Tag: Philip Glass

MATA at 20

[Ed note: It has been 20 years since the first MATA Festival. Since that time, it has been an annual New York City showcase for new music by early career composers selected from a free global call for submissions. Originally held at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan’s East Village, hence the acronym (which stands for Music at the Anthology), the Festival has subsequently been held at Le Poisson Rouge, the Brooklyn Lyceum, Roulette, and The Kitchen where most of this season’s concerts will take place. (Details for each of the concerts on this year’s festival can be found here.) Since MATA has been such an important stepping stone for so many significant composers, including many who served in an administrative capacity for the organization, we wanted to celebrate the MATA Festival’s 20th anniversary with a series of vignettes from some of the folks for whom it has meant so much. Time forced our hands in capping this at 32 before it went live (we had to have at least 20!), but we invite additional reminiscences in the comments.—FJO]

So much of what makes MATA what it is, is the community around which it has grown and continues to thrive. In the early years, back when we were still at the Anthology Film Archives, our indefatigable tech team, composers and founders alike would carry music stands and amps and instruments up that long flight of stairs and into the hall. One such memorable event was the premier of P(L)aces by Randy Hostetler, which is being performed again at the MATA Festival (on April 13, 2018). For that concert Lisa and I went around the East Village to the second hand furniture shops and borrowed lamps. Spoiler alert! Most players in the ensemble play lamps, switching them on and off in a rhythmic pattern. To facilitate this, our TD at the time, Dan Dryden, made special switches for each lamp, hand wiring them all. Everyone helped to carry lamps, chairs and stands up the stairs. It’s absolutely amazing to me that our little idea, hatched over breakfast with Philip while on tour, has not just blossomed, but flourished and spread, giving NYC the benefit of music from all over the world that has not been heard anywhere else. … yet! From those planning breakfasts around Philip’s kitchen table 20 years ago we could never have imagined this MATA. Thanks to you all for joining us in making it what it has become. I can’t wait to see where we go next!

Eleonor Sandresky (MATA Co-Founder and Artistic Advisory Board)

“Now I count hundreds among my MATA family.”

I remember like it was yesterday: a handful of us young composers struck out on a new path together, seeking community and a chance to be heard side by side, in joyful camaraderie regardless of our backgrounds and fascinations. Now I count hundreds among my MATA family, and I couldn’t be more proud of the role we have been able to play in the musical lives of so many—composers, performers, audiences. Thank you and congratulations dear friends!

Lisa Bielawa (MATA Co-Founder and Artistic Advisory Board)

The MATA New Music Festival was founded in 1996 by Eleonor Sandresky, Lisa Bielawa and myself. From the small beginnings (in the living room of my New York home) and the first concerts at the Anthology Film Archives in 1998, the MATA festival has become today one of the mainstays of New York’s new music world, with its annual festival, a board of directors and, thankfully, a substantial budget made possible by many patrons of the arts. I am very proud of our accomplishments and I am pleased to be honored as a part of the festival’s 20th Anniversary.

Philip Glass (MATA Co-Founder and Executive Producer)

A postcard from the very first season of the MATA Festival in 1998.

A postcard from the very first season of the MATA Festival in 1998.

The first few concerts I attended after moving to New York in 2008 were related to MATA. One in particular, Ne(x)tworks at LPR, left a huge mark. Truly inspiring concert, I hadn’t heard or seen anything like it, the event made me feel so lucky to be a musician in this city. A few years later, I had my own music performed at the festival. Music that I have written here. Music that in many ways couldn’t have happened without MATA. It was written originally for Cornelius Dufallo’s string quartet. Cornelius was one of the musicians of Ne(x)tworks who played that MATA concert at LPR a few years back. MATA is giving access to music that is at the forefront of music making. MATA is connecting people. And for that, we should be grateful. Congratulations MATA for 20 inspiring years, and cheers to 20 more!

Guy Barash

Details for each of the concerts of the 2018 MATA Festival can be found here.

MATA’s existence and continued success has always amazed and moved me. To see a scrappy artist-founded festival not only survive, but do incredible work, presenting such a range of musical work (and beyond!) at such a high level, and doing right by young creative artists from around the world, is a tremendous thing to experience. As a composer, performer, and audience member, and working behind the scenes, I’ve always been really proud to be associated with MATA.

Gordon Beeferman

As a veteran of the second festival (still at the Film Anthology), I have many memories of the splendid, audacious concerts curated by Lisa Bielawa and Eleonor Sandresky in the early years. So many unusual and inspiring sounds first alighted on my ears at MATA events. Twenty years later, it’s thrilling that MATA continues to be a trailblazer!

Derek Bermel

I was very grateful to have my music presented at MATA. Over the last 20 years MATA has been such an important launch pad for so many young composers working in so many different styles, and it was wonderful to have my work showcased as part of that. Here’s to 20 years and to many, many more.

Oscar Bettison

Being asked to present work at the MATA Festival was a pivotal moment for my career. As a composer and artist with an intermedia practice that is often hard to frame, MATA facilitated an outrageously supportive, legitimizing public platform for my work. At every step, I always felt like someone was right behind me, ensuring that my ideas were presented with zero compromise and I am still feeling the positive resonances of that exposure years later.

Seth Cluett

Having my videos screened at the MATA Festival six years ago was incredibly important for me in my development as a multimedia artist, encouraging me to continue down that path with a renewed enthusiasm. I attended all three concerts that year, and remember being struck by how well the evenings were curated—vibrant, inspiring pieces that were incredibly eclectic yet together formed a gratifying, cohesive experience.

Jacob Cooper

“Who on earth would ever produce this?”

I’ll always be grateful to MATA because they gave me my first show in New York City!  My friend Brad and I wrote a psychedelic orchestral hip hop re-imagination of The Rake’s Progress despite the thought: “Who on earth would ever produce this?” Well, MATA did. And I still sometimes meet someone who says to me “Oh, you’re that guy!”  Thanks y’all.

Elliot Cooper Cole

I am delighted to join the celebration of MATA’s bold, fearless, and vigorous championing of the new. When I was invited to perform my Electric Guitar Etudes over ten years ago, MATA already had such a reputation for presenting works of wild newness that nobody blinked an eye to see such a piece on the program. I arrived at the festival ready to perform and came away with my mind expanded. Thank you!

Mark Dancigers

The year is 2018. I am glad we are now talking about diversities in our society, because social and cultural change needs to start from somewhere.

I am proud of having worked at MATA, an organization that for twenty years has been built on this dialogue. For the most part, I think curiosity drives MATA and this curiosity guides MATA as it champions and stands behind the young voices that will ultimately change our cultural landscape.

Ever since I moved to New York City in 2004, I have been a loyal audience for MATA each year. I remember witnessing Missy Mazzoli and David T. Little running around on its behalf. I remember having invigorating conversations with Yotam Haber; hearing his visions for MATA electrified me. When he stepped down, I was inspired to apply for his position, simply because I wanted to be part of that vision.

MATA has given me a tremendous four years to get to know all its composers, musicians, and collaborators, and for me to learn from my peers and my colleagues, Todd, Alex Weiser, and Loren. Our team at MATA has worked hard to realize our composers’ visions, highlighting their voices as much—and as extensively—as we could.

“Social and cultural change needs to start from somewhere.”

This is my last year serving as artistic director for MATA. I want to take this space to thank MATA for having me as part of the family. I will continue to serve on its artistic advisory board; and whatever I will do next, I assure you, will have the stamp of MATA. I also want to thank the massive pool of fellow composers who have served on the rotating MATA panels throughout the years. Thank you for having open ears to all the composers from around the world who submit their work to MATA. Each of us is working hard to be part of this conversation: to have more voices heard and seen.

The time is now. To this present moment, and to our future.

Du Yun (MATA Artistic Director, 2014-2018)

My favorite MATA moment…

From: Yotam Haber <[email protected]>
Date: Tue, 17 Apr 2012 21:28:32 -0400
Cc: Garth MacAleavey
To: R. Luke DuBois

Hi Luke,

Can you please call me As soon as possible with a desperate max question regarding an Oscar Bianchi piece on tomorrow’s mata festival. It was created at ircam years ago and is now causing serious problems that we can’t seem to solve… Thank you

By the end it was MATA 1, IRCAM 0

Happy anniversary, you all.

R. Luke DuBois

Having my music presented at MATA was an amazing opportunity that came at just the right time. While I had already had performances in New York City, MATA felt like an especially good fit for my music, and I loved the energy of the festival. My friend and musical colleague saxophonist Brian Sacawa performed my work Tourmaline, and we both received extremely positive press from The New York Times, which was an amazing added bonus! A few years later I served on the panel making programming decisions for that year’s MATA, and that remains my favorite panel experience. The wonderful diversity of music presented, and the focus and enthusiasm of the festival organizers continues to be a huge inspiration. Happy Birthday, MATA!

Alexandra Gardner

Congratulations to MATA for twenty years of being such an important force in new music, and supporting young musical voices. I vividly remember Lisa and Eleonor contacting me to invite me to write for the Harry Partch instruments for the 2000 MATA Festival. I was in residence in the factories of Nuremberg, Germany, at the time. I was thrilled and taken aback; it was a musical fantasy come true! Although the instruments have been moved, I still carry the key to the old studio in Montclair, NJ, on my keychain to remind me of the incredible opportunity that MATA gave me to touch a part of musical history and work with the instruments that Partch, one of my heroes, built with his own hands. It’s an honor to be invited to write a new piece for Liminar, a dynamic young group, to commemorate two decades of MATA.

Annie Gosfield

MATA’s open call says: We accept all music from fully notated to improvised, sound art, video, electronic, found instruments, toys, installations and everything in between. That phrase really made me very happy.  I’m celebrating the 20th anniversary of MATA like many other composers who like to walk there: in between. Very few experiences in my life have given me so many satisfactions as having been part of MATA. Happy Anniversary! And many more years!

Carlos Gutiérrez Quiroga

MATA gave me my first proper, paid commission 12 years ago, when I was just out of school. I felt like someone special, professionally uncompromising, and absolutely committed had noticed my music and cared deeply about bringing it to light. When I served as Artistic Director, I carried that mission with me: to help composers not only present their best work on an international platform, but to also introduce audiences to electrifying, essential music of our time. I am proud each moment I hear of the superb achievements of our ever-expanding MATA family. To another 20 years of inspiring sounds!

Yotam Haber (MATA Artistic Director, 2009-2014)

It is a tremendous thing to look back at the history of MATA and its important mission through two decades of featuring young, emerging composers. As a young composer, when I was just starting out, I was honored to have my music featured. It was an important stepping stone, and one for which I am extremely grateful.

Jennifer Higdon

MATA asked me to perform my early voice/violin songs before I even had any inclincation that they were more than my own private etudes, and that perhaps they were worth listening to. Their faith in me and what I had to offer was a really an important stone in the path that brought me to where I am today. Thank you MATA, for being visionary, generous and so incredibly supportive of a generation of composers and musicians! Mwah!

Carla Kihlstedt

“I showed up at the MATA office in Williamsburg to find an eviction notice on the door.”

A story of the indestructible MATA: I was appointed as Executive Director of MATA in 2010, taking over from my good friend Missy Mazzoli, and joining Artistic Director Yotam Haber at the helm of the organization. On the first day of what was to be a three week-long transition period, I showed up at the MATA office in Williamsburg to find an eviction notice on the door: the building had been condemned by the city, and all tenants had to leave immediately. All of MATA’s stuff was inside: archives, computers, and most importantly, all of the recent score submissions. We managed to remove everything, loaded it into Nathan Koci’s pickup truck, and tried to figure out what to do next. After a brief stint in Missy’s living room we moved to Exapno, where we camped out for a week or so while frantically looking for a new office. Yotam found the new space—the current office on West Broadway—and we moved in right away. It was an adventurous start to my tenure as ED.

David T. Little (MATA Executive Director, 2010-2012)

My MATA commissioned piece in 2008 was my very first performance in New York. This fact alone was thrilling on its own yet I was even more taken by the high level of musicianship and ingenious programming of the festival. On the night of the premiere, one surprise happened that took my breath away: after the last sound of the piece when the clapping started, The Knights chamber orchestra conductor Eric Jacobsen gestured in my direction inviting me to the stage. And then I heard a chorus of orchestra musicians saying my name out loud. Louder and louder with each repetition! And they were pronouncing it correctly, which is quite hard to do with such an unusual Lithuanian name as Žibuoklė. Chills were running up and down my spine because at that very moment, I felt not only a part of the MATA family, but also validated and accepted as a part of the New York music community.

Žibuoklé Martinaityté

Looking back, it is perhaps the vision of MATA’s founders that is most remarkable to me. At the time, performance opportunities were scarce for young composers, but the MATA model has now been replicated far and wide. That MATA continues with its mission essentially unchanged is evidence enough that what Eleonor, Lisa and Philip started was rooted in something vital and important.

James Matheson (MATA Executive Director, 2005-2007)

Missy Mazzoli performing on a grand piano at the 2006 MATA Festival.

Missy Mazzoli (MATA Executive Director 2007-2010) performing at the 2007 MATA Festival.

“MATA continues to be an important model for inclusiveness in our increasingly divided world.”

I came into the MATA fold, first as guest curator under co-founder Lisa Bielawa and then as Artistic Director from 2008 to 2010, after several years of searching for my place in the NYC music world. I was fairly active as a player, was becoming more so as a composer, and had recently discovered a skill set for producing and curating. Joining the MATA community provided the necessary space I needed to fully engage all three directions simultaneously. That is one of the organization’s greatest strengths, the creation of a common space and network for artists to come together and share their Work. Not the dreaded “boundary crossing” of press releases but that of direct one-to-one connection through the larger project of music making. While it didn’t necessarily invent that space, MATA continues to be an important model for inclusiveness in our increasingly divided world.

Chris McIntyre (MATA Artistic Director, 2008-2010, and current MATA Board Member)

Running riot in New York in my 20s punctuated by subversion into the depths of the red basement of Le Poisson Rouge for MATA was both informative and formative! The energy of the place and the festival wound up the creativity machine, setting in motion for months and years to come! Every year when it’s time for the festival I lament not being present. And to relive those early times in my memory keeps things real! So thanks MATA for your kick start and awesomeness!

Kate Moore

MATA was my first window into the exciting new music community in NYC. It allowed me to discover new paths, explore new possibilities, connect with other inspiring sound makers, and to develop my own voice. It’s an incredible honor to be a part of the MATA family and to see it continue to develop in a way that attests to their deep commitment to the young voices of our generation.

Angélica Negrón

In my years with MATA, I have heard every kind of music being produced by emerging composers everywhere. I attend every concert, and each MATA Festival tells me where “contemporary classical music” is right now, and where it’s going. There’s nothing like it.

—Jim Rosenfield (MATA Board President, 2005-present)

“MATA provided some of my earliest live exposure to new music.”

MATA provided some of my earliest live exposure to new music when I first moved to New York in the late ‘90s and hadn’t yet decided to become a composer. The diversity of the programming struck and inspired me, and gave me a sense of where in the world my music might belong. Nine years later I was enormously honored to be programmed by MATA, sharing a program with music every bit as diverse and eclectic as I’d heard almost a decade earlier, from young composers all around the world. There is no other contemporary music festival in New York as broad-mindedly supportive of young talent as MATA; may it continue to support and inspire emerging composers for many decades to come.

Sarah Kirkland Snider

I guess I should have known better when I took the job of Executive Director of MATA in 2012, because since then my days—and sometimes nights—are one long, seemingly intractable, problem solving session: last minute hotels, emergency visa applications, letters to consular officers around the world, back-up contrabass recorder players, renting and insuring an event in a swimming pool, finding money where there is none. All this on top of more grant applications than I can count, budgets, programs, marketing, trying again and again to find time to organize the archives and clean the office.

“A cosmopolitan vision of what music should be…”

I joke to myself that I’m the hardest working person in new music. Through it all are the things that make it worthwhile. I have had the thrill to have my hands on the pulse of the world’s contemporary music, guide one of New York’s most vital cultural organizations, and promote a cosmopolitan vision of what music should be.

Todd Tarantino (MATA Executive Director, 2012-present)

So Percussion got a chance to do a MATA show at LPR a while back and had the awesome chance to commission a new piece from Nicole Lizée, Dystopian Suite, that we toured the next couple of years and led to another work with Nicky playing with us called White Label Experiment. On that show, we also premiered Proximity by one of my best friends of all time, Cenk Ergün. MATA makes it happen and does it right! Congrats on birthday number 20!

Jason Treuting

John Barth describes life as a river and you encounter and re-encounter people as the boat comes ashore from time to time. MATA has been the shore of my musical timeline since 2002. Back then, I remember getting the call from Lisa Bielawa that my piece was being programmed, and how exciting that was. I was home on break at my childhood home, still a graduate student. After the concert, there was a big review in the Times featuring a glorious photo of Taimur Sullivan and Matthew Gold playing my piece. The festival was electric. I met so many composers from around the country and abroad, many with whom I am still in touch.  In 2008 on MATA, I got to perform my vocal concerto in NYC.  And, now, I am honored and happy to be performing again on MATA 2018. Life is different, I’m a grey-haired professor now, but just as excited. Thanks, MATA, for all these years.

Ken Ueno

I spent about five wonderful, fascinating years filled with learning and discovery helping to run MATA from Fall 2011 to Spring 2016. Every year I was astounded by the incredible diversity of artistry and thought represented in the music we would receive from around the world, as well as the kindness and generosity of spirit brought to the festival by the visiting musicians and composers. As a composer I deeply value the chance to imagine what music can be and what music can say, and there is no organization devoted to as international and eclectic a platform for posing these question as MATA. For this MATA is indispensable. I continue to enjoy MATA’s incredible work as an audience member and as a member of its Artistic Advisory Board, and I look forward to the discoveries that each new concert brings.

Alex Weiser (MATA Director of Operations and Development, 2011-2016)

Being a part of MATA’s composer and performer community has been critical to my career! MATA gave me an early start in NYC in 2003, kept up with my growth and commissioned me for 2016’s Festival. Long Live MATA!

Matthew Welch

 Pico Alt and Amie Weiss (violins), Miranda Silaff (viola), and Jane O’Hara (cello) rehearse Matthew Barnson's composition Sibyl Tones for a performance during the 2007 MATA Festival at the Brooklyn Lyceum.

Pico Alt and Amie Weiss (violins), Miranda Silaff (viola), and Jane O’Hara (cello) rehearse Matthew Barnson’s composition Sibyl Tones for a performance during the 2007 MATA Festival at the Brooklyn Lyceum.


Philip Glass Among 2015 National Medal of Arts Recipients

President Barack Obama will present the 2015 National Medals of Arts to 12 honorees, including Philip Glass, in an East Room ceremony at the White House on Thursday, September 22, 2016.

Recipients will be acknowledged in conjunction with the National Humanities Medal honorees. First Lady Michelle Obama will attend. The event will be live streamed at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

The citations about the 2015 National Medal of Arts recipients will be read by the president at the awards ceremony. Philip Glass will be commended for his “groundbreaking contributions to music and composition. One of the most prolific, inventive, and influential artists of our time, he has expanded musical possibility with his operas, symphonies, film scores, and wide-ranging collaborations.”

Other citations noting musical contributions include those for Mel Brooks, Berry Gordy, Santiago Jiménez, Jr., and Audra McDonald. Full details on the NEA’s website.

Forging Institutional Networks through BAM’s Next Wave Festival

Brooklyn Academy of Music
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

A 1982 advertisement for Cutty Sark whiskey placed Philip Glass above a scotch on the rocks. Composers aren’t the usual suspects for hard liquor ads, so why is Glass here? Glass recently admitted in his memoir that he agreed to do the ad because he needed the money ($15,000) to fund making the orchestra parts for his opera Akhnaten (1983).[1] Still, a more intriguing question remains: why would the image of Glass appeal to the target consumer of Cutty Sark whiskey? A brief biography in the ad reads, “Success hasn’t made Glass any less of a maverick.” Like the designers of this ad, critics and scholars generally view Glass as the sole agent of his popularity, operating outside of traditional musical institutions as an iconoclastic “American maverick.”[2]

Glass Cutty Sark ad

It is true that Glass had achieved considerable fame working independently of the university, which was the main “institution” for contemporary composers at the time. The ad plays to this familiar image of Glass as a self-made man. Glass rose to fame by his bootstraps: he worked as a taxi driver and plumber to pay the bills. His minimalist music first attracted attention in a subculture of 1960s New York avant-garde artists and audiences, the inhabitants of the lofts and galleries of lower Manhattan. Perhaps the quintessential example of Glass’s maverick persona was when he and theater designer/director Robert Wilson rented out the Metropolitan Opera House on its off nights for the 1976 United States premiere of Einstein on the Beach. Beyond the Cutty Sark ad, numerous biographies of Glass memorialize these aspects of his career and perpetuate the idea that Glass rose to fame on his own without institutional support.

In a previous article in this series, Ryan Ebright noted the crucial roles of Glass’s collaborators in seminal works like Satyagraha. Attributing Glass’s success entirely to his creative iconoclasm also ignores the substantial community of impresarios and patrons who have influenced his work and reception history. Just as the whiskey company co-opted Glass’s image, in the 1980s an emergent network of U.S. arts administrators from presenting institutions such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music and funding organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation used Glass as the poster child for their own set of concerns. These administrators expressed concern with the scarcity of new American operas and the stagnation of standard repertory in major opera houses of the United States. They were further troubled by the fact that American composers like Glass were receiving more attention in Europe; Glass’s first real opera commissions—Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1984)—came from state-sponsored opera houses in the Netherlands and Germany. These administrators devised a solution that borrowed from the vital world of avant-garde music theater, and in so doing generated an institutional support system that sustained Glass’s opera career throughout the 1980s and beyond.

Harvey Lichtenstein

Harvey Lichtenstein (Photo by Catherine Noren)

One of the key impresarios who reshaped the American operatic landscape was Harvey Lichtenstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). When Lichtenstein became executive director of BAM in 1967, he refashioned it into a principal center for contemporary dance, music, and theater in the U.S. His undertakings culminated in the Next Wave Festival, an annual two-month program of experimental performances that made him a leading impresario of the avant-garde. One of the most successful offerings of the first Next Wave series in 1981 was the American premiere of Satyagraha by Glass. This production was not a singular engagement; over the years, Lichtenstein consistently promoted Glass, lauding him as a crossover artist whose output could reach a wider audience than the conservative fare offered by traditional opera companies.

Between October and December of 1982, Lichtenstein met with prospective Next Wave funders. He proposed that the festival be the nucleus for a national production program involving multiple presenting organizations. Tours of new large-scale works would expose areas outside of New York to the work of American experimental artists—in particular, those who emerged from the Downtown New York scene. United by their belief in the potential of the American experimental music theater vanguard, the Next Wave meetings stimulated conversation between representatives from corporate, national, and private funding entities and Downtown-affiliated artists and administrators.

1983 Next Wave poster

Image courtesy BAM Hamm Archives

Funding meeting minutes from the BAM Hamm archives offer a glimpse of these pivotal administrative discussions. Meeting attendees included representatives from the National Endowment for the Arts, AT&T, the Rockefeller Foundation, Warner Communications, the Ford Foundation, and presenting organizations—Artpark, Walker Art Center, the Spoleto Festival, and UC Berkeley Arts and Lectures. Guest speakers were Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. Also present were two key players in the Downtown arts scene: Roselee Goldberg, director of communications for Diane von Furstenberg, Inc. and former director of performances at The Kitchen; and Tim Carr, a Next Wave program consultant who also worked for The Kitchen. Indeed, The Kitchen, a smaller, independent organization, had been a hub for avant-garde music, allowing composers like Glass to organize their own concerts and hosting its own festival, New Music New York, in 1979. The fact that Lichtenstein hired Kitchen personnel to help design BAM programming was a testament to his commitment to the creative output of the Downtown scene. Under Lichtenstein’s direction, Downtown administrators and artists strategized with corporate and other major funders how to amplify Downtown vanguard works in mainstream institutions and festivals like BAM.

Together, the meeting attendees discussed the difficulties in presenting large-scale works in the United States. Although the Next Wave proposal included a wide range of artistic genres, meeting participants tended to draw attention to emerging forms of opera and music theater—especially those represented by Glass. During the meetings, Glass narrated the history of his large-scale works, all of which premiered in Europe and had only received U.S. exposure in New York. He described the issues artists faced when producing new works with U.S. opera companies: a mentality set against new works, which he believed was an educational problem.[3] Lee Gillespie, a director of the National Opera Institute, agreed with Glass’s assessment and urged a strong promotional campaign for new works, citing statistics that the average age of most opera-goers was fifty-three years old and that they mainly connected to 19th-century opera repertoire.[4] The meeting participants believed that active institutional support—not simply money, but the advocacy of influential impresarios, staff, and, eventually, adventurous audiences—was crucial to the survival of new work. For this reason, the Next Wave program had an outreach component: educational materials and symposia for touring productions.

The meeting attendees also agreed that the complexity of innovative large-scale works required new linkages among presenting institutions, artists, and corporations to facilitate the productions. Anne Alexander, staff manager of AT&T, noted that the cooperation of multiple philanthropic organizations was necessary to realize these works in the manner they deserved. After the final meeting, Howard Klein, arts director for the Rockefeller Foundation, indicated that he was prepared to support the program, but its scale required a consortium of funders to sustain it. Other major funders then joined in. Altogether, by 1984, BAM raised about $1.1 million in public and private sponsors. For a complete accounting of the contributions, see below.[5]

  • Rockefeller Foundation $250,000
  • Ford Foundation 100,000
  • The Howard Gilman Foundation 100,000
  • National Endowment for the Arts 200,000
  • National Endowment for the Humanities 40,000
  • Warner Communications Inc. 50,000
  • AT&T 50,000
  • Dayton-Hudson Foundation 12,500
  • Producers Council 50,000
  • CIGNA 25,000
  • WilliWear Ltd. 33,000
  • Pew Trust 50,000
  • Walker Art Center 40,000

In this way, Lichtenstein was instrumental in coordinating an institutional network to support American experimental music. Although this network tended not to include more traditional arts organizations like university music departments and the Metropolitan Opera, its existence nuances the “maverick” label that has so often been attached to musical experimentalists like Glass. Glass was both a poster child for the future of American opera in funding meeting discussions and a staple in BAM programming. Throughout the 1980s, Glass’s operas were featured more often than any other opera or music-theater composer. Perhaps Glass owed whatever moneys he made from the Cutty Sark ad not to his creative iconoclasm alone, but also to his ability to find supportive collaborators—especially in the form of arts administrators.

Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf recently completed her Ph.D. in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is now a lecturer in the writing program. Her research examines how institutions and impresarios have shaped the history of late 20th-century American music.

1. Philip Glass, Words Without Music: A Memoir (New York: Liveright, 2015), 281-2.

2. For representative scholarship on the American maverick tradition, see Michael Broyles, Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004). The American maverick narrative also pervades publicity materials for Michael Tilson Thomas’s American Mavericks Festival. See American Mavericks: Home, http://americanmavericks.org/ (accessed September 7, 2015).

3. Next Wave Patron Council Meeting Minutes, American Telephone and Telegraph Company, October 1, 1982, BAM Hamm Archives.

4. Ibid.

5. The Next Wave Production and Touring Fund Proposal, January 26, 1984, BAM Hamm Archives.

“People Power”—The Communal Ethos of Satyagraha

Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered outside on Lincoln Center Plaza
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

In the chilly night air of December 2011, Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered outside on Lincoln Center Plaza. Inside the nearby Metropolitan Opera House, the third act of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha drew to a close as the character of Mahatma Gandhi proclaimed: “When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age…for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.” Shortly thereafter, Glass led the Occupy demonstrators in a recitation of these same words. Driving home the link between OWS and the opera, a man exhorted departing patrons to cross the police barricades and join the crowd of activists. “What would Gandhi do?” he bellowed. “It’s a real life play! The opera is your life! Your life is the opera Satyagraha!”

“What would Gandhi do?” Although rhetorical in nature, the question nevertheless hints at an ethos that animates both Satyagraha and the OWS movement: community.

The cultivation of community is fundamental to new music, as other essays in this series demonstrate. Community as an ideal takes various forms, from Bang on a Can’s conscious programming of antithetical musical styles to implicit critiques of traditional musical authorship in collectives such as Pulsa and the Theater of Eternal Music. In these, community finds expression through social practice. But how does this communal ethos actually translate into music (as one audience member asked at the recent New Music Gathering)? In Satyagraha, this value is encoded both musically and dramatically. Moreover, community informs not only the relations between artistic collaborators, but also extends to the audience.

Writing for an NEA review of American opera in 1988, Glass dismissed what he called “simple authorship,” which might be understood with reference to the fact that operas are almost always identified simply by their composer: Bizet’s Carmen, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Glass’s Satyagraha. (In reality, the authorship of most operas is more complicated.) Referencing the 1980s influx of experimental artists into the opera world—a transformation brought out in part by a network of risk-taking impresarios and philanthropic institutions—Glass championed a complex model of authorship:

One of the big differences between the Italian tradition of repertory opera and the contemporary tradition—mostly people younger than myself and myself—is that this tends to be group work. You can use the word collaboration…

That’s simply the way we work. I come from a tradition of group theater work…This is the contemporary tradition of theater, which has only just begun to be practiced in the world of opera.

…We’re looking at a real revolution—a revolution in methods of working, collaborative ways of working, ways pieces are produced and ways they ask the audience to perceive them.[1]

Glass’s first commissioned opera, Satyagraha, was the product of this collaborative ideal.

Less than a month after Einstein on the Beach appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in November 1976, Glass had partnered with writer and artist Constance DeJong, a friend from SoHo, for his new project. Within a year or so, Robert Israel—another SoHo acquaintance who happened to be serving a three-year residency at the commissioning institution, the Netherlands Opera—joined Glass and DeJong. Although Glass had the initial idea for the opera’s subject, together these three developed the primary components of the opera—music, text, image. (Movement would come at a later stage via director David Pountney.)

Borrowing a strategy from various mid-century avant-garde theater collectives, Glass, DeJong, and Israel decided that image and movement should carry the weight of the non-linear, episodic narrative of Gandhi’s South African years. In a move that shifted authority away from traditional operatic narrative devices of words and music, DeJong constructed the Sanskrit libretto using excerpts from the Bhagavad-Gita, while Glass composed in a newly developed post-minimalist style that resists narrative and representation.[2] In de-familiarizing text and music, the collaborators worked to destabilize conventional operatic notions of authorship. Under this aesthetic, no single element dominates the theatrical discourse, rendering meaning ambivalent.

This, according to Glass’s understanding of Cage’s maxim, leaves room for the audience to “complete” the work. By bringing together the parallel layers of music, image, movement, and text in their subjective (yet communal) experiences of Satyagraha, spectators join in the process of authorship. They derive their own meanings at different points of the opera, and in doing so become part of a larger community.

Satyagraha expresses community through its internal features as well. Both music and dramaturgy foreground the collective human element necessary for the realization of Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience. Although the opera is nominally about Gandhi, the focus lies more on the communities he fostered. This shift in emphasis took shape over the course of multiple drafts of the plot—one of the earliest of which consisted of twelve chronological scenes. In a 2014 interview, DeJong recalled this development:

At some point, everything crystallized and changed when the interest became not on biography but on the genesis of non-violent civil disobedience…now, not only was the subject vaguely interesting, it was superbly interesting and relevant, and it was about an idea and not a person. And that really mattered to me. Then, soon, the opera really became about the continuity of an idea…

The first page of Constance DeJong’s second outline of <em>Satyagraha</em>.

The first page of Constance DeJong’s second outline of Satyagraha.

Musically, this communal ethos meant that the solo vocal virtuosity typical of much opera was discarded in favor of small ensemble and large choral numbers. The chorus shoulders four out of the seven scenes, leading Glass to characterize Satyagraha as “practically a choral opera.” DeJong stresses the importance of the chorus in starker terms:

If you have a political movement, you have to have people. A real central character to Satyagraha is the chorus. They’re not there supporting the soloists, which is a very unusual feature of an opera. They have those big scenes, the most dramatic scenes, actually, in the first and second act. They function as a character. The dimension that brings to the opera musically is huge.

Dramaturgically, DeJong, Glass, and Israel focus attention on episodes from Gandhi’s South African sojourn that demonstrate the power of community. The opera’s second scene, for instance, reenacts the formation of Tolstoy Farm in 1910, a co-operative commonwealth that served as the headquarters of Gandhi’s South African campaign.

Scene Structure of <em>Satyagraha</em>

Scene Structure of Satyagraha

In an overt testament to their own experiences of communal action, the collaborators chose to have Martin Luther King, Jr. serve as a historical “witness” to the culminating final scene, which represents Gandhi’s 1913 Newcastle March. In a 2014 interview, Israel reflected that the decision to link Gandhi with MLK “couldn’t have happened without young people having been involved in Civil Rights, in concern about the war.” Israel’s wife was one such young person, having served as an activist in 1960s Alabama.

As if to emphasize the importance of collective action, Glass positioned the chorus at the musical center of the final act. Moreover, what is implicit in Gandhi’s closing lines—the reference to reincarnation—becomes explicit in the opera’s staging, as time and space bleed together. In the premiere production, over the course of the final scene Alabama state troopers removed members of Gandhi’s satyagraha army—i.e., the chorus—from the stage, until Gandhi and King were left alone. In the closing moments of the opera, the satyagraha army appeared in the starry night sky behind King, thus visually transferring the idea of non-violent civil disobedience across time and space from turn-of-the-century South Africa to the United States at mid-century.

Production photo of <em>Satyagraha</em>, 1980

Production photo of Satyagraha, 1980

The music of Satyagraha participates in this transfer as well, albeit in a less concrete way. In the opening and throughout most of the Act III, Glass employs a chaconne that slides between two harmonic poles: F minor to E major.

harmony example

In the final section of the act, however, this relationship between F and E undergoes a transformation which, when heard in the context of the third act mise-en-scène, suggests the transfer of Gandhi’s ideals and legacy to King. Once Gandhi and King remain alone onstage, a harmonic transformation crystallizes beneath Gandhi’s repetitions of a rising Phrygian scale on E. The F minor of the opening chaconne evolves into F major; E major becomes an implied E minor. Only in the concluding two measures does the ambiguity of the E minor clarify into C major—virtue is set on her seat again, the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice.

harmony example 2

When Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott reimagined the opera for the ENO–Met co-production in 2007–08 (revised in 2011–12), the emphasis on collective action took on a modified form that later resonated with the Occupy movement. In this rendering, members of the Improbable Theatre Company share the symbolic mantle of satyagraha with the chorus. Garbed in the muted, earthy costumes of a lower socio-economic caste, the so-called Skills Ensemble stands in deliberate contrast to the perceived opulence of the operatic genre. Throughout they remain a continuous but silent presence, creating and manipulating huge puppets, changing the sets, and assuming the roles of Tolstoy, Tagore, and King. Crouch’s reasoning was straightforward: “We wanted to create transformations using people rather than big stage machinery.”

The symbolic role of the Skills Ensemble is most apparent in the closing act, where the temporal blending of the 1913 Newcastle March and the Civil Rights movement extends into the present, as police in contemporary riot gear descend on Gandhi’s comrades. At the opera’s conclusion, the stagehands alone remain on stage with Gandhi and King. This reimagining of the voiceless, lower-caste stagehands—the embodied means of production, the 99%—as the embodiment of satyagraha offers a poignant reflection of pressing 21st-century concerns over rising inequality and political disenfranchisement.

“What would Gandhi do?” Foster community, because ideas ultimately rely on people, much as new music depends on a vibrant network of committed performers, composers, presenters, collaborators, and audiences. In Satyagraha, this communal ethos emerges musically, dramaturgically, and in the acts of creation and audience reception. “Gandhi’s leadership,” Crouch pointed out, “was obviously massively important, but what he achieved was done through people power.”

Ryan Ebright

Ryan Ebright is an instructor in musicology at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on music for the voice, stage, and screen, with an emphasis on 20th- & 21st-century opera, minimalism, and 19th-century Lieder. His current book project, Making American Opera for the Modern Age, centers on opera in the U.S. after Einstein on the Beach.

1. Philip Glass, “Philip Glass. Composer. New York City,” ARTSREVIEW 5, no. 1: America’s Opera, ed. Dodie Kazanjian (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 1988), 18.

2. See, for instance, Timothy Johnson, “Minimalism: Aesthetic, Style, or Technique?” Musical Quarterly 78, no. 4 (Winter): 742–44.

Manifesting Community in Early Minimalism

Steel discs
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

What could minimalism possibly have to do with community?

Community is not one of the words typically included in descriptions of minimalism. It does not take its place alongside austere or process or repetition, nor does it fit into the formalist “family similarities” listed in the recent Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, including drone, repetition, stasis, audible structures, pure tunings, and so on.[1]

Indeed, more often than community, minimalism had to do with conflict. Kyle Gann, in a 1998 piece for The Village Voice called “Minimalism Isn’t Pretty,” writes, “By the time minimalism emerged as a public phenomenon in 1973, it was squeaky clean and spruced up for company… Before its emergence, however, minimalism was a nameless, cantankerous Downtown movement of many composers and musicians.” He continues, “So many minds collaborated that it was not always possible to tell who introduced what innovation. In fact, the original minimalism scene so bristled with tension that it virtually exploded, and when the smoke cleared, newcomers Reich and Glass just happened to be the only ones left standing.”[2] Likewise Branden Joseph argues that “the history of minimalist music is, to a surprising degree, a history of authorship disputes.”[3]

So perhaps dispute and tension are more accurate descriptions of minimalist social relations. Nevertheless, an important point remains: scene-based tensions and disputes occur specifically because there is a community. Disagreement occurs within a commons; it takes place on a stage constructed and articulated through community relationships and sense-making.

Disagreement occurs within a commons; it takes place on a stage constructed and articulated through community relationships and sense-making.

In the case of minimalism, eventual authorial disputes were the result of a long series of close collaborative engagements. Anyone familiar with the historical foundations of the “aesthetic, style, or technique”[4] can draw up a list: during the late 1950s at UC Berkeley, the relationship between La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Terry Jennings, and Dennis Johnson are all closely tied up with, among other pieces, Young’s Trio for Strings, Riley’s Concert for Two Pianos and Tape Recorders, and Johnson’s November. In 1964, Steve Reich helped Terry Riley organize the performers for the premiere of In C in San Francisco; he also introduced the pulsing Cs that create the work’s rhythmic grid and, as Terry Riley told Robert Carl, kept hippies out of their rehearsal space.[5] In December of that same year, on the other side of the continent, Young, Tony Conrad, John Cale, and Marian Zazeela were performing their first concerts under the collective name The Theatre of Eternal Music. A short time later, Reich moved back to New York where, in 1967, he became reacquainted with his Juilliard colleague Philip Glass, leading the two to work together for several productive years (including a couple of European tours) during which they developed pieces such as Pendulum Music, Four Organs, Phase Patterns, Two Pages, Music in Fifths, Music with Changing Parts, and more. The examples could continue, though I imagine many readers of this site are well aware of these early instances of collaboration. What’s important is that the subsequent disputes that resulted from these periods of collaboration—between Young and Conrad, Riley and Reich, Reich and Glass, and later Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, as noted by Joseph—frequently overshadow and seemingly negate the original fact of community for many writers on minimalism. That is, the focal point becomes the inevitably failure of collaboration in art music, rather than the results it produces.

What if we consider instead the early foundations of community among the minimalists? What was it that pushed them to collaborate in the first place? Under what principle of community were these collaborations possible? If there can be no dispute between parties that have nothing in common, then the answer to these questions is best found in the years prior to dispute. We can look in particular to early pieces of minimalist writing—particularly by examining what was manifest in a few early minimalist manifestos.

What was it that pushed them to collaborate in the first place? Under what principle of community were these collaborations possible?

The best known of these is surely Steve Reich’s “Music as a Gradual Process” (1968).[6] While many musicologists have focused on Reich’s claims about process, and subsequently analyzed his works with close attention to the relative “purity” of the process in each piece, different portions of the essay strike me as more important. Reich’s focus is less on the technical application, and more on its perceptibility: “I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.” He continues, “to facilitate closely detailed listening a musical process should happen extremely gradually.” There is a clear hierarchical relationship between the two terms: it’s not that gradual processes should be audible, it’s that gradual processes are the means towards the end of making structure audible. Listening and perceptibility are prioritized, with process as the means of actualizing the goal. And listening remains dominant when Reich makes his central historical claim. He points out that both Cagean chance and the serialism of Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen—musics thought of as the opposing poles of the compositional spectrum when he was writing in 1968—share one principle of commonality: “the compositional process and the sounding music have no audible connection.” For all their differences technically and stylistically, Reich offers a simple though powerful critique that finds in these opposites a shared, underlying principle. Again: disagreements construct the stage of their own appearance; the terms of their dispute.

From this commonality, Reich sets out his primary goal, which gradual process appears to be the most functional means of achieving: “a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing.” Reich argues for an egalitarian practice of music-making in which the composer joins the audience in listening to a plainly audible structure such that he or she, as he quotes James Tenney saying, “isn’t privy to anything.” Indeed, Reich writes this egalitarian listening into Pendulum Music (1968), which he composed alongside his manifesto. Several scholars have noted the relationship between the two, pointing to Pendulum Music as the height of a “pure” gradual process in Reich’s music, and criticized Reich for never having followed up on this rigorous, impersonal austerity.[7] No one, however, has drawn any relevance from the score for Pendulum Music directing the performers to “sit down to watch and listen to the process along with the audience.”[8] That is, scholarship highlights Pendulum Music as a supposedly isolated example of a pure, formalist process, rather than acknowledging how pure process allows the composer and performers to join the audience as one listening community. In all listening together differently, it constructs the perfect stage for dispute.

Reich was not alone though; the manifesto seems to have been deemed an appropriate genre by the minimalists for simultaneously outlining their critiques of contemporary compositional practice and supplementing it with their own ideas. A lesser-known manifesto written by Tony Conrad in the summer of 1965 appeared later that year in the journal Film Culture. Conrad gained enough attention for his film The Flicker that the journal dedicated several pages to him, including his own written manifesto about his work with Young, John Cale, and Marian Zazeela. Titled “Inside the Dream Syndicate,” the first-person plural essay outlines the group’s manifestation of compositional collectivism:

Film Culture

The title “The Obsidian Ocelot…” is the one the group used throughout much of 1965 in concert programs. Throughout the essay the twenty-five-year-old Conrad writes in a style somewhere between, on the one hand, quasi-scientific music theory journals of the time like Die Reihe and, on the other, ecstatic, mid-1960s, stream of consciousness political critique. He writes, “Noises are not ever pitchless, to say the least. Pitched pulses, palpitating beyond rhythm and cascading the cochlea with a galaxy of synchronized partials, reopen the awareness of the sine tone—the element of combinatorial hearing.”[9] More importantly, the essay is peppered with collectivized statements of purpose, framed around listening, tuning, and performance practice: “We don’t touch the 5th harmonic… [because] 7 sounds to us as clear as vulgar 5 once did”; “Our music is… droningly mon[o]tonal, not even being built on a scale at all, but out of a single chord or cluster of more or less tonically related partials” which introduce a “a synchronous pulse-beat.” He argues for the “genius of conglomerate action” in that it “raises the overall harmonic operative level beyond what is rationally controllable” by a single author. On their performance practice, he writes, “The string fingerer fights to find the right spot to press a motionless digit for months before noticing the demands of the right arm for microscopic fingerboard digit rockings, compensating periodically for the tiny variations in string tension with each change of bow.” As a result of this collective, long-duration practice, “we fail to have consciousness of [timbral] changes: the voices sound like something else, the violin is the echo of the saxophone, the viola is by day frightening rock ‘n’ roll orchestra [referring to Cale’s work in the Velvet Underground], by night the sawmill.” Because they are “the first generation with tape, with proper amplification,” the necessary technological changes are in place to “break down the dictatorial sonority barriers erected by the master instruments of the cultures.”

Both composers outline their compositional practice in opposition to existing “dictatorial sonority barriers” for Conrad and “secrets of structure” for Reich. In both cases, an appropriate response is formulated to work against those practices, whether it be the use of pure tunings, amplification, and drone for The Theatre of Eternal Music, or gradual and audible process for Reich. Similarly, both focus on moving away from the singular, privileged composer in favour of a music in which, on the one hand, a collective of droning performers can lose track of their own performance as each instrument begins to “sound like something else,” or, on the other, a desire to write a music in which the composer sits down and listens with the audience. Further, both highlight the centrality of listening as a means of breaking down the singular privileges of authorship: whether it be Conrad’s attention to the pitches internal to noise through “combinatorial hearing” or Reich in his central concern that the connection between process and sound be plainly recognizable through listening.

We can perhaps consider one earlier piece of pre-minimalist writing mentioned by La Monte Young in his “Lecture 1960”:

When Dennis Johnson and I were staying at Richard Maxfield’s apartment in New York, we discussed the amount of choice that a composer retained in a composition that used chance or indeterminacy. We generally agreed that the composer was always left with some choices of one sort or another. At the very least, he had to decide what chances he would take or what he would leave to indeterminacy in his composition. [Later] at my apartment in Berkeley Dennis mentioned that he had been thinking of what we had discussed in New York and that he had discovered a piece which was entirely indeterminacy [sic] and left the composer out of it. I asked, “What is it?” He tore off a piece of paper and wrote something on it. Then he handed it to me. It said, “LISTEN.”[10]

Johnson’s piece of paper inscribed “LISTEN,” if we can consider it a manifesto, might be the shortest example of that genre across any artistic or political movement. Nevertheless, it points to the central concern developed by many of the people who would come to be called minimalists a decade later: prioritizing listening over writing is the dominant means of moving beyond the Cagean challenge to authorship. It seems that many of the impulses that define how we think of minimalism—drone, stasis, pure tunings, audibility of structure, process, repetition—developed as means of enacting a non-coercive compositional authority, a way of composing music in which no one has privileged knowledge of the structure. That these features all developed long before 1973 when Gann argues minimalism appeared “spruced up and ready for company,” points all the more to the fact that the sound of minimalism was developed as part of a community that, like any other, was equally open to collaboration and to dispute. The complex problem is this: while minimalism was still cantankerous and nameless, the composers were writing from within a collaborative community; it only took on its historical image as a “pretty” style of repetitive diatonicism once musicologists turned away from the complexity of collaboration, accepting instead the inevitability of dispute.

[1] Keith Potter, Kyle Gann, and Pwyll Ap Siôn, editors, The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music. (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013), 4-6.

[2] Kyle Gann, “Minimalism Isn’t Pretty” in Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 203-7.

[3] Branden Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (New York: Verso, 2011), 37.

[4] Timothy Johnson, “Minimalism: Aesthetic, Style, or Technique?” Musical Quarterly 78/4 (1994), 742-773.

[5] Robert Carl, Terry Riley’s In C (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 44.

[6] Steve Reich, Writings on Music 1965-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 34-6.

[7] See, for example: Wim Mertens, American Minimal Music (London: Kahn & Averill, 1983), 54; Keith Potter, Four Musical Minimalists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 175; K. Robert Schwarz, Minimalists (London: Phaidon,. 1996), 227; Edward Strickland, Minimalism: Origins (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 198; Sumanth Gopinath, “Contraband Children: The Politics of Race and Liberation in the Music of Steve Reich, 1965-1966” (PhD Dissertation, Yale University 2005), 59 (footnote 78); and Ross Cole, “‘Sound Effects, (OK Music)’: Steve Reich and the Visual Arts in New York City, 1966-1968” in Twentieth-Century Music 11/2 (2014), 239.

[8] See Reich (2002), 31.

[9] All quotes from this paragraph from Tony Conrad, “Inside the Dream Syndicate”, Film Culture 41 (1966), 1-8.

[10] La Monte Young, “Lecture 1960” The Tulane Drama Review 10/2 (1965), 73-83.

Patrick Nickleson

Patrick Nickleson is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of Toronto. His dissertation–supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada—focuses on the politics of authorship, collaboration, and dispute in early minimalism.

After Einstein

There is a peculiar way in which Einstein on the Beach resists critical discourse. The infamously plotless opera contains so many scenes that defy explanation that to even try to describe them, you risk sounding ridiculous or pretentious or both. Maybe this is why reviews of the production tend to be so polarized, expressing unconditional love or unequivocal disgust. Deeper analysis that might invite nuance or ambiguity rapidly lands you in the realm of the absurd.

But things happen in Einstein that are at least possible to describe, and it’s worth trying to figure out what might give this work its strange power. Because it is strangely affecting, maybe even transformative. I finally had the chance to see it this Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and while it didn’t quite live up to the cumulative hype that I’ve been subjected to over the years, I’m not sure anything could.

For one thing, Robert Wilson’s visual design is impeccable. Some of his images are so instantly iconic, like the tall brick building against blue sky, that I can’t figure out if I’ve seen them before or not. And there’s an extraordinary, almost synesthetic connection between the visuals, movement, and sound. The balletic interludes choreographed by Lucinda Childs, where the patterns in the music and dance seem to be practically identical, stand out in this regard. But there are other synesthetic touches too, like the book-reading figure constantly shaking his head, or the furiously typing court clerks who seem to be synchronized to the fastest arpeggios. Not to mention the various characters who scribble figures in the air, writing on an imaginary blackboard or perhaps spellcasting in time with the music.

Oddly, I find that I have relatively little to say about Philip Glass’s music on its own, maybe because others such as Kyle Gann have already written about it so extensively and eloquently. More often it’s the way that music is used that grabs my attention. The fact that the organ’s bass line (A! G! C!) is already playing when we walk into the performance space suggests that the barrier between the world of Einstein and our own is permeable. I appreciated the ability to move freely in and out of the hall as desired, which I took advantage of once. The music was also pumped into the lobby and hallways, and I enjoyed passing through zones of variable sound quality, meandering through a forest of bandpass filters. With this accompaniment, it’s a bit like you and the other concertgoers are part of the work too, silently waiting in line for the restroom or walking to and fro along lines of hidden navigation.

The text often seems like an afterthought in this opera. At least on Sunday, the volume levels were inconsistent, with some speakers strongly resonant and others almost lost. (An older woman in the row behind me kept asking, “What did she say? I don’t understand!” She didn’t make it to the end of Act I.) The densely patterned, mesmerizing poems of Christopher Knowles are a natural match for the additive rhythms of minimalist music. The texts by Samuel M. Johnson don’t fare nearly as well. I still don’t know what to make of the judge’s speech in the first trial scene, in which he preaches about women’s liberation in a screechy falsetto that’s played for laughs. It mostly reminded me of Kate Beaton’s Straw Feminists. There’s not enough context for me to tell if it’s meant to be critical or sympathetic, but regardless, today it comes off as tone deaf and awkward.

Johnson also wrote the story about lovers on a park bench that is read over the final Knee Play, and I’m apparently one of the few people who have a visceral distaste for this beloved ending. What I find interesting is that, even among those who love it, there’s disagreement about what it’s there for. Some (like the LA TimesMark Swed) find it sincerely meaningful, while others find it ironic, a deliberately vacuous attempt to summarize something inexplicable. I think that both interpretations reflect poorly on the work—the former is painfully mawkish, the latter is pointlessly cynical. The reality is probably somewhere in between, and I have to give it credit for that balancing act, but it still rings false to me. The opera has already brilliantly succeeded at melding the familiar and the strange; why do we need a speech to put a button on that? It also puts a sudden teleological spin on the rest of the opera, which is exhilaratingly freeform until we’re railroaded into this destination. The penultimate, climactic spaceship scene may be partly to blame for that, but it’s hard for me to judge that scene too harshly, with the glorious sci-fi high camp of its flashing lights and floating glass coffins.

Intuition and Algorithm in Einstein on the Beach

[Ed. Note: The following paper was presented at the Einstein on the Beach conference of the University of Amsterdam, January 6, 2013. The present version is slightly expanded based on questions and comments from that session. All score excerpts from Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass ©1976 Dunvagen Music Publishers. Used by Permission.]

Some of us are old enough to remember the public impression that minimalist music made before the premiere of Einstein on the Beach. Minimalism in its first manifestation was a strict, objectivist style. We thought of it, pretty much, as gradual-process music. Philip Glass’s Music in Fifths and Music in Contrary Motion offered us perceptual exercises in additive process, and taught us to hear the gradual expansion of a time frame. Steve Reich’s out-of-phase tape loops amplified microscopic phenomena of the human voice. The similarly phasing 12-note pattern of Piano Phase created its own objective geometry, as did the change-ringing patterns of Jon Gibson. La Monte Young’s sine-tone installations were comfortingly based in mathematics. Charlemagne Palestine’s piano improvisations conjured up overtones. Only Terry Riley seemed a little loopy, pardon the pun, but even in In C we heard the echoes of melodies as a strict canonic process.

It is odd to remember at this distance how important this criterion of objectivity seemed at the time. We had come out of a period of serialism and strict chance processes, glorifying mathematics and the natural world. In the conditioned milieu of 1960s avant-garde music, mere expression of emotion seemed at the time unworthy of serious study; subjectivity was distrusted. The worship of science was rampant, and music had become scientific. For many musicians involved in the avant-garde it accelerated the acceptance of minimalism, I think, that it seemed to be about natural and or logical phenomena. Some of us weren’t yet ready to return to intuition, art, shading, eccentricity, and the unsteady foundation of personal preference.

There were enough hints of gradual process in Einstein on the Beach, I think, that it was accepted as fitting this objectivist paradigm at the time. The use of numbers and solfège syllables as text facilitated this impression. So did Glass’s liner notes to the original Tomato recording of the work. Of the lightning fast patterns in the Building scene, Glass states that “the repeated figures form simple arithmetic progressions,” and he refers to a figure in the Trial scene which, he writes, “slowly expands and contracts […] through an additive process.”[1] While this is arguably true of the Trial scene, I will show that the progressions of the Building scene are far from arithmetically simple, and also that many of the other scenes are devoid of predictable algorithmic thinking. Looking back in retrospect, Einstein seems a far more intuitively written work than we thought at the time. For several decades the score wasn’t available, and to transcribe these lightning-fast patterns would have taken a lot of patience; we thought we had a pretty good idea what we were hearing. Eventually a score became available via links on Glass’s website, and I bought it in 2008. Upon opening it I was immediately struck by how much more unpredictable the music was than I had remembered it, how circuitous its forms were, how difficult it often was to pinpoint the musical logic. I was struck by how compositionally playful the piece is. In particular it offers some striking examples of recomposition, of writing through the same parallel succession of motives and harmonies several times within one piece and doing it a little differently each time. It is this playful, intuitive technique of recomposition in the composed musical scenes of Einstein on the Beach that I plan to focus on here.

Let me begin, almost pro forma, by reviewing the recombinant elements that make up Einstein, since I’ll be referring to them later. First of all are three recurring chord progressions, one with three chords, one with four, and one with five.
(Glass’s notes also refer to ideas of two chords and one chord, but these don’t appear as frequently.) The famous five-chord progression modulates from F minor to E major, and is the basis of the Spaceship scene, appears in the Train and Building scenes, and is the basis of the internal Knee Plays. Glass refers to it as “cadential,” but the three-chord progression heard in the first and last Knee Plays seems cadential as well: a simple vi-V-I. The four-chord progression appears in the Trial and Bed scenes, always in the kind of slowly arpeggiated motion seen here. In addition, there are a few other features found from scene to scene. The upward A-minor triad with a variety of continuations serves as a prelude to the four-chord progression. A la-fa-la-si-do-si motto in A-flat appears as a kind of section marker in the Train and Night Train scenes, and the following figure of four modules appears in both those scenes and constitutes almost the entire notated material of the Building scene.

Many movements of Einstein seem to be written in a kind of stanzaic form, wherein a movement is divided into stanzas which are parallel in their function and similar (though varied) in their progress through the same harmonies and motifs. Sometimes the beginnings are marked by introductory motives which I will call incipits: such as the three perfect fourths in the saxophones at each new section of the Train scene, the two four-note patterns of Night Train, and the reduction of the Building scene to a 6/8 pattern:
Likewise, some of the stanzas end in signalling characteristic figures that I will call envois, after the medieval poetry term. These include a quick F-minor triad in the Train scene, the solo violin playing A minor scales in Trial 1, and, again, the la-fa-la-si-do-si motive in Night Train. Not all stanzas in the various scenes are marked by these devices, but in those that are the incipits and envois are quite clear in their framing intent.

There are moments in Einstein at which a more stereotypically linear minimalist logic prevails. The most obvious is the bulk of the Bed scene, where the soprano sings over the four-chord progression. As this chart of the rhythms for each chord shows, the length of the rhythmic cycle expands in a fairly predictable manner with each iteration.
The voice part, however, is a more intuitive element, drawing lines that use only notes from the four triads. Out of 81 possibilities (not counting octave displacements), Glass chooses only seven of the available such lines and repeats three of them, creating a mild climax by using sevenths in the 7th and 8th cycles. (Each voice line is repeated once before proceeding to the next.)
Likewise, the violin part of the Trial 1 scene does, as Glass says, go through a process of expansion and subtraction, though not in a completely linear manner.
The chorus doubles the low C and A in the first part of each pattern; thus, once the music begins leaving this part of the phrase out of each repetition, the chorus disappears and only the violin continues.

At the other extreme is the Building movement, in which only the two organs are notated, as the voices and other instruments drone and improvise. As notated, the piece is entirely in eighth-notes in contrary motion, much like several of Glass’s minimalist works of the late 1960s. (It should be kept in mind that all of these patterns repeat 2, 4, or 8 times before proceeding to the next one.)
The move from one pattern to another, however, is not at all predictable. The following chart of the right-hand Organ 1 part shows all the pitches for the first 30 (out of 37) cycles, lined up vertically to show easily what notes are added or subtracted to get from one repetition the next (here the lower-case “e” denotes the E-flat in the upper octave, and there is a key signature of three flats).
What making this chart clarifies is that the movement is made up of only four modules whose changing combinations make up the form:
The movement’s seeming micro-complexity is due to the fact that module A is contained in module B, and likewise module C in D. The following chart shows the deployment of these four modules throughout the entire section:
At each step one can see a kind of additive or subtractive logic: the 3/8 modules start out with a 6/8 feel, and then the A module is added to give kind of a quarter-note bump to the repetition of BD, then another A is added, then steps 2 and 3 are added together, and so on. After expanding via additions of the A module, the music strips back down to just B and D, after which module C starts to be added in. Towards the end the music begins to emphasize the ten-note pattern ABCD, and finally resolves to the opening BD with which it began. The musical continuity here is not illogical, but neither is there any place where one could look at two or three successive phrases and guess (with any confidence of accuracy) what the next one will be. Glass’s comment about “simple arithmetic progressions” notwithstanding, this is a very unpredictable sequence. And, it must be said, this is all background structure anyway, since in this scene the pentatonic drones and improvisations tend to greatly override the subtlety of the organ patterns.

The Train

The Train scene, one of the most musically complex movements, is made up of three recurring sections, structured in the form ABABCABC. The B sections, which seem to serve a connective function, are instrumental (without voices), using the same four modules from the Building scene that were just identified. The C sections are based on the five-chord cadential progression that is the basis of the Spaceship scene. The A sections are unique to this scene. The first two B sections are identical, the third one considerably expanded. The two C sections are identical except that the chorus is added in the second one; the rhythmic patterns here follow those at the beginning of the Spaceship scene. What is illustrative of Glass’s approach to form in Einstein, though, are the three A sections.

The diagram here outlines the three A sections in a kind of shorthand that isolates an abbreviated set of features, namely the length of the repeated phrases and the notes of the soprano solo (once again in a key signature of three flats).
A three-note drone ostinato in the saxophones runs throughout all the A sections, imposing an underlying 3/4 meter. The voices sing repeated patterns of various lengths, entirely in quarter-notes except for a recurring refrain which I will identify in a moment. When the number of quarter-notes in the voice pattern is not divisible by three, the voices and saxophones run through a brief out-of-phase pattern, and the number of their repetitions must be divisible by three to make the phrases come out evenly at the end of the measure. The numbers on each left-hand column indicate the number of quarter-notes in each voice phrase. A number given as 4×3, 5×3, and so on, indicates that the phrase goes out of phase with the saxophone ostinato. A number given as 6+4+2 or 5+4+3+2+1 points to a subsidiary rhythm within the phrase suggesting an additive or subtractive rhythmic process; note that these occur only in the second A section. In each right-hand column are given the pitches in the solo soprano voice part, and since there are three flats in the key signature, A should be read as A-flat, B as B-flat, and so on. As in earlier examples, all these melodic fragments are stated in quarter-notes except for a recurring refrain in 8th-notes on Ab-F-Ab-Bb-C-Bb, sung on the solfège syllables la-fa-la-si-do-si, which recurs both here and in the Night Train scene as a kind of motto. One can see that here it appears twice at the beginning, and then at the end of each A section.

Other points that could be made here are even clearer in the following example. This comparison of the three soprano parts (and the tenor is always either a perfect fourth or major third below, in parallel) shows that the soprano begins each section alternating between Ab and Bb, gradually making her way up to Eb and then F, then descending back to Bb before concluding with the la-fa-la-si-do-si motto.

Einstein Train melody

click image to enlarge

Notice, however, that the melodic and rhythmic character of the route is quite different in each A section. The first section reaches the high F relatively quickly, the second takes a long time to get there, and the third stays on F and Eb for a long time as a kind of climax. The second section, as previously noted, contains more patterns which contain an internal subtractive or additive process, and the third section contains the only additive process among phrases, and one additional subtractive process. At the end, each of them finally goes into a subtractive rhythmic process of 5-4-3-2 before lapsing into the la-fa-la-si-do-si motto. What is evident, then, is how many rhythmic and melodic options were open to Glass to get him from the Ab up to the F and back to the closing refrain, and how carefully he recomposed this process for three parallel sections achieving the same function through different routes. This possibility of intuitively recomposing a section is far removed from the typical concept of early minimalism as being something logically predetermined. We’re not just listening to nature here; we’re listening to variations in a large-scale melody conceptualized as rhythm.

Dances 1 and 2

One of the most fascinating views of Glass’s compositional process in Einstein is the subtle contrast between Dances 1 and 2. Many of the materials are identical from one dance to another, but the second is somewhat transformed in consequence of its use of the solo violin representing Einstein. Both dances contain a trio of drone notes that sound throughout: the pitches A, D, and E. These pitches are heard in the solo voices, the saxophones, and the left hand of Organ 1 in every measure. In addition, a fourth pitch, F, appears in the culminating repetitions of each large section. These drone pitches are recontextualized by the changing harmonies around them. In Dance 1, the arpeggios in the organs and piccolo move among chords of F major, A major, Bb major, G major, and C major, the constant D, E, and A being reinterpreted in each new harmony.
(Actually, Glass describes it in his program notes as always returning to D, which is justifiable if you consider the F major as part of a D minor 7th chord; but which isn’t the way I hear it.) The singers and saxophones use only the pitches D, E, F, and A, voiced either as quarter notes, dotted quarter notes, half notes, or, at one arguably climactic point, dotted half notes. A listing of the chord progressions and the rhythms in each repetition throughout Dance 1 reveals a clear division into three parallel parts, though these are not marked by clear incipits and refrains as in the Train scene:
Though there is no key signature, the general tonality of Dance 1 sounds to me to be in F major; the piece begins and ends on an F major chord (with an added sixth D), and the phrase rhythm frequently makes F major sound like a resolution, though it can also sound like a flatted-seventh adjunct to G major. Listing the harmonic progressions of each repetition, we see a clear parallelism among phrases 1 to 17, 18 to 33, and 34 to 50. That is, there are 50 phrases in the dance, divided into three stanzas with lengths 17 + 16 + 17. (By the way, the Nonesuch recording of Einstein omits the second stanza, as did the recent production of the opera in Amsterdam.) As is clear from the diagram, each stanza starts by alternating F major and A major, then adds in Bb major, and finally moves to an alternation of G and F, inserting between them a C major chord to make a kind of II-V-I cadence. Although this pattern is clear, there is some variety in the tonal emphasis: stanza 3 spends less time on Bb than stanzas 1 and 2 do, and stanza 2 has a long middle passage on F major lacking in stanzas 1 or 3. Likewise, in an overview of the rhythms of each repeated phrase one can note rough parallels, but no clear isomorphism. In the first half of each stanza there is one repeated pattern longer than the ones around it; in stanza 1 it’s the fourth, in stanza 2 the third, and in stanza 3 the fifth. In stanza 1, half-notes appear in phrases 5 to 7, in stanza 2 in phrases 1 to 4, and stanza 3 contains no half-note rhythms, but offers dotted half-notes in phrase five.

The last four or five phrases of each stanza are rather climactic. While elsewhere the soprano and soprano saxophone use only the pitches D and E, in these final phrases they use a repeating DEFE, as marked in the diagram. Note that the rhythms here are entirely in quarter-notes, and that in stanzas 1 and 2 there occurs a nine-note pattern of DEFE-DEF-DE, a kind of small 4+3+2 subtractive motif. (By the way, we’ll see Glass using this 4+3+2 pattern 15 years later in his Columbus opera The Voyage, and many of these other patterns as well.) These DEFE motives appear only over the harmonic progressions G-F and G-C-F. All of these features point to an overall form divided into three parallel parts, but the musical continuity is so static, with its endlessly sustained A, D, and E, that the listener does not distinctly experience the piece as sectional, but as a smooth continuum with variations in the symmetry of the rhythm.

Turning to Dance 2, we find many of these same characteristics. Again the pitches D, E, and A are sustained throughout, the DEFE motive appears as a kind of relative intensification, and the rhythm moves among quarter-note, dotted-quarter, and half-note beats. But now the saxophones and piccolo are replaced by Einstein’s violin, and the necessity of writing a playable if still extremely virtuosic part for that instrument seems to suggest quite a few alterations.
Most noticeably, the tonality of F that dominated Dance 1 is replaced with a feeling of A minor, or at least an A natural minor scale (denoted here by a lower-case “a”), a tonality that marks much of the violin solo’s music throughout the opera. The tonality of Bb no longer appears. For the first ten phrases the music merely alternates between an A natural minor scale and an A major triad. The DEFE motive appears only twice in the piece, about a third of the way through and for a long time at the very end. Replacing Dance 1’s middle stanza is a long section (phrases 15 to 25) in which the violin articulates a strict process that is both additive (in terms of adding phrases together) and subtractive (in terms of each new phrase addition being fewer notes than its predecessor): it plays a scale starting on A and going up to G, then another phrase going up to F, then up to E, D, C, and B. After reaching maximum length it then begins subtracting the opening phrases one at a time, and I tried to spell out in the diagram the strict process of addition and subtraction. Later, starting in phrase 37, Glass reinserts this scalar process into larger phrases on the chords of G, C, and A, resulting in repetitive sections far longer than anything in Dance 1. At last the chorus and organ suddenly drop out, and the violin is left to play a solo transition to Knee Play 4.

One of the realizations one draws from such a reading of Einstein, I think, is that it does not much matter whether the progression of patterns follows a strict algorithm, or whether the music moves from pattern to pattern more arbitrarily. An algorithm that is sufficiently complex will prevent the listener from gaining a firm sense of what the patterning is; and, conversely, given a severe restriction of material, a series of similar but nonlinear patterns can be interpreted as probably following some pattern too complex to tease out by ear. The effect can be much the same. The two Dance movements are rather different in this respect without the effect being noticeably formally contrasting. However, I think there is one exception to this in Einstein, and it is the Bed scene with which we started, the opera’s penultimate major scene. Here the rhythmic progression is not only linear and predictable, but proceeds so slowly that it is quite easy to count, and the listener will be tempted to do so. In this case I find something nostalgic about the linearity, as it is the one part of the opera that exposes the underlying process in an audibly discernible way, inviting the listener to step behind the curtain, as it were, and find out how the music works. Given Einstein’s historical appearance just after the repertoire of strict-process minimalism, this mood may even be felt as a nostalgia for the musical period that had just passed. As a kind of retrospective adagio, the Bed scene virtually invites us to remember the minimalist works of the late 1960s and hear how far the rest of the opera has moved away from them.

Aside from the special case of sonata form, in which a composer rewrites the exposition as a recapitulation in order to transpose all themes into the tonic, this idea of using several recomposings of the same passage within one piece does not come up often in the history of music. The composer who wants to get from point A to point B typically figures out the best way to do so, and then proceeds to point C. To find three different and functionally interchangeable ways to get from point A to point B and then use all of them in the same piece, as Glass does here in the Train scene, is rather rare, I think. (After all, had Glass merely repeated three identical A sections, how many listeners would have noticed, how many analysts would have found that anomalous in this context?) And one would have to go to the music of Erik Satie, such as the Gymnopedies or the Pieces Froids, to find a composer writing two large movements of a piece with such similar content as Glass does between these two dance movements. And yet the Dance 2 is quite different in feeling than Dance 1, with its focus on the violin soloist, its incessant running up and down the scale, its greater reliance on additive and subtractive process, and its lack or the comforting F major into which Dance 1 tended to resolve. All the usual jokes about minimalism aside, I find it remarkable that Glass could generate 45 minutes of his opera with so little material, shaping each internal stanza so intuitively, and differentiating the two dances into such different purposes and moods. It is a real piece of compositional virtuosity, and not at all the kind of predetermined logic that we tend to associate with early minimalism.

As my predecessor at The Village Voice Tom Johnson wrote in 1981 about Glass’s Music with Changing Parts, “Yet as I listened once again to those additions and subtractions I realized that they are actually rather whimsical. Composers like Frederic Rzewski, Louis Andriessen, and William Hellermann have written such sequences with much greater rigor. By comparison, Glass is not a reductionist at all but a romantic.” [2] Romantic is not quite the word I would have used—I would be loathe to think that the mere absence of a generating algorithm suffices as evidence of passion or individualism. (In fact, that Tom would use the word on such minor grounds in 1981 is indicative of the atmosphere I began this essay by describing.) But I do think that there is a kind of inherent mystery in Glass’s circuitous, unpredictable paths through extremely circumscribed material, and that Einstein on the Beach would be a less compelling work than it is had he been more content with mere concept and less generous with his subtly-shaping artistry.

1. Philip Glass, “Note on Einstein on the Beach,” Einstein on the Beach, Tomato Records, TOM-4-2901 (1979).
2. Tom Johnson, “Maximalism on the Beach: Philip Glass,” Village Voice, February 25-March 3, 1981; reprinted in The Voice of New Music, Amsterdam (Het Apollohuis, 1989)
Copyright 2013 by Kyle Gann