guitars, piano, toy piano, trumpet, and a wide range of percussion, as well as amplified cellular phone, integrated email messaging and voice mail system, computer voice synthesis software, CD player, live digital and analog effects processing, space heaters, and beer!

Randy had made some significant inroads into the international new music scene as well, having works of his performed at the 2000 Gaudeamus Music Week in the Netherlands and the 2001 Ostrava New Music Days in the Czech Republic. One of his most provocatively named compositions, This May Not Be Music, which is oddly one of his most conventionally scored works (it’s a quartet for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano, albeit with an added CD of pre-recorded sounds), received its world premiere in London in 2001.

Clever, often snarky, titles are a hallmark of many of Nordschow’s compositions; among his most memorable are John Cage Memorial Barbecue, an electric guitar quintet from 2000, or You Don’t Love Me, You Just Love My Doggie-Style, a transdisciplinary work from that same year. But sometimes his titles are a pathway into understanding his compositional intent (something which Randy who eschewed all analysis and advocated for “just letting the music wash over you” instead, would probably have denied). For Randy’s 1998 Drawing A Line As Far As I Can Reach, a not so subtle reference to La Monte Young’s Fluxus-era conceptual pieces, a wind player is instructed to sustain extremely high tones and extremely low tones in alternation while consuming as much beer as possible. As per his performance note, “Once the performer has reached their limit, the empty beer bottles are arranged into a straight line and candles are inserted. After lighting the candles, the performer attempts to extinguish the flames by blowing through their instrument. The piece ends after this goal is accomplished, or the performer gives up from exhaustion.”

A conceptual process is also at the core of Randy’s most widely performed piece, Detail of Beethoven’s Hair, which exists in two versions—the original for piano and percussion duo that was commissioned by Essential Music and premiered at the 2002 MATA Festival and the dazzling virtuoso solo piano showcase that was recorded by Jenny Lin.

Although this music sounds nothing like Ludwig van, it is derived from mapping actual strands of Beethoven’s hair (from a famous portrait) onto a musical staff and playing the result.

Detail of Beethoven's Hair

Randy’s compositional output is fascinating and it was a joy to hear him describe his pieces from time to time.

If you haven’t already figured this out from what I wrote above, Randy’s compositional output is fascinating and it was a joy to hear him describe his pieces from time to time. But it was also extremely frustrating, because he would inevitably do a volte-face at some point and say stuff like, “It’s a waste of time to pay attention to music.” Randy once famous bragged that he watched TV or listened to other music on the radio while he wrote out his own pieces. He often claimed he was more interested in the way his scores looked than in how they actually sounded when played by other people. In one of the most perplexing exchanges I ever had with him, he claimed he could not make additional copies of one of his scores because he could not obtain the same size paper he wrote the original manuscript on. When I suggested making it fit onto a more standard paper size by reducing it and adding extra margin space, he balked and claimed it would no longer be the same piece. Despite Randy’s fixation with pop culture, he claimed he was not at all interested in writing music for audiences and that his music was written only for performers. Randy was a heap of contradictions. He loved to say that he hated copyright, yet today I’m looking at a score of his composition combinations for two cellos, singing bowls, and piano and see “© copyright 1996” printed clearly on the cover.

Sometimes I think Randy just liked to play devil’s advocate to shake things up.

Sometimes I think Randy just liked to play devil’s advocate to shake things up, take an opinion that was the exact opposite of everyone else in the room and see how long he could keep the fight going. From the sparks that flew during some of these debates, great ideas emerged for NewMusicBox and, I imagine, that same contrarian spirit inspired much of his music.

Yet, it wasn’t all disagreement. Randy was a joy to hang out with. He made the strongest margaritas I ever had in my life, although his favorite Mexican restaurant had some of the weakest I’d ever ordered. He liked the place because it was dirt cheap and so he carried a flask of tequila in his signature scuffed yellow messenger bag to remedy the situation for himself—and, if you were lucky, his friends.

I’ve held on to an email he wrote me before I took a trip to San Francisco about 15 years ago. Here’s an excerpt from that:

Best crazy ass bartender who will slowly and obsessively create old school cocktails tailored to your individual tastes (read good sazeracs, mint juleps, etc. be sure to ask her if she has any cucumber infused vodka, definitely ask her to concoct you something, anything!):

The Orbit Room

1900 Market St (at Laguna)

Go in the afternoon, or before 8pm when Alberta is there (dark hair, retro glasses, and stains allover her shirt from shaking mean cocktails)

And for the best sushi in the world (and cheap!). Go to Sushi Zone on Peal St—a small one block street between Market, Deboce, Valencia, and Guerrero (I used to leave on Peal and Pink, named after prostitutes!)

venues of interest:

7hz (www.7hz.org)
three feet off the ground (probably dead, but check with gregory cowly’s organization :test: www.testsite.org to see where it has been reborn)

Have fun!

Randy

No one can tell the story of Randy better than Randy himself, so I’ll conclude this with some of my favorite quotes from the hundreds of essays he wrote while he was part of NewMusicBox. Follow the links and read them in their entirety. I’m so honored and pleased that we have such an important part of him to share here with people for as long as we exist. Life is precious and fragile and fleeting. My heart goes out to Randy’s husband Colin Conroy, all his friends on both coasts and around the world, and the numerous musicians and fellow travelers he touched with his ostentatiousness and wit.

John Cage Memorial Barbecue

SOME RANDY NORDSCHOW QUOTES

“I decided to give the general public yet another chance to love me.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/got-no-friends/

*

“Like many so-called young composers (ugh, don’t even get me started), I’m not into labeling and pigeonholing…”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/historical-disengage-or-dissing-cage/

*

“Like other artists, composers are typically a little more self-centered than, say, Montessori schoolteachers.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/the-fairest-one-of-all/

*

“It’s not just my inner child that enjoys annoying people; it’s been my artistic modus operandi for decades. … My approach to composing music is, more than likely, grossly misguided.

“The work I’ve created up to this point spurs from a rather skeptical aesthetic standpoint, fostered by a barrage of things I just don’t buy into, such as: Music has the ability to communicate something ‘meant’ by its creator; music is inherently emotional; yada, yada, yada—you know, stuff like that. For me, music is a byproduct of artistic ideas haphazardly materialized in the form of vibrating air. It’s the artistic impetus behind the will to set those vibrations into motion, and not necessarily the sonic results of whatever is written on the page (or not), that matters more to me. There’s a certain amount of artistic cynicism that I harbor in order to tap into the concepts and materials that I use and the ways in which I use them when throwing together a new composition. Yes, it’s all so self-aware and postmodern, which I actually enjoy.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/A-Ripe-Idea/

*

“I’ve attended performances where crucial cues were missed, mistakes were made, etc., and I’m usually fine with it, as long as the musicians save face and pretend that the piece is supposed to sound exactly how they’re performing it at that moment. Besides, I’m the only person in the audience with the ability to recognize if my train wreck is sounding too much like a car accident instead.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/On-Having-Never-Written-A-Unison/

*

“I’ve already entered the eclipsed territory where composers over 35 years of age go to hibernate for a few decades. The classical music machine is predominately interested in the youngins and the octogenarians, which affords us in the middle some time to hone our craft or experiment out of the spotlight, or maybe come to our senses and take the LSAT.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/Knowing-When-to-Stop-or-Not/

*

“[C]omposers who close themselves off from a particular sonic possibility—especially a ‘new’ or ‘popular’ one—are doing themselves and their music a disservice.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/Deaf-to-the-Backbeat/

*

“I’m not a big believer in inspiration. I write music (and texts) in an inspiration-less state all the time—it’s my job. Commissions have to be delivered on time, funders have follow-up reports that you have to file by a certain date, and magazines have hard and fast deadlines, so no matter what, be it art or life, the show must go on.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/Come-and-Knock-On-My-Door/

Randy Nordschow and Roddy Schrock

Randy Nordschow and Roddy Schrock (seated at the piano) performing at SFMOMA

Beth Anderson: Just Dropping In

History teaches us that no matter how meticulously we plan, something unexpected will inevitably occur. And if we take the exact opposite approach to careful preparation, which is to completely embrace serendipity and “go with the flow,” life can be an amazing adventure. Take, for example, the life of Kentucky born and raised composer Beth Anderson.

The only child born to constantly quarreling parents who raised her on a family farm between Mt. Sterling and North Middletown in Montgomery County, Anderson did not have a great deal of access to music early on. But her grandmother, who lived on the other side of the county, owned a Mason and Hamlin upright piano which fascinated Anderson so much that she was given a toy piano for Christmas at the age of three. Just before her seventh birthday, her parents sold the farm and the family moved to the town of Mt. Sterling. Shortly thereafter her parents divorced, and as a consolation, Anderson started piano lessons with a local teacher in town; one of the first pieces she learned to play was Scarf Dance by Cécile Chaminade. Around that time she also began to write short piano pieces as well.

“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music,” Anderson acknowledged when we visited her in her apartment across the street from the Brooklyn Museum. But perhaps an even more significant chance encounter than the one with Chaminade was finding a copy of John Cage’s book Silence in the Mt. Sterling Public Library some years later when she started high school. As she remembered, “I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read. I looked up every name. I used it as a catalog of what to care about. He was my guy.”

Against Anderson’s wishes, she acquiesced to her mother’s plan for her to attend the University of Kentucky and again, as luck would have it, John Cage and Merce Cunningham showed up there for a week-long residency in 1968. That initial encounter with Cage validated her own compositional instincts, and she decided to leave Kentucky and head to the West Coast. But once she was in California, she tried to randomly connect to Lou Harrison and soon discovered that pure happenstance doesn’t always yield the best results, as she told us:

I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour. He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door. I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for. Lou was clearly not having it. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn. Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea. … But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher. … That was my experience of Lou in 1969. And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and … then we were friends. But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.

Still, once she was at Mills, pure chance led her to study with Terry Riley, who had only just begun teaching, and Robert Ashley. Infectious melodies and conceptual work inspired by text would be hallmarks of Beth Anderson’s own compositional style.

Beth then relocated again, to New York City, where she co-edited the legendary Ear magazine, spearheaded various initiatives to promote the music of female composers, and served as a piano accompanist for numerous dance companies while she continued to write pieces that explored converting the letters of a text into musical pitches and left the durations up to the performers. Eventually though, she abandoned this experimental approach and began to compose works that showcased unabashed tunefulness and regular rhythms. And yet, all this music is also the result of a form of serendipity, albeit one that is admittedly more controlled, as she elaborated:

I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other. I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F. Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music. People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement. It was just cut-ups.

Our own encounter with Beth Anderson this past month was also, by and large, a product of chance. Back in January at the Chamber Music America conference, I ran into her and she mentioned that she was writing her memoirs. Then in March, she sent me an email to ask if I knew of anyone who’d be willing to read them through for her before she attempted to approach book publishers. Since I love to read, I volunteered, and she showed up unannounced at my office to hand deliver a copy. On a whim, I started reading it on the subway that same evening. I was so compelled by her story that I couldn’t put it down and I finished the 258-page manuscript within a couple of days. I had known Anderson for many years and had heard a great deal of her music. I was always intrigued, but didn’t fully grasp it on some level. Yet after reading the story of her life, everything finally made sense—the shift in compositional style, the seemingly “normal” sounding music that becomes less and less normal the more carefully you listen to it, all of it.

“I wasn’t into planning,” she explained. “I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t. I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised. I just sort of drop in.”


April 6, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Beth Anderson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Anderson’s apartment in Brooklyn
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  We’ve known each other for a very long time, but I feel like I know you so much better now after having read the first draft of your memoirs.  So thank you so much for letting me into your world that way.  It was a fascinating trip, and it has helped me to understand so much more about you and your music than I did before. And it also inspired me to want to talk to you about it.  Many people like to feel they know something about the composers whose music they care about, but it isn’t always positive. The more I’ve learned about Wagner, the less I’ve wanted to hear his music.

Beth Anderson:  There is that.  But sometimes it’s fun to know something about the person.  I want my music to be paid more attention to.  I felt like I’d sort of dropped out. It’s nice to have another way to engage an imaginary public by talking about my life.  Obviously, if nobody reads it, it won’t have any positive effect on the number of people that listen to my music, but if a lot of people do, then maybe it would.

FJO:  I do think when people know more about a composer, whether it’s some detail about that person’s life or even just a photo, it is possible to have more empathy with that composer’s music. I think this was a fundamental idea that led to the creation of Meet The Composer in 1974. If we want people to think composers are relevant to our world we must show that the people who actually create it represent the broad and diverse community we live in.  One of the things that struck me in your memoir was how you learned about Cécile Chaminade while you were still a beginning pianist. I think that set you on a path that you might otherwise not have followed if every composer you studied had been an old dead guy.

“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music.”

BA:  I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music.  That was cool.  But it took a long time to find another one.  They just did not show up in my practicing Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt, until I found Pauline Oliveros.  And there was a big space between Chaminade and Oliveros.

FJO:  But before you learned about Pauline Oliveros you also studied with Helen Lipscomb and learned that she was also a composer.

BA:  But the only things I’d ever heard of hers were a trio and her teaching pieces.  She did not have a big concert output, as far as I knew.  I think that either the music is lost or somebody else besides me has it.  One of her relatives sent me the Trio—that same trio, as though it were her whole output—and wanted me to be the keeper of it because I was the only person they could find on the internet who mentioned her name, which is tragic.  I had hoped that the University of Kentucky would have her stuff, because she lived in town forever.

FJO:  Even though there was this long time between finding women who wrote music, I was struck by something you wrote about your mindset at the time you had discovered Cécile Chaminade: you didn’t realize at that point—because why would you as a little girl growing up who just learned a piece composed by a woman—that there was this really huge disparity between the performances of music by male and female composers.

BA:  And the availability of their music—until the ‘70s, when that set of three records came out called Women’s Work. It was sitting in the window of a big book and record store on Fifth Avenue [in Manhattan]; I was walking down the street and I almost fell over myself.  My God!  Women composers.  So cool.  There just weren’t any records.  I had found Chaminade in a John Thompson book, and I didn’t find anything except Scarf Dance.  It’s not like you could go down to the Mount Sterling Public Library [in Kentucky] and find Ruth Crawford Seeger or anybody else.  So it was very exciting.  It took a long time for that stuff to start coming out, and the musicologists are doing a great job bringing it forward, inch by inch.  But Jeannie Pool, a friend of mine from the distant past, was trying to get a master’s writing about women composers, and her committee told her that this was not something that was appropriate.

FJO:  What reason did they give her?

BA:  There weren’t any primary sources.  There wasn’t any music. They thought that it was unimportant and that she wouldn’t be able to find any stuff to write about.  So she put out a little booklet about women composers which was very nice.  She got a master’s eventually, but in California with different people.  I’m not sure what she actually ended up writing about.  But in New York, she was definitely told not to do it.

FJO:  That’s terrible.  To return to the Mount Sterling Public Library and the things that you did manage to find there in your formative years, it’s interesting how deeply some of the things that you found so early on stuck with you—like John Cage’s book Silence.  You grew up in Kentucky, which is where bluegrass music began. You do seem to have an affinity for similar harmonies in your own music from many decades later, yet—as far as I know—you were not directly exposed to any of that music. You wrote about an uncle who loved opera.

Framed photos of various members of Beth Anderson's family hang on a wall near the entrance to her apartment.

BA:  My uncle hated country music and my mother hated country music.  I wasn’t allowed to listen to the Mount Sterling radio station, which actually had people from the hills coming down doing live singing on the radio there.  That was discouraged. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a live bluegrass concert.  I’d hear it in movies or something, but that’s about it.  The music I was aware of was popular music, and piano music [I was studying], and stuff from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s that my mother sang, so it took a while to get around to other stuff.  And hymns.  I was big on church music at the time, because they paid me to show up and play.

FJO:  And yet for whatever reason, I hear some kind of relationship between your music and bluegrass, as well as the older music from which bluegrass derived, old timey music. And yet it was not because you were immersed in it.

BA:  Well, I love folk music.  I was a big Joan Baez freak.  My favorite song was “Old Blue.”  I used to have a big old dog named Blue, and she and I used to sing it together.  Every time you say the word blue, she would howl.  So, it was a chorus.

FJO:  I was struck by your list of the three earliest songs that you remember hearing: “Love and Marriage,” “Lover, Come Back to Me,” and Rosemary Clooney singing “This Old House.” What about those three songs stuck with you?

BA:  I think it was the ideas behind the songs more than the actual tunes, because my parents were so busy getting divorced and re-married, and we did live in an old house, then we lost the old house so there were a lot of house and divorce stories going on in my life.

FJO:  And music became central to your life after their final divorce from each other.

BA:  That’s what I got.  I finally got that piano.  My grandmother’s piano came to live with us.

FJO:  But even before that, you had toy instruments and you tinkered with them.  It was almost like you were set up to become an experimental music composer.

BA:  I used to think that all those toy instruments ruined my ears as a child because I was clearly set up to become a microtonal composer.  Those things are so far off, especially the harp.  That was awful.  It jangled and circled around a pitch; the strings were colored rubber bands.  It was a bad instrument.

Beth Anderson, as a young girl, holding a cat and hearing a hat outside on a farm.

A very young Beth Anderson with her kitty at Sideview Farm in Montgomery County, Kentucky c. 1954. (Photo by Marjorie Celeste Hoskins Anderson, Beth Anderson’s mother, courtesy Beth Anderson.)

FJO:  So, looking back to the very beginning of you creating your own music, you obviously experimented with the toy instruments. But there’s no surviving music composed for them by you.  Did you know about the John Cage toy piano suite?

BA:  Not yet, but I performed it on my MFA recital and various moments after that.  I love toys.

FJO:  But perhaps it was only when you started taking piano lessons and had to learn to read music that other people had written that you consciously started thinking about creating your own things.

BA:  Yes, I thought it was fun to write stuff down. As soon as I got a pad of music paper, I was off, not that anybody thought it was a good idea.  It takes away from your time practicing, and everybody wanted me to practice more and write less.

FJO:  Your mother played the piano, but it was basically a hobby for her.  Yet it seems to me that from pretty early on there was this idea that you were going to be a musician.

BA:  Well that’s what I thought, but every year my mother would say, “Do you want to quit?”  It cost her money and it was money she didn’t wish to spend, and she didn’t see any reason for me continuing on with this.  She wanted me to have piano lessons, the way she wanted me to have ballet and tap.  She wanted me to have a certain grace, what little girls are supposed to have who grow up and marry doctors or whatever.  But she didn’t expect it to be a career, and she was mildly appalled that I kept at it, and at it, and at it.  It was not a good thing.  Unlike Prokofiev’s family, who kept pushing and pushing.  His family was so helpful.  Mine was not.

FJO:  But since you were an only child, I think that in some ways music became a kind of surrogate sibling to you, a constant companion.

BA:  Well, it certainly gave me something to entertain myself with that didn’t require other people.

FJO:  But it’s interesting that even though your family didn’t want you to do music, they thought that playing piano was better than writing music.

BA:  Well, according to my teachers.  My mother didn’t care one way or another.  She just was hoping I would quit.  She wanted me to play the flute, because she saw that as social and getting out of the house, and doing something with other people, so she was willing to keep paying two dollars a month for the flute forever.

A group of recorders standing on a bureau with a mirror and various personal effects of Beth Anderson.

FJO:  As it turned out, you wound up playing flute for years in wind bands, even in college.  A very big part of your formative experience with music was playing in wind bands.

BA:  And marching band was my primary exercise for many years.  That was the world’s most exhausting activity as far as I could tell.

FJO:  It also exposed you to a lot of repertoire that you might not have been exposed to otherwise. Certainly much different repertoire than the piano music that you were playing.

BA:  Yes.  If I had been a good enough flutist, I could have eventually played in the orchestra at Henry Clay.  But I wasn’t one of those two girls.  We had a sea of 30 flutes. The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good;  they had some really good flute players.

FJO:  So your school had an orchestra as well as a wind band?

“The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good; they had some really good flute players.”

BA:  Yeah. And Henry Clay in Lexington had a really good symphonic band. We marched in the Cherry Blossom parade in Washington one year with the cherry blossoms falling from the sky.  It was so magical.  Definitely the best experience I ever had with marching.

FJO:  And you stayed with it for years and years, even after you could have done other stuff!  What was the appeal?

BA:  Well, in college as a music major, you had to have an ensemble activity, and I could already play flute.  So I just stayed with the band instead of switching to chorus. Not that I didn’t sing in chorus. I was also in Madame Butterfly one summer.  I was one of those girls in a lavender kimono with an umbrella.  I liked singing, but I stayed with the band.

FJO:  One thing that I find so incongruous about your early musical studies is that when you were studying the piano you were basically playing music exclusively by old dead men, but in band you were playing newer music, undoubtedly including some music by living composers, though probably not stuff that would have sounded like Webern and Stockhausen.

BA:  No, but there was Persichetti.  There was an awful lot of Leroy Anderson, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Sousa, and re-writes of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.  I don’t know why that seemed to come year after year with those clarinets going forever and ever.

FJO:  The reason I bring this up is that it seems so whacky that it was one of your early band teachers who first introduced you to 12-tone music.  That seems like a very odd person to be the person who did that.

BA:  Mr. [Richard] Borchardt. Well, he was a special guy.  I wish I knew more about him.  He’s not with us anymore.  It was [during] a summer band clinic of some sort—we were practicing the 1812 Overture and there was some kind of little composition class.  I, of course, got involved with that, and he chose to teach us how to do 12-tone music.  I thought that it was the coolest thing in the world.  So I wrote this quartet right away, and he put it on the show with the 1812 Overture.  That was kind of a fun side by side.

FJO:  Does that piece survive?

BA:  Possibly.  But it’s not in Finale, I’ll tell you.  And I don’t know where it is.

FJO:  So you won’t be taking it out to show us.

BA:  I’m hoping not to.  It wasn’t a great a piece, but it was hilarious because it kept being performed. There was a wine glass at the end that was supposed to break, but it never broke.

FJO:  Yeah, I love that story.  It’s what actually made me want to hear the piece.

BA:  With the wine glass hitting the metal and not breaking, just going thump.

FJO:  Maybe you should try it again with a cheaper wine glass.

BA:  Oh, I think that’s the point.  It was cheap, and therefore it wouldn’t break.  It was too tough.  It bounced.  You have to get an expensive, really elegant one.

FJO:  One that could cost more than hiring a musician to throw it!  But aside from the curiosity factor of the wine glass at the end, there isn’t a lot of 12-tone band music.  So it’s notable that the person who wanted to put you in that direction was a band person.

BA:  Well, I taught for Young Audiences a little bit.  It’s a lot easier to teach something that’s coding or that has a system than to say, “Give me your heart,” in a clarinet solo to a child who doesn’t know what their heart is or even how to write for clarinet for that matter.  So it was much easier to tell us, “Take these notes, put them in some weird order, and then turn them upside down” and stuff. You could talk about it, so it’s easier to teach.

FJO:  Considering how much band experience you had, it’s surprising that you didn’t wind up writing more band music.

BA:  The only other thing I did was a Suite for Winds and Percussion, and that was a re-write of music I wrote for a film score.  I just took it and turned it into that because Robert Kogan, who had an orchestra in Staten Island, had asked for apiece that would not use his strings because the strings weren’t very strong at that point.  So he wanted me to just use the rest of the people.  So it’s not exactly a real band; it’s for orchestral winds and percussion.

FJO:  An orchestra minus the strings, like the first movement of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto. Curiously though, in addition to being turned onto 12-tone music by your band director and then writing a 12-tone band piece, when you were enrolled at the University of Kentucky, one of the legendary band composers, John Barnes Chance, taught there.  His Second Symphony and his Variations on a Korean Folk Song are really terrific pieces. But I suppose that by the time you got to study with him, your head was somewhere else.

BA:  Yeah, I was into Webern and Cage. I really wasn’t trying to hang out around Korean folk songs.  I was going in a different direction. I wanted to know about electronic music desperately at that point, and he made fun of that.  He thought it was humorous. He could do it, it’s just that what he was doing it with was so basic that it was absurd.  It was useful for the theater department, but it wasn’t exactly something he would call his music.

FJO:  So what made you so curious about electronic music?  How did you even become aware that it existed?

BA:  I don’t know. Maybe John Cage talked about it in his books.  I got to UK (University of Kentucky) when I was 16 and started working in the music library. I was reading Source, and I had a wonderful music history teacher, Kathleen Atkins. She played Tod Dockstader in class. That was my introduction to real electronic music, music that took faucets dripping and turned it into something else.  I love Tod Dockstader!  He doesn’t seem to be the big hit to everybody else that he was to me.  Then I started hearing everybody else. Kathy wanted to build an electronic studio at UK, and they wouldn’t give her the money.  So I left.  When I went back to school, I went to Davis, and they had an electronic music studio, and I studied with Jerome Rosen. I think his level of interest in electronic music was trying to help us learn how to make advertisements using electronic music, because he was always assigning things that were 30 seconds or one minute.  He didn’t want to hear a ten-minute electronic piece.  He wanted to hear some tiny little gem that would somehow excite him.  Then, of course, I finally got to Mills, where they had much more space and an interest in bigger pieces and different styles.

FJO:  Let’s stay for a little bit longer at the University of Kentucky and those early years before you went to California.  You were able to learn about Tod Dockstader, which is amazing because that music was not very widely distributed at the time.  It wasn’t available everywhere, but it got to you.  John Cage’s Silence, which was published by Wesleyan University Press, also reached you.

BA:  In high school.

FJO:  Which is amazing. And also Source Magazine.

“I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read.”

BA:  They had a great a music library.  They used to have a lot of money for it, and now they’ve got more, because there’s some lady down there in Kentucky that supports a lot of things, including that music library. The last time I was down there, I went over to see what was up, and it’s gorgeous.  They have every periodical, even Fiddle Tune News; it’s that big.  They’ve got all of it.  And it’s not like when I was in NYU; I would go to look up a magazine and somebody had stolen half of the issues.  I couldn’t find the whole run of anything.  There were just huge holes in their collection.  I hope they fixed that.  But UK didn’t have that problem.  They had a lot of stuff.

FJO:  So if somebody was interested, they could find these things and go down that route.  They could know that these things exist. That’s really important in terms of developing a sense and a knowledge base, finding that stuff on your own rather than just being told about it.  I think it was really important for your personal development that you found those things on your own.

BA:  Well, I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read.  I looked up every name.  I used it as a catalog of what to care about.  He was my guy.

FJO:  And then by dumb luck, pure serendipity, you go to the University of Kentucky, and he has a residency there.

BA:  He shows up, and then I dropped out of school. And I come back and he’s there.  He was at Davis for a term.  It was freaky and wonderful.

FJO:  One of the big revelations to me in reading your memoir is that your life has been this chain of seemingly pure accidents that completely flow into each other. You take these sudden turns and then you’re somewhere else, but it seems totally natural even though it’s totally unexpected.  Interestingly, it’s similar to a lot of your music, which has been described by other people as collage oriented. I think that word doesn’t give an accurate sense of what it is, because when you think collage, you think these things don’t belong together, but in your music they do.  It’s like they’re carefully woven together, even though they’re not connected. So you don’t realize that they shouldn’t work together, but they do, and it’s kind of the same way your life has unfolded.

BA:  And the quilt.

A detail from a quilt hanging on one of the walls in Beth Anderson's apartment.

FJO:  Yes, exactly, we’ll get to that, too, in a bit.  You initially didn’t want to go to the University of Kentucky, but your mother wanted you to go there. You wanted to go somewhere else because you were interested in John Cage. But then suddenly Cage was at the University of Kentucky.

BA:  And the only reason I didn’t study with Ned Rorem was because I forgot to ask him to hang out and wait for me.  The only reason I didn’t study with Pauline Oliveros is because I got a ride past her when I was hitchhiking. I always say, “Well, that’s the universe.”  The universe was just going with it, whatever it was.  I wasn’t into planning.  I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t.  I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised.  I just sort of drop in.

FJO:  And now here we are talking.  This happened the same way!  It’s interesting that you also had read Ned Rorem pretty early on, around the same time you were reading Cage.  I think of Rorem as a radical composer in a lot of ways, but a lot of people didn’t, especially at that time. They thought he was an old-fashioned composer because he never gave up tonality and he never gave up writing beautiful melodies. There was a real braveness to sticking to his guns and writing the music he wanted to write.  And you learned about him and his music relatively early on.  So in addition to all the avant-garde experimental music you were learning about, you also had a role model for going against the grain and writing really beautiful music, which is what you ultimately wound up doing.

BA:  Well, Cage and Rorem went different places.  But I thought they were both radicals, and I fell in love with Rorem’s stuff through playing for singers.  At UK, that was their idea of modern music, Vaughn Williams and Ned Rorem.  And the stuff was gorgeous.  What’s not to like?  And of course, his books were hilarious and wonderful.  I wanted to go to Paris.  I wanted to know all these wild and crazy people.

FJO:  I feel like Rorem’s influence has even found its way into the writing style of your memoir.  You’re just telling the story of your life the way he did, in a very honest and sincere way.

BA:  I just don’t know some other way to do it.  I haven’t read his books since I was very young, so I don’t think I actually tried to go in that direction.  I’m just doing it the way I know how.

FJO:  In terms of not planning, it’s very interesting how this played out in terms of possible role models you could have had as teachers.  Cage was a certain kind of a role model.  So were Pauline Oliveros, Ned Rorem, and Lou Harrison, a composer who found a way to be experimental and beautiful at the same time, writing music that was really original but also very immediate and very moving. And you tried to connect with Lou Harrison when you came to California, but it didn’t quite work out.

BA:  [My then composition teacher] Richard Swift and I talked and clearly I wasn’t interested in writing 12-tone music when I was studying with him and that’s what he wrote. So you would think we would not go together as a great teacher-student duo. So he thought that I would like to study with Lou Harrison, and he said, “Why don’t you go see him?”  I didn’t have any money to figure out how to get there by paying for the bus, but I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour.  He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door.  I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for.

“I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.”

Lou was clearly not having it.  He didn’t want to get up.  He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn.  Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea, and he agreed with me that perhaps I would enjoy meeting the gardener at UC Santa Cruz that Cage talked about in his books and that yes, in fact there were communes in the hills around Aptos and Santa Cruz and that, if I hitched around, I’d eventually find somebody that would take me to one of these places.  But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher and having me come and sit at his knee.  And Bill—I didn’t know anything about building instruments.  I thought it would be fun, but I was starting from zero.  I’d never built a bird house, much less anything else with wood.  So they just sent me on my way after a couple of hours, and I hitched down to the beach to wait for the guy to come pick me up at the end of the day. And that was my experience of Lou in 1969.  And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and he really liked my piece, and then we were friends.  But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.

FJO:  That doesn’t seem like a good way to make a first impression.

BA:  But if the universe spoke to him and said, “Yes, take this girl and help her,”  then something could have happened.  But the universe failed to so speak and so duh.

FJO:  At least he woke up and spoke to you.

BA:  Yes, that was very kind.  And Bill was terrific.  He really tried.

FJO:  Your first encounter with Pauline Oliveros was also really bizarre.

BA:  Yes. I’d been wanting to actually meet her for a while. I created this independent study with Nate Rubin at Mills, so I was going to interview Pauline and write a paper about her. Once again, I got some crazy ride down to San Diego, and these people took me to a Salvation Army for some reason.  They wanted to buy something, and in there I found this big scroll.  It was a paint by numbers scroll of a toreador and a bull.  I bought this thing for a dime, and I thought. “Oooh, this is so cool.  I got this thing about a bull, and I’m going to see this woman who’s so brave and tough.”  I thought it was a great simultaneity, and I went to see Pauline.  They dropped me off at her house, and I went in. She was expecting me; I had written her a letter.  But she had a concert that night, and on the days of concerts, she did not talk.  So there she was not talking, for the whole day, and I spent the whole day in her house.  She had this huge cage with multiple birds in it, and they were squawking. Then the women from her women’s ensemble were there.  They were cooking things to serve at the end of the concert.  So there were the birds, the other women, and the cooking, but Pauline never said a word the whole day I was there.  So I wrote the paper about that.

FJO:  But at least you did let her know in advance that you were visiting her.  So it wasn’t like your first encounter with Lou Harrison.  So perhaps by then you had learned your lesson.

BA:  Well yes, I had managed somehow by 23 or something to figure out you might want to send a letter.  And, in fact, I did bring her some of my really early, awful music, and she turned the pages.  She didn’t say a word, but she looked, and I gave her copies of them.   And she smiled at me. That was fine.  That was sufficient.

FJO:  So how did you first become aware of Pauline Oliveros?  Was that at the University of Kentucky also?

BA:  Yeah, at UK, she was on the flip side of [the LP recording of] Come Out by Steve Reich.

FJO:  Right.

BA:  And Kathy Atkins played it for us in music history class.

FJO:  Wow.

BA:  And, you know, it wasn’t that I was so wild about the piece; I was so wild that a woman composer exists, another one.  Here’s another one!

FJO:  Parallel to your life as a composer, you’ve been a strong advocate for women composers.  During your student days, you put together a festival. Then when you first came to New York—I know I’m jumping ahead here—you were the co-founder of a project called Meet The Woman Composer and got the blessing of John Duffy, who had only recently founded Meet The Composer.

Sorrel Hays (center) and Beth Anderson (right) holding award certificates standing with Julia Smith (left) who is holding a Meet The Woman Composer brochure.

Julia Smith (left) presenting the National Federation of Music Clubs Award of Merit for contributions to women in music to Sorrel Hays (center) and Beth Anderson (right) for Meet The Woman Composer in 1977. (Photo courtesy Beth Anderson.)

BA:  Well, Bob Ashley basically set up that first festival, but he told me I was in charge.  He’d already decided who he wanted to invite. It was a cool array, and you could not find three more distinct people—Vivian Fine, Pauline Oliveros, and Charlotte Moorman.  That was a great group.  Then when I came to New York, Doris Hays, now known as Sorrel [Hays], was soon to be starting this thing, but she wanted me to do it with her at the New School. She got all the funding from John Duffy for that.  Apparently his organization had not existed long, so the idea that he would give us most of his money for the year was really astounding.  He was very supportive.  We did those evenings—10 or 15, I don’t know anymore—of all those women.  And all these musicologists came and wrote articles about them, so it was useful to do.  Then [many years later], B.C. Vermeersch at Greenwich House wanted me to do a women composers series at Greenwich House, and that went on for ten years.  So, yes, I liked the idea of putting together concerts of women’s music because it’s not heard as much as people currently think it is.

FJO:  There are organizations like IAWM, which I think does a lot of really tremendous work, but I know some younger composers who do not want to identify themselves that way.  “I’m a composer and I happen to be a woman, but I’m not a woman composer.  There’s no need for this.” Then you see something like the announcement of the Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018-19 season.  There’s not a single piece by a woman on it. It’s been that way year after year.  Same with the 2018-19 Boston Symphony season.  It seems pretty clear that there’s a real problem.

BA:  You think?

FJO:  If there shouldn’t be concerts of just women composers, why are there so many concerts of just men composers?

“There are piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.”

BA:  All the time.  Or a whole festival, like a hundred composers, and two of them are women.  They think they’ve done a big thing, that they’ve got two.  That’s ridiculous.  Somebody was telling me that he taught composition in Australia and all of his students were women.  I don’t know, are men getting out of the field because it’s so badly paid?  One wonders.  Aaron Copland used to say there were no women composers, which is crazy, or that there were no good ones.  None that have been properly educated. There are piles!  The Baltimore Symphony apparently has been doing all these statistics, and women are just a very, very small percentage.  If you take the ratio of men to women among living composers that are performed by the big orchestras in this country, it’s 85 to 15.  It’s not great, but it’s not terrible.  But if you take the amount of women that are performed, dead or alive, it’s like one percent.  Think of all the wonderful women that are dead that have written fabulous things I would love to hear, for the very first time, like Mary Howe.  Usually orchestras are good at holding onto the past and presenting that.  There are just piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.

FJO:  Part of the reason things are the way they are, which rarely gets spoken of, is the economics of it all—the economics of obtaining the music, as well as the time for rehearsing it.  I’m a big fan of the music of Louise Farrenc, a 19th-century French composer who wrote three symphonies, as well as the first-ever piece for piano and wind quintet.  That alone should earn her a place in the repertoire.

BA:  I played a lovely trio of hers once.

FJO:  It’s wonderful music.  But there are no modern editions of the symphonies.  You can get them from one place that charges a crazy rental fee.  Then, since the players don’t know the piece, they’ll need more time to learn it.  But if they just played Brahms again, they’ve already played it a million times so they can rehearse it only twice and it’ll sound pretty good.  Playing an old unfamiliar piece is kind of the same as playing a new piece.  Worse, because then it goes to the marketing department and they don’t know the name.

BA:  But Henze, which you can imagine would take quite a bit of doing to get on, they will rehearse that to the ends of the earth.  They will rehearse anything big that’s dissonant and difficult.  They understand that they have to rehearse that, and they’re willing to do that for the guys.  But if it’s just a beautiful piece by an antique composer who happens to be a woman, it’s too much of a struggle.  You just can’t keep doing the Beethoven Third all the time—lovely piece, but enough.

FJO:  Do the Farrenc Third instead!

BA:  Florence Price, also. There are so many people.

FJO:  I’m very happy to hear you saying this because as important as it is to do music by living composers, if we really want to learn about the full history of music, we need to pay attention to historical women composers as well and embrace them as part of the canon, if we’re going to have a canon.

BA:  Instead of an AK-47.

FJO:  So how to advocate for this stuff?  One issue is making sure that there are editions that are not only available but also affordable.  A lot of the older music is now showing up on sites like IMSLP.org, so it is possible to easily obtain some of this music.  But then there are also rules to consider. Musicians in most professional orchestras will only play from parts where the paper is a certain size; you can’t just print things out on 8 ½” by 11” sheets, because that’s too small.

BA:  Well, that explains why my pieces aren’t performed because they’re only 8 ½” by 11” paper.  I can make them bigger.  No problem.

FJO:  You definitely should.  Which is a good segue to get us back to talking about your music and how you came to write the music you write.  Connecting with Lou Harrison and Pauline Oliveros ultimately didn’t work out, but you did study for a time with both Terry Riley and Robert Ashley.

BA:  I studied with Terry Riley the first semester he was at Mills; he was new to teaching.  Terry taught me what was called cyclic composition, which was South Indian singing. He sang and then we sang. It was just copying, which was the teaching method of the time.  But I loved the fact that there was a tal—a rhythm, a beat. Cage was sort of against it.  He didn’t like regularly recurring meters, and Terry was trying to figure out what you could do within the meter that was interesting. Terry kept using scale steps and putting things together in interesting ways.  The whole thing came out sounding very beautiful, because it had this beautiful big drone underneath it.

“I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Robert Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process.”

My oratorio Joan had a big A drone underneath it, partially for the singers so that they could find their pitches relative to the A.  That was my plan.  Not so easy, but it gave them an A at least.  So Terry had a big effect on me, but not right away.  I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process.  I was coding words. I like changing one thing into something else, layering things like sedimentary rock.  I like to have the same thing done different ways, so that the text that you would hear somebody singing would be changed into the pitches for the instruments, then the meaning of the text would be another text. They’d all be layered, or there’d be some weirdo video thing that would explain the text as another layer.  I like layers.  Anyway, Mr. Ashley did not see that as a process.  I guess he saw it as a layered collage, which is certainly a way you could think about it.

FJO:  It sounds like a process to me.  I’m very curious about this idea of turning letters into pitches and being so focused on pitch, but not so much on rhythm.

BA:  The rhythm was improvised by the player.  But I was giving them the pitches and the rules. I would have some rule like, if you leap up from A to E, and got to the end of the word, then you would come back down a half step, then go on to the next word.

FJO:  There were also pieces where you’d have certain pitches drop out over time. You’d begin with all these pitches, and eventually have way fewer.

BA:  That was a modulating coding system designed just for Joan.  It started with just the white notes on the piano from A to A, and then you kept decoding the same text, but you kept using one less letter from the alphabet until you ended up with just A-B-A-B-A-B, B-B-B-B.  A-A-A-A.  And AAAA.

FJO:  This also sounds similar to what you did in a later piece that you wrote for solo ocarina called Preparation for the Dominant. You have a bunch of pitches in the beginning, but then fewer as time goes by.  You have this sort of attrition of pitch.

BA:  Do I?

FJO:  That’s how it sounded when I heard it.  I think it’s a very interesting idea, and I think it also sounds really good.  There’s a rigor to it, but there’s also a freedom to it at the same time, which is maybe why Ashley didn’t think of it as a process.  But the best processes are the ones that allow you to do your own thing with them.

BA:  Yeah, like Schoenberg actually broke his own rules.  I love that.

FJO:  Exactly.  And there are parallel fifths in Bach if you look hard enough for them.

BA:  Yay!

FJO:  Rules only get you so far, but then you need to make music with them.  Maybe that’s something that the folks who were so obsessed with process-oriented music in the mid-century lost track of, the process is a means to an end, but not necessarily an end in and of itself.

BA:  That sounds reasonable.

FJO:  Well, it certainly seems to be the way that your music has played out.

BA:  I like that.

FJO:  I only know Joan from the keyboard version that’s on the Pogus CD of your music.

BA:  Which had one performance consequently.

FJO:  But there was also the performance at Cabrillo of the original version.

BA:  KPFA has a recording, and probably Other Minds has it now, because Charles Amirkhanian was in charge of all that.  They also have the original She Wrote from Gertrude Stein’s 100th birthday concert in ’74.  I was complaining online recently, “This should be somewhere, and I’ll never hear it again.” And Charles wrote me back and said, “Oh!  Cut it out.  I’ve got it.  You can hear it by clicking here.”  They probably have Joan somewhere, too.

FJO:  It would be so great for that to be out in the world.

BA:  Well, you know, it is kind of afflicted by those naked guys, the timpani players, that ran through the middle of it and made the whole audience laugh and carry on.  The idea that the critic Robert Commanday thought that that was something in the piece was particularly bizarre.

FJO:  Well, how would he know?

BA:  I don’t know.  Everybody else talked to me—the man from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, as well as the critic from the Tribune.  So they knew.  But Commanday didn’t ask.  He was a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of guy.

FJO:  There has been this crazy idea in music criticism that if you talk to the musicians performing a piece or the composer, you’re somehow tainted and you’re going to be influenced so you’re not going to have objective criticism.

BA:  I hate that.

FJO:  And heaven forbid you’re friends with these people, or worse, that you actually perform or compose music yourself.

BA:  Or that you actually know something about it. Now you’re supposed to have a degree in American studies, and you’re supposed to have a general drift of the culture, but you’re not supposed to actually know anything about it.  I think that’s appalling.  I loved it when Eric Salzman and Virgil Thomson, people who actually wrote music, wrote music criticism.  You would know what their biases were, because you’d go listen to their own music.  And you could see it.  But if you have somebody that has a degree in sociology writing about music, then you don’t even know that their favorite composer is Philip Glass.  I used to think that they should list their favorite composers at the top of their columns, so that you would know.  Well, if they like this, this, and this, then there’s no big surprise that they didn’t like that.  I thought it would be very helpful.  But the only way you could get that sense of bias would be to read them for a long time.  Then you would see over time what they liked, and what they didn’t like.  But I don’t think that there’s a lot of purity.

When I moved to New York, Mr. [John] Rockwell was the best friend of my friend Charles Shere.  They had both done symphony or opera broadcasts together in San Francisco.  Charles stayed on the West Coast, and John came to New York.  When I moved here, Charles said, “You’ll have to meet my wonderful friend John Rockwell.”  So I called him up the moment I arrived, and I said, “I’m a friend of Charles, and I’m a composer. I would love to meet you.” And he said, “Oh yes, come to tea.”  Then the next day, he called back and he said, “Are you moving to New York?” And I said yes.  And he said, “Well, then I can’t talk to you.”  And that was that.  He wanted to continue that purity, that separation of church and state somehow.  But I think that it’s a poor thing.  I think you need to talk to composers—especially if you can’t read music or can’t play an instrument.  That wonderful man from The Washington Post, Joseph McLellan, said that he wrote a guitar piece so that he would have the experience of having written something. He could actually play an instrument, and they shockingly allowed him to write criticism for The Washington Post.  But he mainly reviewed parties.  Apparently he was the social guy.  He went to five parties a week, and then they also let him review concerts.

FJO:  You also had a career as a music journalist yourself. You were involved with Ear magazine in its formative years. I’ve always considered Ear one of role models for NewMusicBox.

BA:  Well, it is certainly the same kind of exhaustive experience that you’re never done.  You do this one, and then the next one’s coming up and how can you get people to give you the stuff that you need for the next issue. I used to have to go over to people’s houses and stand over them, waiting for people to write their articles because people wouldn’t do it.  They would say, “Oh, yeah.  I’ll do it.”  And it wouldn’t happen. But basically Ear was about promoting. I’m not sure we ever wrote anything negative.  I can’t remember if we did.  But we were boosters for sure.  And we were saying, “This is what’s happening.  Isn’t this fun?  Come play with us.”

FJO:  And Ear also had this very key idea that the people involved in making the music should be the spokespeople for it, which I think is a very important thing and a very different model from the separation of church and state, the armchair critic who can’t talk to you if you’re someone he or she might potentially review.  Well, it was almost always he, always a man.

BA:  Well, there aren’t a lot of women critics.

FJO:  But then you had an experience of actually writing criticism that wasn’t exclusively positive when you wrote about the entire New Music America festival.

BA:  Oh, that was a disaster.  I didn’t mean harm, but I think I was thoroughly hated.  The Kitchen never recovered from that, although some people thought it was a great thing because I was the only person that reviewed everything.  And not just the concerts, but also the [panel discussions of the] Music Critics Association, which I found really intriguing.  I loved hearing the critics read their papers, not having practiced them.  They didn’t see performing as something you might want to rehearse.  But anyway, Reports from the Front was something I created because I wanted to participate in the festival at The Kitchen in ’79, and I didn’t think that anybody would see it as negative because I was just saying whatever came into my mind.  It was so clear that it wasn’t thought out and it wasn’t directed in a negative way.  I was trying to describe stuff, and compare stuff to other performances of the same pieces. I thought I was so unimportant that nobody would take it badly, but people did.  It angered the whole downtown scene in one fell swoop, in nine days.

FJO:  And it also angered the music critics, right?

“I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences.”

BA:  Oh yeah, there was that.  There were so many times in my life that it would have been a good idea to be quiet, or to just not be there.  But I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences.  I think about it a little bit more now at this age than I did at that age.

FJO:  Despite the lesson of Pauline Oliveros being silent the whole day.

BA:  Yes.  She sure is a great teacher.  I should have paid more attention.

FJO: Before we completely leave California and keep talking about your life in New York, I was curious if you were at all connected with any of the extremely innovative things that were happening in so-called pop music there at the time. Not only was it a golden era in terms of the amazing things people were doing with electronics, plus early minimalism and all the conceptual pieces, California was the epicenter of psychedelia. Were you connected to any of that music? Were you aware that it was happening?

BA:  I listened to pop music from ’57 to ’69. Acid rock like Steppenwolf and Blue Cheer—I loved that stuff.  But, by then, I was over the edge into Stockhausen and Cage, so that was the direction my listening went.

Beth Anderson holding the original 45rpm recording of her text sound piece "I Can't Stand It" which she performed with drummer Wharton Tiers.

FJO:  All of the seismic shifts in your life feel somehow connected.  There was the move from Kentucky to California.  Then the move to New York.  Those are physical, corporeal things.  But there’s another event that happened once you were in New York, which is perhaps the most important shift of all—how you thought about yourself as a composer. And I think that it relates to your dabbling in music criticism.  You reached a point where you decided to write music that was intentionally pretty as opposed to something that adhered to some high concept.  You approached it initially with an almost revolutionary zeal, being an advocate for beauty. I think it’s possible to hear all of your work as a related continuum, but at the time it seemed like a huge chasm.

BA:  I don’t really understand it myself.  I know that I was doing this kind of thing.  I came to New York, and even in my second concert at The Kitchen in ’79, I was still decoding the word “skate,” all the possible definitions of the word skate [in my composition Skate Suite].  But I also did songs that were actually freely written.  At the same time, part of it was [flutist] Andrew Bolotowsky’s influence that everything had to be on staves.  If I wrote music on staves the way he wanted it done, I had to assign the rhythms, so that took away the player’s improvisatorial input.  I could have coded the rhythms, but I didn’t.  I just did them freely.  I was still decoding pitches [from words], but then I made up my own rhythms.

Then I met Michael Sahl, and he had very powerful opinions about harmony.  His music was very harmonically centered, even more than it was melodically. He was big into this heavy jazz piano, bass, and drums kind of feeling underneath it that I never really got into. I liked cutting up and collaging things, but he still had an influence.

“I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else.”

Some people see my music, that’s now in Finale, and when they see the cut-ups they want to finish and stop [the phrase]—lift the bow, then go on. Even though I don’t put a fermata over it, people want to do that because they were taught to do that. But some of my pieces have so many cut-ups in them, if you do that, a five-minute piece becomes a ten-minute piece.  It just drags deathly into the ground. That’s the absolute opposite of what I want.  I want the thing to lie against itself.  I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else. So, don’t do that people!

FJO:  When a performance of your music is seamless, the effect can be similar to the hemiolas in Brahms or even Carter’s metric modulation; the sudden shifts are very satisfying musical surprises. In some ways, it’s like looking very carefully at the patterns that are sewn on quilts. Quilts have these purposeful incongruities in them because they’re made by human beings so you will get these things that don’t quite line up, and that’s the joy of what a quilt is.

BA:  Especially a crazy quilt. There’s a whole lot of different patterns of quilts that are traditional, historic, antique patterns.  But those aren’t the ones that are the most interesting to me.  I like crazy quilts best.

A view of the entire quilt hanging on one of the wall's oin Beth Anderson's living room behind a couch and in between two posters.

FJO:  Well, one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours is this big solo piano piece, Quilt Music.  I assume you gave it that name because you heard that connection.

BA:  Yes, it’s like a swale for piano, because the quilt is just another word for that.  It’s equivalent to me.  Anyway.  Yes, I’m glad you like it.

FJO:  Tell me more about how it’s put together.

BA:  I have no idea.  I’d have to get the score and stare at it.  You know, it’s old.  I mean, it’s long ago and far away.

FJO:  Alright, but since you said it’s like a swale, I’m curious. At some point, you started calling pieces swales.

BA:  In 1984. That’s the year that the horse named Swale won the Kentucky Derby, the first Saturday in May.  And I never heard the word before, so I looked it up in the dictionary. At the time, I was writing a string quartet, and I thought that was a great name for it.  I wanted to dedicate it to Mr. James Roy, because he had been so kind to me.  He worked at BMI, and he was a friend I could go talk to in the middle of the day without an appointment.  He was another one of those people I could drop in on for no reason, and he would see me.  So I named it Pennyroyal Swale.  I wanted to use his name somewhere in there.

That’s how the first one came to be.  Then I wrote another one that Dave Soldier’s string quartet played the first time.  The next year they wanted to do another one, so I wrote one for Rosalie Calabrese [who was the manager of the American Composers Alliance]. I named it Rosemary Swale.  Rosemary is actually an interesting herb because you can use it to cook and it’s also some kind of an ingredient in the fixative in perfume.  Practical and artsy and that’s Rosalie.  So Rosemary Swale was that one.  And then there got to be lots more.

On top of one of her tables, Beth Anderson keeps a drawing of her performing on the piano with flutist Andrew Bolotowski and a couple of toy horses.

FJO:  So what is a swale for you musically?

BA:  Well, that is a collage.  There’s no question.  I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other.  I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F.  Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music.  People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement.  It was just cut-ups.

FJO:  But not every piece of yours since then is called a swale.  I thought it was very interesting to hear you just say that Quilt Music is a swale, even though you didn’t call it one.  What distinguishes swales from the non-swales?  I know there was a piece of yours, The Eighth Ancestor, that was performed during the ISCM World Music Days that predates your first swale, but it has a similar form to them.

BA:  It was cut-ups. It was from like ’79 or ’80, so I didn’t have the word yet.  But I was definitely doing cut-ups, and part of cut-ups comes from not having the time.  I wasn’t the kind of composer that took three notes and made it into a symphony.  I wasn’t interested in developing the theme and making variations.  I was working all those jobs for dancers, so I would write down things that I had just played while they were teaching the next thing. I was just writing like a crazy person while they were teaching the next thing, looking at them out of the corner out of my eye so I’d know what to play next.  Then at the end of the day, I would have piles of these little scraps of paper. I would take them home and try to figure out how to connect them, or just connect them or cut them up.  Then I could make them into pieces.

FJO:  So when you were playing piano for all those dance classes, you were just improvising?

BA:  Mhmm.

FJO:  Luckily you were able to remember and reconstruct a lot of that music.

“I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music.”

BA: Well, I think I was a pretty boring dance accompanist, but I did do it for 20 years, so apparently I got away with it.  I had certain kinds of things that I did in F, and certain kinds of things I did in B-flat, A-minor, and D-minor; that stuff would just spool out.  I had massive amounts that I could play forever—pliés in D-minor, across the floors in B-flat.

FJO:  Do you think that working with all those dancers might have led you to create music that had a more regular rhythmic pulse. You mentioned that Andrew Bolotowski wanting you to write music using standard notation is what led you to give up this idea of having improvised rhythms, but you were already forced into creating things that had regular rhythms when you were working with these dancers because that’s what they needed.

BA:  For sure.

FJO:  Could that have had an impact on why your music went the way it did?

BA:  Absolutely.  Years and years of banging out things in three, or four, or six, or twelve, unless you work for Merce Cunningham, in which case all bets are off.

In front of a group of paintings there is a grand piano in Beth Anderson's living room with piles of sheet music on the lid and stand.

FJO:  You also wrote the songs for a couple of Off-Off-Broadway musicals in the early 1980s, which is a genre that prizes catchy melodies. When I was 16, some high school classmates and I rented out the Carter Hotel Theatre for a week and presented a musical I wrote, so I was very intrigued to learn that one of your musicals, Elizabeth Rex: or, The Well-Bred Mother Goes to Camp, ran for nearly a month there.

BA:  Oh my God. That’s so fun. Isn’t it now the Cheetah Gentleman’s Club? The Carter Hotel was the dirtiest hotel in America. This was not an impressive venue, but it was very close to Broadway!

FJO:  Are there recordings of those shows?

BA:  Well, there certainly are shreds and tatters of the words and music, but the people on stage were not hired for their musicality. They looked like the part.

FJO:  Elizabeth Rex was about this woman who tries to get her daughter not to be a lesbian, so she takes her to see a priest and it turns out that he’s secretly gay.

BA:  I love it, but now there’d be all these questions about whether it’s making fun of priests fooling around with the altar boys. And it was pre-AIDS.  But it was a very funny show, and I think it could be done as a period piece.  We’ll see if somebody might want to do it.  And Fat Opera could definitely be done as a cabaret show.  It doesn’t need to be done as a musical.

FJO:  All in all, I think you wrote three musicals.

BA:  Yeah, the first one [Nirvana Manor] has a cast of 20, so that was huge.

FJO:  To return to the piece of yours that was performed on the ISCM World Music Days. It was interesting that the piece was chosen by one of the adjudicators at the time, Fred Rzewski, based on what was a misunderstanding of your intentions in the piece. He thought that your return to totality and regular rhythms was a form of irony.

BA:  I think he thought it was political, because he’s very political.

FJO: But in a way, it was political, I mean, you wrote a manifesto on why you aspired to write music that was beautiful that is very political.

BA:  But it wasn’t Communist.  It wasn’t Stalin, Mao, whoever, and it wasn’t Hindemith—Music for Use. It was just me doing what I did.  Michael [Sahl] taught me actually at the ISCM to go around saying, “Je fais la musique de la petite femme blanche”—I make the little white girl’s music—as a defense against people saying you have no craftsmanship; you’re not sophisticated.  This was the response I got from people there, so I was trying to let it fall off of me like water from a duck.

A series of six photos from 1979 of Michael Sahl and Beth Anderson laughing.

Michael Sahl and Beth Anderson in 1979. (Photos courtesy Beth Anderson.)

FJO:  But there was someone in the audience who did like the piece, a very significant Belgian composer.

BA:  Yes, Boudewijn Buckinx, whom I love.  But he was far away in a booth.  It wasn’t apparent to me that there was anybody there who liked that piece except Michael and me.

FJO:  However, despite your feeling such negativity from most of the people there, you stuck to your guns and you stayed on this path, undeterred by what these folks or anyone else thought about your music. And now, decades later, there are four CDs out in the world that are devoted exclusively to your music and several pieces of yours included on other recordings, including orchestra pieces. It’s not as much as it should be and I know it’s not as much as you wish, but all in all, it’s a pretty good track record compared to the trajectory of many other composers.

BA:  Well, I really wanted the CDs out so that these pieces wouldn’t just exist in my head or on these falling apart tapes from the distant past.  I thought I was going to die at the time, so I really wanted them out before I died.  I didn’t think my husband was going to put them out afterwards.

FJO:  I know that you were quite sick several years ago.

BA:  Yes, but “she recovered!”  So onward.  But yes, I very glad that the CDs are out, and I would like to do more, but I haven’t organized it yet.  My husband assures me that I should not do CDs, that nobody’s buying CDs, which is certainly true.  I should only make things for streaming.  But then how do you send a CD to a radio station if you don’t have a CD?

Beth Anderson laughing.

FJO:  We’re living in a very weird transitional time. A lot of people claim they have the answers, but I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s going.  I’m personally thrilled that you made sure these CDs got released. Of course, people stumble upon music online all the time these days, but I love the idea that it is also possible that somebody could chance upon one of these recordings in, say, a library in some small town in Kentucky.

BA:  Yes.

FJO:  It could change that person’s life, just like stumbling upon a book by John Cage changed your life. The same is true with these memoirs you’ve written, which is why I think it’s important that they are published at some point.

“There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something.”

BA:  There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something.  It seems like there’s a space for that in the universe potentially.  And somebody could find the book.  It’s like I found Eric Salzman’s book on 20th-century music and all these other books that were so important to me as a child.  Even when you’re not living in the center of the universe, you can find books and recordings in libraries.  I’m a big library person.

FJO:  But of course now with the internet, anybody can find anything anywhere, apparently.

BA:  If you know what to look for.  The thing about libraries is, you would fall across them because it was red or something. I read all the books in the Mount Sterling Public Library on theosophy because every one of them was a bright color.  I’d see all these old books, and there’d be a bright red one or yellow or blue or green.  On the internet, you need to know what you’re looking for a little bit.

FJO:  Hopefully people will find your music online through reading and seeing and hearing this talk that we’ve just done.

BA:  That would be cool.