Tag: graphic notation

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.”

Sounds Heard: Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces (New World 80748)
Featuring work by: Karl Berger, Earle Brown, Alvin Curran, Nick Didkovsky, Joel Ford, Daniel Goode, Clinton McCallum, Larry Polansky, and Christian Wolff

I have a “less is often more” world view, and in keeping with that ethos I’ve long found something particularly engaging about “small” art—eight-inch canvases, brief poetry—as if the space constraints actually cleared more room for a spectator to form a deeper, interactive connection with the work at hand.

So it was easy for me to fall into the concept of Belgian/Dutch electric guitar quartet Zwerm’s release Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces, since in a way they were developing that sort of relationship with the included music. In each case, the quartet began with the parameters of the piece presented through these brief scores, and the recoding then served as a document of their own exploration and dialog, both with the work at hand and with each other.

Their release of pieces by American composers on New World Records provides that label’s typical brand of thorough booklet notes. For the curious, Amy C. Beal explores the pieces one by one, with each of the scores reproduced for the listener to examine—works that rely on everything from more-or-less traditional notation to what one might characterize as “Marvel comic super heroes battle a graphic score” (h/t to Nick and Leo Didkovsky for that one).
The increasing circular chaos of Joel Ford’s Gauss Cannon (2006) opens the disc before the wistful sweet romance of Alvin Curran’s Underwater Princess Waltz and Her Waltzing with Her (both 1972) take over—a bowed saw adding the liquid character to Curran’s tracks.

Zwerm doesn’t allow the listener to sink too far into this daydream, however, before diving into the above-mentioned Didkovsky score Mayhem (2012). Presented in three interpretations spaced out over the course of the album, each one-minute version assumes as its subtitle one of the weapons depicted in the score—hammer, bow, and blade. Where “The Hammer” takes Didkovsky’s word at the encouragement to “be brutal,” what actually impressed me here is the nuance Zwerm brings to subsequent perspectives—”Blade” is given a sexy, high-speed car chase danger and “Arrow” a Wild West horror. (The banjo certainly helps things along there.) This quirky spirit also tints Daniel Goode’s The Red and White Cows (1979), a narrated mathematic story problem leading into a bluesy meditation on “the girl I love” for rhythm guitar, solo guitar, samples, and voice.
Larry Polansky’s tween (k-tood#2) (2002) may give some musicians exercise flashbacks as short phrases roll over and over in delicate complexity, whereas Clinton McCallum’s round round down (2012) starts in sonic bedlam and then just keeps climbing.
The most texturally diverse performance on this disc might be found in Zwerm’s interpretation of Christian Wolff’s Burdocks, Part VII (1970-71), as the musicians react to one another while old radio samples climb the dial and other recorded sounds color the field, often ratcheting up the tension. A solo version of Earle Brown’s December 1952 (1952) resides at the other end of that spectrum, a steady flicker of pitches nearly always blaring their way across a more than eight-minute span, solid yet malleable, with the artfully sculpted sound only thinning out for brief moments of recovery until it reaches a clear summit and quickly drops off into a lengthy decay.

After this imaginative tour, Zwerm brings the show to close with Karl H. Berger’s Time Goes By (1975). When it first began, the simple organ and hand percussion tricked my ears into thinking that iTunes had somehow skipped over to a Yo La Tengo album elsewhere in my library. But actually the track is an appropriately extended meditation on the piece’s title, the simple words sung over and over, up and down and up and down the scale again. The meditative trance it induces is broken apart by the guitars a third of the way in, and the instruments continue to claw at the choir until they fully shrouded it completely in their curtain.

Digital Audio Workstations: Notation and Engagement Reconsidered

DAW screen cap
First, a benign observation: the overwhelming majority of the music currently emanating from living room speakers, or being heard from passing car stereos, first passed through digital audio workstation (DAW) software of some shape and style. DAWs like Pro Tools, Audacity, Ableton, and GarageBand are generally defined by their use of sequenced tracks containing either sonic waveforms or MIDI code. Yet they are largely invisible to most musicians and listeners, unless one reflects on how digital audio is created and mediated on a day-to-day basis. When we think of a new work’s creation, we imagine a score being poured over by a meticulous hand, eventually realized with lyricism and aplomb by performer(s) of equivalent musical intuition and skill. We pay fleeting attention, if any, to the subsequent inscription and manipulation that occurs in the studio after both the composer and performer have gone out for drinks at the end of the recording session. Indeed, despite an engineer or producer’s best attempts, a new work cannot pass transparently through a DAW; there are always stopgaps, enhancements, deletions, and tweaks being exerted that, I think, fundamentally color the recorded piece as separate from the composer’s instruction and the performer’s execution. This begs the question of how best to characterize the DAW’s everyday impact on our musical world.

Whether a musical work began its life within a DAW (as is the case with computer or electroacoustic music), or only passed through one with minor alteration prior to public distribution, these software tools touch nearly every auditory creation with aspirations beyond a sidewalk corner, bedroom studio, or recital hall. But I would like to take their influence one step further. Not only do DAW software products mediate recorded sound, but these very same tools can be thought of as a form of digital music notation. I broadly define digital notation as any computer-generated system that inscribes information capable of being rendered musical, including but not limited to software that employs some version of conventional staff notation. In the same way we give latitude to the printed graphic scores of Cornelius Cardew, Iannis Xenakis, or Brian Eno as legitimate notation, the DAW’s world of sequenced tracks and waveforms deserves a similarly appreciative study. The fact that DAW software has utility as a performance or recording tool should not prejudice us against its additional notational qualities. Neither should the fact that DAWs are frequently used in tandem with other notational styles when realizing a work.
Xenakis Score
Two real-world situations hopefully add weight to our re-thinking of DAW software as notation. First, when a composer like Matthew Burtner creates a piece of computer or electroacoustic music through a DAW interface, with no originating staff score, should we simply say that Burtner’s piece lacks notation? Or that this music falls outside the boundaries of what notation can accomplish? Second, consider an error-prone session with a chamber group trying to record a new work by a composer like Brian Ferneyhough. By the end of the day, almost never does the recording engineer have a single unblemished take from the work’s beginning to end. More often than not, a hodgepodge of clips cutting across movements or rehearsal letters will need to be sewn back together in the DAW and made to sound convincing, both to Ferneyhough and the eventual listener. Separate versions of the work now exist: the original manuscript showing the composer’s lofty aspirations versus the listener’s reality, a sonic Frankenstein arranged within a DAW that compiles the engineer’s best approximation. Which format has a more legitimate claim as the work’s true inscription? Instead of throwing up our hands in despair at either situation, let’s expand our thinking and our musical toolbox by including DAW software, warts and all, as a digital notation.

A final clarification: the term “digital notation” is frequently thought of as encompassing only those tools of the 21st-century instrumental composer, Finale and Sibelius. Yet Finale and Sibelius are far more akin to conventional DAW software than they are to ink and manuscript notation. In fact, they represent just one fork in the road of the DAW’s development, employing the same sequenced tracks and playback capabilities as progenitor software products while sacrificing waveform sounds in favor of MIDI and virtual instruments. Since the first DAW’s unveiling in 1978, we see the incorporation of similar structural principles into later digital notation products such as Finale, initially released in 1988. Indeed, contemporary DAW software like Logic Pro, seamlessly blending tracks with either MIDI staff notation or waveforms in the same composition, show the re-convergence of these two design paths. Perhaps joining “staff” software like Finale and “non-staff” software like Audacity together under the same notational umbrella seems unintuitive or even bizarre. But I counter that our understanding and classification of digital music notation should rely on how we engage with the medium rather than on the look of the “score” rendered through pixels. In what ways do we take for granted, on an experiential basis, how composers sculpt and explore the sound materials within DAW notation? By briefly exploring three core structural features of most DAWs–waveforms, sequenced tracks, and rapid playback–I want to make the case that this style of digital notation (Finale et al. included) enables a remarkable creative work process for a composer that deserves greater consideration.

Logic Pro screen cap

Logic Pro screen capture

Starting with Max Mathews’s first 1957 forays into the MUSIC-N programming language, the 1960s and ’70s found those individuals experimenting with computer-generated sound being able to specify individual aural events with a revelatory level of ultra-fine resolution. One could now stipulate with great precision the digital synthesis of musical parameters such as pitch, duration, envelope, and harmonic content. Csound, shown here, is a contemporary incarnation of these composition principals. A looming challenge soon arose for the early developers of digital music notation: how, in spite of this high-resolution processing, could a larger series of musical ideas be represented with clarity in the context of an entire composition? Italian electronic music composer Giancarlo Sica summarized a hopeful new method: “…a musical performer must be able to control all aspects [of a digital notation] at the same time. This degree of control, while also preserving expressivity to the fullest extent, allows continuous mutations in the interpretation of a score.” Waveforms, track sequencing, and rapid playback are precisely the DAW’s answer to this outline for increased digital notation flexibility.

CSound screen capture

CSound screen capture

The waveform is the first feature of DAW notation that I believe is taken for granted: how exactly does a composer engage with waveforms as opposed to our standard symbolism of staves, bars, notes, and accents? Waveforms serve as representations of sonic loudness over time with either craggy (quick attacks and decays, with short sustains) or smooth (slow attacks and decays, with long sustains) linear shapes. They flaunt the edges, curves, and dips of a performer’s dynamic treatment of audible content. Furthermore, they fulfill Sica’s earlier blueprint by being able to stretch apart and compact on a whim, displaying a microsecond of curvature or minutes of slow growth in rapid succession. Yet while waveforms provide exactness in the realms of amplitude and duration through visual peaks and valleys, the vital categories of pitch and harmonic content become inaccessible. Waveforms in DAW notation dramatically re-prioritize the musical dimensions to which composers have been traditionally most attentive, trading pointillistic melodic lines and chordal clusters for the attack, sustain, and decay of long, homogenized statements. They blend together formerly discrete notes as they resonate into and out of one another, with punctuation determined largely by phrase and cadence. In essence, our original melodic line becomes a single gestural sweep. Composers must then express themselves in this medium by sculpting a waveform’s dynamic development via fades and contour trims. Through tweaking sonic envelopes like these, waveforms in a DAW notation environment lead composers to think of musical movement in spatial or even topographical terms, rather than through traditional contrapuntal or harmonic mindsets. When a composer manipulates a waveform as the building block of a DAW’s musical dialect, I would describe it as far more akin to working pottery on a lathe or carving a block of ice than a typical composition metaphor such as painting with brushstrokes on a canvas. The same cannot be said for Finale’s species of MIDI-intense DAW notation, as a composer can’t zoom deeper into a quarter-note and discover more musical information to massage. Ultimately, this is a core distinction between a composer’s engagement with waveforms versus staff notation: waveforms enable a practically limitless editing capacity within each topographical gesture, whereas staff symbols are bound by both their discreteness from one another as well as their individual immutability. Again, one simply cannot chop away at the interiors of a quarter-note to render a different sort of sound.
Waveforms, in turn, strongly inform the next feature of DAW notation taken for granted: track sequencing. Track sequencing was developed in order to solve the especially thorny problem of showing relative musical time in digital notation, especially when there are a large number of sound events packed into a relatively short segment. A thickly composed section of a musical work may be pulled apart and laid out on a plane of such tracks that are then stacked on top of one another, or sequenced, to show simultaneity and density of texture. One might understand track sequencing as analogous to the look and feel of a printed orchestral score in conventional staff notation. Yet within such a score, one ratio of detail is maintained throughout the entire work. A conductor is unable to “zoom” in and out to examine micro-fine aspects of a particular instrumental voice, while also limiting the cues and visual influence of the other instruments that bleed into view. In contrast, DAW notation accomplishes precisely this feat while grappling with global and local representations of time across often immense distances. Time-flexible track sequencing, in tandem with our topographical waveforms, enable the composer to almost effortlessly rove and leap between far-flung sections, both making pin-prick edits and rendering gaping holes in the curves of the sounds. The ease of this direct work with the sequenced materiality of the waveform prompts critic and composer Douglas Kahn to opine that, beyond merely writing with sound, users of DAW notation initiate a “word processing” of sound. He describes how “workstations can cut and paste at sub-perceptual durations… they can pivot, branch out, detour, and flesh out… there is no restriction to duration… no necessary adherence to any form of [musical] interval. [DAWs] are very conducive to admixture, stretch, continua, and transformation.” I would like to run with Kahn’s word processing metaphor and apply it specifically to how we overlook the way composers currently manipulate music through the track sequencing of DAW notation. The fluidity and depth with which we sculpt digital music acquires a kind of invisibility, just like word processing, once we become comfortable in the DAW ecosystem. It is as if the composer were tangibly poking and prodding the waveform’s topography without numerous layers of idiosyncratic and technological mediation.

The final feature of DAW notation largely taken for granted involves its rapid playback capacities. A familiar console of controls–fast forward, play, stop, pause, and rewind–exists as a universal feature on DAW products and facilitates constant repeatability with even greater flexibility than a cassette player or a VCR. Once the composer zeroes in on a given segment of interest, the playback of the composition can be locked between these segment’s boundaries. An audible portion can then be looped and a brief, five-second moment may be repeated and tweaked ad infinitum. With this playback tool working in tandem alongside visual variables such as track sequencing and waveform editing, the act of listening itself becomes an inseparably notational component of software like Audacity and even Finale. To clarify: printed notation was formerly necessary as a means to preserve and later create organized sound. Now, listening is on equal footing with sight in our experience of digital notation, generating a sort of feedback loop whereby audible sound is able to dictate its own trajectory in a much more embedded way than a composer might accomplish by sitting with a sketch at the piano. This of course suggests a different sort of notation entirely: one that is multi-sensory at its very core. A single waveform gesture in DAW notation provokes dual stimuli as its visual content translates almost seamlessly into an aural dimension and vice-versa. Through the dogged playback and repetition of a particular musical segment, there is an uncanny synesthesia between sight and sound. Such episodes must certainly cause difficulty: how do I tell where one sense ends and the other begins in a musical experience mediated by DAW notation? This is the third and most pressing aspect, I think, of our creative process largely taken for granted.

I hesitate to point to explicit stylistic changes that result from a composer’s use of DAW notation in lieu of ink and manuscript paper. This trepidation stems not only from the wild diversity of musical genres that employ DAW notation, but also the varying creative stages in which this software is utilized as well as the countless product permutations that mix and match the variables I just described. Rather, my point is that crucial aspects of this ubiquitous music notation technology escape our attention unless we look at them through the lens of compositional engagement. First, waveforms encourage a breadth and depth of musical control, in a topographical style, not available to discrete note values whether they be printed on a page or displayed as a MIDI veneer. Second, track sequencing permits shifting focal points of reference that in turn enable a hyperactive editing style akin to word processing. This is a situation that non-DAW notation precludes through limited visual flexibility. Third, the DAW’s rapid playback controls allow listening to mingle with and meld into the visual parameters of digital notation, as if waveforms were now tangible gestures with a physicality we can toy with beyond the pixels of the computer screen. This is, of course, to say nothing of the tactile interaction that composers experience when they employ a mouse and keyboard while listening to and sculpting the building blocks of DAW notation. Ultimately, DAW software distinguishes itself from other notational styles as a synesthetic tool akin to word processing in its application. In fact, it is a notation whose design parameters, inspired by Sica’s call for relentless flexibility, unite so seamlessly that they retreat from the user’s attention rather than become more apparent, especially as a composer grows increasingly comfortable with their use. The pervasive invisibility of DAW notation in our routine contact with sound and media compels us to shine a critical light on this ingenious device for the inscription and birth of new music.

SoundSpace: Graphic Notation

I used to have an Australian roommate. He was a former journalist who had lived and worked in Beijing for a number of years, and he regularly spent time writing Chinese characters to keep in shape. One day I saw him working and said, “John, I don’t know how you can possibly read that.” He paused, smiled, and grabbed a blank sheet of paper. He wrote out a rudimentary staff, clef, and several notes and said, “I don’t know how you can read that, mate.”

How do we go from squiggles to speech, from scribbles to sound? For those unfamiliar with the concept of “graphic notation,” it’s worth noting that anytime you see someone looking at a sheet of paper while they toot their horn, they are looking at graphic notation. If you are reading this, you are looking at graphic notation. However, if I asked you to read the text below, what would you say? (Assuming you don’t read Chinese, of course.)
Chinese character sample
You might take your pre-existing understanding of written language and apply it to what’s  above in order to make some sense of it. I think that the first character looks a bit like a “P” or a “B” and the second looks like an “H” or an “A,” and if I was asked to “speak” these I’d go in that direction. Those two Chinese characters actually connote courage, but since I have no experience in that or any other Asian language, I can only rely on my background. Now what if you saw this?
Squiggle: Graphic Score
Now we are in a somewhat different world. This is not derived from an actual language, but we use the same set of tools to break it down and make sense of it. Musicians trained in the Western music tradition use a particular type of notation which is standardized (for the most part) the world over. What happens when they are asked to play from a page of notation that is not standard? How do they approach the squiggles? Curator Steve Parker’s latest installment in his SoundSpace series at the Blanton Museum featured several hours of folks doing just that.

James Fei performs his <i>Standing Waves and Viscous Loss </i> Photo by Steve Sachse

James Fei performs his Standing Waves and Viscous Loss
Photo by Steve Sachse

Inevitably upon entering the Blanton Museum’s cavernous Rapoport Atrium one’s gaze turns upwards, and James Fei’s Standing Waves and Viscous Loss added to this sense of grandeur and direction. A braying, squealing affair for sopranino saxophone, this brash overture to the proceedings began near the terminus of the stairway, with Fei eventually moving in small circles and turning to face one way, then another, to fill every nook and cranny with sound. Following this declamatory introduction was a duet of sorts with soprano Kate Bass performing Hildegard Von Bingen’s Spiritus Sanctus Vivificans Vita from the upper level of Rapoport while visual artist Caroline Wright sketched on four large canvases in the center of the lower level.

Visual Artist Caroline Wright Photo by Steve Sachse

Visual Artist Caroline Wright
Photo by Steve Sachse

The exchange between the artists drew the audience’s attention up and down between the levels until Thom Echols began a performance of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise on modular synthesizer and guitar in the Schweitzer Gallery, a few turns down the hall from the upper level of Rapoport. This overlapping was otherworldly, unusual, and completely intentional, and signaled the beginning of the bulk of the day’s performances. Part of what makes SoundSpace compelling is the placement of different simultaneous performances in various galleries around the museum. This both breaks up the linearity of a typical concert and gives a bit of agency to the audience in that they can choose where they want to go and what they want to see and hear at a given time. Of course, part of this festival-like presentation is that you are unlikely to hear everything and often come upon a performance at the halfway mark or just at the finish. The printed programs are detailed and allow you to find specific works and performers, but I personally find it most satisfying to simply wander from gallery to gallery, which is how I like to experience museums anyway.

Tom Echols performs Cornelius Cardew’s <i>Treatise</i> Photo by Steve Sachse

Tom Echols performs Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise
Photo by Steve Sachse

Other highlights were James Syler’s 3×3 Fanfares performed by the New Music Ensemble from the University of Texas at San Antonio. A mixed chamber ensemble with electric guitar, violin, flute, trumpets, horns, bass trombone, and percussion was situated around the perimeter of the large rectangular Huntington Gallery. My impression of the piece (I came in as it was being performed, somewhere in the middle) was that of arrival, as though the work was one huge, sustained tonic. This is not to say it was without tension. In fact, it was like holding one facial expression very intently for a period and observing the slightest of changes that occur. A few galleries over, Jim Altieri’s Seismicity, derived from seismograph readings and rendered by trombone quartet was by and large a gentle rise and fall, the trombones placed in four corners of the gallery and following the contours of the readings before them.

From Jim Altieri’s Seismicity

From Jim Altieri’s Seismicity

The final work of the day fell in line with previous epic, single-instrument SoundSpace offerings such as Henry Brant’s Orbits. Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 19 was directed by James Fei, along with conductors Chris Prosser, Ben Stonaker, and Stefan Sanders, and featured players from all over Texas performing the work written for “100 Tubas.” Writing about what it sounded like as the performers entered Rapoport auditorium (playing tubas, euphoniums, sousaphones, and all manner of serious low brass) is an exercise in creative analogy. Among the labored metaphors that littered my notes were: Offstage B-2 Bombers, The Biggest Harley Ever, Like Some Terrible, Ominous Marching Band [1], and Epic Halloween Soundtrack. It was a huge sound, an enveloping sound that not only eventually filled the formidable room but threatened to escape it. This sense of scale was amplified by the fact that the direction from which one hundred pedal tones is coming is tricky to pinpoint, so you’re sort of swallowed up by this big ominous sound.

James Fei conducts Anthony Braxton’s <i>Composition No. 19</i> Photo by Steve Sachse

James Fei conducts Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 19
Photo by Steve Sachse

Once assembled in rows on the ground floor, the mass of tubas initially headed by Fei split into three groups headed by Prosser, Stonaker, and Sanders. The groups faced in different directions and spent several minutes trading fours, each guided by their conductor who gave hand signals indicating what to play. Low growls, sub-tones, and the occasional squeal emanated from each of the groups, and after about ten minutes the conductors and their charges slowly but surely made their way outside followed by the audience in an uncanny Pied Piper impression [2]. Outside, the work truly took shape in the large courtyard. Over the next half hour the groups moved around the large outdoor space, finally finding a venue that matched their size and sound. The large, slow, thick harmonies were occasionally interrupted by sharp interjections as ensemble mixed with audience, and when the final chord died it was replaced by applause as loud as the work itself, if not quite as long.

The work mimicked the events of the entire day. Not simply because it was a day of pieces utilizing graphic notation, but because it was presented such that one could have a shared experience and a personal one, evident as each member of the audience chose how and where to watch and listen. Of course, one can have a shared/personal experience while seated in the concert hall as well, but your ability to control your destiny is modest, and this is where the SoundSpace concept really shines. This installment was particularly compelling as that individuality was expanded from the audience to encompass the performers as well, whose personalities could shine through the unconventional scores before them. To be sure, the various notation systems on display were as different as the composers who used them, but they have in common the function of drawing from their readers a personal and individual touch. While this holds true with conventional notation as well, the degree to which performers may shape the music is attenuated and two performances will likely be more similar than not. What makes graphic notation so interesting is that it lays bare the truth behind conventional notation, music and otherwise, which is that it’s all open for interpretation. The reality of cooperation between the composer and performer is amplified and, in the case of the SoundSpace audience, we’re all better for it.

1. “Godzilla” terrible, not “awful” terrible.” See #’s 1 and 2, not 3. And yes, that one was a simile.

2. It also had a bit of a “breaking the fourth wall” vibe, like when the cowboys burst in on The French Mistake at the end of Blazing Saddles except without all the fighting and top hats. I think it was the sheer scale of the thing…so many tubas.

Sounds Heard: Burr Van Nostrand—Voyage in a White Building 1

I may know better than to judge a CD by its cover, but it was hard to resist the poetic allure of the graphic score which unfolds across the front of Voyage in a White Building 1, a New World Records-issued recording of three pieces by Burr Van Nostrand.
Though the notation samples reeled me in (there’s another within the detailed booklet notes by Mathew Rosenblum), it was actually Matthew Guerrieri’s review from last year of performances of Van Nostrand’s music at the New England Conservatory of Music that first attracted my attention to this American iconoclast’s work.  Guerrieri’s vivid descriptions of the texture and flavor of the pieces left me intrigued, yet its infrequent live performance had me doubting I’d ever have the chance to hear it for myself. So consider this as much of an alert as a record review: if you ever desired the opportunity, it has arrived.

The three works included on the album were all written between 1966 and 1972. It opens with Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival, a six-movement fully notated composition. The recording included here—featuring performances by Robert Stallman (flute), Jay Humeston (cello), and Herman Weiss (prepared piano)—was made at the piece’s premiere at the New England Conservatory in 1972. I was somewhat surprised to read that Van Nostrand “began the project by compiling lists of extreme ensemble sonorities,” since to my ear, each gesture feels so deliberate and well-placed—nothing thrown at the wall just to see if it will stick. It comes off not as a catalog but as an organic exploration of a dim world, no turn taken too quickly. What begins as a murky, slow-moving study sharpens its attack and reveals additional facets as things progress. Midway through, the performers begin taking turns speaking text from the Friedrich Hölderlin poem “Hälfte des Lebens,” an inspiration for the piece, as the music continues to slip and stutter. The final two movements turn spare and crystalline, breath and light key clicks dissolving into the ether.
Phaedra Antinomaes was written for friend and collaborator violinist Paul Severtson, who infuses an attractive confidence into his presentation of the material (as documented in the 1969 recording featured on the disc). The work’s three continuous movements can be played in any order, as can the fifteen fragments that make up one of the sections. Severtson chose to lead with his ingredients—the gestural “Fragments”—before slipping seamlessly into the “Very slow, suspended” section, aggressive bow work, twacks against the instrument, and plucked accents contrasting with delicate spiccato sputters and glissando introspection.  The final section, “Violent, fast—very slow,” kicks up the tension level, but not as much as these descriptive words might imply. Throughout the work, Van Nostrand pads his statements with enough air around them to allow full aural absorption. As a result, Phaedra Antinomaes remains, start to finish, a haiku of a piece. No single line in its twelve-and-a-half-minute run time seems to unspool more than a few syllables before taking a breath, but absorbed as a whole the music contains surprising weight.

Tara Mueller, violin; New England Conservatory, April 2012

A new recording of the title work, Voyage in a White Building 1, closes the disc with a bang, and it is here that the enticing graphic score pages come to life. Premiered originally in 1969, the booklet notes explain that Van Nostrand created the work for a collection of close colleagues and relied on the unconventional notation system to include their diverse range of styles and reading abilities. On this disc, the work is presented by the NEC Chamber Ensemble led by Anthony Coleman, and a hat must be tipped to them—particularly the “speaker,” who emphatically emotes his way through the performance—for picking up this challenge and making it such a rich sonic experience.

For as seductive as I found the graphic score illustrations, the sonic image they convey (at least to these musicians) resolved into an ominous picture. Based on Hart Crane’s poem “Voyages 1,” it is structurally and thematically reflective of its three stanzas—a warning to children playing on a beach. Any sort of playfulness that may be present at the outset seems to melt into a kind of nightmarish fairy tale horror along the twists and turns Van Nostrand’s interpretation takes. The seeming madness of the speaker—his nearly nonsensical verbal explosions, maniacal laugher, moans, gasps, and cries—hold center stage throughout much of the performance, ramping up with deliberate speed as the piece moves towards its finale.  But it’s a beautiful terror to witness, a vibrant piece of theater for the ears.

Burr Van Nostrand – Voyage in a White Building 1

Cross-Sections and Scholarly Fields: Earle Brown Symposium in Boston

Fenway Center
After performing a four-hands version of Earle Brown’s seminal December ’52 at Calderwood Hall in Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, pianists Steven Drury and Steffen Schleiermacher flipped the score 180 degrees and started from the top (which had been the bottom). They also switched places at the keyboard. A facsimile of this early graphic score was projected on a large screen for all to see. That theatrical moment, which took place Friday afternoon, January 18, toward the end of the first day of a vast Earle Brown symposium in Boston, exemplified one aspect of this important mini-festival—its embrace of openness and possibility.

An early associate of John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff, Earle Brown was most famous for his development of and commitment to the idea of open form in music beginning in the early 1950s. It’s often textbook images of his scores for these early works, rather than all-too-rare performances of the music itself, that form the basis of his reputation for many musicians. It was the goal of the Earle Brown: Beyond Notation seminar to rectify this situation and expand the understanding and status of this great American composer and conductor.

Susan Sollins-Brown Photo by Anthony De Ritis

Susan Sollins-Brown, president of the Earle Brown Music Foundation
Photo by Anthony De Ritis

Sponsored by Northeastern University and organized by Northeastern and the Earle Brown Music Foundation with the cooperation of the Gardner Museum, the idea for the symposium had its beginnings when Anthony De Ritis, head of Northeastern’s music department, heard about Brown’s death in the summer of 2002. Brown, a native of Lunenburg, Massachusetts, was a student of mathematics and engineering at Northeastern in the mid-1940s before joining the Army Air Corps, and later went on to study at Schillinger House, which became Boston’s Berklee College of Music in the 1960s. De Ritis got in touch with various of Brown’s colleagues and scholars of his music; meanwhile since the composer’s death these same colleagues and scholars had been unearthing and organizing a wealth of information and source material. Three years ago, Northeastern brought musicologist Rebecca Kim on board expressly to organize the events that took place January 18 and 19. Among her main collaborators were Thomas Fichter, director of the Earle Brown Music Foundation; Susan Sollins-Brown, president of the Foundation; Anthony De Ritis; and Steven Drury, pianist and director of the Callithumpian Consort, a new music ensemble based at the New England Conservatory (but made up of freelance musicians). Other participants included pianist Steffen Schleiermacher, a longtime Brown advocate, as well as numerous composers and scholars with various perspectives on the composer’s life and work. (Since I won’t be touching on every one of the many papers, I direct the curious to the symposium website.) Fichter suggests that the last ten years of research and organization have made this just the right time for this endeavor, and going forward the Earle Brown Music Foundation hopes to provide unprecedented access to the archives. (In a panel on Friday, Fichter discussed the former and present status of Brown’s scores and materials.)

Symposium principals

Symposium principals (l-r) Thomas Fichter, Susan Sollins-Brown, Rebecca Kim, Stephen Drury, Carloyn Brown, and Anthony De Ritis
Photo by Sara Haefeli

In addition to the presentation of a number of papers, the two-day symposium featured several performances of Brown’s music, culminating at the end of both days with a full-length concert of his work, juxtaposed with music by composers allied with or influenced by him. These events took place in Northeastern’s Blackman Auditorium; the converted church concert space of the university’s Fenway Center, and in the Gardner Museum’s unusual, Renzo Piano-designed Calderwood Hall, which opened a year ago in January 2012. Due to other commitments, I was unable to attend all of the presentations over the course of the two days, but Northeastern was kind enough to provide audio transcripts for those papers I didn’t hear in person; thus I was able to create my own “available form” of the festival by hearing the papers in a different order. I also had a chance to talk to several of the participants to get an insider’s take on the proceedings. Rebecca Kim, Anthony De Ritis, Carolyn Brown, and Susan Sollins-Brown helped put things in perspective for me.

Without performances of Brown’s music in the immediate context, many of the ideas explored in the informative, and in some cases illuminating, papers would remain in the abstract. In addition to Friday afternoon’s piano four-hands performance of December ’52, Steffen Schleiermacher also gave a single-piano performance of the composer’s 25 pages in Calderwood Hall during that same session, which featured papers on the influence of visual art in Brown’s work. “Workshop” sessions the following morning had Drury and (in a separate presentation) flutist Shanna Gutiérrez playing open-form works with consideration of aesthetic and performative issues.

In the early afternoon on the first day, during one of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s semi-regular Friday afternoon chamber music concerts at the Fenway Center, BSO cellist Mickey Katz and pianist Aaron Likness performed Brown’s Music for Cello and Piano (1955) on a concert with Verdi’s String Quartet and music by William Grant Still and André Previn. The full-length concert Friday night included performances by the musicians of the Callithumpian Consort (one of few ensembles experienced in performances of this music) of the composer’s String Quartet (1965) and Times Five (1963). Schleiermacher performed Folio (1952-54), followed immediately by Stockhausen’s open-form Klavierstück XI. The Callithumpians also performed Christian Wolff’s recent, open-instrumentation Microexercises and Lee Weisert’s New England Drift. The concert opened with Brown’s brief tape piece Octet I, realized during his work with Cage on the “Project for Magnetic Tape.” Although a later mixed-down version of this piece has long been known, it was only recently that Octet I’s eight individual tracks, allowing for octophonic projection, were discovered. (Volker Straebel discussed the composition of this piece in his Saturday paper.)

Available Forms

Available Forms
Photo by Robert Kirzinger

Saturday night’s concert began with Schleiermacher’s performance of Pierre Boulez’s Constellation-Miroir from Sonata No. 3 and continued with Schleiermacher, Drury, and Yukiko Takagi’s performance of Brown’s three-piano Corroboree. The Callithumpians, led by Drury and featuring violin soloist Ethan Wood, performed the latest of the Brown pieces in these concerts, Centering—a wonderful example of the supple and colorful, and very musical, textures and harmonies of his post-1950s music. Substantiating this attractive later style was Sign Sounds (1972), which ended the concert, and of which Drury and the Callithumpians gave two very different performances, our sole (and very valuable) opportunity to hear how different from one another two performances of Brown’s open-form ensemble works could sound. Also on the program were John Zorn’s cut-up piece For Your Eyes Only and Brown’s Available Forms I (a central touchstone in Richard Toop’s Saturday-morning keynote paper read by Rebecca Kim).

Kyle Gann’s Friday morning keynote talk, which delved a little into technical musicology, also succinctly made one of the big points of the festival. Gann said, “I look forward this weekend to rescuing Earle Brown from this ‘New York School’ limbo that he seems to have fallen into…. He came into the 1950s New York with his own set of ideas and it is high time we completed the story of where those ideas uniquely led. Let this weekend mark the point at which musicologists quit talking about ‘Earle Brown, one of the composers of the New York School,’ and start talking about ‘Earle Brown.’ Full stop.” This view was seconded in Rebecca Kim’s paper later in the day, in which, after creating a distance between Brown and the New York School, she spoke of Brown’s influences outside of the Cage sphere, such as the surrealism of Max Ernst and the mobiles of Calder, along with providing an overview of the early Brown musical biography. This also offered context for some of the other presentations. Kim’s talk also provided a useful connection to the installation in Northeastern’s Gallery 360, which featured a number of historic images Kim had unearthed from the Lunenburg Historical Society, along with materials from Brown’s archive. The audio aspect of the installation was Brown’s Music for Galerie Stadler in its first U.S. hearing.

Kyle Gann and Carolyn Brown Photo by Anthony De Ritis

Kyle Gann and Carolyn Brown
Photo by Anthony De Ritis

The most delightful presentations were by Earle Brown’s first wife, the dancer Carolyn Brown, and his second wife, Susan Sollins-Brown, an art historian and producer. Carolyn (who refers affectionately to Sollins-Brown as her “wife-in-law”) gave an entirely biographical talk about Earle Brown’s early years around Lunenburg, where he was virtually an additional member of her family. Her mother was a dance teacher; Carolyn later became a key member of Merce Cunningham’s company, and the physicality of dance in combination with the activity of jazz without question deeply informed the composer’s music. Susan Sollins-Brown, along with an incidental debunking of the idea that Brown and Morton Feldman maintained lifelong animosity from the early 1960s onward, presented some twenty minutes of her unfinished, ongoing film on the composer, created from new interviews and archival footage. (Sollins-Brown is the executive director of PBS’s valuable Art21 series of artist documentaries.)
Brown’s interest in the visual arts was the crux of papers by David Ryan and by art historian Natilee Harren, whose illumination of direct connections between Brown’s music and the Fluxus artists was particularly revelatory (especially given the Fluxus group’s ties to Cage). Both were richly accompanied by visuals of the art being discussed. (These were appropriately presented at the Gardner Museum.)

Among the more musicologically oriented papers were Louis Pine’s somewhat technical illustrations of Brown’s applications of the Schillinger technique, which he applied from his earliest important works and throughout his career. (Unstated in Pine’s presentation but arguably salient to this discussion was Brown’s connection through this technique to commercial and jazz composers including Gershwin and Benny Goodman; although it was touched upon, little was made in any of these papers of Brown’s relationship to jazz from an early age, except anecdotally.) Richard Toop was unable to attend due to ongoing treatment for cancer, but following his pre-recorded preamble his rather warm and personal reminiscence, Saturday’s keynote talk, was read by Rebecca Kim. The subject was Brown’s relationship to European composers of the 1960s era, with a rundown of the remarkable number of prestigious commissions (“all-star gigs,” Toop calls them) he received during this period. So many works we just don’t hear! Drury spoke to Brown’s longtime colleague Christian Wolff about the milieu in which the New York School composers worked, as well as suggesting a view of performance of their works today. Several other papers on Saturday also touched on musicological aspects of open-form and process in Brown’s music, as well as the composer as a teacher and colleague.

Stephen Drury and Christian Wolff Photo by Anthony De Ritis

Stephen Drury and Christian Wolff
Photo by Anthony De Ritis

It was perhaps inevitable that consideration of Earle Brown’s music still canted toward the early works, since that’s where his innovations took root and were most clearly presented; nonetheless it’s a pity that not many of the later works were discussed in depth (in lieu of more general principles). It’s a great shame that resources were not available for performances of any of the larger orchestral works. Still, the Earle Brown: Beyond Notation symposium provided a fine foundation for the hopes of all involved that Brown and his music will be the subjects of much future research and, more importantly, that there will be renewed U.S. interest in performances of his works.


Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is on the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a writer, editor, and speaker. He is the program annotator for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, works with several Boston ensembles, and teaches occasionally at Northeastern University.