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Why would anyone expect a choir to be able to sing microtones? All the literature seems to be on their limitations. Everyone knows that choirs are devastatingly conservative, anyway. They, and their audiences, would surely revolt at the slightest hint of strangeness. There are some who celebrate this paradigm, saying that the limitations on the massed human voice have constrained choral music to a more traditional style in the face of modernity, and that it’s a good thing they have!
This obviously rules out microtonal music of any sort. That stuff is pretty weird.
Why would anyone expect a choir to be able to sing microtones?
But—of course—there are cracks in this theory. Looking beyond the Western choral paradigm, the world overflows with examples of formidable vocal control. There are Indian, Turkish, and Arabic singers, for whom a fundamental part of music is very tiny intervals, without which the very identity of a given melody would be compromised. The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, in particular, was not just an apt practitioner of these microtonal gradations in interval quality: she was the authority on proper intonation (see Farraj and Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 2019).
And even within the Western music scene, there is the idea of Just Intonation: the pure arithmetical tuning of chords, as distinct from our modern 12-tone, logarithmic tuning. This has slowly worked its way into general choral consciousness over the last century or two, having been abandoned only relatively recently, post-Renaissance.
A Renaissance-era drawing of a monochord showing the placement of frets to correspond to various Just Intonation intervals.
But, as many can attest who have professionally recorded themselves singing, the limitations of human pitch control are something to contend with. These limits are humiliatingly displayed by taking a look at what you thought was a pretty decent take, through pitch analysis software like Melodyne. Was I really that many cents off?
Composers may sigh and shake their head, thinking, “Sure, microtonal singing is possible. But unless I’m commissioned by Exaudi or Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart or Roomful of Teeth, it’s not going to happen if I call for it!”
Spoiler alert: it can. I am a choral composer and conductor, and I am also a microtonalist. I’ve recently had some successes with microtonal pedagogy for choirs, which will be the specific topic of the sequel to this article. After that, my piece vokas animo, for choir and orchestra in 72 tones per octave, will have a performance video posted to this site.
How could such a thing occur? My case might be especially unlikely. Until relatively recently, I had no exposure to ensembles like those listed above—small, professional vocal ensembles who routinely play around with extremely tiny intervals. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and never left. It’s a choir town, fed by the excellent and internationally recognized choral conducting graduate program at the University of Arizona; but it’s not exactly a hotbed of new music.
So this first article is about how I found microtonality, or how it found me, through collisions with writers and aspects of culture that are not, by and large, much associated with new music. It’s about how microtonal thinking influenced the music I made, and how that process came to inform the way that I now teach it to choirs. To normal singers.
Because, if I could learn it, why can’t they?
Beginnings: Rejecting Tonality
I came to music later than many of my colleagues. Before age 11, I didn’t even listen to it much. But by 14, I had picked up the guitar and learned some rock and flamenco songs from guitar tabs. At 16, I learned how to actually read music, and then worked through a secondhand harmony textbook while my friend was taking a music theory class. So I remember my struggles with the basics very clearly, and the triumphs as well. I can still taste the deliciousness of finding out about augmented 6th chords—like forbidden fruit! More fundamentally, I remember the visceral feeling when, in about 7th grade, my choir teacher first demonstrated a major chord in contrast with a minor chord on the piano. The difference was so powerful, yet so subtle! I couldn’t figure out what was changing.
Learning how these things were put together was electrifying. So on that background—with music still in its honeymoon phase, still bright and new—came my first introduction to microtones.
When I was about 16 or 17, a hyperlink on some forgotten website took me to www.anti-theory.com, a manifesto written by Q. Reed Ghazala, on something called “circuit-bending.” He described how he would painstakingly, semi-randomly alter the guts of electronic toys so they produced new and powerful noises. I ended up on a page describing an object called the “Deep Photon Bassoon,” over which a player would wave their hand and produce theremin-like glissandos. But also, using the other hand, a player could do something which sounded insane to me: cause the pitches to resolve into steps—but in “arbitrary scale divisions (how many pitches might occur between octaves).”
This was the new coolest thing I had ever heard.
A 1989 Kawasaki toy guitar used in a circuit bending project – Image by Greg Francke – used under Creative Commons Attribution license
There was no YouTube quite yet. So, aside from the occasionally terrifying sound clips on Ghazala’s website, I only came across one other example of this during that period of my life. This was the guitar solo to The Doors’ “When The Music’s Over.” (The part in question starts a bit after 2’50”)
It sounded absolutely unmoored from everything around it, sounded like the guitarist was using a slide without regard for fret positions. I thought, “That’s it, that’s what arbitrary scale divisions sound like!”
Fifteen years later, it turns out that he didn’t use a slide. And it’s not really in “arbitrary scale divisions”—it just has plenty of microtonal bends. Still, the heavily chromatic and semi-aleatoric non-melodies, the oft-warped pitch, the ametrical rhythms, and the bizarre, alien timbre had combined to create a passage which emphatically divorces itself from the music that surrounds it.
Coming back to the specific case of microtonal choral music, we can directly compare the use of microtones in this solo—and the resulting polyphonic texture—to the first movement of Giacinto Scelsi’s 1958 compositon Tre Canti Sacri, especially during the second minute of the piece.
This is a piece in which gestures are king, superseding melody; and in which intervals are arguably used for their timbre, ranging in dissonance from pure unisons and 5ths all the way to fast-beating quarter tones. The atmosphere is tense and alien—a favorite atmosphere in 20th-century art music. And, though Scelsi’s piece is tightly focused, in contrast to Robby Krieger’s freewheeling solo(s), microtonality was used as a tool to achieve the same effect in each: to exit the tonal hierarchy, to momentarily free the listener from those associations.
This sort of thing might make a choir director nervous.
Tonal hierarchies are half of what singers use to produce pitches at all … But it needn’t be a non-starter.
After all, tonal hierarchies are half of what singers use to produce pitches at all, not having any keys on our throats. But it needn’t be a non-starter. First: there are rational ways to approach a piece like this, using what is familiar in the music as a support structure. And second: music which uses microtonality specifically to reject familiar structures rarely requires precise intonation to succeed.
In the Scelsi, much of the time, I would say that an error of even 30 cents or so in either direction—unacceptable in tonal contexts—would still convey the necessary information. (For a fascinating case study of this sort of thing in instrumental microtonal music, see Knipper and Kreutz, Exploring Microtonal Performance of ‘…Plainte…’ by Klaus Huber, 2013.)
Even in this excellent recording, we do hear such variation. For example: the quarter-tonal diad between Tenor 1’s B ¼-sharp and Contralto 2’s C natural in measure 17 (about 0:38) is virtually a unison, whereas the one in measure 45 (1:39) between Tenor 1’s E natural and Tenor 2’s D ¾-sharp is much wider, even approaching a semitone. Nevertheless, I am confident that few would accuse Neue Vocalsolisten of doing injury to Scelsi’s piece!
The Other Side of The Coin: Expanding Tonality
We return to a time before I had heard of Scelsi. I was just beginning to really study composition, and fortuitously stumbled across a book while housesitting for a family friend. This was Ernst Toch’s The Shaping Forces in Music. Published in 1948, the book is an engrossing (and largely ignored) attempt to find commonality of practice between tonality and atonality. But one section, only a few pages long, stood out. In this, Toch advocated microtonality as potentially compatible with all musical approaches. He even discussed how it might have provided a neat solution to a “problem” that Beethoven, of all people, ran into (at 6’03”):
In Toch’s words: “Around the advent of [bar 8]… [the] smooth rhythmical flow of the bass is balked for three beats, there being no more moving space left for the descending voice. …[T]he problem could be solved by the use of quarter-tones as shown.” Here is one of his potential solutions (he also changed the inner voices for clarity’s sake):
Ernst Toch’s quartertonal reworking of a Beethoven bass line.
And he suggested singing it as a practical means to experiencing it. “It is recommended that the quarter-tone passage of the bass be sung, while playing the rest of the voices on the piano. One will be surprised at the facility of the task, its novelty being sufficiently eased by its tangible logic.” For me, this was one of those quotes that stuck. I took Toch’s advice, later, writing unobtrusive microtonal basslines and vocal harmonies, whenever a particular tonal problem spot seemed to require a microtonal solution.
Shortly after encountering Toch, I went to a choral conference, and someone mentioned Just Intonation for choirs—as a tuning strategy for conventional music. It seemed arcane and I forgot all the cents offset values, though it was interesting.
I also took a strange class on building instruments out of scrap metal, for which the textbook was Musical Instrument Design by Bart Hopkin. (It’s an excellent book on “outsider” approaches.) That book discusses Just Intonation a bit, and most importantly for me, it has a tuning chart in the back. This compares 12-tone equal temperament with several other systems, both JI and different equal divisions of the octave. Harry Partch’s collection of 43 tones was included. I was amazed at the sheer variety of intervals that apparently made some kind of harmonic sense. (I didn’t actually hear his music until years later.)
With all this kicking around in my head, I started playing with a rock band, and we recorded an album. One particular take on guitar had an incredible timbre, but it also had an error, so we had to redo it. But I couldn’t duplicate the timbre! After extended frustration and tinkering, we discovered that the guitar on the first take had been slightly knocked out of tune; so the major third had been flatter than usual. When I had routinely re-tuned it for the overdub, that property was erased. So, remembering the Hopkin book, I tried tuning the offending string to the 5th harmonic; and lo, there was that timbre again! A weirdly resonant and supported sound for a major triad on overdriven guitar. I thought, “So that’s what Just Intonation does.”
Later, dense vocal harmony became part of the aforementioned rock band’s schtick, but we struggled to stay in tune in live situations. So, with the guitar experience in mind, I looked for some kind of reference to use to help us out. That turned out to be W. A. Mathieu’s Harmonic Experience, a manual for understanding Just Intonation in practice (and applying it to jazz harmony). The band didn’t end up using any of the exercises—more’s the pity!—but the book showed me how it could be necessary to shift sustained tones by tiny intervals, “commas,” in order to maintain pure tuning as the underlying harmony changed. But, more importantly for Mathieu, it discussed the bodily feeling of pure tuning. That’s the way to learn these new/old intervals.
And old they are. Nicolà Vicentino wrote pieces which encapsulate parts of both Mathieu’s and Toch’s thinking—in the year 1555. Here’s one of them performed by Exaudi:
This has both Just Intonation-esque aspects—very narrow major 3rds and very wide minor 3rds—and quartertonal-esque aspects, which resemble Toch’s insertion of intervening microtones in an otherwise chromatic line. In the middle of what we would now call a V-I progression in G, Vicentino places an “extra” leading tone between the F# and the G. Unlike Toch, he tunes a whole chord to this intervening tone. This happens at 0:18—see the score excerpt below (lyrics simplified).
Score excerpt of Nicolà Vicentino’s “Dolce mio ben”
It’s not truly quartertonal, nor truly Just Intonation. It’s really in 31-tone equal temperament, whose modern standard notation slightly reinterprets all the chromatic and quartertonal accidentals; but it should still be clear what’s going on. Vicentino loves this type of figure, by the way, and it pops up all the time in his surviving microtonal music.
I had been exposed to two completely different philosophies of microtonality: Either escape The System, or help it to become somehow more itself.
So, well before I took the plunge and resolved to compose in microtones—and, in so doing, got up to speed with the voluminous literature and repertoire that’s actually out there—I had been exposed to two completely different philosophies of microtonality. Either escape The System, or help it to become somehow more itself. And on the surface, those categories seem to have held up pretty well, in terms of guidance for interpreting a given passage.
One thing, though, that I wish I had been able to read as a teenager is some sort of comprehensive overview of all the ways people have used microtonality in Western music. Until very recently, nothing of the kind seemed to be around—everything had its relatively narrow agenda, and was too technical for my teenage self anyway. As we’ve seen, I was left to gradually pick up an incomplete picture from here and there. But last year, Kyle Gann published The Arithmetic of Listening, and now none of us need suffer that fate.
That book is possibly the most important microtonal resource that exists today. This is because it is, indeed, a survey of many of the ways microtonality has been used; but it’s also an entire paradigm for how microtonality can be taught. Tuning concepts like Pythagorean, meantone, 12-equal, and Barbershop intonation are explored through the lens of gradually adding prime limits to the harmonic vocabulary. After the 13-limit is passed (with discussions of Ben Johnston, Toby Twining, and Gann’s own Hyperchromatica), the conversation branches off into equal divisions of the octave, covering not just what they are, but what they do. This includes the single most helpful introduction to Regular Temperament Theory that I’ve ever encountered, which will be a life raft for anyone who has attempted to swim in the turbid internet waters that cover this subject.
Kyle Gann’s The Arithmetic of Listening is possibly the most important microtonal resource that exists today.
There are things with which I disagree: his thumbnail analysis of Ezra Sims’ String Quartet No. 5, for example, is done exclusively in terms of edo-steps—despite also quoting Sims multiple times to the effect that his use of 72tet is meant to be harmonic (i.e. ratio-based). And the brief section on non-Western tuning systems is so thoroughly salted with disclaimers (such as “not to be taken as fairly representative of how those cultures understand their own music”) that it comes across as, well, a bit salty. And anyone looking for strictly atonal resources in this book will leave disappointed—the book does not much discuss organized ways of using microtonal structures without reference to a global or local tonic (i.e. 1/1). Still, despite these and other quibbles, The Arithmetic of Listening is the first book I would recommend to anyone who wants a serious introduction to microtonality. I wish the world had had it sooner.
The Facility of The Task
But back to the narrative at hand: the ways in which I first experienced microtonal techniques are very approachable for beginners, and I consider this a fantastic stroke of luck.
Why can you sing in-between pitches? Because they’re in between.
Why can you sing in-between pitches? Because they’re in between. You are leaving somewhere and arriving somewhere, and both of those places are fixed and familiar. When I recorded a Toch-ian “double leading tone” in a background vocal for a country song, it was totally natural in context, just a slight extension of a normal voice-leading thing that happens in pop styles. It hardly took any practice at all to get that take. Anyone can do it: and I’ve taught people to do it.
Why can you sing JI intervals? Because, as Mathieu said, they are felt as much as heard. For all that Just Intonation is a theoretical construct just like everything else, it remains true that it provides easy perceptual landmarks to hit. When you’re singing in tune, it locks—just ask a barbershop ensemble. They know how to sing a perfect 7/4: not because of the ratio, or because it’s 31 cents flatter than an equal-tempered minor 7th, or whatever. Plenty of those guys can’t even read music. They know because the chord rings, in a way that stands out from the results of other nearby tunings. So, why can’t the rest of us learn such new consonances? Some are a bit more challenging than 7/4, but many are not that much more challenging. And again, I’ve had some success teaching people who aren’t by any stretch avant-garde.
Outside of these applications (which, by the way, are already infiltrating pop music via such acts as Jacob Collier and They Might Be Giants), it is well for us to recall that there is a huge range of learnable intervals in the world—far more than the simpler Just Intonation ratios. Many cultures use intervals which correspond to no particular harmonic “landmark” at all. So, a precise tuning standard clearly needn’t be dependent on acoustic phenomena per se.
It’s harder to learn such inharmonic intervals—whether as part of a traditional but new-to-you system, or a novel one—but it is possible with support. I’ve helped people do this, too. It helps morale to remember that all of our familiar 12-tone intervals, with the exception of the octave, are in fact also inharmonic. So, the ones you grew up with are just as “unnatural” as the ones you’re trying to learn!
Combining these things into a unified approach is surprisingly intuitive. They can mesh well with standard choral techniques, if one is a little creative with the use of technology, the role of the piano, the role of the director’s voice. Much of it can be achieved with the same basic tricks that people use to teach diatonic and chromatic intervals to children. Using all this, and aided by strategies from Fahad Siadat, Ross Duffin, Robert Reinhart, and others, I’ve come up with a toolbox to teach a choir just about any microtonal piece—eventually.
I’ve come up with a toolbox to teach a choir just about any microtonal piece—eventually.
Teaching any challenging piece takes time. And there are some microtonal pieces which are a lot more formidable than others; but that’s true for any genre, microtonal or not. The point is, you can use these tools as an entry point to any piece, rather than looking at something like Ben Johnston’s Sonnets of Desolation and sinking into, well, desolation.
I hope more choir directors might see this and be inspired to invest the time in learning some microtonal repertoire with their ensemble. The rewards can be great: not just from an artistic standpoint, but also for the way microtonal awareness hones intonation skills for standard repertoire.
Tune in next time for a discussion of the actual rehearsal techniques!
Despite his fascination with extremely dense structures, California-based composer Chris Brown is surprisingly tolerant about loosely interpreting them. Chalk it up to being realistic about expectations, or a musical career that has been equally devoted to composing and improvising, but to Brown “the loose comes with the tight.” That seemingly contradictory dichotomy informs everything he creates, whether it’s designing elaborate electronic feedback systems that respond to live performances and transform them in real time or—for his solo piano tour-de-force Six Primes—calculating a complete integration of pitch and meter involving 13-limit just intonation and a corresponding polyrhythm of, say, 13 against 7.
“I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer,” Brown admitted when we chatted with him in a Lower East Side hotel room at a break before a rehearsal during his week-long residency at The Stone. “It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new. It’s not easy to get there. It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.”
Yet despite Brown’s dedication and deep commitment to uncharted musical relationships that are often extraordinarily difficult to perform, Brown is hardly a stickler for precision.
“If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good,” he explained. “I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. … It’s not about getting more purity. There’s always this element that’s a little out of control. … If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there.”
Brown firmly believes that the human element is central and that computers should never replace people. As he put it, “It’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually.”
So for Brown, musical complexity is ultimately just a means to an end which is about giving listeners greater control of their own experiences with what they are hearing. In the program notes for a CD recording of his electro-acoustic sound installation Talking Drum, Brown claimed that he reason he is attracted to complex music is “because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.”
Brown’s aesthetics grew out of his decades of experience as an improviser—over the years he’s collaborated with an extremely wide range of musicians including Wayne Horvitz, Wadada Leo Smith, and Butch Morris—and from being one of the six composers who collectively create live networked computer music as The Hub. Long before he got involved in any of these projects, Brown was an aspiring concert pianist who was obsessed with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto which he performed with the Santa Cruz Symphony as an undergrad. Now he has come to realize that even standard classical works are not monoliths.
“Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained,” he pointed out. “It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done. Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.”
Chris Brown’s first album was released in 1989, ironically the same year as the birth of another musical artist who shares his name, a Grammy Award-winning and Billboard chart-topping R & B singer-songwriter and rapper. This situation has led to some funny anecdotes involving mistaken identity—calls to his Mills College office requesting he perform Sweet Sixteen parties—as well as glitches on search engines including the one on Amazon.
“These are basically search algorithm anomalies,” he conceded wryly. To me it’s yet another reason to heed his advice about machines and not to overly rely on them to solve all the world’s problems.
Chris Brown in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded at Off Soho Suites Hotel, New York, NY
June 22, 2017—3:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu.
Frank J. Oteri: Once I knew you were coming to New York City for a week-long residency at The Stone and that we’d have a chance to have a conversation, I started looking around to see if there were any recordings of your music that I hadn’t yet heard. When I did a search on Amazon, I kept getting an R & B singer-songwriter and rapper named Chris Brown, who was actually born the year that the first CD under your name was released.
Chris Brown: Say no more.
FJO: I brought it up because I think it raises some interesting issues about celebrity. There is now somebody so famous who has your name, and you’ve had a significant career as a composer for years before he was born. But maybe there’s a silver lining in it. Perhaps it’s brought other people to your music who might not otherwise have known about it—people who were looking for the other Chris Brown, especially on Amazon since both your recordings and his show up together.
CB: These are basically search algorithm anomalies, but the story behind that is that when the famous Chris Brown started to become famous, I started getting recorded messages on my office phone machine at Mills, because people would search for Chris Brown’s music and it would take them to the music department at Mills. They would basically be fan gushes for the most part. Sometimes they would involve vocalizing, because they were trying to get a chance to record. Sometimes they would ask if he could play their Sweet Sixteen party. There were tons of them. At the beginning, every day, there were long messages of crying and doing anything so that they could get close to Chris Brown in spite of the fact that my message was always a professorial greeting. It didn’t matter. So it was a hassle. Occasionally I would engage with the people by saying this is not the right Chris Brown and trying to send them somewhere else.
It’s a common name. When I was growing up, there weren’t that many Chrises, but somehow it got really popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Anyway, these days not much happens, except that what it’s really meant is kind of a blackout for me on internet searches. It’s hard to find me if somebody’s looking. Since I started working at Mills, the first thing that David Rosenboom said to me when I came in is there’s thing called the internet and you should get an email account. Everybody was making funny little handles for themselves as names. From that day, mine was cbmuse for Chris Brown Music. I still have that same email address at Mills.edu. So I go by cbmuse. That’s the best I can do. Sometimes some websites say Christopher Owen Brown, using the John Luther Adams approach to too many John Adamses. It’s kind of a drag, but on the other hand, it’s a little bit like living on the West Coast anyway, which is that you’re out of the main commercial aspect of your field, which is really in New York. On the West Coast, there’s not as much traffic so you have more time and space. To some extent, you’re not so much about your handle; you still get to be an individual and be yourself. I could have made a new identity for myself, but I sort of felt like I don’t want to do that. I’ve always gone by Chris Brown. I’ve never really attached to Christopher Brown. Maybe this is a longer answer than you were looking for.
FJO: It’s more than I thought I’d get. I thought it could have led to talking about your piece Rogue Wave, which features a DJ. Perhaps Rouge Wave could be a gateway piece for the fans of the other Chris Brown to discover your music.
CB: I don’t think that happens though. That was not an attempt to do something commercial. I could talk about that if you like, since we’re on it. Basically, the DJ on it, Eddie Def, was somebody I met through a gig where I was playing John Zorn’s music at a rock club in San Francisco and through Mike Patton, who knew about him. He invited Eddie to play in the session and he just blew me away. I was playing samples and he was playing samples. I was playing mine off my Mac IIci, with a little keyboard, and he was playing off records. He was cutting faster than I was some of the time. Usually you think, “Okay, I’ve a got a sample in every key. I can go from one to the other very quickly.” He just matched me with every change. So we got to be friends and really liked each other. We did a number of projects together. That was just one of them. He’s a total virtuoso, so that’s why I did a piece with him.
FJO: You’ve worked with so many different kinds of musicians over the years. From a stylistic perspective, it’s been very open-ended. The very first recording I ever heard you on, which was around the time it came out, was Wayne Horvitz’s This New Generation, which is a fascinating record because it mixes these really out there sounds with really accessible grooves and tunes.
CB: I knew Wayne from college at UC Santa Cruz. He was kind of the ringmaster of the improv scene in the early ‘70s in Santa Cruz. I wasn’t quite in that group, but I would join it and I picked up a lot about what was going on in improvised music through participating with them in some of their jam sessions. Wayne and I were friends, so when he moved to New York, I’d sometimes come to visit him. Eventually, he moved out of New York to San Francisco. I had an apartment available in my building, so he lived in it. He was basically living above us. He was continuing to do studio projects, and this was one of them. He had his little studio setup upstairs and one day he said, “Would you come upstairs and record a couple of tracks for me?” He played his stuff and he asked me to play one of the electro-acoustic instruments that I built, so I did. I didn’t think too much more of it than that, but then it appeared on this Electra-Nonesuch record and there was a little check for it. It was my little taste of that part of the new music scene that was going on in New York. Eventually Wayne moved out and now he lives in Seattle. We still see each other occasionally. It’s an old friendship.
FJO: You’ve actually done quite a bit of work with people who have been associated with the jazz community, even though I know that word is a limiting word, just like classical is a limiting word. You’ve worked with many pioneers of improvisational music, including Wadada Leo Smith and Butch Morris, and you were also a member of the Glenn Spearman Double Trio, which was a very interesting group. It’s very sad. He died very young.
FJO: So how did you become involved with improvised music?
CB: Well, I was a classically trained pianist and I eventually wound up winning a scholarship and played the [Robert] Schumann Piano Concerto with the Santa Cruz Symphony. But I was starting to realize that that was not going to be my future because I was interested in humanities and the new wave of philosophy—Norman O. Brown. I got to study with him when I was there, and he told me I should really check out John Cage because he was a friend of Cage’s: “If you’re doing music, you should know what this is.” So I went out and got the books, and I was completely beguiled and entranced by them. It was a whole new way of listening to sound as well as music, or music as sound, erasing the boundary. So I was very influenced by that, but almost at the same time I was getting to know these other friends in the department who were coming more out of rock backgrounds. They were influenced by people like Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the free jazz improvisers. These jam sessions that Wayne would run were in some way related. There were a lot of influences on that musical strain, but that’s where I started improvising.
To me, improvisation seems like the most natural thing in the world.
I was also studying with Gordon Mumma and with a composer named William Brooks, who was a Cage scholar as well as a great vocalist and somebody who’d studied with Kenneth Gaburo. With Brooks, I took a course that was an improvisation workshop where the starting point was no instruments, just movement and words—that part was from the Gaburo influence. That was a semester of every night getting together and improvising with an ensemble. I think it was eight people. I’d love if that had been documented. I have never seen or heard it since then, but it influenced me quite a bit. To me, improvisation seems like the most natural thing in the world. Why wouldn’t a musician want to do it? Then, on the other side of this, people from the New York school were coming by and were really trying to distinguish what they did from improvisation. I think there was a bit of an uptown/downtown split there. They were trying to say this is more like classical music and not like improvisation. It’s a discipline of a different nature. Ultimately I think it’s a class difference that was being asserted. And I think Cage had something to do with that, trying to distinguish what he did from jazz. He was trying to get away from jazz.
I didn’t have much of a jazz background, but I had an appreciation for it growing up in Chicago. I had some records. At the beginning I’d say my taste in jazz was a little more Herbie Hancock influenced than Cecil Taylor. But once I discovered Cecil Taylor, when I put that next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, I started to see that this is really kind of the same. This is music of the same time. It may have been made in totally different ways, and it results from a different energy and feeling from those things, but it’s not that different. And it seems to me that there’s more in common than there is not. So I really never felt there was that boundary. So I participated in sessions with musicians who were improvising with or without pre-designed structures. It was just something I did.
Once I discovered Cecil Taylor, when I put that next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, I started to see that this is really kind of the same.
The first serious professional group I got involved with was a group called Confluence. This came about in the late 1970s with some of my older friends from Santa Cruz, who’d gone down and gotten master’s degrees at UC San Diego. It was another interesting convergence of these two sides of the world. They worked with David Tudor on Rainforest, the piece where you attach transducers to an object, pick up the sound after it’s gone through the object, and then amplify it again. Sometimes there’s enough sound out of the object itself that it has an acoustic manifestation. Anyway, it’s a fantastic piece and they were basically bringing that practice into an improvisation setting. The rule of the group was no pre-set compositional design and no non-homemade instruments. You must start with an instrument you made yourself and usually those instruments were electro-acoustic, so they had pickups on them, somewhat more or less like Rainforest instruments. The other people in that group were Tom Nunn and David Poyourow. When David got out of school he wanted to move up to the Bay Area and continue this group. One of the members of it then had been another designer, a very interesting instrument maker named Prent Rodgers. And he bailed. He didn’t want to be a part of it. So they needed a new member. So David asked me if I’d be interested, and I was. I always had wanted to get more involved with electronic music, but being pretty much a classical nerd, I didn’t really have the chops for the technology. David, on the other hand, came from that background. His father was a master auto mechanic, from the electrical side all the way to the mechanical side. David really put that skill into his instrument building practice and then he taught it to me, basically. He showed me how to solder, and I learned from Tom how to weld, because some of these instruments were made out of sheet metal with bronze brazing rods. I started building those instruments in a sort of tradition they’d begun, searching for my own path with it, which eventually came about when I started taking pianos apart and making electric percussion instruments from it.
So, long story short, I was an improviser before I was a notes-on-paper composer. That’s how I got into composing. I started making music directly with instruments and with sound. It was only as that developed further that I started wanting to structure them more.
FJO: So you composed no original music before you started improvising?
CB: There were a few attempts, but they were always fairly close to either Cageian influence or a minimalist influence. I was trying out these different styles. Early on, I was a follower and appreciator of Steve Reich’s music. Another thing I did while I was at Santa Cruz was play the hell out of Piano Phase. We’d go into a practice room and play for hours, trying to perfect those phase transitions with two upright pianos. I was also aware of Steve’s interest in music from Bali and from Africa. These were things that I appreciated also.
FJO: I know that you spent some time in your childhood in the Philippines.
CB: I grew up between the years of five and nine in the Philippines. It wasn’t a long time, as life goes, but it was also where I started playing the piano. I was five years old in the Philippines and taking piano lessons there. I was quite taken with the culture, or with the cultural experience I had let’s say, while I was there. I went to school with Filipino kids, and it was not isolated in some kind of American compound. I grew up on the campus of the University of the Philippines, which is a beautiful area outside of the main city, Manila.
FJO: Did you get to hear any traditional music?
Being an improviser is a great way to get into a cultural interaction.
CB: Very little because the Philippines had their music colonized. It exists though, and later I reconnected with musicians at that school, particularly José Maceda, which is another long story in my history. I’ve made music with Filipino instruments and Filipino composers. One of the nice things about being an improviser is that collaboration comes much easier than if you’re trying to control everything about the design of the piece of music, so I’ve collaborated with a lot of people all over the place, including performances before we really knew what we were doing. It’s an exploratory thing you do with people, and it’s a great way to get into a cultural interaction.
Chris Brown in performance with Vietnamese-American multi-instrumentalist Vanessa Vân-Ánh Võ at San Francisco Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum on April 13, 2017
FJO: I want to get back to your comment about your first pieces being either Cageian or influenced by minimalism. I found an early piano piece of yours called Sparks on your website, which is definitely a minimalist piece, but it’s a hell of a lot more dissonant than anything Reich would have written at that time. It’s based on creating gradual variance through repetition, but you’re fleshing out pitch relations in ways that those composers wouldn’t necessarily have done.
CB: I’m very glad you brought that up. I think that was probably the first piece that I still like and that has a quality to it that was original to me. From Reich I was used to the idea of a piece of music as a continuous flow of repetitive action. But it really came out of tuning pianos, basically banging on those top notes of the piano as you’re trying to get them into tune. I started to hear the timbre up there as being something that splits into different levels. You can actually hear the pitch if you care to attend to it. A lot of times the pitch is hard to get into tune there, especially with pianos that have three strings [per note]. They’re never perfectly in tune. They’re also basically really tight, so their harmonic overtones are stretched. They’re wider than they should be. They’re inharmonic, rather than harmonic, so it’s a kind of a timbral event. So what I was doing was kind of droning on a particular timbre that exists at the top of the piano, trying to move into a kind of trance state while I was moving as fast as I can repeating these notes. The piece starts at the very top two notes, and then it starts widening its scope, until it goes down an octave, and then it moves back up. It was a process-oriented piece. There wasn’t a defined harmonic spectrum to it except that which is created when you make that shape over a chromatically tuned top octave of the piano. It didn’t have the score. It was something that was in my brain. It would be a little different every time, but basically it was a process, like a Steve Reich process piece, one of the earliest ones.
FJO: So when did you create the notated score for it?
CB: Well, I tried a couple of times, but it wasn’t very satisfactory. I made the first version for a pianist who lives in Germany named Jennifer Hymer. She played it first probably around 2000. Then 15 years later, another pianist at Mills—Julie Moon—played it, and she played the heck out of it. So now there is a score, but I still feel like I need to fix that score.
FJO: I think it’s really cool, and I was thrilled that there was a score for it online that I could see. You also included a recording of it.
CB: I just don’t think the score reflects as well as it could what the piece is about. I always intended for there to be a little bit of freedom in it that isn’t apparent when you just write one set of notes going to the next set of notes. There has to be a certain sensibility that needs to be described better.
FJO: Bouncing off of this, though it might seem like a strange connection to make, when I heard that piece and thought about how it’s taking this idea of really hardcore early minimalist process music, but adding more layers of dissonance to it, it seemed in keeping with a quote that you have in your notes for the published recording of Talking Drum, which I thought was very interesting: “I favor densely complex music, because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.” I found that quote very inspiring because it focuses on the listener and giving the listener more choices about what to focus on.
CB: I think I still agree with that. I’m not always quite going for the most complex thing I can find, but I do have an attraction to it. Most of the pieces that I do wind up being pretty complicated in terms of how I get to the result I’m after, even though those results may require more or less active listening. I was kind of struck last night by the performance I did of Six Primes with Zeena Parkins and Nate Wooley. The harmonic aspect of the music is much more prominent and much more beauty-oriented than the piano version is. When I play the piano version, it’s more about the intensity of the rhythms and of the dissonance of the piano, as opposed to the more harmonious timbre of the harp or the continuous and purer sound of the trumpet; the timbre makes the way that you play the notes different.
An excerpt from Chris Brown, Zeena Parkins and Nate Wooley’s trio performance of Structures from Six Primes at The Stone on June 21, 2017.
FJO: But I think also that this strikes to the heart of the difference between composition and improvisation. I find it very interesting that you’ve gravitated toward these really completely free and open structures as an improviser, but your notated compositions are so highly structured. There’s so much going on, and in a piece like Six Primes, you’re reflecting these ratios not just in the pitch relations, but also in the rhythmic relationships. Such complicated polyrhythms are much harder to do in the moment.
CB: Of course. But that’s why I’m doing it. I’m interested in doing things that haven’t been done before. I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer. Sometimes that motivation is going to get warped by the marketing of the music or by the necessity to make a career, but that was always what I was attracted to about it. From the first moment that I heard Cage’s music, I said, “This is an inventor. This is somebody who’s inventing something new.” It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new. It’s not easy to get there. It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.
I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer.
This is the third cycle of me learning to play these pieces. At first, I just wanted to know it was possible. And next, I wanted to record it. This time, I’m looking to do a tour where I can perform it more than once. Each time I do it, it gets easier. At this point, I’m finally getting to what I want, for example with 13 against 7, I know perfectly how it sounds, but I don’t have to play it mechanically. It can breathe like any other rhythm does, but it has an identity that I can recognize because I’ve been doing it long enough. It seems strange to me that music is almost entirely dominated by divisions of two and three. We have five every once in a while, but most people can’t really do a five against four, except for percussionists. There are a lot of complex groupings of notes in Chopin, but those are gestures, almost improvisational gestures I think, rather than actual overlays of divisions of a beat. Some of this is influenced by my love and interest for African-based musics that have this complexity of rhythm that is simply beyond the capability of a standard European-trained musician, actually getting into the divisions of the time and executing them perfectly and doing them so much that they become second nature so that they can be alive in performance, rather than just reproduced. It’s a big challenge, but I’m looking for a challenge and I’m looking for a new experience that way.
An excerpt from Chris Brown’s premiere solo piano performance of Six Primes in San Francisco in 2014.
FJO: So do you think you will eventually be able to improvise those polyrhythms?
CB: Maybe, eventually, but I think you have to learn it first. The improvising part is after you’ve learned to do the thing already. Yesterday I was improvising some of the time. What you do is you start playing one of the layers of the music. In Six Primes part of the idea is you have this 13 against 7, but 13 kind of exists as a faster tempo of the music, and 7 is a slower one. They’re just geared and connected at certain places, but at any one time in your brain, while you’re playing that rhythm, it might be a little bit more involved in inflecting the 13 than the 7. Sometimes, when things are really pure, you get a feeling for both of them and they’re kind of talking to each other. As a performer, I would say that that’s the goal. It’s probably rarer than I wish at this point. But the only way you can get there is by lots of practice and eventually it starts happening by itself. I think it’s the same as if you’re playing the Schumann Piano Concerto. You’re not aware of every gesture you’re making to make that music. You’ve put it into your body, and it kind of comes out by rote. You know you’re experiencing the flow of the music, and your body knows how to do it because you trained it. So it’s the same with Six Primes, but it’s just the materials are different and the focus is different.
FJO: And similarly to listen to it, you might not necessarily hear that’s what’s going on. But maybe that’s okay.
CB: Yes, that goes to the quote that there’s a multi-focal way of listening that I’m promoting; the music isn’t designed to have one focal point. It’s designed to have many layers and that basically means that listeners are encouraged to explore themselves. It’s an active listening rather than that you should be listening primarily to this part and not aware of that part.
The music isn’t designed to have one focal point.
FJO: In a way, this idea of having such an integral relationship between pitches and rhythms is almost a kind of serialism, but the results are completely different. I also think your aesthetics, and what you’re saying about how one listens to it, is totally different.
CB: I wouldn’t say it’s modeled on that, but I do like the heavy use of structure. It’s a sculptural aspect of making music. I do a lot of pre-composition. This stuff isn’t just springing out of nowhere. Six Primes actually has a very methodical formal design that’s explained in the notes to the CD. The basic idea is that you have these six prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13. Those are the first six prime numbers. They’re related to intervals that are tuned by relationships that include that number as their highest prime factor. I know that sounds mathematical, but I’m trying to say it as efficiently as possible. For example, the interval of a perfect fifth is made of a relationship of a frequency that’s in the ratio of 3 to 2. So the highest prime of that ratio is a 3. Similarly, a major third is defined by the ratio of 5 to 4. So 5 is the highest prime. There’s also the 2 in there, but the 5 is the higher prime and that defines the major third. There are other intervals that are related to it, such as a 6 to 5, which is a minor third, where the 5 is also the highest prime. And 5 to 3, the major sixth, etc. Basically Western music is based around using 2, 3, and 5 and intervals that are related to that. Intervals that use 7 as the highest prime are recognizable to most western music listeners, but they’re also out of tune by as much as a third of a semi-tone. Usually people start saying, “Oh, I like the sound of that. I can hear it. It’s a harmony, but it sounds a little weird.” Particularly the 7 to 6 interval, which is a minor third that’s smaller than any of the standard ones that Western people are used to, is very attractive to most people but also kind of curious and possibly scary. When you take it to 11, you get into things that are halfway between the semitones of the equal tempered chromatic scale. And 13 is somewhere even beyond that. Okay, so there are all these intervals. The tuning for Six Primes is a twelve-note scale that contains at least two pitches from each of these first six prime factors, which results in a total of 75 unique intervals between each note and every other one in the set.
Last year, New World Records released a CD of Chris Brown performing Six Primes. .
FJO: Cellists and violinists tune their instruments all the time and since their instruments have an open neck, any pitch is equally possible. The same is true for singers. But pianists play keyboards that are restricted to 12 pitches per octave and that are tuned to 12-tone equal temperament. And since pianists rarely tune their own instruments, 12-tone equal temperament is basically a pre-condition for making music and it’s really hard to think beyond it. As a classically-trained pianist, how were you able to open your ears to other possibilities?
CB: It was hard. It was very frustrating. It took me a long time, and it started by learning to tune my instrument myself. The first thing was what are these pitches? Why do I not understand what everybody’s talking about when they’re talking about in tune and out of tune? I’m just not listening to it, because I’m playing on an instrument that’s usually somewhat out of tune. Basically pianists don’t develop the same kind of ear that violinists have to because they don’t have to tune the pitch with every note. So I was frustrated by my being walled off from that. But I guess not frustrated enough to pick up the violin and change instruments.
While I was an undergraduate and started getting interested through Cage in 20th-century American music, I discovered Henry Cowell’s piano music, the tone cluster pieces, and I loved them. I just took to them like a duck to water, and I got to be good at it. I had a beautiful experience playing some of his toughest tone cluster pieces at the bicentennial celebration of him in Menlo Park in 1976. I really bonded with that music and played it like I owned it. I could play it on the spot. I had it memorized. The roar of a tone cluster coming out of the piano was like liberation to me.
FJO: And you recorded some of those for New Albion at some point.
CB: That came out of a concert Sarah Cahill put together of different pianists playing; it was nice that that came out.
FJO: It’s interesting that you mention Cowell because he was another one of these people like Wayne Horvitz who could take really totally whacked out ideas and find a way to make them sound very immediate and very accessible. It’s never off-putting, it’s more like “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” It might consist of banging all over the piano, but it’s also got a tune that you can walk away humming.
CB: I like that a lot about Cowell. He’s kind of unaffected in the way that something attracted him. He wrote these tunes when he was a teenager, for one thing. But he wrote tunes for the rest of his life, too. Sometimes he wrote pieces that have no tune at all. The piece Antimony, for example, is amazingly harsh. There’s definitely some proto-Stockhausen there, but it’s not serial. I think that the ability to not feel like you need to restrict yourself to any particular part of the language that you happen to be employing at the moment is something that is really an admirable achievement. There’s something so tight about the Western tradition that once you start developing this personal language, you must not waver, that this is the thing that you have to offer and it’s the projection of your personality, how will you be recognized otherwise? I think that’s ultimately a straightjacket, so I’ve always admired people like Cowell and Anthony Braxton. Yesterday I was talking to Nate Wooley about the latest pieces that Braxton is putting out where he’s entirely abandoned the pulse; it’s all become just pure melody. He’s changing. Why do we think that’s a bad idea? Eclecticism—if you can do it well and can do it without feeling like you’re just making a collage with stuff you don’t understand—is the highest form, to be able to integrate more than one kind of musical experience into your work.
FJO: It’s interesting that you started veered into a discussion about discovering Cowell’s piano music after I asked you about how you got away from 12-tone equal temperament. Most of Cowell’s music was firmly rooted in 12-tone equal, but he did understand the world beyond it and even tried to explore synchronizing pitch and rhythmic ratios in his experiments with the rhythmicon that Leon Theremin had developed right before he was kidnapped him and brought back to the Soviet Union.
CB: I was definitely influenced by [Cowell’s book] New Musical Resources. As I read about the higher harmonics and integrating them into chords, I would reflect back on what it sounds like when you play it on the piano. It is very dissonant because of the tuning. And I realized that. So I thought, “Well, okay, he just never got there. He didn’t learn to tune his own piano, maybe I should do that, you know.” I get that some in Six Primes, I think, because there’s an integral relationship between all the notes. Even though the strings are inharmonic, there’s more fusion in the upper harmonics that can happen. So these very dissonant chords also sound connected to me. They’re not dissonant in the same way that an equal tempered version of it is. They have a different quality.
I’m also noticing from the other piece we played the night you attended that was using the Partch scale, if you build tone cluster chords within the Partch scale, you get things that sound practically like triads, only they buzz with a kind of fusion that you can only have when the integral version of major seconds is applied carefully. You get all kinds of different chords out of that. It’s wonderful.
FJO: Now when you say Partch scale, we’re basically talking about 11-limit just intonation, in terms of the highest primes, since the highest prime in his scale is 11.
CB: Right, but it’s more than that. He did restrict himself to the 11-limit, but he didn’t include everything that’s available within that. He made careful, judicious selections so that he could have symmetrical possibilities inside of the scale. It’s actually more carefully and interestingly foundationally selected than I knew before I really studied it closely.
FJO: But he worked with his own instruments which were designed specifically to play his 43-note scale whereas you are playing this score on a standard 7-white, 5-black keyed keyboard.
CB: I took an 88-key MIDI controller and I was using it to trigger two octaves of 43 notes. So I’ve mapped two octaves to the 88 keys. It winds up being 86, but it is possible to do that. I’m thinking in the future of figuring out a way to be able to shift those octaves so I’m not stuck in the same two-octave range, which I haven’t done yet, but that’s kind of trivial programming-wise.
FJO: Of course, the other problem with that is the associations the standard keyboard has with specific intervals.
CB: You have to forget that part, and that’s why I didn’t do it in Six Primes. And also, if I’d done it on an acoustic piano, it really messes up the string tension on the piano.
FJO: Julian Carrillo re-tuned a piano to 96 equal and that piano still exists somewhere.
CB: Yeah, but you can’t re-tune it easily, let’s put it that way. And it loses its character throughout the range because the character of the piano is set up by the variable tension of the different ranges of its strings.
FJO: But aside even from that, it changes the basic dexterity of what it means to play an octave and what it means to play a fifth. Once you throw all those relationships out the window, your fingers are not that big, even if you have the hands of Rachmaninoff.
CB: It becomes a different technique for sure. I’m not trying to extend the technique. What I’m doing with this is essentially I’m making another chromelodeon, which was Partch’s instrument that he used to accompany his ensemble and to also give them the pitch references that they needed, especially the singers, to be able to execute the intervals that he was writing.
FJO: Well that’s one of the things I’m curious about. When you’re working with other musicians obviously you can re-tune the keyboard. You can re-tune a piano, you can work with an electronic keyboard where all these things are pre-set. But the other night, you were working with a cellist who sang as well and an oboist. To get these intervals on an oboe requires special fingerings, but most players don’t know them. With a cello there’s no fretboard, so anything’s possible but you really have to hear the intervals in order to reproduce them. That’s even truer for a singer. So how do those things translate when you work with other musicians, and how accurate do those intervals need to be for you?
CB: Those are two questions really. But I think the key is that you’ve got to have musicians who are interested in being able to hear and to play them. You can’t expect to write them and then just get exactly what you want from any musician. Until we wake up 150 years from now and maybe everybody will be playing in the Partch scale so you could write it and everybody can do it! That’s a fantasy, but I think we’re moving more in that direction. There are more and more musicians who are interested in learning to play these intervals and all I’m doing is exploiting what’s there. I’m interested in it. I talk to my friends who are, and they want to learn how to play like that and that’s what’s happening. It’s a great thing to be able to have that experience, but it’s not something you can create by yourself. You have to work with the people who can play the instruments. For example, you mentioned the oboe. I asked Kyle [Bruckmann] what fingerings he’s using. “Shouldn’t I put this in the score?” And he said, “Most of the time what I’m doing is really more about embouchure. And it’s maybe something that’s not so easily described.” So it comes down to he’s getting used to what he needs to do with his mouth to make this pitch come out; he’s basically looking at a cents deviation. So I’ll write the note, and I’ll put how many cents from the pitch that he’s fingering, or the pitch that he knows needs to be sounded. He’s playing it out of tune with what the horn is actually designed to create and he’s limited in the way that notes sound. He can’t do fortissimo on each of these notes. He’s working with an instrument that’s designed for a tuning that he’s trying to play outside of. It’s crazy. But so far, I would say it’s challenging, but not frustrating so much if I’m translating his experience correctly. He seems to be very eager to be able to do it, and he’s nailing the pitches. Sometimes I test him against my electronic chromelodeon and he’s almost always right on the pitch. He’s looking at a meter while he’s playing. It’s something that a musician couldn’t have done 10 or 15 years ago before those pitch meters became so cheap and readily available.
More and more musicians are interested in learning to play these intervals.
FJO: James Tenney had this theory that people heard within certain bands of deviations. If you study historical tunings like Werckmeister III, the key of C has a major third that’s 390 cents. In equal temperament, it’s 400 cents which is way too sharp since a pure major third is 386. You can clearly hear the difference, but a third of 390 is close enough to 386 for most people.
CB: I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good. For example, last night, we had to re-tune the harp to play in the Six Primes tuning. Anybody who knows about harp tuning realizes there’s seven strings in the octave and you get all the other notes by altering one semitone sharp or flat on one of those strings. So it was a very awkward translation. Basically we had a total of 10 of the 12 Six Primes pitches represented. Two of them we couldn’t get. And the ones that we had were sometimes as much as 10 cents out, which is definitely more than it should be to be an accurate representation. But again, this is where the loose comes in with the tight.
In certain cases that wouldn’t work, but in a lot of cases it does. A slight out-of-tuneness can result in a chorus effect as part of the music, and I like that; it gives a shimmer. It’s like Balinese tuning. If that’s what we have to accept on this note, well then so be it you know. It actually richens the music in a way. It’s not about getting more purity. That’s what I feel like. There’s a thing I never quite agreed with Lou Harrison about, because he was always saying these are the real pure sounds. These are the only right ones. But they can get kind of sterile by themselves. He didn’t like the way the Balinese mistuned things. But from all those years of tuning pianos, I love the sound of a string coming into tune, the changes that happen, it makes the music alive on a micro-level. It’s important to be able to hear where the in-tune place is, but to play around that place is part of what I like. I don’t expect it to be perfectly in tune. Maybe it’s because I play a piano and on the extreme ranges of the piano, you can’t help that the harmonics are out of tune. They just are. There’s always this element that’s a little out of control, as well as the part that we can master and make truly evoke harmonic relationships.
FJO: Now in terms of those relationships, is that sense of flexibility and looseness true for these rhythms as well? Could there be rubatos in 17?
I don’t expect it to be perfectly in tune.
CB: Yeah, I think that’s what I was saying about being able to play the rhythm in a lively way. They can shift. They can talk to each other. Little micro-adjustments to inflect the rhythm. If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there. That’s how you give energy to the piece. I think that it’s hard to get there with these complex relationships, but it’s definitely possible.
FJO: So is your microtonal music always based on just intonation? Have you ever explored other equal temperaments?
CB: I’ve looked at them, but they don’t interest me as much because I’m more attracted to the uneven divisions than to the even ones. Within symmetrical divisions, you can represent all kinds of things and you can even make unevenness out of the evenness if you like. But it seems like composers get drawn to the kind of symmetrical kinds of structures, rather than asymmetrical ones. Symmetry is fine, but somehow it reminds me of the Leonardo figure inside the triangle and the circle. It’s ultimately confining. I like the roughness and the unevenness of harmonic relationships.
FJO: We only briefly touched on electronics when you said that you had a rough start with it as a classical music nerd. But I was very intrigued the other night by how Kyle Bruckmann’s oboe performance was enhanced and transformed by real-time electronic manipulations the other night in Snakecharmer, and was very curious after you mentioned that you had figured out how to make this old piece work again. I know the recording that Willie Winant made of that piece that was released in 1989, but to my ears it sounds like a completely different piece. I think I like the new piece even more because it sounds more like a snake charmer to me this time; I didn’t quite understand the title before.
CB: There are three recorded versions of that old piece.
FJO: That was the only one I’ve heard.
CB: They’re on the Room record.
FJO: I don’t know that record.
CB: Okay, that was rare. It was a Swiss release. But that’s kind of an important one for me in my development with electro-acoustic and interactive music. I should get it to you. Anyway, the basic idea is any soloist can be the snake charmer, the person who’s instigating the feedback network to go through its paces and sort of guiding it. Probably the strangest was when Willie did it because he can’t sustain. He’s basically playing percussion, and he’s just basically playing whatever he hears and interacting with it intuitively. But another version of it was with Larry Ochs playing sopranino saxophone so that’s probably closer; you might hear the relationship there. It’s more the traditional image of the snake charmer. It sounds an awful lot like a high oboe; that was a good version. There’s also the version that I performed, singing and whistling as the input. Those were three different tracks, but they all start out in a similar way. Basically the programming aspect is that it goes through a sequence of voices. And each of those voices transposes the input that it’s receiving from the player in different intervals as the piece goes on. So there’s a shape of starting with a high transposition going down to where it’s no transposition and below and up again. It’s a simple sinusoid-type shape. The next voice comes in and does the same thing with a slightly different rhythmic inflection, then two voices come in together and fill out the field. That’s the beginning of Snakecharmer in every version so far. There are about six different voicing changes which are in addition to transposing in slightly different ways to provide rhythmic inflections. They only respond on the beat. Whatever sound is coming in when it’s time for them to play, that’s the sound that gets transposed. There are four of these processes going on at once. Once again, it’s that complexity going on in the chaos created by these different orderings, transpositions of the source. The other thing is the reason it’s a feedback network is that there comes a point where the player is playing, the sound responds to it, and then the sound that it responds with is louder than what the player’s doing, and that follows itself. So you start getting a kind of data encoded feedback network that I think of as the snake, an ouroboros snake that’s eating its own tail.
FJO: How much improvisation is involved?
CB: Quite a bit. I’ve never provided a score. I just tell the person what’s going on and ask them to explore the responsiveness of the network. Usually I’m tweaking different values in response to what they’re doing, so it’s a bit of a duet.
FJO: Taking it back to Talking Drum, you have these notes explaining how people are walking around in this environment. There are these field recordings, and then there are musicians who are responding to them. I can partially hear that, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m hearing. Maybe that’s the point of it to some extent.
CB: That’s not quite right. We have the recording called Talking Drum. That is a post-performance production piece that uses things that were recorded at different Talking Drum performances. That uses field recordings. In a performance of Talking Drum, there are no field recordings. Basically, the idea is that there are four stations that are connected with one MIDI cable. That cable allows them to share the same tempo. At each of the stations is a laptop computer, and a pitch follower, and somebody who’s playing into the microphone. So, the software that’s running is a rhythmic program I designed that I can give a basic tempo and beat structure to that can change automatically at different points in time, but that also responds to input from the performer, the basic idea being that if the player plays on a beat that’s a downbeat, that beat will be strengthened in the next iteration of the cycle. It basically adjusts to what it hears in relationship to its own beat cycle. The idea of the multiplicity of those stations where that’s happening, is that they are integrated by staying on the same pulse through the cable. The idea is that the audience is moving around the space that this installation is in and the mix they hear is different in each location. As they move, it shifts. It’s as if they were in a big mixing console, turning up one station and then turning down the other. What I was trying to do was to create a big environment that an audience can actively explore in the same way that I’ve talked about creating this dense listening environment and asking people to listen to different parts on their own. That actually came about from the experience of going to Cuba in the early ’90s, and being at some rumba parties where there were a lot of musicians spread out in different places. I wandered around with a binaural recorder and I recorded the sound as I was moving. Then when I listened to the recording, I was getting this shifting, tumbling sound field and I thought: “There’s no way you could ever reproduce this in a studio. It’s a much richer immersive way of listening. Why can’t I use this as a way to model some experience for live performance or for live audiences?”
In 2005, Pogus Productions issued a CD realization of Chris Brown’s Talking Drum .
FJO: It actually reminds me of when I first heard Inuksuit, the John Luther Adams piece for all the percussionists. It was impossible to hear everything that was going on at any one moment as a listener. That’s part of the point of it which, in a way, frustrates the whole Western notion of a composition being a totality that a composer conceives, interpreters perform, and listeners are intended to experience in full like, say, the Robert Schumann Piano Concerto. Interpretations of the Schumann might differ and listeners might focus on different things at different times, but it is intended to be experienced as a graspable totality, and a closed system. Whereas creating a musical paradigm where you can never experience it all is more open-ended, it’s more like life itself since we can never fully experience everything that’s going on around us. But I have to confess that as a listener I’m very omnivorous and voracious so it’s kind of frustrating, because I do want to hear it all!
Compositions are more or less instructions, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.
CB: Sorry! I think that’s part of the Cage legacy, too. You don’t expect to have it all and what you have is a lot. Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained. It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done. But I think the ritual aspect of making music is something that really interests me and I would hate to be without it. Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time. Maybe some of them think they do, but I don’t think performing artists do that really. It’s mostly about making something that’s appropriate to the moment even if it’s coming from something that’s entirely determined in its tonal and rhythmic structure. That to me is what makes live music always more interesting than fixed media music. It’s actually not an object. It’s not something that doesn’t change as a result of being performed. Of course, fixed media depends on how it’s projected.
FJO: Perhaps an extreme example of that would be the kinds of work that you do as part of the Hub—electronic music created in real time by a group of people who are physically separated from each other yet all networked together but it’s really there’s no centralized control and that’s kind of part of the point of it.
CB: That’s right. The idea is to set up the composition process, if you can call it that. It’s not really the same as composing, but it’s a designing. You’re designing a system that you believe will be an interesting one for these automated instruments to interact inside of. What we do is usually a specification; each piece has verbal instructions about how to design a system to interact with the other systems. Then we get it together and get them working and they start making the sound of that piece which is never the same exactly, but it’s always recognizable to us as the piece that it is, because it’s a behavior. I would say within our group we get used to the kinds of sounds that everybody chooses to use to play their role in the piece, so it starts to get an ad hoc like personality from those personal choices that each person makes.
An excerpt of a networked computer performance by John Bischoff, Chris Brown and Tim Perkis (co-founders of the legendary computer network band The Hub) from the Active Music Series in Oakland’s Duende, February 2014.
FJO: In terms of focusing listening, and perhaps you’ll debate this with me, it seems that, as listeners, we’re trained to focus on a text when a piece has a text. If someone’s singing words, those words become the focal point. I hadn’t heard much music of yours featuring a text, but I did hear your new Jackson Mac Low song cycle the other night.
CB: I don’t write a lot of songs, but when I do I find it’s usually a pleasure to work with a pre-set structure that you admire; it’s like you’re dressing up what’s already there rather than having to decide where it goes next. Of course, you’re making decisions—like what is this going to be, is it going to be different, how is going to be different, how is it going to be the same?—but it’s nice to have that kind of foundation to build on. It’s like collaboration.
FJO: I thought it was beautiful, and I thought Theresa Wong’s voice was gorgeous. It was exquisite to hear those intervals sung in a pure tone and her diction was perfect, which was even more amazing since she was simultaneously playing the cello. But, at the same time, the Stone has weird acoustics. It’s a great place, but it’s a hole in the wall that isn’t really thought out in terms of sound design so it was obviously beyond your control. I was sitting in the second row and I know Jackson Mac Low’s poems. So when I focused in, I could hear every word she was pronouncing. But I still couldn’t quite hear the words clearly, as opposed to the vocals on Music of the Lost Cities where I heard every word, since obviously, in post-production, you can change the levels. But it made me wonder, especially since you have this idea of a listener getting lost in the maze of what’s going on, how important is it for you that the words are comprehensible?
CB: Maybe it’s just me, but even in the best of circumstances, I have trouble getting all the words in songs that are staged. Maybe it’s because I’m listening as a composer, so I’m always more drawn to the totality than I am just to the words. Most regular people who are into music mostly through song are very wrapped up in the words. But I’m not sure Mac Low’s words work that way anyway. I think they are musical and they are kind of ephemeral in the way that they glow at different points. And if you don’t get every one of them, in terms of what its meaning is, it’s not surprising. It’s kind of a musical and sonorous object of its own. So I guess I’m not exceptionally worried about that, although in the recording, I probably do want a better projection of that part of the music than what happened at the Stone. I was sitting behind her and I was not hearing exactly what the balance is. In the Stone, there are two speakers that are not ideally set up for the audience, so it’s not always there the way exactly you want it to be.
FJO: So is this song cycle going to be on the next recording you do?
Most regular people who are into music mostly through song are very wrapped up in the words.
CB: I hope we’re going to record it this summer, actually. It’ll be a chance to get everything exactly right. I’m very pleased that people are recognizing the purity of these chords that are being generated through the group, but there hasn’t been a perfect performance yet. Maybe there never will be. But the recording will get closer than any other one will, and that’ll be nice to hear, too.
FJO: It’s like the recording project of all the Ben Johnston string quartets that finally got done. For the 7th quartet, which was over a thousand different intervals, they were tuning to intervals they heard on headphones and using click tracks in order to be able to do it. And they recorded sections at a time and then patched it all together. Who knows if any group will ever be able to perform this piece live, but at least there’s finally an audio document of what Ben Johnston was hearing in his head.
CB: I think that’s really a monumental release. Ben Johnston’s the one who has forged the path for those of us trying to make Western instruments play Harry Partch and other kinds of just intonation relationships. It’s fantastic. But I think the other thing that seems to be true is that if you make a record of it, people will learn to play it. For example, Zeena and Nate the other night, in preparation for that performance, I was sending them music-minus-one practice MP3 files so that they could basically hear the relationships that they should be playing. It helps a lot. Recordings also definitely help to get these rhythmic relationships. I often listen to Finale play them back, just to check myself to see if I’m doing them correctly. A lot of times, I’m not. It drifts a little bit.
FJO: But you said before that that’s okay.
CB: But I want to know where it’s drifting. I want to know where the center is as part of my learning process. I use a metronome a lot, and I use the score a lot to check myself, and get better at it.
FJO: You’ve put several scores of yours on your website. Sparks is on there. Six Primes is on there. And there’s another piece that you have on there that’s a trio in 7-limit just intonation—Chiaroscuro. Theoretically anybody could download these scores, work out the tunings for their instruments and play them.
CB: Sure. Go for it. But they’re published by Frog Peak, so they can get the official copy there. I would like to support my publisher. Because of the way that my compositional practice has developed, a lot of my scores are kind of a mess. I had a lot of scores, but I haven’t released them because they’re kind of incomplete. They often involve electronic components that are difficult to notate, and I haven’t really figured out the proper way to do that. Where there are interactive components, how do you notate that? I’m not that interested in making pieces for electronics where the electronics is fixed and the performer just synchs to it. There’s only one piece I’ve played where I really like doing that and that’s the Luc Ferrari piece Cellule 75 that I recorded where the tape is so much like a landscape that you can just vary your synchronization with it.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that because back in 1989, you said…
CB: Okay. Here it comes.
FJO: “I want electronics to enhance our experience of acoustics and of playing instruments. Extending what we already do, instead of trying to imitate, improve upon, or replace it.”
A model is never a complete reading of the world.
CB: Yeah, that was important. That came out at a time when the industry was definitely moving towards more and more electronic versions of all the instruments, usually cheap imitations. Eventually those become personalities of their own, but it seems to me they always start like much lesser versions of the thing they’re modeled on. Maybe it has something to do with this idea of models. We’re moving more and more into a virtual reality kind of world and I think it’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually. The more people live in exclusively modeled environments, the more out of touch they’re going to get and probably the sicker they’re going to get because a model is never a complete reading of the world. It’s a way to try to understand something about that world. If you’re a programmer, you’re always creating models. In a sense, a synthesizer is modeled on an acoustic reality. But once it comes out of the box into the world, it’s its own thing. It’s that distinction I’m trying to get at. I think we’re often seduced by the idea that the synthesized thing will replace the real thing rather than the synthesized thing just becoming another reality. That’s why I’m interested in mixing these things: singing with the synthesis. Becoming part of a feedback system with a synthetic instrument embraces that into a space and into a physical interaction. That seems to be more of a holistic way of expanding our ability to play music with ourselves, with our models of ourselves, with each other through models, or just seeing the models execute music of its own. The danger comes when you try to make them somehow perfect an idea of what reality is and it becomes the new reality instead of becoming just a new part of the real world.
[Ed. Note: Today, March 15, 2016, is the 90th birthday of maverick American composer Ben Johnston. To celebrate this major milestone, the Kepler Quartet—which has spent the last 14 years working closely with Johnston to learn and record his music—has finally completed their third and final installment of the world premiere recordings of his entire oeuvre for string quartet on New World Records which will be released on April 15, 2016. Though Johnston’s ten string quartets are thoroughly idiomatic and often extremely beautiful, his music offers some unprecedented challenges to would-be interpreters. For more than half a century, Johnston has eschewed today’s common practice tuning of equal temperament in his music and has instead explored just intonation (intervals tuned to precise numerical ratios) which derives from the overtone series. Most of the quartets use intervals as complex as those derived from the 13th harmonic in the overtone series, but one quartet goes as high as the 31st harmonic. Another quartet, the Seventh—christened “the Mount Everest of String Quartets” by Kyle Gann and a work which has never been previously performed let alone recorded—contains more than 1200 distinct pitches. This is a hundred times the amount of tones that most string players are ever asked to play. So how did the Kepler Quartet tackle this music? We asked the quartet’s second violinist, Eric Segnitz, who was also the producer of the recordings, to offer his personal perspective on the process. We’ve also included some short video clips featuring Ben Johnston and the members of the quartet as well as a brand new video clip that was recorded during the final recording session.—FJO]
Video by Ross Monagle
Ben Johnston has been called a genius, a hero, a visionary. And by the standard criteria, that is all true. New advances in a domain of knowledge? Check. Sacrificing or not compromising for personal concerns, achieving feats of ingenuity for the greater good? Check. Able to envision past, present, and future in a parallel universe that recognizes beauty as it already exists? Check. He even dares you to go on that journey with him.
This year marks composer Ben Johnston’s 90th birthday, and the passage of fourteen years since the Kepler Quartet (in which I play second violin) began to record the entire cycle of Johnston’s ten string quartets. Much has been written about Johnston’s music, so I will concentrate here on the history of these recordings.
By virtue of our recording project, the Kepler Quartet has had a privileged window into the essentially spiritual quest in Johnston’s music. At age 90, a full fifteen years after he stopped writing music, Johnston has come to a place in his life where his main goal is to have a positive impact on his environment. He has come to embrace a philosophy that there are two ways to live. He has forsaken the so-called “hero’s journey”—a linear approach to life that mirrors melodic values, in favor of another, richer way of being: to work towards pure, honest relationships with others by using a vertical, harmonic approach concentrating on perfect intervals, the advantage being that it produces less discord, increased resonance, and maximum clarity—to borrow the title of the 2006 book of Johnston’s collected writings.
This harmonic approach cannot be achieved at our society’s breakneck pace. It requires deeper consideration, more serious engagement, and—above all—slowing down. I remember when I was coached by Rudolf Kolisch and Zoltan Szekely, the respective founders of the Kolisch and Hungarian string quartets, the groups that first brought the Schoenberg and Bartók quartets to the public. Besides being awestruck, I remember thinking at that time, “Man, are these guys slow!” They were ultra-methodical, and could spend three days on the opening of a Mozart string quartet, or two months staring at a Bartók score before picking up an instrument. Those were memorable experiences, but also ones that could drive a headstrong, career-anxious youth nuts.
Now I understand.
As St. Thomas Aquinas put it: “It is better to enlighten than merely to shine.”
By necessity, the Kepler Quartet is not currently a performing quartet. We have been a stealth unit, secluded in a remote church in the middle of a cornfield, rehearsing with the composer to make recordings. We’ve needed to approach these works much as they were written: contemplated intuitively, at a distance from society, with the belief that what is “normal” does not apply—not with this music.
Ben Johnston (bottom left) with the members of the Kepler Quartet. Brek Renzelman and Karl Lavine (top row), Sharan Leventhal (middle row). and Eric Segnitz (bottom right). Photo by Kae Hubred.
St. Tom again: “It is better to give the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.”
An excerpt from String Quartet No. 4 “Amazing Grace” (1973) as performed by the Kepler Quartet: Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz (violins), Brek Renzelman (viola), and Karl Lavine (cello). From the first disc in the series, Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 9 (New World Records 80637-2) released in January 2006. Streamed with permission.
Whatever possessed us undertake a task of such Brobdingnagian proportions? We premiered the Tenth Quartet in 2002, working with Johnston on a concert series for the Milwaukee-based new music group Present Music. The collective gasp of the audience after each movement sent a clear message. Similarly, anyone who has played his Fourth Quartet (“Amazing Grace”) will tell you, as the final variation begins, a life-affirming catharsis occurs–one of the special moments in music, like the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when all hell breaks loose. What is behind that? How can that possibly happen? What musician wouldn’t want to know more about that? When you discover that Johnston’s Fourth Quartet was conceived entirely (harmony, rhythm, structure) based on a specific set of organic ratios, it’s even more mind-boggling. And when you learn that the work was written in response to a personal crisis, it takes on a universal quality. Our collective and individual relationships with Ben were very natural from the beginning; he had so much to give, and we had so much to learn.
Did we know it would take fourteen years? Obviously not. The project started as an impulse to record the work we premiered. We talked to ten record labels. Seven were interested, and a few suggested that we do the entire cycle. The consensus was that somebody had to do it, but that early in the project no one really had any idea what they were talking about. (Our code name was Project Rabbit Hole.)
This project could never be done again, certainly not with the direct guidance and mentorship of the composer. Three of the members of the quartet live in Wisconsin; Brek Renzelman and I both live in Milwaukee and Karl Lavine lives in Madison. Early in the project, Johnston and his wife Betty relocated to a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, to be closer to their son Ross. Ever since then we’ve had constant access to Ben’s intellect and generosity—a resource that can never be replaced.
Other groups, however, now have these recordings made under his guidance as a resource. We’ve already begun to see the effects. Someone once told me that if something can be measured, it can be made. The recordings provide information—and encouragement—for other groups to explore these compositions. An incredible oeuvre of music, once largely inaccessible, is now available to the world, an open secret. Judging from breakthroughs in the past thirty years, we can anticipate rapid advances in technology, education and performance standards—it all goes hand-in-hand.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the La Salle, Concord, Fine Arts, Walden, New World, Stanford, Composers, and Kronos quartets for the tremendous work they’ve done on Johnston’s music. They are our heroes! We’ll be another link in that chain now, and feel honored to be part of the continuum.
St. Francis of Assisi wrote: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
A sneak preview from the first movement of the world premiere recording of “the Mount Everest of String Quartets”—String Quartet No. 7 (1984)—performed by the Kepler Quartet. From the final volume of the series, Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, and 8 (New World Records 80730-2), which will be released on April 15, 2016. Streamed with permission.
A good starting point is to explain our process, and why it has taken four people fourteen years to do this. Kyle Gann half-jokingly referred to the Seventh Quartet as “the Mount Everest of string quartets.” We understand his analogy; each quartet is a steep and rocky climb, often exhilarating, and the more we learned (the higher we climbed), the slower we got.
First, we do the math.
That is, we translate pitches from the score into numerical cent values. I’d always heard about the correlation between music and arithmetic; I understand it better now. Johnston devised an ingenious notation system for Just Intonation which is practical yet defiant. It always reminded me of a quote by William Blake: “I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s; / I will not Reason or Compare: my business is to Create.” Johnston’s notational symbols tell the harmonic function of the note as well as the exact number of cents, which can be measured with a standard electronic tuner. But the performer needs to decipher as many as seven different pitch qualifiers per note, in an assortment of configurations, depending on how high Johnston has composed in the overtone (or undertone) series (as opposed to the usual single half-step, sharp # or flat b). Understanding exact pitch relationships is essential, which meant preparing from scores only—we never read from individual parts.
Then we listen.
This required commissioning MIDI realizations of these scores. Luckily, we’ve connected with Andy Stefik and Tim Johnson, who have vast expertise working with digital synthesis. The materials they created for us never served as a guide in rehearsal or recording, but were used individually by each member. In general, MIDI is nasty to listen to, but in this case it functioned as a can-opener for the brain. When we would hear one, we would realize the extent to which we had to unlearn all those years of tempered-scale indoctrination, and open up the mind to new possibilities. After all, we named our group after Johannes Kepler, the astronomer and mystic who intuited the leap from Pythagorean musical intervals to predicting the elliptical orbit of the planets.
Not as easy as it sounds, especially when the players and composer live in different cities around the country and have to coordinate busy freelance schedules, not to mention personal lives. The rehearsals generally are a lot of slow tuning and hard listening, more balancing of chords than I’d ever dreamt possible. Each new quartet presented its own unique and intricate Gordian Knot. At times we became entangled ourselves, but eventually, the solution would emerge. We consulted with Johnston constantly, which entailed many philosophical discussions, because the pitches are only byproducts of the emotional nuances Johnston sought. Always, there was philosophical underpinning to those emotions, and always, Johnston helped us to find it.
Johnston’s critiques were always leavened with large doses of humor—which is an integral part of his music and personality—and social commentary. In one breath, he talks about world events, and in the next, about what is happening on the working farm where he lives with his wonderful caregiver and her large, bustling family.
Then we start recording, but in our own way.
We’ve had a no-holds-barred approach to making these recordings. We would tackle a phrase in multiple ways, to satiate any self-doubt. We have what we call a “three-drink-minimum,” always recording three times as much material as we need. There were so many things to remember at these sessions and a few things to forget. Our earliest recording sessions at an indie rock venue featured a rat rustling in a paper bag, a beer keg completely emptying onto a carpet, and noisy snowblower repairs in July!
An excerpt from Ben Johnston’s only quartet in 12-tone equal temperament, Nine Variations a.k.a. String Quartet No. 1 (1959) performed by the Kepler Quartet. From the 2011 CD Ben Johnston: String Quartets 1, 5, and 10 (New World Records 80693-2). Streamed with permission.
Intonation has always been the highest priority in these recordings because that’s what defines Johnston’s masterpieces. But everything else had to be right to create a cohesive artistic statement.We’ve taken seriously our mission of accurately documenting these works the way Johnston conceived them. I remember when we began the First Quartet, I asked if Johnston wanted a Webernian crystalline approach or a more full-throated romanticism. He raised his eyebrows and said, “Both. I want it all!” When asked about production values, Johnston replied that he sees these recordings as reinventing the art of chamber music. It’s “more like a film than a stage play.” There is some hyperbole in his words, but also some truth—no Pixar magic, just a lot of hard work to make the best recordings we can. We’ve come to view in a positive light the fact that Johnston’s quartets demand scrupulous attention to detail. There’s more to consider about this music on many different levels, and it’s all good.
Engineering is critical.
I brought some studio experience to the project, though it mostly falls into the category of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” We’ve been extremely lucky to have had another genius as a full partner in this endeavor. Ric Probst is a brilliant engineer, cajoler-in-chief, and something of a psychologist as well, managing all our quirks, keeping things moving, bringing perspective to the table. Throughout the project, he cheekily skewered the digital editing process, and our classical pretensions, using his unusual and lengthy background to do so—a reminder of where this stuff fits on the spectrum. Once, when we were caught up in some frustrating minutiae and badly needed perspective, he said, “I remember editing Bootsy Collins hits in Cincinnati, and having bits of reel-to-reel tape spread on the floor in front of me.” Then, nodding at a computer running ProTools, “This is [expletive deleted]!” The man’s great ears, great skill, and wry wit saved the day many times. No one deserves more credit or thanks than Ric.
At this point, I’ll take a moment to thumb through my Kepler flip book and introduce the three indomitable spirits whose sacrifice and devotion have made this possible. I met our first violinist, Sharan Leventhal, when we were in high school youth orchestra together. I remember my first impression: “She’s such a brilliant player; she doesn’t even seem to play the same instrument as the rest of us!” I met the violist Brek Renzelman just after he graduated from Indiana University, when he won a titled position with the Milwaukee Symphony. He’s been the glue for the quartet, in both a musical and administrative sense; the most conscientious “inner voice.” For ten years, cellist Karl Lavine was my comrade in the trenches for Kevin Stalheim’s Present Music; we played 60 different programs of new music together. During Karl’s tenure with Present Music, Brek was also a regular, and Sharan guested frequently. As a foursome, we performed a lot under the Present Music banner, and even recorded the Kamran Ince quartet Curve for Innova during that period.
And then came the Big Bang for our project: the premiere of Johnston’s Tenth Quartet in 2002.
While scouring a music library looking for something else, I found the score to Johnston’s Tenth Quartet. Research revealed that not only had the piece never been played, but that it hadn’t even been commissioned! A very good omen if you believe that real art is “what you are compelled to do.”
I timidly phoned Johnston, who was newly retired from the University of Illinois and living in North Carolina, and I invited him to Milwaukee. He graciously accepted even though he’d only previously worked with more established quartets. It still strikes me as an act of blind faith for him to have entrusted a nascent, unknown group with an important premiere, much less the recording of his entire quartet cycle.
Fast-forward fourteen years.
St. Augustine: “The reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”
The final step: going public.
When we are done with recording and engineering, the record label finishes the process: mastering the disc, preparing the notes and packaging, and distributing. Once again, we’ve had the very best of luck to end up on New World Records working with the visionary Paul Tai. He understood the importance of this project way before we did, and steered us clear of obstacles many times, with unwavering patience. The future of this music is in good hands.
St. Gregory: “The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things.”
The composition of these ten quartets spanned a 36-year period in Johnston’s life. Modest man that he is, he would never claim saintly status—or genius/hero/visionary status for that matter. But it’s hard not to notice the constant evolution and steady growth through all ten quartets, moving ever closer to his altruistic ideal of the harmonic way of living.
The very first quartet was written before he composed exclusively in Just Intonation and shows him to be a masterful composer already, one who kept adding tools to his toolbox. About that constant evolution—whoever commissioned a piece thinking it would be like his previous work was in for a surprise. Johnston seems to have spent his whole life asking the big questions, seeking answers anywhere and everywhere. And yet that rock-solid Johnston DNA is found in every note that he wrote from the first quartet onward.
If our project had indeed been a film, it would have had a large ensemble cast, each member with a significant role to play. It took a whole network of idealistic people to make this happen: the composer, the quartet, the engineer, recording studio and venues, fiscal agent, record label, publisher, MIDI mavens, arts organizations, funders and fundraisers, media specialists, advocates, caregivers, family members, and especially, our spouses—those with us and those departed. They have been most generous, patient, and constant, the true saints of this project.
We fervently hope listeners will take the time to delve into Johnston’s music. It’s a wonderland waiting to be explored—a new way of hearing that will never leave you. Not a rehearsal passed without a moment when four seasoned professional musicians had to lay down their instruments, and just say, “Wow!”
Pondering the completion of this recording project, stray thoughts led me to a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:
One great poem should be born of
the sum of all your poems, recording
more than the surface reality, more than
“what’s passing by the window.”
Find the further reality, if there is one.
It’s not up to Johnston, or the Kepler Quartet, to say what that further reality might be. We’ve shared our particular window. Now we all get to sit back and be astonished by whatever happens next.
I once asked Johnston how he had gravitated towards studying with people of such disparate aesthetics as Harry Partch, Darius Milhaud, and John Cage and managed to incorporate influences from jazz and folk music to serialism, from Gurdjieff to Catholicism, from Renaissance music to rock opera, to achieve something so intensely personal. His reply was very telling. “Well,” he said, “I just wanted to invite everybody to the party!”
From all of us, happy 90th birthday, Ben! Thank you for inviting us to the party.
Ben Johnston and Eric Segnitz. Photo by Kae Hubred.
A note of thanks to the Wisconsin Alliance for Composers for acting as our fiscal agent throughout the project. And thank you to all the wonderful supporters of this project—foundations, our Kickstarter family of contributors, private donors—and special thanks to two angels who have asked to remain anonymous for now.
Perhaps the best overall introduction to Ben Johnson is to watch him present his own 101-minute autobiographical lecture “Who am I? Why am I here?” on April 15, 2006 at Scripps College in Claremont, California, during the 2006 Microfest, an annual festival of microtonal music in Southern California.
More details about Ben Johnston’s book of collected essays, Maximum Clarity, is available in Frank J. Oteri’s 2007 conversation with Ben Johnston on NewMusicBox.
The Kepler Quartet’s website includes more detailed biographies of individual quartet members.
Booklet notes by Bob Gilmore for the previous two New World CD releases are reproduced here and here. And here is a link to Kyle Gann’s notes for the upcoming third release.
Finally, Jon Roy has maintained a fascinating blog about Ben Johnston called A New Dissonance which documents the preparation, rehearsal, and recording of these string quartets and also collects other online Johnston resources.
A conversation at Smash Studios in New York City
October 3, 2012—7 p.m.
Video filmed by Alexandra Gardner
Video edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Glenn Branca has had a deep and lasting impact on several music scenes, but he was never really a part of any of them. He was obsessed with sound as early as he can remember, but as an adult he envisioned himself in theatre long before he realized that his true artistic calling was to be a composer. Always insatiable for new sonic experiences, he experimented with guitars and tape recorders to make unusual sounds just to please himself; not long afterwards he became an avid record collector. Hearing him describe his listening appetite at that time is infectious:
I don’t think there’s a single thing you could possibly name that I wasn’t listening to. I was just voracious; my ears wanted to hear new things. … I loved rock music, absolutely loved it. I was collecting rock music. I was collecting jazz. I was even into jazz fusion in the early ‘70s, which I can’t even listen to anymore. It’s like, ugh. And contemporary classical music; I mean, I was even listening to Elliott Carter. I wanted to hear everything that was going on. I got a bunch of cheap components and put them together and I created what I considered to be a tremendous stereo, which I really cranked up. … [A]t one point I got a gig at a record store. And I swear to god, I listened to almost every record in the entire store. That’s when I discovered Mahler.
As the punk scene was burgeoning in downtown New York City, Branca and a friend of his named Jeff Lohn, whose ground-floor Soho loft was going to be used for Branca’s theatrical creations, decided to form a rock band instead. But the band they formed, Theoretical Girls, played a new kind of punk rock music. Critics later described the work of this seminal band, and other similarly anarchic bands in Soho and the East Village, as “No Wave.” Theoretical Girls played only about 20 shows, never released an album during its existence (a lone 45-r.p.m. single was issued in 1978), and is not included on the seminal No New York LP compiled by Brian Eno. Yet listening to the surviving archival live recordings of Theoretical Girls, which were finally released on two CDs in 1996 and 2002, reveals how prophetic their sound would later be. Elements of their visceral sonic assault were subsequently taken up by latter-day groups ranging from Sonic Youth and Helmet (whose founding members played with Branca) to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And, although her music sounds nothing like anything Branca has ever been involved with, there’s even a British singer/songwriter named Amy Turnnidge who records under the moniker Theoretical Girl.
But after forming another short-lived No Wave band called The Static, Branca was pretty much done with the group dynamic of rock bands and was interested in creating larger musical forms. After he composed Instrumental for Six Guitars and performed it at the legendary Max’s Kansas City, it was clear that his music had gone in a completely different direction and that it was precisely where he wanted it to go:
I remember the first rehearsal. I stopped in the middle of the piece. There were tears rolling down my cheeks. I had killed myself for so many years waiting for this moment. I had to stop. I couldn’t stand to listen to it one more second. It was everything I had been working towards, everything I had wanted. So it was impossible for me not to go in that direction. … I just kept pushing it. I pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it to the point of no return.
The point of no return was a series of hour-long pieces for large, extremely loud ensembles which involved retuned and often rebuilt guitars designed to play hundreds of different intervals based on the first 127 harmonics of the overtone series. Despite being for his own rock-based performing units rather than orchestras, he called these pieces symphonies. As his ambitions expanded, so did his instrumentation. In later years, he would go on to write pieces for actual symphony orchestra. He would also take a much less dogmatic approach to tuning. But in those earliest symphonies, Branca redefined the word for our own era in much the same way that Philip Glass and Robert Wilson had redefined opera only a few years earlier with Einstein on the Beach.
While Branca became the doyen of all composers who were interested in shattering the boundaries between musical genres (Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon even dedicated his early totalist composition, Four Kings Fight Five, to Branca), not everyone in the new music scene was enamored of such raw energy at ear-splitting volume. In one of more bewildering episodes in the annals of American music history, John Cage, who in an earlier era had been vilified for ostensibly creating “noise” and calling it music, was very outspoken in decrying what Branca was doing. It was somewhat crushing for Branca, but also sobering:
Cage really does have to be credited with having invented the concept of new music, or downtown music, or whatever you call it. In fact, the whole downtown lifestyle has to be credited to John Cage. … Being crucified by John Cage was actually not a good thing. It made me a lot of enemies, which was really unnecessary. You have to realize Cage was beloved. I was one of his fans. But that doesn’t mean that I was going to imitate him; that I was going to try to do what he does. I was really interested in very specifically composed music. … He made the mistake of coming to my concert. He said he couldn’t sit down at the same time that he didn’t want to stand up. He said that he was shaking. He said the music made him afraid. He went on and on and on and on about it. … He said everything about my music is what is wrong with music. … I don’t have any bad feelings about it. That’s what he felt; that was his opinion. And as they say, he has the right to his opinion.
Branca has tons of opinions of his own. In the two hours we spoke at Smash Studios, he offered salient commentary on everything from the differences between East Village and Soho No Wave bands to how orchestras should play Messiaen. He even had some off the cuff advice for other composers: Learn how to work with any sonic material you’re given. Make sure not to get too bogged down with musical theory. While his language is often as strong as his music, so is his message.
Frank J. Oteri: You once said in an interview that when you were really young you were playing a guitar and your mother thought that you were playing the wrong chords, but they were the chords that you wanted. You were already forging your own path and discovering new things with the instrument.
Glenn Branca: Yeah, I just let my ears take me where they wanted to go. I was only entertaining myself. I wasn’t ever thinking of playing for anybody else. My mother happened to be there, so she had to hear it. I used to go out on my porch. I used to go in the garage. Sometimes, I’d sit in the living room. But I had actually studied guitar for about six months. The guitar teacher just wanted to teach me Bach. I learned it and I learned how to read music, but it was boring as hell. I really just wanted to play folk music and rock music. That was what was going on at that time, the early- to mid-‘60s. But that’s not what I ever had any intention of doing at all.
Members of The Bastard Theatre watching TV on the Esplanade in Boston, 1975. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca
I was an actor, and that’s what I was going to do. I was absolutely determined and when I went to school, at Emerson in Boston, which is a really good school for theater, I very quickly became interested in directing and very quickly after that became interested in writing my own plays because I couldn’t find any plays I wanted to direct. The reason for that was because I was an incredibly bad director. I wanted to incorporate all kinds of ideas that had absolutely nothing to do with the play into the play. That’s not the way you’re supposed to direct. You’re supposed to take the playwright’s vision and realize it. I wasn’t interested in that at all. I had a vision. I wanted to realize my vision. So I started writing plays. I wanted to have a theater group, of course, and eventually I did start one in Boston called the Bastard Theater. But at the same time, I never lost my interest in music.
At the time that I was playing these chords that my mother heard, I was also fooling around with all kinds of broken-down tape decks that my parents would buy me for my birthday and for Christmas. They were cheap, junky things that would break down and start making really interesting sounds, because they weren’t working properly. I would set them all up, and use the one that was working to record all of the other ones. I found this incredibly entertaining. I would listen to it in stereo, but I never, ever imagined that this was composition of any kind.
FJO: I would love to hear these tapes if any of them survive.
GB: None as far as I know. My mom pretty much threw out everything I had after I left home: my comic books, my baseball cards, everything. She thought it was all worthless. I had Spiderman #1. Can you fucking believe that? She didn’t know. But the music thing never, never left. I was a gigantic music fan. I was a listener. I was a collector.
FJO: So what were you listening to?
GB: Everything. I don’t think there’s a single thing you could possibly name that I wasn’t listening to. I was just voracious; my ears wanted to hear new things. I’d say the only kind of music I didn’t listen to was country and western music, to be honest, even though there was a lot of it—I mean old country and western—that was actually very good and very interesting. Nonesuch was releasing a lot of really interesting stuff, from all over the world, as well as releasing new music composers. It was a great, great label at the time. One of my favorite pieces was the Ramayana Monkey Chant, which eventually became popular but at the time I was listening to it I don’t think there were too many people listening to it. So many things came about accidentally with me.
I was always working at shitty jobs while I was trying to do my theater to just earn enough money to pay the rent—washing dishes, bus boy, whatever. But at one point I got a gig at a record store. And I swear to god, I listened to almost every record in the entire store. That’s when I discovered Mahler. This was in the early ‘70s, I guess. I had never had any interest in classical music whatsoever, mainly because of the kind of stuff they played for us in school. The stuff in so-called music class was either horrendous garbage or too sophisticated for a 15-year-old ear. To tell you the truth, I don’t really like the Beethoven symphonies, even to this day. But they played us that stuff. I love the Beethoven piano sonatas; those are killer. They’re absolutely gorgeous. The man had a tremendous gift. I wouldn’t even try to begin to fool around with that. To me, that’s what he was really good at. But I shouldn’t get into Beethoven or I’m going to make a tremendous amount of people upset.
FJO: So what was it about Mahler that got you so excited?
GB: Well, that’s an interesting question. He took me places that I had never been before with music. As I said, I was listening to everything, but I had never heard something so complex. My own work in theater, the plays that I was writing and the work I wanted to do, was complex. It was experimental theater. I had studied completely on my own because there wasn’t any school that taught experimental theater. You just had to go into the bookstore and grab plays by whatever Polish, Czech, French, or English playwright. There certainly weren’t any American playwrights who were writing really out there experimental stuff.
FJO: What about Richard Foreman?
GB: This is before Richard Foreman. Well, let’s see, it’s hard to get before Richard Foreman. He goes back to the late ‘60s. I still consider Richard Foreman to be one of the greatest artists of our time. So let that stand as my position on Richard Foreman. But this was before I knew anything about Foreman, because he didn’t get out of New York at all. I was brought up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and when I finally got the hell out of there and went to college, I went to Boston. And that was somewhat of a revelation to me because I was exposed to so much more, but still, Richard Foreman was not something that was known in Boston. But I had read some stuff about Foreman, so when I came to New York in 1976, I immediately went to check him out and he immediately became my hero. And he still is.
FJO: His plays really operate like pieces of music in some ways.
GB: Oh, he’s a great composer. His compositions are fantastic—really interesting stuff. And of course, it goes with his work perfectly. I mean, that’s the point. And that’s what I was doing with theater. There was no narrative. There were no characters. In New York terms, it would have been thought of to some extent as performance art, but not really because they were very much theatrical production—the lighting, the movement, and the text were all very carefully worked out and very carefully rehearsed. I started incorporating music into it, having actors performing the music. They were not musicians. That’s when I basically had to learn how to write for non-musicians, and that was interesting because I did a lot of work with structured improvisation. I’ve never been interested in free improvisation, ever. I was tremendously interested in the ‘60s, what I call Miles-style, jazz scene, but that wasn’t free improv. Even when Coltrane went to free improv I lost interest in him, although many people think that’s his greatest work. I don’t think so. I think his greatest work was in the ‘50s when he was still actually writing music.
FJO: To go from loving Mahler and not liking free improvisation and doing the kind of music you were doing as part of your theatrical work to forming a No Wave punk rock band seems like a strange trajectory.
Glenn Branca’s Ascension band in dressing room during European tour, c. 1981. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.
GB: Well, that was easy as pie. I loved rock music, absolutely loved it. As I said, I was a collector. I was collecting rock music. I was collecting jazz. I was even into jazz fusion in the early ‘70s, which I can’t even listen to anymore. It’s like, ugh. And contemporary classical music; I mean, I was even listening to Elliott Carter. I wanted to hear everything that was going on. I got a bunch of cheap components and put them together and I created what I considered to be a tremendous stereo, which I really cranked up. When I would listen to Mahler, I’d listen really fucking loud, you realize. So when I would go to see the Boston Symphony, I would be tremendously disappointed because I couldn’t hear it. I remember actually hearing the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen. Seiji Ozawa was conducting, and Messiaen was actually there to take a bow. He was quite old at the time. I was a gigantic Messiaen fan—I loved everything he did—[but] I thought it was terrible. Then many, many, many decades later, I heard the Juilliard Orchestra play it, and it was a totally different piece. It was absolutely killer. I think it’s one of the finest pieces written to this day. You know, but in those days, and maybe even still, the tendency is to slow everything down and to soften it up and to smooth it out. That’s exactly what [the BSO] did with this piece. Whereas the Juilliard guys played it as it was written—a piece that was meant to kick ass, a piece that was meant to be vicious and ugly and mean spirited. Ozawa leeched all of that out of the piece and turned it into just another generic, orchestral, classical music piece. So I had no idea that this was such a brilliant piece.
FJO: Considering your reaction to that performance, it’s surprising that you eventually wound up writing pieces for orchestra.
GB: Well, with Mahler, I became absolutely infatuated with the orchestra. At the same time, it was the most complex music and the most beautiful music I had ever heard. These composers were really thinking about what they were doing. They weren’t just like trying to get your rocks off. They were trying to get your head off, you know. All this crap about Mahler constantly writing about the fact that he was dying is completely ridiculous bullshit. He was writing music. He didn’t know he was going to die of strep throat in the last couple months of his life.
FJO: Mahler is a far cry from what you were doing musically with The Theoretical Girls, although I would venture to say that it was the most influential rock band never to have released an album during its existence.
GB: I think there are a lot of people who would disagree with you about that. If you didn’t have some kind of backing, it was just way too expensive. And I’m not just talking about New York. I’m talking about all of the indie bands, all over the country. Even releasing a single was an extremely expensive thing to do. We were all broke. We had to scrape together the money as best we could, and we didn’t just want to release a live tape or something. You have to realize these junky live tapes that are being released now are something that no one would have ever considered releasing at that time. You wanted to release something that at least had the potential to have the same kind of production qualities as the stuff that people were used to hearing. If you released a so-called garage band record in 1978, people would have thrown it out. No one would listen to it. No one would play it on the radio. Things have changed since then.
Without prolonging this, my buddy Jeff Lohn and I were both very much into theater. He had a ground floor loft in Soho, and we were setting it up to be a theater. I was going to do the Bastard Theater. He was going to do No Theater: N. O. Theater. Very simply what happened was that I couldn’t hold back my desire to start a rock band. And the truth of the matter is I didn’t even have a guitar at the time. I didn’t have an amplifier; I had nothing. But I said, I’m going to do this somehow, some way; I’m going to get together with some people and we’re going to make it happen. I started putting up some posters around SoHo near where I lived and where I worked. I didn’t even tell Jeff about this. Now, I knew that Jeff was a fine pianist. In fact, he had studied as a classical pianist and supposedly had broken his thumb and it ended his career. I don’t know what the real story is. But when Jeff found out that I was trying to put this band together, he said, “Why didn’t you tell me about this? Let’s do this.” And I said, “Great.” The loft that we were in the process of painting black and turning into a theater ended up being a rehearsal space for our band. He had a good friend who was a performance artist and a conceptual artist named Dan Graham, who has turned out to be one of the finest artists of our time. He loved punk music; he absolutely was infatuated with it. When he heard that we were going to start a band, he immediately said, “Listen I’ve got a gig at Franklin Furnace coming up in three weeks. I want you guys to play on it.” We hadn’t written one song. We didn’t have any equipment. Nothing. So we put this whole thing together in three weeks. Somehow we scrounged all this stuff together. We borrowed a drummer from a different band and we wrote all of this music, and they loved it.
FJO: So you and Jeff wrote all the music?
GB: Yes. We didn’t collaborate.
FJO: But the four people in the group were all composers.
GB: The original band actually only had three. Jeff might have learned how to play the bass, because he was a trained musician. It was very easy for him. And he actually did know how to play the guitar. But there were only three of us at the time. What happened was we immediately started getting invited to play everywhere. There was a whole loft scene. So we would play at people’s loft parties and things like that for a few weeks, basically doing the same set. Then we got invited to play at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, Phill Niblock’s place, which amazingly is still there. This was very early 1978. I think it was a gig with Peter Gordon and Rhys [Chatham] doing his guitar trio. For this gig, we decided we were going to get our own drummer, and not only that, we were going to add a bass player so Jeff could just play keyboards. We wrote a bunch of new songs, and we kind of changed our sound, because we started out as a kind of skewed punk band. I was an experimentalist all the way. In fact, so was Jeff. Both of us had so many things in common and a similar attitude about work. We decided to say, O.K., this is our theater. Our idea of theater was not theatrical. It wasn’t like glitter or something. It was more Brechtian. So we didn’t wear costumes. We didn’t wear makeup. We didn’t do any of that. In fact, we were in complete opposition to all of that. We were very much influenced by the punk scene. But at the same time, both of us were coming out of the contemporary music scene. The kind of band that I wanted to do was very much the idea of taking contemporary, serious music and putting it in the context of rock music. Both of which I loved very much. As far as what Jeff wanted to do, I don’t know. I mean, the truth of the matter is, it really was very much my band as far as the sound of the band, the approach of the band, and the direction that the band took. Jeff was very quick, and picked up on all of this very quickly. So we were both kind of in parallel universes. But the band just took off immediately. I don’t know what to say. Whether Phill at Experimental Intermedia liked the band, I don’t know. But the fucking audience certainly did. We packed the place out the door.
The next thing that happened was we were invited to play on the X magazine benefit, which incorporated these East Village bands that were doing strange things with rock music—bands like DNA and the Contortions. We knew a little bit about some of that stuff, but not much. The magazine was just throwing a benefit. They wanted to raise a few hundred bucks, and they were able to rent this gigantic Polish dance hall for very little money. They were only charging two dollars, and nobody expected more than 150 people to show up. A thousand people showed up. This was like in early winter of ’78. It all happened like that.
FJO: I imagine one of Lydia Lunch’s bands was a part of that gig as well.
GB: She wasn’t on that gig, but we knew Lydia Lunch. We had seen her play. We had started to find out about these East Village bands. And they started finding out about us, but when I say us, I don’t mean just Theoretical Girls. I mean the so-called SoHo side of the No Wave scene which was The Gynecologists, which was Nina Canal’s band. She’s now known for her band called Ut. She was English, and she now lives in England. She was actually Rhys’ wife at the time, and Rhys was in the Gynecologists. And Rhys’s band Tone Deaf was one of the bands. Then there was, of course, Rudolph Grey’s band, Red Transistor. None of these bands were part of this little clique in the East Village that would eventually be released by Eno on the No New York record, the bands that became known as the No Wave bands. That was really not the case. In fact, I doubt whether there would have even been a No Wave if the art world hadn’t taken an interest in the SoHo bands.
The Kitchen was starting to book bands. The Artist Space actually put on a festival of bands where they invited not only the SoHo bands to play, but also the East Village bands to play. There were about ten of us in total. We didn’t have anything against them, but they seemed to have something against us. At this point, after so many years, I can be perfectly honest about what the separation was between us and them. They were junkies, and we weren’t. It was just as simple as that. It was the whole sort of Velvet Underground junkie punk scene. Whereas where we were coming more from was entirely about music. We thought, lived, breathed, ate music. I’m not saying we didn’t take some drugs sometimes. I mean, there was one article in which, for instance, John Rockwell said, “Mr. Chatham had a hard time maintaining a vertical position during the concert.” You know, which was an understatement to say the least. But we were friends. We were all friends.
FJO: Now in terms of being in it for the music, though, I’ve listened to the music from those East Village bands, and DNA is unbelievably sophisticated musically. You’ve even compared their music to Webern.
GB: Yes, I have done that. And I stand by it. They were a great band, especially when they got Tim Wright, the bass player. Originally they had a keyboardist named Robin Crutchfield, who was interesting in his own right, and did some of his own stuff. But to me they exemplified whatever No Wave might be. The truth of the matter is we were all doing different things. But some critic—well actually I know what the name of the critic was, his name is Roy Trakin. I think he wrote for the SoHo News. He’s the one who labeled it No Wave. There was no label. None of us thought in terms of being part of a movement. But he gave it a name, and once it got a name, what can I say.
Eno became very interested. Wow, there’s a movement going on in New York of experimental rock. We actually did a gig of an evening of short pieces in Jeff’s loft one night, and Eno was there. He was like an incredibly big deal to us at the time. You have no idea. We were a bunch of scroungers. I mean, we were all working in shit jobs, you know; you didn’t make any money playing music. It’s like things are nowadays for bands. And so wow, there’s a real, honest-to-god rock star who’s interested in this. Originally the word was that he was going to release all ten of the No Wave bands. One cut each, or two cuts each. Actually, it was two short cuts each. But he started hanging out with Lydia. I think that’s pretty much the way it went down. It was really pretty much as simple as that.
FJO: Given this SoHo vs. East Village dichotomy, it’s interesting how remnants of No Wave music survived. In the decades since that time, the band that carried on the sound world that began with the No Wave bands was Sonic Youth, and two of the founding members of that group were people who began playing your music.
GB: Sonic Youth was not a No Wave band. Not even close. The No Wave scene existed basically between 1977 and 1979. After that, it started to change very quickly, because it had become popular, mainly due to the release of No New York by Eno. You started having tons and tons of bands, mainly Talking Heads-type imitation bands that were called Art Rock bands. After 1979, the term No Wave wasn’t used any more. It was Art Rock. Sonic Youth was very much an Art Rock band. And Live Skull, Rat at Rat R, Swans—these were really good, powerful bands. But they had literally nothing to do with No Wave. I don’t care how many concerts they may have gone to. That would be like if we had tried to call ourselves Bebop bands or something. There was no connection whatsoever. I mean, these guys were doing commercial music, even by the standards of the times. It was commercial compared to what we were doing, which was utterly uncommercial, and in fact that was clearly documented in the press. These guys aren’t out to make any money. That’s not what this is about. It’s about music and music alone. Whereas all of a sudden these bands came along and they were using riffs from bands from the ‘60s and the ’70s and kind of incorporating this modern New York sound into it. As I said, it was basically called Art Rock, and it went from ten bands to about 200 bands. And it went from two clubs—basically Max’s and CBGB’s, and then there was always a sort of floating club that would be on and off—to about 20 clubs. The scene was gigantic, and people actually were making money, because it had gotten popular. It was the thing in New York at the time. All these new guys had come to New York to see something and do something exciting and new. What was exciting and new at that particular time was the No Wave scene. A lot of the artists were also starting their own bands, and became part of the Art Rock movement, people like Richard Prince and Robert Longo. Everybody was doing a band. Basically pretty much like it is now. Who isn’t doing a band?
FJO: At that time you also had a second band called The Static.
GB: Yes, because Jeff wanted to start doing his own work independently. And he said, “I can’t play on a regular basis.” I had tons of ideas that I wanted to get out, so I said, “O.K., well that’s cool. But I’m going to start this other band and keep doing my own music. That’s all The Static’s about.” And The Static didn’t last very long either, because I found something really new. This was in 1979. Everything happened very quickly at the time. I had ideas for all kinds of pieces that didn’t fit into the straight rock band structure.
The Static in a dressing room at Riverside Studios in London. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.
One of the pieces was called Instrumental for Six Guitars. Without belaboring the story, I was invited to play in Max’s Kansas City’s Easter Festival. So I very quickly threw this thing together. And the piece, again like Theoretical Girls and like The Static, was very quickly successful. People loved it. At Max’s, the dressing rooms were upstairs. You had to go through the audience to get off the stage. There was no backstage area. When we performed Instrumental for Six Guitars, people were literally grabbing my clothing. I felt like Elvis. “Who are you?” “What was that?” “I’ve never heard anything like that before in my life.” It just so happened that this particular piece was a killer. I was still doing my band The Static at the time, and I remember going back to the guy who booked Max’s, saying “O.K., so when can I do another gig with The Static?” And he said, “The Static? Why don’t you do Glenn Branca?” Because the Instrumental for Six Guitars piece had been billed under my name, basically we had The Static and Instrumental for Six Guitars on the same bill. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind, but it kind of developed from there. I would rather be home sitting in front of a blank piece of paper with a pencil in my hand than go to a Stones concert. I really enjoyed working and this was really just another part of my work.
I saw that I was in a position where I could do absolutely anything I wanted to do, and there was an audience there for it. I mean, New York was nothing at all like it is now. I feel bad about it, because it seems like—relatively—it was ridiculously easy for us. There were a few bands, the audience was much smaller. But we got a lot more attention. It’s so gigantic now. There are thousands of bands and literally hundreds of clubs. It’s very difficult for a band to get any recognition. I don’t care how good you are. There are just too many bands. Too many people have swarmed here. There are people doing very good stuff who are being ignored. But that’s the world. I don’t know what to say. I just kept pushing it. I pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it to the point of no return.
Dissonance at The Kitchen, 1979. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.
FJO: The point of no return: sitting in front of that paper instead of going to a Stones concert; being a composer—
GB: —Instead of schmoozing; instead of going out at all.
FJO: So you had this deep interest in Mahler and all of sudden there’s this piece under your name that’s really a composition rather than a song. Is it fair to draw a distinction at that point between a song and a composition?
GB: Oh, very much so. I dropped the songs very quickly once I heard what a large group of guitarists could sound like. I had already started using different tunings because, as I said, everything I was doing was experimental. I was trying everything in the world. I was doing all kinds of things for years and years and years and years. This one clicked. This one hit. I don’t mean hit like, “Wow, they like it, so I’ll do that.” No. I liked it.
I remember the first rehearsal. I stopped in the middle of the piece. There were tears rolling down my cheeks. I had killed myself for so many years waiting for this moment. I had to stop. I couldn’t stand to listen to it one more second. It was everything I had been working towards, everything I had wanted. So it was impossible for me not to go in that direction. And I immediately started developing that direction. I started inventing more tunings, and I started listening very closely to what was really the essence of that sound. I realized that close harmonies were a very important part of that and open strings on the guitar, strings that were ringing and allowing a lot of harmonics to interact. So I started moving more in that direction with a piece like Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses, which is the piece that Cage hated. And it’s the first time I wore these sun glasses.
Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses during the U.S. tour, 1983. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.
FJO: The story about John Cage hating your music is one of the stranger episodes in new music history.
GB: I can understand it. It was a festival in Chicago I was invited to play at, New Music America. And everybody was doing one version or another of Cage. Cage really does have to be credited with having invented the concept of new music, or downtown music, or whatever you call it. In fact, the whole downtown lifestyle has to be credited to John Cage. There’s just no question about it. I mean, he went all the way back to the ‘30s with this for God’s sake. He actually got a feature article in Life magazine, which would be equivalent to—I don’t think there is an equivalent to that anymore. I mean, it was just gigantic. So wherever he went, people followed in the new music scene.
So this festival had something like 200 concerts by 200 different composers. For some reason, I was invited, and Cage had stated it was his birthday party. His birthday cake was cut by the mayor of Chicago. I mean, it was a big deal. And he stated, “I’m going to see every single concert at this festival that’s in my honor.” He says, “I don’t usually go out to see music very much, but this I’m going to see.” He made the mistake of coming to my concert. He said he couldn’t sit down at the same time that he didn’t want to stand up. He said that he was shaking. He said the music made him afraid. He went on and on and on and on about it. What happened is that the day after the concert, there was a symposium of composers and Cage started off the symposium by giving a ten-minute critique of my piece. After he had just seen like 200 pieces, he chose me to crucify. He said everything about my music is what is wrong with music.
There are many, many documentations of things that he said. He said things to radio stations; he said things to newspapers. He said things to interviewers and, luckily, I was able to get a hold of a tape. It’s about a 15-minute interview, in which he does nothing but attack my music in what, for me, was a vile and vicious way. Because you have to realize, I felt that the piece was in fact a tribute to John Cage. I mean, just to use the word indeterminate, that word in music is undeniably identified directly with John Cage. And I felt that the piece was very much a Cagean piece. I released the recording of Indeterminate Activity eventually. I didn’t have a recording that I liked, but after many, many years, I said fuck it. I’m never going to play this piece again, so I might as well release this recording. And on the other side, I put the interview with Cage in which he crucifies me. I don’t have any bad feelings about it. That’s what he felt; that was his opinion. And as they say, he has the right to his opinion.
FJO: Did you ever talk to him after that?
GB: No. We didn’t talk to each other before or after. The only thing we did was wave when we passed each other at the festival. I guess he recognized me, and I recognized him and said hi.
FJO: I think it’s so interesting that he reacted so viscerally, because he always gave this aura of being so open to all and every possibility.
GB: As it turns out, I found out afterwards that actually wasn’t true. There was a composer that I knew named Julius Eastman. Cage had basically done the same thing to him immediately after his concert, and supposedly he’d done the same thing to both Laurie Anderson and Steve Reich. So, if you didn’t play what he considered to be politically correct music, so to speak, he would come after you. He would attack you. I wasn’t the first. It’s just that I got more attention, or at least he got more attention for criticizing me, than any of these other people.
FJO: In a weird way, his criticizing you so publicly and all over the place spread the word about you.
GB: Yeah, people like to believe that. People like to think that. That’s not really true. Being crucified by John Cage was actually not a good thing. It made me a lot of enemies, which was really unnecessary. You have to realize Cage was beloved. I was one of his fans. But that doesn’t mean that I was going to imitate him; that I was going to try to do what he does. I was really interested in very specifically composed music. I have used and still use structured improvisation, but it certainly is not improvisation in any conventional definition of the word. I remember when John Zorn emerged in the mid-‘80s, Cage immediately aligned himself with Zorn against me. He wanted to find a young, new composer whom he felt was more connected to the kind of work that he himself had developed. Cage wanted, to be brutally honest, to destroy written music. And I felt that was just outrageous. Not everything can just be improvised or collaborated. Would you want to read an improvised, collaborated novel? I mean, I don’t know if you read. I read a lot. And I can tell you right now, I would not want to read something that was written by five people improvising. I mean, I want to read a carefully worked out and developed piece of work. I can say the same thing about any kind of art.
FJO: It actually is a redux of what you were talking about with the SoHo and East Village No Wave bands where one scene didn’t quite fit into the other. Then, all of a sudden, you became part of this, for lack of a better term, contemporary classical, downtown music scene. But ultimately your music didn’t really fit in with that either. You were your own thing. You were using musicians who had backgrounds in rock. This wasn’t the kind of music that the folks who went to new music concerts were used to hearing at that point.
GB: That was definitely a problem. What can I say? I mean, it was loud. Rock music, I mean, I like it loud. Just like I said when I listen to Mahler at home, I listen to it three or four times louder than you would ever hear it in a concert hall. That’s what got me off. Actually, I’d rather hear Bruckner now than Mahler, but things change. But yes, I didn’t pay any attention to what was going on.
FJO: Perhaps the ultimate affront to classical music sensibilities was calling your pieces for a group of very loud rock guitar players and drummers symphonies.
GB: I was on a plane home thinking, What am I going to do next? I’d like to do a long-form piece of music, something similar to a play, the kind of things that I had been writing before I started seriously writing music. And the term symphony—this is the perfect analogy for creating something that develops over the entire evening in, you might say, acts, the way a play develops in acts. So it seemed like an obvious thing to do, although I knew that I was sticking my neck way, way, way out on the line to call my funky, primitive, loud rock music a symphony. Um, it worked. They liked it. I liked it. It became basically what I wanted to do. Eventually I felt that the kind of music that I wanted to write needed to be more transparent than I could get with amplified instruments. I mean, for me anyway, amplified instruments tend to be murky. If you try to do anything harmonically complex with it, it just turns into mud. In fact, I was used to working with mud. And I still am.
Glenn Branca in 1983, at the time of the composition of Symphony #3 “Gloria”. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.
I feel at this time in my life there isn’t any type of sound I couldn’t create a piece of music out of. In fact, if I was a composition teacher, this is what I would teach my students. I would probably give them very difficult and strange types of sound-making devices, and say, “Make me a piece of music with this.” Two-by-fours, pipes, I don’t know, whatever, because I don’t think the music is about the instrument. I think it’s about the mind. The mind creates the music. Not the instrument. Not even the musician. I mean, I think the musician is incredibly important, don’t get me wrong on that point, and there are wonderful musicians who truly do create magical experiences. But as far as a composer is concerned, I think the composer needs to use his or her mind. And it really doesn’t matter what the tuning system is, whether it’s in the equal temperament system, whether it’s a harmonic series system, or any other system. It matters what you imagine and if you have the ability to put that into real space. For instance, the way Michael Gordon did with his piece called Timber. I don’t know if you’ve heard that piece, but it’s one of the finest pieces that I’ve heard in many, many years. And it’s just a bunch of two-by-fours. He did use some effects, I believe, but it doesn’t matter.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that it doesn’t matter what the tuning system is, since in the 1980s, a very precise tuning based on the harmonic series was extremely important to you. I’m curious about what inspired you to explore just intonation.
GB: I knew of Harry Partch. In fact, I had pretty much everything that he had recorded. And I went to many concerts by La Monte [Young]. One of the members of my band was Ned Sublette. He’s done all kinds of interesting things, and I knew he had studied with La Monte. So I said, “O.K., Ned, what is this harmonic series?” And Ned said, “You know, it’s actually incredibly, ridiculously simple. It’s just a series of natural numbers. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, to infinity. Basically you choose a bass frequency, let’s say like 30 Hz, and take that times one, and the second harmonic is two. You take that 30 Hz, times two, then times three, then times four, then times five.” I said, “Wow. That’s sounds like an incredibly interesting tuning system.” But when I started working with it, I realized that no conventional instruments could play in the system. I mean, if I wanted to use the entire system. As it happens, when I say the entire system, the system is infinite, but when Partch, or Young use it, they choose particular sets of harmonics. Like La Monte will choose 12 particular harmonics and then have the piano tuned so each of the 12 tones are differently tuned. But it’s still 12 all tuned the same way. Whereas in the harmonic series, each interval is different. You don’t have half steps, quarter steps, or eighth tones. Every single interval is a different interval. It’s a different length. You can’t give it a name. It gets smaller as it goes up.
FJO: And you found a way to explore those harmonics in your Third Symphony, Gloria.
GB: In Gloria, yes, I was lucky. That was the first grant I ever got. It was an instrument building grant for five thousand dollars, and I used it to have what I could only call harpsichord-like instruments, because I can guarantee you they were nothing like harpsichords, except for the action. I found a wonderful, amazing instrument builder in New Jersey who built me six keyboards that could be tuned in the first seven octaves of the harmonic series: every single interval, 127 different intervals.
The reason why I wanted that was because I could then use mathematics, or—to put it very simply—arithmetic, to determine compositional structures. That’s what interested me about the harmonic series. I started to find that there was more than just music that was of interest in this harmonic series. I found what I would consider to be philosophical aspects. I began to become very deeply involved in the series itself, having nothing to do with music. There were three symphonies that were written for the harmonic series, #3, #4, and #5, just so you’ll have that on record and people will know. I’ve used bits and pieces of it throughout my work.
A performance of Glenn Branca’s Symphony #4 during a European tour in 1983. Photo courtesy of Glenn Branca.
But I became so involved with it that at one point when I happened to be in Europe for a gig, I made sure to stop at the Institute for Harmonic Research in Vienna, which is basically just an office in the music school there where a composer named Hans Kayser had been working with the harmonic series. He had written a book called the Learning Book of Harmonics— Lehrbuch Der Harmonik. I couldn’t believe it. It’s a beautiful book. It’s amazing. I went through the book, and chart after chart that he had made. To visualize what this would look like, there were charts that I had already created at home just sitting in my room. It was like I was right there on the same page with this guy. I mean, this book was written in 1950. The difference was he never attempted to write a piece of music using the harmonic series. He got too involved, as I said, in the philosophical aspects of it.
But by the time I had finished Symphony #5, I realized, O.K., am I going to be a mathematician, or am I going to be a composer? I also discovered it doesn’t matter what tuning system you use. I had become infatuated with it. I’d fallen in love with it. But I realized the real beauty of music is what the mind creates. It’s not something that can be mathematically determined, which was something that had been very important to many of the serious composers of the 20th century like the serialists; I won’t go on about that. We won’t get into that subject, but they were using a lot of mathematics. I had found what I considered to be the absolutely perfect analogy between mathematics and music, because you have to realize these tones were vibrating at exactly the same rate as the numbers. So if you’re using mathematics in conjunction with the harmonic series, you are literally recreating mathematics in physical space. That became very interesting. But I realized that I wanted to be a composer. I wanted to compose music. I did not want to be a philosopher. I did not want to be a mathematician. I did not want to go in that direction. I wanted to be a composer, and I understood that composing is a function of the mind. The harmonic series is a massive subject, but it isn’t what I do now.
FJO: What you do now encompasses so much. You’re still writing for your own ensemble of electric guitars, but you’re also writing pieces for other ensembles—I know you just completed a piece for the Irish new music group Crash.
GB: I sent them my piece a couple of weeks ago, maybe it was about a week ago actually. I’m a bit a burned out from running. I always like to try something a little different. I’ve been working on it for months. And then I’ve had to do a couple of concerts with my ensemble during that time. I’m killed, but luckily it’s one of the rare pieces I’ve been able to write where I really was able to get what I wanted.
FJO: You already alluded to writing for orchestra, and I’d like to talk with you more in-depth about that. But most of the time you can certainly get more from a chamber group than you can with an orchestra—not in terms of the mass of the sound, but in terms of having time to rehearse, working out very precise details, and more flexibility overall.
GB: Well, I don’t live in Dublin, so I can’t really work with them. I’m going to get to hear them rehearse the piece one time in England at the Huddersfield Festival, one of the places they’re going to perform it. Even these small ensembles don’t have as much time as you would think. I mean, a lot of these musicians are working with a number of different ensembles. It’s the only way they can pay the rent. So you’re still stuck in that same situation where you don’t really have enough time to give to a piece.
FJO: Well, writing a piece for other people is always different than writing for your own group. You certainly have much less control over the outcome. But if you’re writing for orchestra, at least it seems to me, there are even fewer chances you can take. You certainly can’t do things like explore the first 127 intervals in the harmonic series.
GB: You’re absolutely right. And if I’ve made a mistake in a composition, I can fix it in a rehearsal. I can cut it. I can change it. I can’t do that when I deliver a piece to an orchestra. That’s it, you know; that’s the piece they’re going to play.
FJO: But given what you were saying earlier about the performance you heard of the Turangalîla-Symphonie which had all its edges wiped away, I’m surprised that would be an arena you’d want to place your own visceral music in.
GB: It depends on who plays it and who conducts it, whether they like it or don’t like it, and how much rehearsal time they’ve got. Working with an orchestra for a living composer writing a new piece of music is very, very difficult. And the reason for that is very, very simple. Most of the music they play is music they’ve been playing since they were in high school, for Christ’s sakes. You know, they don’t really even need to rehearse it at all. That’s what the classical music audience wants to hear. If you give them an entirely new piece of music that’s—let’s say—an hour long, you’re giving them something that they really have to work on. Not only that, we 21st-century composers tend to do things that are very unconventional sometimes, not the kind of things they learned in music school, and that makes it even more difficult. Sometimes they say, “Fuck this. I don’t give a shit about what this sounds like. This is crap. I just want to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto.” In a sense, I’m not being fair, but in another sense, it is the truth. So much of the classical music scene is about virtuosity; it’s about the musicians showing off their abilities. The composer is the last man on the totem pole.
FJO: So then why have you invested so much compositional energy writing for the orchestra—the Seventh Symphony, the Ninth, and the Eleventh, which are for chorus and orchestra—
GB: —I want to hear my music performed by an orchestra and I’m willing to put up with the crap you have to put up with to work with an orchestra. I’m not blaming orchestras or orchestral musicians, because I understand the problems they’ve got. I mean, their audience is getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. And the costs are getting higher, and higher, and higher. They just don’t have time to work on a piece unless they know it’s going to pack a place and make a lot of money or make their audience happy in one way or another. Now, damn it, personally I want to say this: I think to play to the audience that only wants to hear 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century music is a gigantic mistake. If we are looking at the end of the orchestra, that’s going to end up being up the reason.
There have been a tremendous number of really fantastic, hot, sexy pieces written for orchestra by many composers: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Ligeti, Penderecki Michael Nyman, Louis Andriessen, and the list just goes on and on and on. Throughout the 20th century, there have been really good pieces that people really would like. But they can’t perform these pieces because it takes too much time to rehearse and it’s expensive to rehearse them. It’s going to kill the orchestra eventually. The orchestra is going to become a museum system, as Steve Reich when he was interviewed by The Times was saying it was. I’ve been trying to fight against it.
There are so many musicians here in New York who are really, really good, the best musicians I’ve worked with anywhere in the world. I’ve worked with orchestras all over the United States and Europe, without a doubt the best musicians are in New York. There’s no way around it. And they don’t have gigs. That’s why they very often put together these small ensembles. It would not be difficult, if the union was a little forgiving, to put together a 21st-century orchestra that only played modern music, good modern music. I am absolutely positive that people would pack the place. It would be sold out every night. There is no question in my mind about it: it would rock; it would kill.
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Nov 1, 2012
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