Tag: influence

The Collaborative Studio: The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Music Production

The previous post in this series took a look into my production process for non-classical projects such as rock bands and singer-songwriters. Although my process changes significantly when I produce contemporary classical sessions, there are a few core philosophical similarities in how I approach a classical project. For this post, I want to walk through what changes, what is similar, and in what ways contemporary classical production can evolve.

The starkest difference between the two worlds of producing independent artists versus contemporary classical is the inclusion of a composer and a written score. When working with independent artists, you are usually working directly with the songwriter, and there is flexibility for changes. This flexibility doesn’t generally exist for classical music, so the focus then shifts almost entirely to the performance.

In classical recordings, there is an emphasis placed on producing a flawless performance with technical facility becoming the focal point of the recording. However, the inability to alter the content of a piece does not mean that production must solely focus on playing the right notes at the right time. During a recent project I was producing, the performer and I had an in-depth discussion about one piece that didn’t quite feel as satisfying as it could have. The performer was executing it flawlessly as written, but it took a deeper dive into the music to understand the best way to portray the work emotionally. Certain rhythms were flexible enough to be interpreted differently, and phrasing was altered to imbue a sense of drama that was previously lacking.

This is a drawback of working from a score; the details aren’t always as clear as they could be on the page. In these situations, a producer should assist in providing direction for the performers. As a composer myself, I can confidently say that scores often times fall short, and using your musical instincts can clear up any insecurities a performer may have about what’s written. It’s much like a performer coaching an ensemble, you dig deeper than what is on the page to understand what the piece is and where it is going. Not to mention that studio time is not free (nor cheap), so decisions need to be made as quickly and confidently as possible.

Good producers will do their homework for an upcoming project. Score study is only one aspect of preparation for classical music recording sessions. Other ways to prepare for a session could involve researching instruments that you have less experience with to gain a basic understanding of how they produce sound. This is a necessary practice for composers. Without an understanding of how an instrument works, a composer cannot effectively compose idiomatically. Producers can use this same knowledge—in dialogue with the performers—to make suggestions, coach, or troubleshoot sonically problematic passages.

Preparation should also involve researching the performers you will be working with, which will provide insight into how those performers sound and what they are capable of. When producing a classical project, I spend a lot of time listening to recordings. I listen to any previous or live recordings by the performers as well as other recordings in the same field, e.g. string quartets, solo flute, solo violin, etc. When listening to other performers’ recordings, I’m not as interested in the performance as I am interested in how the music impacts me when I listen to it. If I really enjoy listening to a record, I will deconstruct the production of the record. Or, transversely, if I don’t like how a particular record sounds, I will know what it is I want to avoid as I prepare for the upcoming project.

Instead of the recording acting as an archival document, it can become an expansion of the music itself.

One of my first memories of working with a producer was at a pre-production meeting where the producer asked me what records I was listening to at the moment and what I really liked about them. At the time, this idea of taking ideas for the sonic imprint of my own record from other records I loved had never crossed my mind. This is now a consistent practice for me. Any time I begin working with new artists, one of the first things I ask is about which records comparable to their own work do they enjoy listening to. This frame of reference provides a tangible source to study for the producer so that they can confidently execute stylistic choices that are in line with what the performers prefer but may not know how to articulate.

Listening through recordings from previous decades, the production style of classical music has only very recently begun to change. The biggest differences over the years have been the improvement of recording technology which produced higher quality recordings. For the most part, producing classical music has been as much about capturing the space as the performance itself. However, when you look at the history of pop or rock music, the production quickly moved away from capturing a sonically accurate live performance recording, and instead creating a unique aural experience on record that, in some ways, intends to replicate the live image but utilizes recording techniques that isolate instruments and add an immediacy to the sonic landscape. Music listeners never think twice about this approach. You hear a band on record and when you see them live you usually never think about how different the sonic experience is. Whereas, with classical recordings, what you hear on the recording can sound almost identical to what you would hear live if you were to witness the performance in the same space.

The idea of creating a unique aural experience on record that differs from a live performance without changing the content of the music itself is an exciting notion both from the perspective of a composer and a producer. Instead of the recording acting as an archival document, it can become an expansion of the music itself. On record, you can provide a unique look into a piece of music that can’t be replicated live, especially in the present day where most people listen to music through headphones.

There is a growing trend among contemporary composers of creating works that ignore the arbitrary boundaries of genre. These works—such as Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered and Gemma Peacocke’s upcoming record, Waves & Lines—are ideal canvasses for modern production techniques, and a glimpse into what the future of contemporary classical production could be. The isolation and immediacy of the instruments in these recordings and the liberal exploration of the stereo field leaves behind the fixed spatial recordings of past classical recordings. Listeners are able to aurally navigate dense instrumental textures as if they were a part of the ensemble. The intimacy of this type of production also creates an emotional relationship to the music, much like the way a pop singer’s voice is recorded to hear every nuance of sound created. For as much as classical music harps on the emotion and drama embedded in works, it could benefit from this type of intimate production style.

My final installment in this series on the potential of the collaborative studio will offer up some suggestions for taking full advantage of your studio project and how to be a better collaborator with the rest of your production team. Every studio experience is a learning opportunity, and with the right positive mental attitude, everyone involved can benefit and learn in different ways.

Carter’s Continuing Presence

Elliott Carter passed away on November 5th, 2012 at the age of 103. It took me several years to adjust to a musical world without Carter’s living presence. This was in part because there still was so much recent music to catch up with: Caténaires, Sound Fields, Two Controversies and a Conversation, String Trio, Tintinnabulation, and the Double Trio, constitute a highly abbreviated playlist of the musical riches of Carter’s last decade. By the 21st century, I had become so accustomed to being surprised and delighted by the freshness and daring of new Carter works from a composer well in his 90s, and then amazingly, into his 100s, that it took some time to accept that this seemingly inexhaustible musical adventure had finally come to an end. Five years after Carter has left us as a human presence, it is time to assess his continuing musical presence in the still-young 21st century.

Elliott Carter in the 20th Century

Before assessing the significance of Carter’s music in the 21st century, I will first summarize the achievements from his most innovative and influential 20th century period, from the late 1940s through the late 1970s.

Carter’s notable musical innovations center on the following techniques: metric modulation, a set-class approach to harmony, extra-musical (especially literary) conceptions of musical structure, stylistic individuation of musical parts, and simultaneous presentation of stylistically distinct musical movements. Two crucial educational experiences informed this work: Carter’s personal association with Charles Ives in the mid-1920s and a rigorous course of training with Nadia Boulanger in the early 1930s. The friendship with Ives put Carter directly in touch with an early 20th century modernist project that embraced experimentation, multiplicity, and a hybridization of “high art” and vernacular musical styles that Carter ultimately found problematic. Studies with Boulanger developed Carter’s mastery of the two fundamental organizational principles of European tonal music: harmony and counterpoint.

Before exploring what these techniques got for Carter, let’s move back before the Cello Sonata and the String Quartet No. 1, which together represent a deliberate move away from a musical style that Carter later described as deliberately simplified in order to be more appealing to general American audiences. Carter’s most crowd-pleasing effort along these lines is the Holiday Overture (1944), which fuses an American nationalist style with strong contemporary European influences, most obviously from Paul Hindemith, but with occasional Stravinskyan flourishes as well. (The influence of both Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky is felt rather more strongly in the Suite from Pocahontas of 1939.) While the language of the Holiday Overture is largely pan-diatonic, and considerably more consonant than Hindemith’s music, there are occasional flirtations with polytonality and cross rhythms that hint at the modernist direction that Carter ultimately decided to pursue.

Elliott Carter, wearing a suit, in profile (1942).

Elliott Carter in 1942.

The Holiday Overture nicely articulates a key inflection point for Carter near the middle of the 20th century, poised between populism vs. modernism, and between American nationalism vs. the European avant-garde. The compositional sequence of the Piano Sonata (1945-46), to the Cello Sonata (1948), to the String Quartet No. 1 (1951) chronicles Carter’s movement toward both a permanent embrace of Modernism in respect of the first schism, and a dynamic balance between American and European elements in respect of the second schism. As a result, many American listeners would consider Carter’s mature musical style to lean European, especially when compared with such composers as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson, William Schuman, Charles Ives, or even John Cage, while European composer Pierre Boulez said that he liked Carter’s music because it sounds so “American.” In the 21st century, the question of music nationalism may seem rather trivial (or perhaps takes on new meanings), but nationalism was a question of great concern to many early to mid-20th century composers, such as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, and Carlos Chavez, as well as many of the American composers just mentioned.

Returning to musical innovations, the technique most firmly associated with Carter is metric modulation. While Carter did not invent the technique, he employed it with much greater depth and scope than any prior composer. Metric modulation involves a redefinition of the tempo, based on metrical relationships. A simple example is shown below.

An example of a metrical modulation from triplets in 4/4 time to 8th notes in 7/8.

For the listener, there is no change in the speed of the repeated notes. However, the change of tempo allows for groupings (such as the 7/8 bar shown) that are difficult or impossible to notate at the prior tempo. This allows for fluid destabilization of a tactus, and as mentioned in the previous section. The avoidance of a constant, regular tactus is a defining feature of Carter’s post-1940s music.

Carter’s focus on set-based harmonies matures in the String Quartet No. 1, with a harmonic language that hinges on the two all-interval tetrachords, shown below. (An all-interval tetrachord provides every interval class from 0 to 6. By contrast, a whole-tone tetrachord can only provide interval classes 0, 2, 4 and 6.)

The two all interval tetrachords: 0156 (e.g. C-C#-E-F#) and 0137 (e.g. C-Db-Eb-G)

Carter’s interest in set-based harmony led him to write his Harmony Book, enumerating every possible chord in the 12-tone system. The focus on pitch sets (chords in Carter’s terminology) would have been informed by Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, and especially the partitioning techniques of Anton Webern. Equally plausible precedents include the fascination with new chordal sonorities exhibited by such composers as Alexander Scriabin and Franz Liszt. Carter’s work with pitch sets in the early 1950s puts him ahead of major publications on the subject, such as Howard Hanson’s Harmonic Materials of Modern Music (1960), Milton Babbitt’s  “Set Structure as a Compositional Determinant” (1961), and Alan Forte’s The Structure of Atonal Music (1973). Carter’s adoption of pitch sets as determinative of his harmonic language permanently foreclosed the quasi-tonal harmonic language of the Holiday Overture. Additionally, it gave him a powerful tool for individual and group differentiation within larger ensembles.

Carter’s use of extra-musical literary sources of inspiration motivates his concept of a musical score as a “play,” with stylistically individuated characters. Quotations from inspirational poetry preface such important orchestral scores as the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) and A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), clearly articulating that Carter’s works are not mere technical experiments, but harbor ambitious expressive intent as well. The stylistic individuation of musical parts is most strongly introduced in the opening of the Cello Sonata, where the pianist mechanically pecks out a clock-like rhythm while the cello follows a lyric and expressive melody that floats in a different tempo from the piano. The ending of the fourth movement demonstrates that the character roles can be reversed, even though the two parts seem optimized for the inherent character of the cello (a singing instrument) and the piano (a percussion instrument). At the same time, this introduction of the idea of stylistic individuation makes a clear link to earlier classical music, going back at least as far as Mozart, whose music demonstrates a clear differentiation between melody and accompaniment lines.

Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter looking over a score.

Carter with Leonard Bernstein in 1971 in Philharmonic Hall during a rehearsal for a New York Philharmonic performance of the Concerto for Orchestra (photographer unknown; courtesy Elliott Carter Centenary)

Carter’s stylistic differentiation of individual parts breaks free from its classical precedents in the String Quartet No. 2 (1959), where each part is assigned its own rhythmic profile and repertory of intervals. The construction of not just differentiated lines or even differentiated types of music, but individuating each musician as a “character” in a musical play is Carter’s mature conception of instrumental differentiation that will present itself repeatedly throughout his music from the 1960s forward. The obvious predecessor in this regard is the comical character “Rollo” in Charles Ives’s String Quartet No. 2. But a key difference from Ives’s approach is Carter’s wariness of slapstick humor in music; Carter feels that it’s too facile and too easy to bring off.

Finally, the simultaneous presentation of stylistically differentiated movements extends the idea of stylistically differentiated individual parts. This strategy is first clearly and comprehensively articulated in the Concerto for Orchestra (1969). Carter then radically rethinks the spatial and formal architecture of the string quartet with his String Quartet No. 3 (1971), where different musics interpenetrate and move through each other at different speeds, styles, and densities. Carter recommends spatial separation of the two duos in performance of this quartet to further articulate the different musical streams. The superposition of different kinds of music (slow and fast) had already been heard in the String Quartet No. 1, but No. 3 applies this as a principle for structuring the entire piece. A precedent for this superposition of different musics is found in the music of Charles Ives, in such works as Central Park in the Dark and the Symphony No. 4.

What truly distinguishes Carter’s music is the intensity, passion, expressiveness, and sheer power of his musical creations.

Having surveyed Carter’s technical innovations, I must emphasize that his reputation derives not just from these innovations. After all, 20th century art was inundated with technical experiments of every kind. What truly distinguishes Carter’s music is the intensity, passion, expressiveness, and sheer power of his musical creations, which are all girdled by a commitment to compositional rigor and extreme exploration of technical possibilities. As Carter himself observed, creating one’s own language is a special prerogative of the 20th century composer. But that composer must then communicate clearly using the language that s/he created. Carter’s mature set of technical concerns clearly identifies him as a 20th century modernist. But he did not jump on every modernist bandwagon. Key 20th century musical research areas that Carter completely avoided include electronic music, aleatoric music, and microtonal music. And despite a constant concern for multiplicity, Carter studiously avoided the pastiche approach of post-modernism. Carter even more studiously avoided the fixed tempi and mechanical repetitions of minimalism. It may have taken 50 years for Carter to discover and integrate his core compositional concerns, but from that point forward, for the next 53 years, Carter could not be budged from his compositional edifice. He continued to write Elliott Carter’s music twelve years into the 21st century, a period in which the dominant compositional trends seem to be at odds with Carter’s compositional ethos.

Elliott Carter in the 21st Century

Elliott Carter sitting in the audience.

Elliott Carter at a rehearsal for Two Controversies and a Conversation during the NY Philharmonic’s Contact Series in June 2012. (Photo by Ed Yim.)

Yet Carter’s music is alive and well five years after his death in November 2012. Just in 2017, Carter’s two major publishers, Boosey & Hawkes and Associated Music, reported 52 performances of Carter’s music, 10 of them orchestral performances, including multiple performances of Carter’s 1998 opera What Next? This record of performances would be an impressive showing for a living composer. For a deceased composer, it is a serious vote of confidence in the continued relevance of the music. Many more performances are scheduled for 2018. Looking at reported performances of orchestral music from 2012-2018, there is further evidence of a sustained presence for Carter’s music, with a combined report of 127 performances of works for full orchestra. (Those performance do not include works such as Sound Fields and the Clarinet Concerto, which are for smaller forces.)

These statistics on Carter’s posthumous orchestral presence are great news of course. At the same time, I have some reservations, based on my own assessment and categorization of Carter’s orchestral music. Following our earlier discussion of Carter’s technical progress as a composer, I categorize the orchestral music up through the Minotaur Suite (1947) as Carter’s populist period. The Variations for Orchestra (1955) is a transitional work, not a populist work, but also not yet possessed of the orchestral maturity on display in the Piano Concerto completed one decade after. The period from 1964 to 1976 contains, in my view, the pinnacle of Carter’s writing for full orchestra, comprising the Piano Concerto, The Concerto for Orchestra, and A Symphony of Three Orchestras. The period from 1986 forward, starting with the Oboe Concerto, is what I consider Carter’s post-pinnacle orchestral period. While “post-pinnacle” might sound pejorative, for a composer of Carter’s rank, a descent from his pinnacle still leaves the work in a state of excellence. And to be clear, this view is restricted to the orchestral music. The main distinction I want to make here is that the three works of Carter’s orchestral pinnacle all represent “crisis” pieces, struggling to extend Carter’s language, and then express himself musically with the greatest force possible. Both the Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras were composed within the sweet spot of Carter’s initial and most rigorous development of his primary rhythmic, formal, and harmonic innovations, especially in the superposition of multiple movements articulated by harmony, speed, and musical character. The Piano Concerto is an even more special piece, perhaps unique among Carter’s work, where he seems almost not himself, given the darkness, violence, and political despair articulated in the piece. Each of these pinnacle works would require its own essay to begin to unpack the technical and expressive force of the works; for now, I simply assert their primacy, and allow the reader to either agree with my assessment or not.

Of 127 reported orchestral performances, 21 were of Carter’s populist music, 7 of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, 2 of “pinnacle” music, and 97 of “post-pinnacle” music.

According to the above categorization, of the 127 reported orchestral performances, there were 21 performances of Carter’s populist music, 7 performances of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, 2 performances of pinnacle music (one each of the Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras), and 97 performances of post-pinnacle music. Given that the post-pinnacle period comprises 26 years, and given that Carter’s productivity markedly increased in that period, and finally given that there is usually more interest in a composer’s more recent music, it is not surprising that the majority of performances are in the post-pinnacle period. And again, I must stress that there is wonderful orchestral music in what I am calling the post-pinnacle period. Instances (2012) has great wit, some fine and original gestures, some obsessive intensity toward the end, and a very lovely coda, with the piano speaking in single tones against the ensemble, in what might be an echo of the Woody Woodpecker-like piano notes of the Piano Concerto. But Instances is not as soul-crushing as the Piano Concerto, or as ambitiously world-building as the Concerto for Orchestra or A Symphony of Three Orchestras. Instances is a fine and elegant vehicle—a bicycle. The pinnacle orchestral works are Sherman tanks.

Those readers who share my assessment of the pinnacle orchestral works will also share my disappointment that they represent a mere two out of 127 Carter orchestral performances discussed here. In addition to the number of performances, there is an interesting story in the location of the performances. A total of 31 of the orchestral performances took place in the USA. Ten of these performances were from the populist period, four were of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, one was of the pinnacle work Concerto for Orchestra, the remaining 16 performances were of post-pinnacle works. Five of those were of Instances, all clustered in 2013, the year after the composition of the work.

The music of one of America’s most celebrated composers received well over twice as many performances in Europe as in the USA.

By contrast, 76 orchestral performances took place in Europe (including the UK), with the remaining performances taking place in South America, Australia, and Canada. Nine of the European performances were of Carter’s populist orchestral music. One pinnacle work, A Symphony of Three Orchestras, was performed, two performances of Variations for Orchestra were given, and the remaining 64 performances were of post-pinnacle works. Thus, in the six-year period starting from 2012, Carter’s final year, the music of one of America’s most celebrated composers received well over twice as many performances in Europe as in the USA. Music from Carter’s populist period comprises approximately 32 percent of the USA performances, and approximately nine percent of the European performances. These statistics speak to the well-known conservatism and risk-aversion of American orchestral programming, compared to that of Europe. Given the spirit of boldness and innovation in American musical cultural production that has given us John Cage, Steve Reich, The Sonic Arts Union, computer music, disco, and of course Elliott Carter, the general timidity of the American orchestra is a regrettable lacuna. At the same time, we should single out the 2013 Concerto for Orchestra performance given by the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, under the direction of Leon Botstein. The American Symphony Orchestra and Botstein cannot be praised highly enough for bringing challenging, seldom performed music to the public, but their project remains the exception that proves the rule in American orchestral programming.

Helen Carter, NYC Mayor Ed Koch, Elliott Carter (at podium) and Henry Geldzahler, NYC's commissioner of cultural affairs at City Hall in 1978.

Although there have been considerably more performances of Elliott Carter’s music in Europe than in the United States, Carter is one of the few composers to be officially honored by our government. In addition to being feted at the White House by Ronald Reagan as one of the first 12 recipients of National Medal of Arts in 1985, Carter was also honored in 1978 at New York City’s City Hall by then Mayor Edward I. Koch (left of Carter who is at the podium) and Henry Geldzahler, NYC’s then commissioner of cultural affairs (far right). Carter’s wife Helen (1927-1998) is standing to the left of Koch.

Carter’s Legacy

Having demonstrated the viability of Carter’s orchestral music, which is by far the most difficult instrumental medium in which a composer can achieve lasting success, there is a much more vital performance environment for Carter’s chamber and solo music, which is performed at a considerably higher rate than the orchestral music. Within this repertory, certain focal points may be predicted. For example, the five string quartets seem to be on track for canonical status, having been championed by both top generalist string quartets like the Juilliard Quartet and Pacifica Quartet, and by new music specialist quartets such as the Arditti Quartet and the JACK Quartet. Within that corpus, I would further highlight the first and third quartets as the two “crisis” pieces—the standouts in the collection that take an experimental technique to its outer limit. String Quartet No. 1 delves deeply into the problem of metric modulation as a basis for large-scale formal organization and String Quartet No. 3 attacks the problem of simultaneous unfolding of different movements, taking its textures closer to the edge of chaos than any of his music with the possible exception of the finale to the Double Concerto. Carter’s solo piano piece Caténaires has established itself as a showpiece for competitions, as beautifully demonstrated in this performance by Sean Chen. (Multiple performances of this work are easily found on YouTube.) Many other fine “musical selfies” of Carter’s solo pieces adorn YouTube, such as this dramatic reading of Figment III, performed by James Oesi.

Carter’s legacy may be found in the work of his students.

Another aspect of Carter’s legacy may be found in the work of his students. I will next consider the music of one of Carter’s most prominent students, Jeffrey Mumford, since Mumford openly and gratefully acknowledges Carter’s influence. Jeffrey Mumford first became enamored of Elliott Carter’s music during his college years, and studied privately with Carter during 1980-83. Mumford’s music shares the following general concerns with Carter’s music: multiplicity, stratification and conversations between instruments or groups of instruments, and temporal variety. One readily hears in Mumford’s instrumental writing a long-line approach to melodic invention that is distinctly “Carterian.” One also hears a fondness for simultaneous unfolding of materials at disparate tempi, along with a general avoidance of motoric rhythms (though with a bit more openness to regular rhythms than Carter). Mumford’s music exemplifies how some important elements of Carter’s compositional practice can be adopted, while others are left on the table and other non-Carterian elements enter the compositional project. Mumford intriguingly acknowledges both jazz ballads and the rich harmonies of disco as important influences. In Mumford’s cello concerto of fields unfolding . .  echoing depths of resonant light from 2015, written for Carter in memoriam, all of these elements are on display. The long, flowing, directional cello lines interspersed with double-stops and harmonics for emphasis are very Carterian. But the lush, shimmering diatonic string backings are something that Carter would have never written.

Joel Chadabe, Alvin Curran, Tod Machover, Jeffrey Mumford, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Five of the more well-known composers who studied with Elliott Carter (pictured from left to right): Joel Chadabe, Alvin Curran, Tod Machover, Jeffrey Mumford, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Despite shared musical concerns, and some similarities in musical language between Carter and Mumford, there is a dramatic element in Carter’s ethos that often leads to sudden outbursts of explosive violence in his music, which is decidedly not a part of Mumford’s musical personality. Mumford instead invests more heavily in lyricism, beauty, and lushness, resulting in a more personal, private sensibility than that of Carter’s music. I consider this private sensibility to be a quality of particular importance for 21st century classical music, and for that reason, in addition to its general excellence, I highly commend Mumford’s music to the attention of the reader.

Mumford’s lush, shimmering diatonic string backings are something that Carter would have never written.

The legacy of a composition teacher is not just in knowledge and technique imparted, but also in more intangible conveyances. Jeffrey Mumford shared the following statement regarding Elliott Carter, “His class and elegance are a gift to us all, and the legacy of the depth and intelligence of his music will live on far into the future, as successive generations discover it. Words cannot express the gift he has given me in my focus and journey as an artist. Words also cannot express how much I miss him.”

Moving Forward the 21st Century

Elliott Carter standing in front of a bookcase (1982).

Elliott Carter in 1982 in front of one of the many bookcases in his New York apartment

While Carter’s reputation is unassailable, we now live in a musical world in which Carter’s music is of the recent past, not the present, somewhat analogous to the position of Johannes Brahms’s music in the early 20th century. Fundamental aspects of new music culture are changing, where recognition as a “great composer” may take on new meanings. A few factors to consider:

1. The increasing prominence of composer/performers

The music of composer/performers tends to emphasize materiality with little room for the abstractions of modernist composers like Carter.

The composer/performer model has been a norm throughout much of classical music history. In the 20th century, a tendency toward specialization led to the non-performer/composer, and alternative hybrid models emerged, such as composer/teachers and composer/theorists, who do not perform music, or at least do not devote much focus to performance. Carter, Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Brian Ferneyhough are prominent exemplars of the non-performer/composer. A shift in emphasis towards performer/composers in the early 21st century has emerged, featuring musicians whose roots are as performers who then gravitated towards composition. As composers, their music seems, for lack of a better word, performative in emphasis, since they are composing for instruments on which they regularly perform. Theo Bleckmann, Todd Reynolds, Jane Rigler, Pamela Z, and Michael Lowenstern are notable exemplars. Notable 20th century precursors to this model include Robert Dick, Diamanda Galas and Joan LaBarbara. On being awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, Caroline Shaw famously remarked, “I don’t really call myself a composer.” Instead, Shaw is a multi-talented instrumentalist and vocalist who also composes music. And her music is written for performers with a directness that is in contradistinction to the modernist approach to instrumental writing. Shaw’s compositional practice is a far cry from that of Arnold Schoenberg who, when told by a prominent violinist regarding his new Violin Concerto that he would have to wait for a violinist born with six fingers, Schoenberg replied, “I can wait.” The music of composer/performers tends to emphasize the materiality of performance and sound in a directly experienced and expressed manner, with little room for the notation-based abstractions of modernist composers like Carter.

2. Radical proximity

It would seem that our culture of Internet-based music will stimulate a very different kind of musical intelligence that that of Carter.

On the internet, any music that can be uploaded as a recording is just a click away. There is a profound overload of available music, coupled with a pervasive awareness of this overload. In such a diverse, densely populated musical world, the revolutionary impact of music from the early 20th century, such as Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps or Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire seems impossible today. Classical pieces that come to prominence today seem to do so for a very short period, before disappearing from the public ear. These works do not have the subversive impact of the radical early 20th century pieces discussed above, or even radical mid-century interventions like John Cage’s 4’33”. Given that the disruptive and interventionist aspect of those early modernist works was so essential to stimulating the young Elliott Carter’s imagination, it would seem that our culture of Internet-based music will stimulate a very different kind of musical intelligence that that of Carter. Instead of those massive early 20th century cultural impacts, we now have interstitial reverberations, quiet and difficult to trace, with long tails.

3. Erosion of the high art/low art distinction

A distinction between high art music and vernacular music was a prerequisite for Carter’s music to develop as it did.

Carter’s concern for high culture doesn’t seem very possible in the early 21st century. Instead, this is an era of hybridity. Jeffery Mumford’s shared influences of Carter’s music and disco is emblematic of 21st century classical music. The composer who also has a band (even if that band is a new music ensemble) is more the rule than the exception today. This is a cultural world that is aligned with composers such as Nick Didkovsky, Missy Mazzoli, Eve Beglarian, Annie Gosfield, and Elliott Sharp. The enforcement of a distinction between high art music and vernacular music, which was essentially a prerequisite for Carter’s music to develop as it did, no longer holds much credibility. Although Carter’s ideas can continue to propagate in the internet space of hybridity, the space for single-strain incubation of high-art projects is severely diminished, compared to that of the 20th century.

Concluding Thoughts

Carter seems to have sensed some of these 21st century cultural issues surprisingly early. In a 1990 interview with Jonathan W. Bernard, discussing his state of mind in the late 1960s during the composition of Concerto for Orchestra, Carter stated, “The whole question of the time we are living in, and whether it’s the end of a period, is something that has hung over us all, I think, for a long time, and this is a very meaningful thing to me in that piece…You see, I lived through that particular period of modernism that has now somehow become either classic or God knows what, but it still is very vivid to me. The whole question of what high culture is is something that remains profoundly disturbing and perplexing.”

Carter’s magnificent creative thought patterns are no longer ours.

The beautiful thing about music is that there’s always room for new voices. We don’t have a limited amount of storage space to house statues of our musical gods, where after it fills up we need to toss out some gods to make room for new ones. Carter has earned his place in the pantheon, and will surely remain there for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we have definitively moved beyond his period of modernism, and are now in a very different cultural place. We living composers can admire and learn from Carter’s work, but the task before us now is to develop a musical culture that would seem increasingly weird, alien, disturbing, and perplexing to Carter. His magnificent creative thought patterns are no longer ours.

Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky at the Galerie International on Madison Avenue, NYC May 1, 1962

Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky at the Galerie International on Madison Avenue, NYC May 1, 1962

Throughout November 2017, NewMusicBox is marking the fifth anniversary of Elliott Carter‘s death with a series of posts exploring his life and legacy. This content is made possible with the generous support of the Amphion Foundation‘s Carter Special Projects Fund.

Tracing Influence

Open Faucets

My mind is blank, but down one inch deep I have, we have, access. Access to what happened before—the universe is embedded in all of us. Is that too dreamy? What we heard, what was seen, what was felt…all that was picked up along the way. As moments click by, we find ourselves moving through time and space picking up fragments of experience. Our senses are tuned to what we want to hear and what we want to block. Some sounds stick—context, emotion, and openness allow for the sound faucet to be turned on. We ponder, work through, process, and invent. Invention is a tricky proposition. Are any sounds or structures unheard?

Open Faucets

Consider the path of water. An object in the water can be followed, but the water itself?  Does it matter? We live in a culture of mix-up. This line of thought circles towards the question: What are artists thinking about? What informs their decisions?

In the digital age, we are tethered to each other more than at any other time in history. We are surrounded by thousands of unfiltered sounds. The way that we experience art and culture has been retooled and re-imagined—for better or worse, this is the “now” in the 21st century.

We have always had cultural gatekeepers: artists, publishers, concert promoters, radio producers, teachers, etc. At the top of this filtering process is the mind and ears of the artist.

Often I take the “fixed” hierarchy of the music world too seriously and to keep things in check I often think about Jad Fair. I am still in awe over this lo-fi pioneer and how he is clear that he can only sound like Jad Fair. Part of the question of influence is what do artists want to sound like. Jad touches on his sound and idyllic philosophy in the liner notes to 1995’s Half Japanese – Greatest Hits:

Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion. If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. But that’s absurd. How could it be wrong? It’s your guitar and you’re the one playing it. It’s completely up to you to decide how it should sound.

Musical lineage and the idea of tracing influence in contemporary composition and interpretative approaches is a fascinating topic. In many ways I find it mirrors the complexities of the natural world around us and the personalities within it, and the deeper I dig into it, the more questions I have.

My interest in tracing influences grew out of group listening sessions that I hosted during my tenure at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia. Each session was an opportunity to get together in an open forum to discuss artistic process and actively listen to current work. We listened to music that served as a point of reference or influenced the participating artists. The process was not straightforward, but it was rewarding in many ways. Mostly by offering the group a new way to unpack each other’s work.  Tempesta di Mare, the early music ensemble from Philadelphia, has carved out a distinct position on the world stage interpreting very old music. Still, questions of influence deeply impact their work:

Music evolves gradually. Emerging new styles carry within them the bones and souls of their parents, and the musicians who first played each new style bore in their minds and ears the practices honed playing what had come before. Both as individual musicians and as an ensemble engaged in the study and performance of old music, we cultivate variety and specificity in our approach to different repertoires by immersing ourselves in their antecedents and influences.

I keep returning to the hall of mirrors of this topic. All music contains many of the same building blocks and elements. Is it possible to chart influence? How do artists push the dial forward or—in Tempesta’s case—backward? On one end of the spectrum we have exact reconstruction of past work, and way over on the other end we have innovation and invention. Even those lines arch and seem to connect.

Human Mind

As listeners, what are we attached to? At what point in life have we made up our musical minds? Do we have to eat our musical vegetables to grow strong? Listen to Bach, Blind Willie, Carnatic music?

In my youth, I spent hours late at night in suburban Atlanta catching the radical sounds of WREK freeform radio—it was a lifeline to the world and my first real exposure to underground music. I was inspired by DIY and alternative music and still reference that as my true north. The intensity and immediate nature of that music informed my ears and to this day they are tuned from that experience.

Recently I was at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. They now offer a new type of museum experience with a digital collection wand that acts as both a virtual notebook and interpretive tool to interact with the museum collection.  After your visit, you have a personalized URL link with the collection of objects that you scanned and more context and historical data. You have access to the catalog of objects and real time connections to the history.

Could we have the musical equivalent of those interpretive tools—a collection and museum of sound and music?  Is that the concert hall or university music library? The internet or iTunes? What can help provide context for the music and enrich and inform the listening experience? Will that change the end result, deepen the experience, or help uncover influence?

As both a composer and percussionist, I have tried to look for potential in sound and what sounds everyday objects and nature make in the world around us. Over the years I have trained myself to tune in—not tune up, not judge—and look for structure and logic in all work. I challenge myself to crack the code: how do the structures within the sound work.

We accumulate so much sound experience in our heads that the pre-cognitive elements in work are nearly impossible to trace. As we zoom out, influences that will never be apparent in the music alone might be known by the artist and can only be identified by the artist through conversation. I propose we actively listen together and discuss music in real time. Listening sessions can be a tool to begin to trace influences, first by the artist articulating conscious ones and then the group, through conversation, surfacing unconscious ones.

If we look through the window into the personalities and viewpoints of the great composers and interpreters of our time, we will find a fountain that offers years of thoughtful approaches and reference points—what is undeniably theirs and what they borrowed and processed through their interpretive minds.

As a companion to this essay, I have asked sound artist Camille Norment, pianist Simone Dinnestein, and composer Colin Jacobsen to contribute a short description of a current project along with a point of reference that may have led them to form their work. This is not a simple equation and there could be hundreds of trace influences for each piece.

Regardless, what they offered is both insightful and rich, and I am grateful to these amazing artists for taking time out of their busy schedules to contribute to this piece and shed light on how other music inspired and informed their musical perspectives and personalities.

In this brief essay Simone offers poetic insight into her interpretive approach and how it connects to historical performance practice and the bones of the score itself. We recognize the characteristic sound of a piano, but it is interesting to consider what sets the conditions for the performance to be otherworldly and how those conditions arc towards or away from a set lineage and performance traditions.

Simone Dinnerstein on Schubert’s Impromptu No.3 in Gb, Op 90

I am fascinated by the language of instrumental music.  Somehow tones and rhythm can create subtly particular messages that affect us in varied and profound ways.  Music is so communicative that I have trouble focusing on words when they accompany sounds.  I love listening to German lieder and find it some of the most beautiful and emotional music, and yet I don’t know what the words mean. In fact, I don’t really want to know.  To me, the words often pale in comparison to the music.

Certain composers like Bach and Schubert wrote a great deal for the voice and were used to setting text to music.  Their musical settings incorporated breath and all of the phrasing and articulations of speech—the pauses for reflection, the excited rushing forward of a new idea, the sudden shift in tone.

Schubert’s Impromptu in Gb is essentially a song, with the 5th finger of the right hand acting as vocalist.  I thought a lot about how I would sing the line, where the breaths would be, where I would alter a sustained tone.  How to do this on a piano was a challenge.  One of my favorite Schubert recordings is of Renée Fleming and Christoph Eschenbach.  Fleming has an uncanny ability to change the color of a note while she sustains it. It’s as beautiful as watching the light change through shifting clouds and rustling leaves.  I tried to find a way to do this on the piano, an instrument where the sound is out of your hands the moment that the key has been played.  Playing the piano is like being an illusionist, working with balancing the voices within the texture and with pedaling to create a vocal effect.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recording of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin was my first taste of lieder and remains a huge influence on me.  He and the pianist Gerald Moore highly characterized every phrase.  They took Schubert’s score and completely created an imaginative world, using the score as a beginning rather than an end.

Pianists tend to be very literal when it comes to the score.  I prefer to look at it as a rough guide.  In this impromptu there are many hairpins, areas where there is a crescendo and then a decrescendo.  In quite a few parts I think this is about intensity as opposed to volume.  Sometimes the increase in intensity actually manifests itself by growing alarmingly quieter.

I see this Impromptu as being full of memory and longing for the past.  There is a bittersweet and heartbreaking beauty in it that feels very personal and intimate.  I worked with filmmaker Tristan Cook to make a visual representation of this.  We used images of my family and home as well as images of distance, isolation, and nature.  It’s not a narrative, but a type of filmic poem to the music.

Encoding and decoding: Colin outlines a complex map of influence connecting to Kandinsky, Dada, Shara Worden, and David Byrne! He also includes some insight into the origins of the name of his quartet, Brooklyn Rider. I was fortunate enough to see the performance he references at Jacob’s Pillow.  It’s a fantastic example of how multiple styles, forms, and disciplines collide and borrow to inform compositional decisions.

Colin Jacobsen on Exit

I wrote Exit as part of an evening-length song cycle/dance theater piece called Chalk And Soot in collaboration with choreographer John Heginbotham and his company Dance Heginbotham. The music was written for my quartet, Brooklyn Rider, and the amazing vocalist Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond).

I realize that the song, though only five minutes, packs in a ton of influences. First, there’s Shara herself, whose clear, unaffected, and totally committed singing style has made her a muse to a number of composers—and, of course, she also writes her own great songs. There’s the text, by Wassily Kandinsky from Klange (Sounds), a book of woodcuts and strange, humorous poems that influenced the Swiss Dada artists and Russian Futurists. This is from the time of the Blue Rider Group, which included the likes of the composer Arnold Schoenberg and the painter Franz Marc. (Brooklyn Rider derives its name in part from the inspiration of this cross-disciplinary collective.) This text, though almost more prose than poetry (and in a translated version) still has a wonderful, weird, childlike rhythm and musicality that I thought would work well with dance and the active imagination of John Heginbotham. Finally, at the time I was writing this, I was reading David Byrne’s book encoding his thoughts on music and the creative process, How Music Works. I appreciated his practical, stripped-down and de-mystified approach to creativity. He kind of exemplifies the words in Shara’s song “Be Brave.” Incidentally, check out Brooklyn Rider violinist Johnny Gandelsman grooving out to David Bryne’s song “This Must Be the Place” starting around 1:40.

Feldman, architecture, and primal instinct are a few parts of the complex sphere of influences Camille calls out. It’s fascinating to consider how architecture and physical space can inform sonic choices. Camille turns over her compositional strategies that link the human body as a resonating chamber, the Venice Biennale Nordic pavilion, and the overarching exploration of censored relationships between the body and sound.

Camille Norment on Rapture 2015

Rapture is an audio performance work I created for my participation in the Venice Biennale 2015 in the Nordic Pavilion. The work emerges out of specific sonic and conceptual elements from the sculptural sound installation I created for the pavilion, and on site, it uses the pavilion itself as an instrument. The other voices include the Camille Norment Trio comprised of myself primarily on glass armonica and text, Håvard Skaset on electric guitar, and Vegar Vårdal on Hardanger fiddle; David Toop on flute, electronics, and text; the Oslo 14 vocal ensemble; and Sofia Jernberg’s powerful solo vocalizations.

A significant influence for this work was the conceptual positioning that I had towards my earlier Toll project. In Rapture, I wanted to further the exploration of censored relationships between the body and sound. Tonally, I centered Rapture around the tritone interval, which is simply any combination of two notes that are six half-steps apart. The tritone was banned in the medieval period and thought to be sinister due to the unease of its sound and lack of tonal resolution. Here, I can also reference experimental composer Arne Norheim, who once said, “Music lives in the realm between poetry and catastrophe.” Seeking to suspend the sonic experience in a space between ecstasy and trauma, I gave the tritone to the all-female chorus members to sing, as one elongated breath at a time. The effect the chorus has as functioning simultaneously as a whole and as individuals has some likeness to the third movement of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. In both the Rapture installation and performances, however, I took this function more to an extreme, and placed emphasis on the voices belonging to physical bodies. I also used the Nordic pavilion itself as a body within this framework, attaching audio exciters to the large shards of broken glass and exciting them with tones from the glass armonica. The glass armonica, like the Hardanger fiddle and electric guitar, was once banned for fear of the power of its music over the body and in fear of its use to rupture social norms, especially related to the female body, music, and sexuality. Sofia Jernberg has an ability to adeptly perform what I refer to as ‘pre-lingual’ vocalization—a type of vocal communication that just precedes language and relies primarily on musical texture. My research into hysteria (also shell shock) guided my crafting of Sofia’s contribution, and brought the work full circle, back to the body, music, society, and the tensions between raptures (ecstasy) and ruptures (traumas).

Jeff Arnal

Jeff Arnal has worked in the arts and nonprofit sector for the past two decades first as a composer and percussionist, and later as a curator, writer, administrator, and producer. Currently he lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he is the artistic director of Free Range Asheville, a platform for performance, research, and discourse.

How To Be Culturally Relevant

Sharing ideas
Composers spend an awful lot of time worrying about whether or not what we do is culturally relevant. Many discussions start from the assumption that it’s not; the only question is how we’re going to make ourselves relevant before our art form shrivels away like a neglected houseplant.
Whenever I hear words like “relevant” or “important,” I always want to ask, “relevant or important to whom?” When that detail is left out, these words become codes or shorthands: “important” means “important to Serious Art People,” and “relevant” means “relevant to Real-World Audiences.” But “Real-World Audiences” is a code too, because the people who use the phrase seem to have a pretty narrow idea of who counts as real. Other musicians? Not real. Artists in other media? Not real. College students and faculty? Not real. People over 40? Not real. You can sell out a huge concert hall, but if everyone there falls into one or more of the above categories, you’ll still have people citing your show as evidence of classical music’s imminent demise. Because when people say “culturally relevant,” what they really mean is “relevant to young people with mainstream tastes.” And “mainstream tastes,” unfortunately, doesn’t include classical music.

No other form of experimental music-making holds itself to this kind of standard. Japanese noise artists, for example, don’t seem to worry about whether or not their enthusiastic but small audience is a “real-world” one, and I’ve never heard anyone say that in order for them to justify what they’re doing, they have to appeal to people who aren’t interested in what they’re doing. “Why should non-mainstream music reach out to wider audiences?” asked Masami Akita in a recent interview. “These days, everything is diversified and it’s OK to have many different non-mainstream musics for non-mainstream music lovers.”

I actually do think that outreach is important and valuable. And I think the audience for classical music, and new music in particular, could be larger than it currently is. But our habit of dismissing the audience we already have as “unreal” has made me pretty skeptical of “cultural relevance” as a concept.

And yet something happened recently that made me reconsider. I’d been listening to Weird Sister, the newest release from a post-punk band with the wonderful name of Joanna Gruesome, and at a certain point I noticed something odd. The album reminds me by turns of Sonic Youth, Pixies, Bikini Kill, My Bloody Valentine, Splendora—but nothing that’s happened since. It’s not that the band doesn’t have an original voice; it’s that they sound like a band with an original voice from 1993. I like them, but I can’t figure out how to plug them into the cultural landscape of 2013.

I don’t think it’s bad to make something that seems like it’s from another era. There’s room in the world for all kinds of art, and that includes retro art. But I also think that “how does this relate to other things from its own time?” is a more productive question for composers than “does this appeal to young people with mainstream tastes?” And those relationships can pop up in unexpected places. Sometimes, if you zoom out far enough, even the most seemingly hermetic avant-garde music sounds like it’s having a conversation with other styles and genres from the same era. Just look at Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, whose instrumentation—including alto flute, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba, and bongos—wouldn’t be too out of place on a 1950s exotica or lounge album. I also remember listening to a 1973 recording of André Boucourechliev’s open-form composition Anarchipel and suddenly being struck by how much certain dense, skittering passages reminded me of Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness, released two years earlier. Were those connections intentional? Probably not—but there was something in the air.
Those are isolated examples, but sometimes a single idea will show up again and again, across multiple styles and media, in a particular period of time. For example: the collage boom of the 1960s, which showed up in avant-garde composition (Berio’s Sinfonia, Stockhausen’s Hymnen), in psychedelic rock (“Revolution 9,” early Frank Zappa albums), in Pop Art (Tom Wesselman, Robert Rauschenberg), in films both experimental (Jan Švankmajer’s “Historia Naturae, Suita”) and mainstream (the acid-trip scene in Easy Rider), and even in advertising (“The Paperwork Explosion,” an IBM promo by a young Jim Henson).

Another example, which doesn’t get talked about as often: all the art from the 1980s that depicts a world made inhuman by suburban sprawl and global technological networks. You see it in contemporary opera (Robert Ashley’s Improvement and eL/Aficionado), in New Wave (Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby), and in whatever you want to call Laurie Anderson’s Big Science (“take a left at what’s going to be the new sports center, and keep going until you hit the place where they’re thinking of building that drive-in bank”). You also see it in the hyperreal domestic photographs of Tina Barney, the ultra-stylized suburbia of Bruce Charlesworth’s installations, and the Talking Heads’s film True Stories.

All the articles I’m writing for NewMusicBox this month deal with the issue of composers drawing on sources outside the perceived mainstream of “new music.” Last week, I took issue with one of the common arguments against it, but I didn’t say anything about why someone would want to do it in the first place. Different composers will give different answers, of course. But one possible reason is that when artists who work in different styles, in different media, and at different levels of mainstream exposure share ideas, they can create something larger than themselves—a complex tangle of interconnections that links their work together and gives it extra layers of meaning. And I’d like to think that if composers participated more often in these artistic conversations, they might not worry so much about being culturally irrelevant.

One final note: a few people were concerned that my previous article didn’t address the political and ethical issues that come up when different artistic cultures interact with each other—and I’m sure some of you were thinking the same thing as you read this one. No need to worry: that’s exactly what my next article is going to be about. See you in a week!

The Influence Engine: Steve Reich and Pop Music

When Steve Reich’s new work for ensemble, Radio Rewrite, was given its world premiere by the London Sinfonietta earlier this month (it was subsequently premiered in the U.S. by Alarm Will Sound on March 16), I was asked to provide a program essay on the influence Reich has had on popular music, and vice versa. Radio Rewrite takes material from two songs by the British rock band Radiohead—“Everything in its right place” from their 2000 album Kid A, and “Jigsaw falling into place” from 2007’s In Rainbows. So the theme of popular/classical cross-influence pretty much jumps out at you.

Indeed, it’s a subject I’ve investigated before, in 2011 for another London event, “Reverberations: The Influence of Steve Reich,” a two-day celebration of Reich’s influence on classical and especially popular musicians. But on both occasions it was a subject about which I felt uncomfortable writing. Reich’s development—from his student works, through the early tape and phasing pieces, to masterworks like Music for 18 Musicians and beyond—does indeed run in parallel with the development of popular music from the 1960s to the 2010s. Many claims are made for his influence on pop, rock, house, techno, and even rap. And there are points of convergence, certainly. But such claims are often made by stakeholders in a narrative of Reich (and/or minimalism) as the savior of Western classical music from its serial/avant-garde(/European) doldrums.

I’ve come to think of this reception mechanism as a kind of “influence engine,” almost as self-generative as Reich’s own early music. Reich’s promoters want to hook him into the popular zeitgeist; non-classical musicians are happy to play along. Popular music appears to gain credibility; new music appears to gain relevance. As long as the “influence” of Reich’s music can be traced back up the chain, the narrative will keep feeding itself.

But there are two risks to leaving the engine running unchecked. First, that we perpetuate a trickle-down theory of musical influence, in which the best bits of popular music are presented as originating only in high (white, Western) art. And second, that classical music can only be validated by the impact it has had on popular culture. We need to ask: How much genuine contact is involved here, and how much wishful revisionism?

Jonny Greenwood playing Electric Counterpoint in Krakow

Jonny Greenwood playing Electric Counterpoint in Krakow
Photo by Tomasz Wiech for Krakow Festival Office. Used with permission.

The Reich Meme
Minimalism’s breakthrough in the mid-1970s coincided with the height of disco. As Robert Fink notes in Repeating Ourselves[1], the premiere of Music for 18 Musicians in March 1976 came just a month after the release of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s 17-minute groundbreaker “Love to Love you Baby.” Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach received its premiere that summer in Avignon.

The release in 1978 of Music for 18 Musicians on the hitherto jazz-only label ECM catapulted Reich and minimalism from the galleries and lofts of New York City into the wider consciousness. Magazines like Billboard and Rolling Stone reviewed the disc—which sold more than 10,000 copies—and the overlap between Reich and popular culture became a serious topic. A live performance of the piece that year sold out the Bottom Line club in New York; just months later, a Rolling Stone feature on Glass attempted to argue that minimalism was a precursor of the disco style. In 1984 an article in Harper’s magazine even referred to Reich’s music as a form of “higher disco.”

It is certainly possible to read (as Fink has done) 18 Musicians in conjunction with disco. They share common features: a sprawling scale, a formal language of extended and repeating climaxes and releases, techniques of layering and cross-fading, and a relentless adherence to the beat. And there were occasional individuals—Arthur Russell, for example—who played with their feet in both camps. Yet how much Reich and disco really knew of each other is beside the point. What is clear is that both were attuned to similar musical and technological currents: Afro-diasporic beats; the technology of the turntable, tape loop and cross-fader; and the possibilities of accumulative and layered musical forms.

There were more easily documented, if less high-profile, points of contact with popular music earlier in the decade. Perhaps the most important of these was Brian Eno’s discovery of It’s Gonna Rain in the early 1970s. Eno began experimenting with out-of-phase tape loops with the King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, resulting in the albums No Pussyfooting and Evening Star, and what came to be known as “Frippertronics.” In 1973 he saw Steve Reich and Musicians at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the influence on Eno’s post-Roxy Music work can be documented through solo albums like Another Green World, Discreet Music, and the Ambient series, as well as his work as a producer. In fact, 1973 proved to be a key year, since it also saw the release of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, both enormously influential carriers of minimalist DNA.
In 1976 David Bowie attended the European premiere in Berlin of Music for 18 Musicians. He was working with Eno on his Low album at the time, and the pulsing marimbas and vibraphones of that album’s “Weeping Wall” are an unmistakable homage. Bowie was far from the only rock musician to have felt minimalism’s influence. The Who had already quoted Riley’s arpeggiated keyboard style on “Baba O’Riley”, a track written in 1969 and released in 1971, and Reich’s technique of building up textures through closely spaced canons can be heard throughout prog rock. At its electronic fringes, references to Reich are most pronounced: especially brazen is Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a Real Train,” which was used as the theme to the film Risky Business.

Links between Reich and popular music continued through the 1980s, but the most recent and enduring phase of cross-influence was launched a decade later. The Orb’s sampling of Electric Counterpoint for their 1990 single “Little Fluffy Clouds” simply made explicit the sympathy between late ’80s/early ’90s rave culture and Reich’s glittering, pulse-driven soundscapes. Rave’s biggest act, Orbital (who themselves drew on Reichian timbres in the keyboard riff of “Lush 3” and the layered pianos of “Kein Trink Wasser”), paid a technical homage in their arch use of phasing speech loops for the intro and outro to their second (“Brown”) album of 1993.

Yet musical tastes and ambitions had changed since the ’70s. Electronica and minimalism were bridged in the ’90s by the general desire for individual self-sublimation that permeated popular music of the time, from rave to Nirvana. The attraction of Reich’s music now was its glowing mass, the total dissolving of surface into texture, the effacement of the individual. This idea had already been thematized in the 1970s and early ’80s by Kraftwerk, on albums such as Autobahn, The Man-Machine and Computer World. But in the late ’80s and into the ’90s it was everywhere, on albums as diverse as U2’s The Joshua Tree (produced by Eno), My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II.

Towards the end of the century, as techno matured and its producers became more self-reflective, a new genre—minimal techno, or microhouse—was born. The Reich Remixed album of 1999 may have been devised by Nonesuch records to attract a crossover audience to its Reich discography, but it still struck a chord. Producers had begun to create a new form of techno that was more attuned to minute processes of variation and evolution. Several of them, including Carsten Nicolai, Richie Hawtin, and Nobukazu Takemura, have acknowledged the influence in particular of Reich’s early music. Takemura (a contributor to Reich Remixed) samples Four Organs on his Assembler/Assembler 2 album. Hawtin’s Concept series of 12 inches focused with Reichian obsession on single rhythmic ideas; these were later “remixed” by Thomas Brinkmann into new rhythmic configurations by using a custom twin-arm turntable to play the record against itself. Brinkmann himself has taken Reich’s phasing technique to an extreme on his X100 record, which consists of just a click, a tone, and a bass kick recorded on two slightly out of phase grooves for the duration of one LP side. The Reich meme had morphed once more, into the validation for a hyper-modern aesthetic of automatism.


Before he met Terry Riley in 1964 and began working with tapes and tape loops, Reich claimed three major influences on his music: Bach, Stravinsky, and jazz. The last of these was most influential, particularly the playing of John Coltrane, whom Reich saw play many times at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop club in the early 1960s.

Reich was fortunately placed to be able to see, as an open-minded composition student, the unfolding of one of the great individual creative periods in 20th-century music. Watching Coltrane, along with players such as Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison, forge a jazz revolution must have been a little like sitting in on the Beatles’ sessions between Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper, or flat-sharing with Stockhausen in the mid-1950s.

Of course, Reich has acknowledged the influence of Coltrane many times. In particular, he has mentioned the importance of his 1961 Africa/Brass album, and listening back it’s not hard to hear why.
Africa/Brass was Coltrane’s first recording (of seven) for the newly formed Impulse! Records. Around this time, Coltrane’s palette of influences opened up considerably. North Indian music, via Ravi Shankar, had already led to Coltrane replacing chord changes with one- or two-chord drones (most famously on the album My Favorite Things, the last he recorded before beginning the Africa/Brass sessions). He had also begun to listen to West African, particularly Ghanaian, music. Hints of structural concepts borrowed from West African drumming also start to appear on his version of the “My Favorite Things” standard, in which sections are repeated until the leader plays a musical cue signaling everyone to move on to the next section.

While preparing for Africa/Brass, Coltrane listened to many African records for rhythmic inspiration. This was partly an urge to get away from the strictures of 4/4 time, but it also contributed to Coltrane’s broader project to move jazz improvisation away from pre-determined changes. By dropping the changes, the musical focus shifted from harmony and towards rhythm and melody. Elvin Jones capitalized on this opportunity to fashion a unique playing style that was indebted to West African drumming. Coltrane used his new freedom to focus on melodic creativity. “I had to make the melody as I went along. But at least I’m trying to think of a melody, I’m not referring to the chords to get the melody.” For the avant-gardist Ornette Coleman, another important influence on Coltrane at this time, this change in emphasis took on political connotations: “not referring to the chords” was an issue of authorship and ownership.

The “African-ness” of this shift runs deep. As documented by Steven Feld[2], Coltrane has become an inspiration to Ghanaian jazz musicians like Nii Noi Nortey, Nii Otoo Annan, and Ghanaba (Guy Warren), who see in him a kindred, diasporic spirit. Nortey says, in Feld’s book:

And the drummers, all them drummers [Jones, Rashied Ali and others], were playing something nearer to what I heard in Africa, in terms of complexities and tonalities and all kinds of things. I heard more of the African things in these drummers. I heard the drums overlapping and hooking up like our drummers do, and over that I can hear Coltrane as a drummer playing the saxophone, working his rhythms too. … He stopped playing all those chord changes and reduced them to one or two, which is also very African, because we tend to move at that level of keeping the music simple.

In many respects—its patterns of repetition, flow, and rupture, and its emphasis on the beat—Africa/Brass is typical of the music of the African (particularly West African) diaspora. To these Coltrane adds modality, an emphasis on massed sound, harmonic stasis, and a way of building form by adding or subtracting layers. We might recognize in these many of the planks of Reich’s minimalist style. Even details such as unison signals to mark the changes between sections are present and have, as we have already seen, their origins in Ghanaian drumming.

In fact, Reich wasn’t just listening to Coltrane at this time. Like the saxophonist, he was also listening to records of African music—conceivably the same ones, even. The timeline is unclear from Reich’s various biographers, but he certainly knew African music in the early ’60s while at Mills, and may have even discovered it in the mid-1950s while studying at Cornell. In 1962, he was taken to the Ojai Festival by his Mills teacher, Luciano Berio, who was the festival’s composer-in-residence. Here he heard Gunther Schuller talk on the subject of African music.

Schuller made reference to A. M. Jones’s seminal study of Ghanaian drumming, Studies in African Music, which Reich bought immediately. In its second volume, Jones’s book sets out some of the first complete transcriptions of Ewe drumming pieces, and Reich gladly immersed himself. Now he was able to see how the music that he (and presumably Coltrane) had been listening to was constructed. West African music, via Coltrane’s jazz and Jones’s transcriptions, was now imprinted on his imagination. When he traveled to Ghana for real, nearly a decade later, he writes of his visit not as a discovery, but as “basically confirmation: that writing for acoustic instruments playing repeating patterns of a percussive nature was a viable means of making music, and had an ancient history.”[3]

The Influence Engine
Music for 18 Musicians
A tangled web soon emerges when one begins to lay out the explicit or implicit relationship between Reich and popular music.[4] A feature of that web is its increasing circularity: the chains of influence rarely extend in single, straight lines, but tend to loop through a small number of nodes. At the start, those nodes are perhaps John Coltrane and Ghanaian music. A later one might be Giorgio Moroder; Brian Eno can certainly be added, as well as Kraftwerk and Mike Oldfield. The Orb, to name just one act, couldn’t have happened without these latter three. As the decades pass, new nodes are added, but the loops continue to pass up the chain. Since the late 1980s and the self-awareness of music history brought about by CDs and digital distribution, curious artists are more easily able to follow these chains of influence back as far as they like.

And those artists keep coming back to Reich. So in recent years we’ve seen Reich perform with Kraftwerk (Manchester Velodrome, 2009); billed alongside Orbital, Richie Hawtin, and Riccardo Villalobos (the aborted Bloc festival, London, 2012); programmed beside Lee Ranaldo, Tyondai Braxton, and Owen Pallett (Reverberations, London, 2011); and performed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (Kraków, 2011). And Reich himself flirted with the idea of writing 2×5 for Radiohead, before turning his attention fully to their music with Radio Rewrite.

I find the resilience of this phenomenon interesting. Why the urge to keep returning up the chain? And why is Reich, not Coltrane before him, or any of those rock and dance musicians in the 1970s from just after he established his style, that chain’s eternal endpoint? The answers to those questions say something not only about Reich’s music, but about our response to it and how we rationalize minimalism’s place within music history.

For those stakeholders I mentioned at the start of this article—critics, marketers, record companies, performance venues, ensembles, and the composer himself—the benefits are clear: the story of Reich’s influence on popular music helps him assert a position against Schoenberg, serialism, and all that. For the composer, it is a way to position himself within a canon of classical forebears who kept open the window between popular and classical music: Josquin, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ives, Weill, and Bartók are among those names he has mentioned in this context. (NB: His own teacher, Berio, composer of Folk Songs, Coro, and Sequenza XIII, and arranger of Beatles songs, does not make this list.) For popular musicians there are prestige and validation, should they want them. There is a cachet of a sort in being able to claim an aesthetic lineage from an esteemed classical composer.

The influence engine encourages us to view Reich’s music as the fountainhead of so many subsequent styles. Yet I wonder if it might not be more fruitful to think of its persistence as a result of its basis in an Afro-diasporic template—that is structured around repetitions, breaks, and accumulation, and prioritizes rhythm and melody—derived from Coltrane and other musicians, and that itself underpins much black music from blues to rap. In Music for 18 Musicians and other works, Reich brilliantly crystallized that template into something that, as history has shown, could inspire in many different directions at once. He took the biggest step in the chain I have described. Perhaps it will require a similar act of creative reception to refresh our understanding of Reich’s place in recent music history.


1. Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (University of California Press, 2005)

2. Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra (Duke University Press, 2009)

3. ‘Hebrew Cantillation as an Influence on Composition’ (1982), in Writings on Music, 1965–2000, ed. Paul Hillier (Oxford University Press, 2002), p.106

4. Ross Cole unpicks a number of threads from Reich’s San Francisco years in “‘Fun, Yes, but Music?’ Steve Reich and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Cultural Nexus, 1962–65,” Journal of the Society for American Music, vi (2012), 315–48


Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes on contemporary music for a number of publications, including his blog, The Rambler. His new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Music was published in September.

Century of the Rite

I have two indelible memories pertaining to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The first is an unquestionably embarrassing one. I was working on my first, flawed orchestra piece at a summer music festival and was showing my bare-bones sketches to our composition teacher there. At that point, those sketches consisted mostly of thematic ideas placed on the nearest convenient staff—there was little to no orchestrational thinking present at all, and what was there was pretty boilerplate. I fully intended to get around to fixing that eventually, but that didn’t stop the teacher from launching into a diatribe about creative orchestration that reached its apex with him singing to me that famous high bassoon melody that inaugurates the Rite: you know, daaah-dee-dee-dee-dah-dah-dah-daaaaah. I don’t know if it was the stress of the situation or his off-key singing, but I didn’t recognize the reference and stared at him blankly. The next day he told the assembled composition class that “a certain student from a prominent music school” didn’t know The Rite of Spring, in order to make some kind of point—I forget what. He avoided mentioning me by name, but I nonetheless felt humiliated.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always held a little bit of a grudge against Stravinsky’s magnum opus. Because it was true—I didn’t know The Rite of Spring, or at least not as well as I should have. When I finally sat down to really study it, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard this all before. And I guess I had, not just in the piece itself, but in the countless pale reflections that composers all around me seemed to be churning out. As always, I couldn’t fault Stravinsky for the brilliance of his ideas or the unimpeachable precision of his execution, but it didn’t have the earth-shattering impact on me that it seemed to have on so many others. I was puzzled. Maybe I had come to it too late? Maybe it was like The Catcher in the Rye, and you needed to discover it at a certain point in your development to truly appreciate it.

It wasn’t until many years later that I actually came to fully embrace the Rite. I was at a live performance in an outdoor setting in a rural community, and enjoying it immensely. The natural setting, exposed to the elements, seemed particularly appropriate for the more primitivist aspects of the piece. There was a dirt road leading to the parking lot along the right edge of the performance space, and in the midst of the “Danse des adolescentes” (I think), a car drove by, laying on the horn for about five seconds on its way out.

Somehow, that incident made me infinitely more sympathetic to the Rite. I had glimpsed, for a moment, a shadow of the piece’s power to incite riot. There is something permanently radical about it, something deeply unsettling to some people even 100 years later. It serves as a kind of signpost, marking the boundary between the traditional and the avant-garde, and I have the feeling that it will always be there. Musical borders are changing all the time, but Stravinsky may have staked out that territory for good.

Still, a tiny part of me can’t help but resent its place as the piece of the 20th century, because I’m not sure its influence has been an entirely happy one. Some pieces inspire composers to strike out in new directions, but the Rite often seems to have the opposite effect on composers who want to duplicate its brutal majesty. The Rite of Spring has reigned unopposed for a century—maybe it’s time for a transfer of power?

To Shape a Nation

Earlier this week, NPR broadcasted an illuminating story about an exhibit at the Library of Congress titled “Books That Shaped America.” For the exhibit, the LoC has gathered 88 books—ranging from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos—which in some way “encapsulated and reflected a moment of time in America that Americans understood and recognized in themselves.” Historians, curators, poets, scientists, and literary experts all took part in the culling and selecting of the titles, and during the segment it doesn’t take long for the host to bring on a book critic from the Washington Post to point out what books did not make it onto the final list.

In any case, a story like this immediately begs the question: “What about music?” One could argue that music has had as strong of an impact on this country and its people as books have had, and over the years there have been quite a few attempts at addressing that question. In 2000, for instance, NPR went through a similar process as the Library of Congress and put together an initial list of 300 works that they subsequently reduced down to the “100 most important American musical works of the 20th century.”

On that initial list of 300, the selected concert works were as follows:

1. Adagio for Strings (Barber)*

2. African-American Symphony (Still)

3. Amahl and the Night Visitors (Menotti)

4. Appalachian Spring (Copland)*

5. Ballet Mechanique (Antheil)

6. Drumming (Reich)*

7. Ebony Concerto (Stravinsky)

8. Einstein on the Beach (Glass)

9. Fanfare for the Common Man (Copland)

10. “4:33” (Cage)*

11. Grand Canyon Suite (Grofe)*

12. Hymn and Fuguing Tunes Series (Cowell)

13. In C (Riley)

14. The Incredible Flutist (Piston)

15. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (Barber)

16. Moby Dick (Mennin)

17. Nixon in China (Adams)

18. Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord Sonata” (Ives)

19. Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin)*

20. String Quartet No. 3 (Carter)

21. Susannah(Floyd)

22. Symphony No. 1 (Zwilich)

23. Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” (Hansen)

24. Symphony No. 3 (Harris)

25. Symphony No. 3 (Riegger)

26. Symphony No. 3 (Schuman)

27. Symphony of Psalms (Stravinsky)*

28. Symphony of Rage and Remembrance (Corigliano)

* works that were selected for the 100 top works list

During the NPR segment I mentioned above, they took several calls to hear about how this or that book affected a particular person’s life, and it’s here where I think this exercise might be valuable and/or enlightening. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that a very few of these pieces actually resonated with the majority of the country as a whole (Appalachian Spring is probably as close to a publicly recognizable national concert work as we have). However, I would think that at least a few of these works (and many others) were important in shaping the lives of individual composers and performers here in the U.S. today.

To take that one step further, the idea of discovering what works of American origin have become shared experiences between American composers that transcend generation, education, and environment is an interesting one. Yes, one could rightly open up such an exercise to works from outside the U.S., but, as with the Library of Congress’s exhibit, there is value in discovering what effect art has on the native population where it was created—especially in such a heterogeneous population such as ours. We in the arts have prided ourselves on being so open to influences from around the world that I’m afraid we haven’t taken enough time to look at how we are affected, with certain exceptions (various popular/vernacular genres, etc.), by home-grown influences.

When I speak of influences, there are many different ways that a musical work can influence a composer or performer. In my own career, I can distinctly remember listening to Michael Torke’s CD Javelin in 1996 and being very surprised by it, especially the chamber work Adjustable Wrench. I had primarily had experiences in jazz and I was living in Los Angeles becoming immersed in the film music scene, so my concept of what concert music was at that time was till pretty “crunchy.” After listening to the CD several times, I realized that all those angular, dissonant associations I had with concert music might not be the only option any more. Soon I came across other composers who were writing more diatonically—Lauridsen, Pärt, Gorecki—and while most of my music today has no relationship to any of those works or composers, discovering those works did ultimately help to convince me that I might want to try my hand at being a concert composer.

Below are two questions to readers—feel free to answer either one or both. I’m not looking to create a ranking or a “Best Of…”, but rather to begin to build a picture of which American works have been influential to composers and performers active today. Thanks in advance for taking part!

1. What American concert work or works have somehow influenced you personally, artistically, or otherwise?

2. What American concert work or works would you add to NPR’s list of music that you think has had an important impact on the country as a whole?