Tag: experimental music

inti figgis-vizueta: the ability to grow

Banner for SoundLives episode 23 featuring inti figgis-vizueta

Composer inti figgis-vizueta creates music that carefully balances experimentation and practicality. She likens her compositions to plants which have the ability to grow and change when different people perform them.

“We’re able to continue to revisit them and see how they’ve changed,” she explained when we met over Zoom in mid-June. “I’ll hear people come back and play something that I haven’t heard in years. I thought I had a stable sense of that piece in my mind and suddenly someone just blows me away with a completely different place that they go with it. And to me, that has to feel really exciting because the idea that like, we’re just writing something to exist in one form and then it just, you know, like time passes, just stops moving–it’s very strange.”

inti’s openness to collaboration and belief in interpretative agency has made her music particularly attractive to soloists and ensembles ranging from Andrew Yee and Conrad Tao to Roomful of Teeth, Ensemble Dal Niente, and even the Kronos Quartet who asked her to compose a piece for their 50 for the Future Project.

“I remember hearing about this project and being like, ‘God, I wish I could do that, but I’m never going to be in this thing,'” inti remembered. “It was kind of a short turnaround … I went through all of the other pieces that were up, because this project had been going on for five years and there was a gamut of pieces. There were ones that were so hard. Maybe a graduate string quartet could do it, with a lot of practice. To like very beautiful and simple and quite lyrical pieces with a 16th note pulse or something. … I ended up kind of going from this really complicated score to this very simple score of a single stave that everyone was reading from. … How it happens over time can be determined by the ensemble.”

Over the past few years, inti has gravitated a lot toward string quartets and percussion ensembles, two groups that might seem at oppositive ends of the sonic spectrum to some composers but not to her. “I do feel like there’s a certain level of a kind of shared musicality, a shared sense of tone and timbre and attack and all of these things that contribute to a group mentality of how to kind of play with and affect texture in like all of their kind of individual ways.”

But she is also interested in vocal music and has begun exploring it again after a hiatus of several years where she was mostly focused on instrumental music.

“I felt like instrumentalists were down to clown a little bit, where I just didn’t always feel that with vocal ensembles,” she acknowledged. “Then this year and last year has been this kind of a big resurgence of that in my music and in some ways, it’s teaching me things all over again, which has been really, really fun. … I get to kind of luxuriate a little bit in the quality of two people singing together, actually using all of the complexities of a word to push forward meaning. But to me it’s not narrative meaning, and that’s what I was afraid of, that when I had to engage language, I had to be tied to a narrative, instead of being tied to the complexities of thinking about something like love, or lots of other things.”

Ultimately, whatever the medium, inti is interested in constructing open structures that take performers and listeners to new places.

“For the most part my pieces are workshops in some ways,” she said. “It’s almost like a loose suit and then we fit it over the rehearsal.”

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.

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.”

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

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

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?

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.

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.”

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!


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


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



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



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



“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.”



“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.”



“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.”



“[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.”



“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.”


Randy Nordschow and Roddy Schrock

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