Tag: Steve Reich

In A Novel About New Music, Do Re Mi Meets DNA

A paperback copy of an English translation of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus resting atop the keys of a piano.

It’s no wonder that some composers of new music feel neglected. Not only do they have trouble finding an audience for their music, but they, unlike writers and detectives, are rarely portrayed in novels. One notable exception is the 2014 novel Orfeo, by Richard Powers, whose protagonist is a contemporary composer who inadvertently demonstrates how avant-garde music can reach “hundreds of thousands of listeners.” Just set up a home laboratory to insert musical patterns into the genome of a common bacterium; go fugitive when your lab is raided by Homeland Security fearing a public health threat; and become so notorious for messing with DNA that an investigative reporter unearths one of two recordings of your old experimental opera, an excerpt of which is aired on radio news.

A contemporary composer who inadvertently demonstrates how avant-garde music can reach “hundreds of thousands of listeners”…

Understandably, some contemporary composers and musicians may prefer to have a less ambitious main character represent new music. Perhaps one who would rather build a recording studio in his home than a biochemical lab.

However, readers of Orfeo will discover that composer Peter Els’s attempt to have self-replicating cells broadcast his tunes into the future and the flight from the law of this “Bioterroist Bach,” as he is branded by the press, are hooks for those keen on plot. But music lovers will delight in the long passages in which Els is stock-still, listening and responding to very familiar 20th-century compositions.

The cover of Richard Powers's novel Orfeo.

Could there be any other novel that devotes so many pages to analyzing such music? Powers educates his readers about this subject the way that Melville informs us about whales in Moby Dick. He doesn’t just tell us that Els’s high school girlfriend turns him on to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, but rather gives us a song-by-song recap—from “The orchestration, the nostalgic harmonies: everything wrapped in the familiar late nineteenth century, but laced with the coming fever dream,” to “The full orchestra, at last—the wrenched strings, the plummeting winds—pumps out a tempest.”

While attending the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (“that little Darmstadt in the prairies”), Els goes to the 1967 premiere of John Cage’s Musicircus, held in the school’s Stock Pavilion, emptied of the animals that usually provide the sounds. In the thick of the “Happening,” he spots Cage himself: “Smiling he slips through the crowd and back up on a performance platform, where he joins a quintet pouring water into different-sized bowls and tapping them, taking their time cues from an elaborate piano roll…. For a moment, in some America deep in his neocortex, [Els] can hear every ringing pitch the mute bowls make.”

Music lovers will delight in the long passages in which Els is listening and responding to very familiar 20th-century compositions.

Decades later, when the retired professor is teaching a class at a facility for the elderly, he tells his students the inspiring story of the German camp where, in 1941, Olivier Messiaen wrote Quartet for the End of Time, then rehearsed and performed it with three other prisoners. Els’s introduction to the piece before playing it in class concludes with “the end of the End”:

The violin rises, the piano climbs along toward some final immobility beyond human patience and hearing. The praise wanders higher, into C minor, through a frozen infield of ambiguous diminished and augmented chords….From out at the edge of the key and fingerboards, the line glances back at a lost Earth on a cold night, when there is time no longer.

But the book’s bravura act of listening takes place after Els quits his teaching job because he has to go on the lamb. It’s serendipitous, as so often happens these days in buildings with piped-in music. And since the scene takes place in the coffee house where 70-year-old Els used to hang out in college, it illustrates that where we listen to a piece of music, and at what point in our lives, strongly affects how we hear it.

When Els first takes a table amid the ambient cafe conversations, he sees that the couple next to him are poring over a score that he can read from his table. The piece for chamber orchestra is “lush with melodies everyone in the audience would leave the hall humming,” Els suspects, then admits that at twenty-five he “would have thought the thing insipid and reactionary. At seventy he wished he’d written it at twenty-five.”

Where we listen to a piece of music, and at what point in our lives, strongly affects how we hear it.

Then from the cafe’s speakers he hears a soprano very slowly sing, “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.” The familiar piece jolts him out of his regrets, and when the woman at the next table points up and asks her boyfriend, “What is this?” he doesn’t know, but Professor Els responds, “Reich. Wittgenstein. Proverb.”

He does indeed know Steve Reich’s beautiful, 14-minute composition well. For over eight pages, Els’s thoughts provide a close commentary that even clocks the piece the way long-distance runners monitor themselves. “Pitches cluster above the throbbing vibes” at the point when “[t]he piece has lasted twice as long as any self-respecting song and shows no signs of stopping.” At the six-minute mark, after Els points out the use of early music polyphony, he notes that “the parallel tenors rush back in. Twelfth and twenty-first centuries alternate, competing with each other. Those two broad streams flow together into a further sea.” Eleven minutes in, Reich is still in full stride, “the endless dominant pedal point in the organ, the scraping seconds in the tenors—and the piece breaks through into a clearing.”

The contrast between Els’s reaction to Proverb and that of the young people around him makes it seem like he’s the only one in the room with his ears open. (Since so many of them are wearing earbuds, that’s close to the truth.) As he looks around at the all the students staring at their laptop screens or lost in equations on yellow legal paper, he thinks, “The music might be cha-cha, for all anyone hears.” Whereas when he hears two tenors bob in parallel above an organ sustain, “Els’s lips twist in unwilling joy” (an oblique way of saying it’s the first time he’s smiled in dozens of pages) and “the ancient harmonies spread through his bloodstream like an opiate.” Later on in the piece he feels “these spinning, condensed ecstasies, this cascade of echoes, these abstract patterns without significance, this seamless breathing leaves him sure, one more time, of some lush design waiting for him.” When “choirboy clarity thickens, then smears out thin as gold leaf,” and Els is so moved that “his surroundings turn to wet crepe,” he can finally sense a response in his neighboring couple: “The woman’s soul is all up in her ears. The boy leans forward in a frightened crouch; someone is doing a thing better than he ever will.”

In this analysis of Proverb, the one sentence of lyrics is repeated five times in the book’s text, the last time printed vertically on the page with spaces between the letters to indicate how slowly the sopranos are singing them. But what do Wittgenstein’s words really mean? That’s a loaded question, for as Guy Davenport points out in his essay “Wittgenstein,” the philosopher questioned the meaning of every bit of language. “The world to him was an absolute puzzle,” Davenport writes, “a great lump of opaque pig iron.”

Yet characteristically, Els relates the lyrics to his own music, thinking how he has “banged on that smallest thought for his whole life without ever getting in,” and later while reflecting on the people closest to him, realizes that “all I ever wanted was to make one slight noise that might delight you all. How small a thought it took.”

But it seems like Els is confusing a thought with a project or an obsession. In a program note on Proverb in his book Writings on Music (1965-2000), Reich himself discusses the line from Wittgenstein. He writes that the philosopher’s “close, subtle examination of everyday speech had a strong appeal to me. As to his text that I used in Proverb, I was trying to embody it in the piece. That is, the ‘small thought’ is the idea of canon or round.”

Any novel about a contemporary composer calls for comparison with Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.

Any novel about a contemporary composer, especially one as overreaching as Els, calls for comparison with the most famous fictional account of a maestro in the 20th century, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Based on the German Faust legend, Mann’s hero Adrian Leverkühn makes a pact with a Mephistophelean figure to sacrifice his soul for musical inspiration and fame. Even before he starts tinkering in his lab, Els recognizes his affinity with Leverkühn, calling his striving to launch his career “the full Faustian ride.” After having a brain scan at age 65 and looking at the results with his doctor, “he pictured Faust looking at his own neurons on a monitor—his bottomless hunger laid bare, his desire for mastery swirling through his brain like cigarette smoke curling in the air.”

Proving that Faust has achieved a kind of immortality in the English language, his name comes up again in two reviews of the contemporary, multimedia opera Three Tales, also by Steve Reich, along with video artist Beryl Korot. The work explores three historical uses of technology: the flight of the Hindenberg, the Bikini Atoll atom bomb tests, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep—that nonfiction meddling with DNA. In his review in The New Yorker, Alex Ross called the opera “a surprisingly fervent morality play, pointing a minatory finger not so much at technology itself as at the Faustian hubris that drives it forward.” Having shown himself to be such a fan of Reich’s, if Peter Els saw Three Tales, could it have tempered his tampering in the lab?

How to Produce Opera Outside the Opera House

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

Here’s a new music riddle of sorts:

How do you get an opera company to produce an opera that’s not really an opera?

The answer: You don’t—you produce it yourself.

In a 1989 grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts, Steve Reich explained his rationale for self-producing The Cave, his and video artist Beryl Korot’s first video opera:

We are self-producing The Cave because the unusual nature of the piece demands it. Specifically, The Cave will be a new type of documentary music theater that could not easily be produced in existing opera houses…an opera orchestra would be totally overblown, unprepared, and unsuitable to perform it.

Operatic voices would be equally unsuitable, he wrote, and “the technical demands of [the piece] would be poorly served at best if produced in existing opera houses or concert halls.” Unlike his erstwhile colleague Philip Glass, who by then had seen his operas produced by established opera houses in Amsterdam, Stuttgart, and Houston, Reich seemed to view traditional institutions as museums for relics of the operatic past, unfit for truly modern music theater. But Reich took a less extreme path than the one proposed in 1966 by Boulez; rather than blowing up the opera houses, Reich decided to avoid them entirely.

Previously, Sasha Metcalf outlined how the creation of OPERA America’s “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” initiative kick-started a flurry of operatic activity that has continued to the present. Supplemented with Rockefeller funds, many U.S. opera companies began offering commissions for new operas. But institutions have their own financial priorities and aesthetic preferences, so Reich—like many iconoclastic, entrepreneurial composers of the late 20th century—chose instead to create music outside the traditional structures of production and patronage.

To create their unorthodox opera, Reich and Korot wove together multiple threads of public and private aid. Support came in many guises: financial, artistic, logistical, emotional, to name just a few. What each of these has in common is that they arose from the personal and professional relationships that the pair had cultivated over the previous decades of their careers.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture. As last year’s NewMusicBox series on community demonstrated, the act of making music—or of creating the conditions that allow for that music—is frequently communal, dependent on a network of willing participants. Networking made possible Reich and Korot’s production strategy, which relied heavily on hiring a well-connected administrator who could help them assemble a consortium of co-commissioners and solicit financial support from public foundations and private donors. (And if the term “networking” too strongly evokes images of over-eager, suit-and-tie MBAs handing out business cards, perhaps it’s more pleasant to think in collaborative terms.)

The core aesthetic concept of The Cave—combining Korot’s multiple-image video art with Reich’s work with speech melodies—came about in conversation. In June 1980, Reich lay in a hospital, recovering from shoulder surgery. When Michael Nyman stopped by for a social visit, Reich hit upon an idea for what he and Korot, who are married, would later categorize as a “documentary music video theater work”—not an opera, per se. Writing just a few months later to Betty Freeman, a longtime Los Angeles patron who would go on to commission Different Trains, Reich confided:

I…have in mind to start a H*U*G*E project that will involve live music on stage plus multiple image film….It will go back to the kind of work I was doing with tape in the 60s (like Come Out) and will be my answer to what music theatre can be.

Reich’s answer, The Cave, premiered thirteen years later at the Vienna Festival.

The title of The Cave refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham (father to both Jews and Muslims) and his family are buried. The opera conveys the story of Abraham, his wife Sarah, her handmaid Hagar, and their sons, Ishmael and Isaac, using sacred Jewish and Islamic texts, even as it explores the contemporary relevance of these figures through interviews with Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and Americans. Reich and Korot synchronized the speech melodies and film footage from these interviews with live music to create a visual and aural portrait of each individual. The result is a far cry from Carmen or La bohème. Think Different Trains, but with video.

When Korot and Reich began thinking seriously about the project in the late 1980s, they decided that the scope of producing an opera exceeded what they could manage on their own. In April 1988, before they had even lined up a commission, the pair asked Renée Levine Packer to produce the opera. Although the Reich Music Foundation is listed on the program below as a co-producer, Reich has been quick to credit Levine Packer as the true (and sole) producer. “I didn’t have anything to do with the production whatsoever,” he said in a 2016 interview. “It was all produced by Renée Levine [Packer]. I did nothing except whatever she told me!”

Cave Program Page

Title page of the Vienna program booklet. Source: University at Buffalo Music Library.

Levine Packer and Reich first met in 1965 at the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo, which Levine Packer coordinated and eventually co-directed. Later, she co-ran the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival and, more importantly, led the NEA’s nascent Inter-Arts Division. There, Levine Packer oversaw the agency’s funding for experimental, mixed media, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Her stints at SUNY Buffalo and the NEA were twin qualifications, according to Reich: “She was somebody who really knew the new music field and she knew the funding field, and she was really sympathetic to what we were doing. So, it was a natural [fit].”

Levine Packer brought to The Cave a wealth of connections to individuals and foundations. But her support cannot simply be measured in terms of how many grants she secured. Her support was also aesthetic in nature. Levine Packer has spoken enthusiastically about Reich’s music, and one of her most cherished possessions is Etty’s Rosetta, a painting by Korot. Moreover, she is drawn to the very nature of interdisciplinary collaborations. In my conversations with her, she reflected, “I knew how difficult [these collaborations] were, but I also knew how they transcended boundaries and were larger than the sum of their parts. And that was very exciting to me…I felt perfectly at home with that kind of aspiration. In fact, I loved it.” The Cave represented, in her view, “everything I tried to accomplish at the National Endowment for the Arts…a wonderful collaborative work that goes beyond the art form of either and comes out totally new.”

In lieu of relying on a single company to produce the opera, Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot created a network of co-commissioners. They began in the fall of 1988 with Klaus-Peter Kehr at Stuttgart Opera (this commission later transferred to the Vienna Festival), then quickly added Harvey Lichtenstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with whom Reich had worked before. Over the next four years, they assembled seven co-commissioners from Europe and the United States (listed at the top of the program above). These festivals and presenting institutions provided financial support via their commissions, but perhaps more importantly, their commitment to programming The Cave lent support to Levine Packer’s search for funding from public and private sources.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms.

These sources (listed at the bottom of the program above) ranged from major foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller to music-specific organizations including Meet The Composer and private patrons like Freeman. Together, they eventually furnished around three-quarters of the $1 million or so that it cost to produce The Cave. Support was not always monetary; Levine Packer was able to acquire computer hardware from IBM for Korot and Reich thanks to connections that her husband had made during his career as an economist. Although it is easy to highlight the successes that Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot achieved in securing financial support, it risks overstating the difficulty of their endeavor and the challenges of self-production. The Cave was built on five years of sustained fundraising and networking, and Reich and Korot’s devotion to creating The Cave necessarily limited their ability to earn income from other commissions or performances. Given the irregularity of grant funds, at one point they had to borrow money from their extended family. And for every “yes” the team received from a commissioner, organization, or patron, many more said “no,” including the Kennedy Center, UCLA, University of Texas at Austin (which had at one point been a co-commissioner), the Pew and Mellon Charitable Trust Foundations, and the philanthropic wings of multinational oil companies.

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians that brought The Cave to life.

There are many other ways in which the development of The Cave could show how support is built on personal and professional networks, but I will offer just one more example, which reveals support of an artistic kind. In selecting their collaborators, Korot and Reich tapped their networks of immediate, once-removed, and twice-removed contacts in the music and theater worlds. Their search for a director, for instance, lasted more than three years, with almost a dozen potential candidates. The director they eventually selected, Carey Perloff, had worked with David Lang and brought with her what she described as a “real aesthetic kinship.” Tod Machover connected Reich with one of his students, Ben Rubin, who created the opera’s typing instrument and served as technical advisor. Indeed, in his interview with me, Reich recalled:

Each case was pretty much a question of trying to find somebody who knew somebody…Richard Nelson had done the lighting for Sunday in the Park [with George], and I’m an old friend and huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, and particularly Sunday in the Park. And, I figured, anybody who can do Sunday in the Park is welcome in our production. We wanted people who would get the basic idea, which was that the basic theater was the video.

Networking remains just as crucial to independent opera production today as it did in the early 1990s. The most recent performances of The Cave this past March, for instance, took place only through the combined efforts of St. Louis arts organizations and faith communities, as well as the longstanding relationship between Alarm Will Sound and Reich.

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave at the John Burroughs School in March of 2017. In addition to the performances, AWS joined with Arts & Faith St. Louis to engage the community in conversations regarding the shared histories of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms. Rubin and Nelson gave technical and artistic support, Levine Packer provided administrative and aesthetic support, Korot’s and Reich’s families offered emotional and financial support, and even Nyman and Freeman arguably presented a kind of social support. What these and other manifestations of support for new music have in common, though, is that they develop as a result of connections between and among individuals. For most readers of NewMusicBox this probably borders on being a truism, and in recognition of that I’ll counterpoint my opening new music riddle with a new music adage: it takes a network to produce an opera.

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. More of his work on the production history and politics of The Cave can be found in the most recent issue of American Music and in Rethinking Reich (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

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.

SFCMP Presents Sold-Out Reich Event

I’ve never seen the lobby of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as crowded as on January 28 before the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players’s concert of music by Steve Reich, built around Reich’s magnum opus Music for 18 Musicians. SFCMP had completely sold out the conservatory’s 450-seat concert hall in advance: it became one of those events where numerous people suddenly turned to Facebook the morning of the show to cast about for tickets. There was a sense of anxious jostling while trying to get into the performance hall that we don’t usually associate with new music concerts. This is the second season in SFCMP’s 42-year history that has been under the artistic direction of Steven Schick, the longtime champion of contemporary music for percussion. Given the enthusiasm surrounding this program—titled “Confirmation,” a reference to Reich’s pithy response when asked what he had gained after his 1970 trip to West Africa—it will be interesting to see what other interests Schick and SFCMP can tap into as his tenure progresses.

Steven Schick, courtesy of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players

Steven Schick
Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players

The repertoire was a reprise of a concert Schick had presented a year ago at University of California, San Diego (where Schick is a professor) with his new music ensemble red fish blue fish, augmented with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Here, the core musicians were members of SFCMP, who were joined by conservatory students. The student musicians’ contribution to this effort was not insignificant: for Music for 18 Musicians, five of the percussionists, two pianists, and the four vocalists were drawn from the student body. (All told there were 21 musicians on stage.) It was an admirable example of this professional ensemble integrating its work with an educational institution to create an opportunity that would have been difficult to realize without SFCMP and Schick’s guidance.

The evening opened with the three percussionists of SFCMP—William Winant, Daniel Kennedy, and Christopher Froh, all pioneering musicians in their own right—and Schick performing Clapping Music, which began before the applause welcoming them to the stage had died down. It was performed two on a part, with Schick and Kennedy taking the base track and Winant and Froh moving out of phase. The musicians approached it with a sense of playfulness that would seem out of place with a pure process piece if it weren’t so purely enjoyable to see and hear four guys who clearly enjoyed the physicality of rhythm making sounds simultaneously simple and complex with just the skin on their hands.

Clapping Music

Steven Schick (left), Daniel Kennedy, William Winant, and Christopher Froh perform Clapping Music
Photo courtesy Neocles Serafimidis

The Conservatory Guitar Ensemble, under the direction of SFCMP guitarist and professor David Tanenbaum, followed with Electric Counterpoint, featuring conservatory alumnus Travis Andrews performing the solo part. While the piece was originally written for one musician prerecording ten guitar parts and two electric bass parts and then playing the eleventh guitar live in concert, this performance featured Andrews and the two bassists playing electric instruments with twelve members of the ensemble playing acoustic guitars. As the piece is built on a series of canons, the timbral differences between the electric and the acoustic instruments plus the spatial displacement of the electric instruments made for a disjointed listening experience where the various canonic lines (though sensitively played, especially in the second movement) failed to present in a balanced and unified way. At the top of the show, there was an announcement that the sound check had been limited due to a scheduling conflict with the hall, which may have contributed to this issue.

The hour-long Music for 18 Musicians (online score here) filled the rest of the program. I will assume that most NewMusicBox readers are familiar with this massive work, for two string players, two clarinetists, four treble voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, and vibraphone. (Schick, on vibraphone, and SFCMP clarinetist Jeff Anderle, a Bay Area new music mainstay, took the cueing roles.) I suspect, too, that most NewMusicBox readers have already formed their own opinions about this piece since its first performance in 1976; for me, working as a production assistant on the 1997 Nonesuch recording of Music for 18 remains one of the greatest fortunes of my musical life, and I count myself among those unabashed lovers of this transcendent work that breathes and pulses like an organism.

There were some balance glitches that may have stemmed from the sound check issue noted above; in particular, the vocalists were often submerged and at points the high frequencies of the xylophones pierced aggressively through the texture. (Nevertheless, high soprano Sara Hagenbuch deserves recognition for her stamina and precision throughout.) Despite these occasional issues, SFCMP and their conservatory cohorts were able to deliver the essential delight of the piece to a hungry audience. One of the joys about experiencing Music for 18 live is being able to observe visually all of the organism’s components interacting, intertwining, handing things off to each other, shifting gears as a unit when a new entity steps into the aural picture. The most memorable moment of the evening came in the transition to Section VI, when Winant, who had been sitting to the side for some sections of the first 25 minutes of the work, stepped to center stage, raised a large set of yellow maracas, and suddenly unleashed a dance party. That was the point when I put the pen and notebook down, and started riding the waves.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players’s next subscription concert is on Monday, February 25, at Herbst Theatre, featuring world premieres by Mark Applebaum and George Lewis, and works by Paul Dresher, Eve Beglarian, and Stuart Saunders Smith.

Cold Play

North Watch by Ivan Eyre

North Watch, a public sculpture on Main Street by Manitoban artist Ivan Eyre, just about sums up my initial thoughts about Winnipeg

I’ve finally returned to my desk at New Music USA after travelling to Paris, Nice, Cannes, and finally Winnipeg, Manitoba to attend the second half of the 2013 Winnipeg New Music Festival whose featured composer this year was Steve Reich. I’d long wanted to attend this festival and had never been able to sort out the logistics. But this time the lure of live performances of Tehillim (one of my all-time favorite pieces of music) and The Desert Music (which I had not heard live since attending the American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music back in 1984) was enough to convince me to board yet another airplane (less than 12 hours after I returned home from France) and brave the weather in Winnipeg. (During the time I was there, the temperature dropped to -34°C, which equals -29°F.)

Decked out in a corduroy suit, a vest, a lined coat, tall boots (purchased specifically for this trip), gloves, earmuffs, and a hat (the first I’ve worn in more than 30 years), I exited the Winnipeg Airport together with my wife Trudy, who was dressed similarly, and faced the elements for less than a minute to hail a cab, returning outside for an additional minute to get our luggage from the trunk and into the hotel. Despite all the layers and less than two minutes of exposure in total, my eyes (which weren’t covered) felt somewhat pulverized, my nose and my throat felt swollen, and my already doubly covered ears felt numb. Trudy fared no better. It was COOOOLD! Much as I was eager to roam the town in the hours not spent attending rehearsals, concerts, pre-concert talks, and post-concert receptions, I was prepared to give in to the completely out-of-character impulse to remain indoors in our heated hotel room during any free time. And indeed, on our first day in Winnipeg (Friday, January 31), we cabbed it from the hotel to Centennial Hall (a distance of approximately six blocks) to attend rehearsals for the all-Reich chamber music concert that evening—Different Trains, Clapping Music, New York Counterpoint (featuring a soprano saxophone soloist rather than the usual clarinet), and Double Sextet (performed along with choreography by Peter Quanz). Following the rehearsal, Winnipeg Symphony composer-in-residence Vincent Ho drove us to a Latin American restaurant (perhaps to provide the allusion of a warmer climate) located between Centennial Hall and our hotel. Trudy and I stayed there pretty much until it was time for the concert. After a full meal we ventured back to the concert hall by foot, but asked to be driven back to the hotel following the post-concert reception since it was even colder at that point.

The performances were exemplary and the large audience was extremely enthusiastic—it was a new music dream come true. Not only did so many people of all ages come out for this concert, they actually came out in, ahem, -34°C/-29°F! As for the repertoire, though for many it might have been a brand new experience, I felt like a standard repertoire aficionado attending a typical classical music program because I know all of those pieces quite well. Since I usually find myself at premieres, it’s a pleasure I don’t get to have all that often. The only new thing for me was Peter Quanz’s choreography for six dancers (entitled In Tandem) which turned Reich’s double sextet into a triple sextet—every phrase in the music was accompanied by a corresponding visual gesture. Sometimes, I must confess (not being the most movement-savvy person), dance can be lost on me. I was particularly worried since the day before I had woken up in a time zone seven hours earlier than Winnipeg and few things are worse for jet lag than sitting in a dimly lit concert hall. But I was completely riveted. Quanz made Double Sextet come alive for me in an extremely direct and visceral way. During a Q&A with CBC radio host Bill Richardson, Quanz claimed that “most dancers can memorize music more easily than musicians.” After hearing and seeing that exciting performance, it was clear to me that dancers can not only memorize music, but can also really perform music—interpret it and make it completely their own.

While I spent all of Friday morning unwilling to leave the hotel room, my internet peregrinations led me to Into The Music, a used record store than was roughly the same distance from the hotel as Centennial Concert Hall. If there’s anything that can cure me of a reasonable act of self-preservation, it’s vinyl. So I decided to walk there and I did. Somehow it didn’t feel quite as cold. But before I could really explore all that was on their shelves, it was time to head to the concert hall for a rehearsal of Tehillim. Though it clearly sounds heavily syncopated, Tehillim seems metrically regular until you carefully study the score; it’s chock full of meter changes, many of which are highly irregular. (The final eight measures are 9/8, 12/8, 8/8, 10/8, 17/8, and three measures of 10/8.) During the rehearsal, it seemed slightly beyond the grasp of the ensemble, though they were clearly giving it their all. I was somewhat worried.

After dinner in the hotel, we walked back to the concert hall for the performance. (It was just as cold as the day before, but I suppose we were acclimated at that point.) The first half of the concert opened with the North American premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s Suite from There Will Be Blood. I’m a huge Radiohead fan, so I was excited to hear a live performance of the orchestral music that Greenwood has been composing as of late. But after getting particularly excited when I read in the program notes that Greenwood’s score was originally written for ondes martenot and strings, I admit that I was disappointed that the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra performance was just strings. Then Evelyn Glennie joined the orchestra for another North American premiere, Hikoi, an extremely flamboyant percussion concerto by Gareth Farr, who is one of New Zealand’s most widely performed composers. I had been familiar with Farr’s music from recordings but this was my first exposure to it in a concert hall. Hearing it live definitely adds to the experience since it is very theatrical, although Farr asserted during the pre-concert Q&A that for him “the music has to be the priority” and if something that’s great theatrically doesn’t ultimately serve the music, he’ll opt for a less theatrical solution that does. Hearing Farr talk about his music was as entertaining as the music itself. “People think because I’m a composer I must be a very serious person,” Farr exclaimed at one point and then proceeded to describe his other career as Lilith LaCroix, New Zealand’s most famous drag queen.

Then came the real shock of the evening, and perhaps of my entire Winnipeg experience. After a euphoric standing ovation for Glennie and Farr, Vincent Ho came to the stage to announce that due to unforeseen circumstances, the performance of Tehillim would have to be cancelled and a work that had been performed earlier in the week would be performed again instead. Everyone seemed crestfallen. I certainly was. Conversation during intermission bordered on the surreal. What possibly could have happened? We tried to find out but no one was talking. Then we heard a series of announcements, calling various people to report back stage. When we re-entered the concert hall, it seemed like the audience was only about 5/8ths the size prior to intermission. But then there was another announcement that the performance of Tehillim would go on after all! It did, and it was practically flawless. It was miraculous and was also one of the most exciting performances I have ever witnessed; it was as if life itself depended on every note. We learned after the concert that one of the four singers came down with the flu right after the rehearsal and had completely lost her voice. After a hot bath and a shot of cortisone, her voice returned at around 9 p.m. and she contacted intrepid WSO conductor Alexander Mickelthwate. She rushed back to the concert hall and they called Steve Reich, who at this point was in his hotel room, and she sang for him. Reich came back to the concert hall in time to experience what for him, as he later acknowledged, was also one of the most exciting performances of his music.

Mickelthwate, Reich, and Ho

WSO conductor Alexander Mickelthwate, Steve Reich, and WSO resident composer Vincent Ho

Everything the following day seemed somehow anticlimactic, although it got off to a great start thanks to a fabulous dim sum brunch we had with Vincent Ho. I did make it back to that record store and bought three LPs (including a collection of historic recording by the iconic Canadian folk fiddler Don Messer). I also wandered through the underground walkways and skyways in downtown Winnipeg and found a store that sold Canadian wine. We had dinner at a restaurant across from our hotel named Bailey’s which is in a historic Winnipeg building that dates back to the year 1900. The concert that evening opened with another percussion concerto featuring Evelyn Glennie, From Darkness to Light: A Spiritual Journey by Vincent Ho, which is more introspective than most works in that medium. An extremely moving tribute to a visual artist friend of Ho’s who died of cancer last year, From Darkness to Light emphasizes timbre over pulsation. Ho’s music and Glennie’s stellar performance of it offered clear aural proof that percussion instruments can be as expressive as strings or winds. The festival concluded with Reich’s The Desert Music, a 40-minute choral/orchestral tour de force based on fragments of poems by William Carlos Williams. Again, it was a delight to hear live again after nearly 30 years, but there was something magical about the previous evening’s performance of Tehillim that trumped every other event that I attended.

As Ellen McSweeney opined earlier today in her musings about what the new music community could learn from the Super Bowl (I had actually done my best to stay completely away from it this year, and succeeded up until reading her essay—go Canada!), we should not “be afraid to show vulnerability.” Everyone’s experience of that performance of Tehillim was amplified by the fact that it almost didn’t happen; my own experience was further enhanced by attending a rehearsal that seemed far from perfect. Perhaps we need to open all new music rehearsals to the public. Indeed, the performers did seem vulnerable, and everyone was cheering for them to win and ultimately they did. And what was even better about that than the Super Bowl is that nobody lost.

Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble: On the New Music Map

When composer and educator Bill Ryan interviewed to teach composition at Grand Valley State University in 2005, he laid out what his ideal collegiate program would look like. Teaching student composition lessons would be a focus, of course, but he also placed a strong emphasis on the need to both establish a student contemporary music ensemble and to create a concert series that would welcome visiting artists to the campus.

“These three parts are incredibly important. Without one, I think your program is going to be much, much weaker,” Ryan explains. GVSU must have agreed, because they brought him on board that fall. What no one—perhaps even including Ryan—likely anticipated, however, was how swiftly and successfully he would be able to make his vision a reality and how, in the process of so doing, he would put the university’s program on the national contemporary music map.

The story of how that newly minted new music ensemble, based at a state university in western Michigan, took on Steve Reich’s seminal Music for 18 Musicians, boomeranged into NYC on a field trip to hear his ensemble perform the work at Carnegie Hall, and then returned to their hometown to perform it themselves and make an acclaimed recording of their efforts, is an old one at this point. But it remains instructive.

Ryan had no illusions—or expectations—when the project began. “Music for 18 was a super project,” he acknowledges. “Frankly, many people have never heard of the school. We’re in the Midwest, and the focus is on the coasts, and New York especially, and we’re not part of that.” Fair or not, however, that novelty is why he believes audiences and the media were so captivated by their story. His early concerns—such as simply shepherding the young group through the piece from beginning to end—eventually faded, and ultimately their success with the work snowballed into an invitation to perform it at the Bang on a Can marathon in New York and the release of a recording on the Innova label. That trajectory caught lots of press attention, including the ears of Alex Ross and NPR. “I think it worked because it wasn’t contrived; like the piece, it was super organic,” Ryan says. “And we sat back and took it all in and just couldn’t believe that every day there was another email or something showing up in the press. It was thrilling for me, and the students were just floored.”

This is where it’s interesting to step back into those Michigan cornfields for a minute, because even though most folks couldn’t find Allendale on a map, they could find the GVSU New Music Ensemble on the internet, and once they did, the group was more than a dry paragraph on the university’s website. Video documentation that was originally intended for rehearsal purposes was repurposed for YouTube clips that illustrated to the world what the ensemble was up to.

“If we had done this 10, 15 years ago, pre-blogs and pre-YouTube, maybe no one would have noticed that we even did the concert,” Ryan admits.

The ensemble’s website now boasts a history of concert performances and a lengthy list of explored repertoire and commissions. After the Reich, their next major recording project was sparked by an invitation from the Kronos quartet to be involved in the 25th anniversary concert of In C at Carnegie Hall. When they decided to release a recording of this minimalist classic as well, they added a twist by asking 16 remixers to rework the raw audio materials for a 2-CD set, expanding the community and connections for the ensemble at the same time.

These exercises continually push the students beyond school walls and dunk them in real-world scenarios, and that has proven invaluable. Kelly Vander Molen, a senior violin performance major at GVSU, plans to play with a symphony orchestra after she graduates. But the perspective towards new music that she takes with her into the job market will have shifted.

“Before I came to Grand Valley I had no clue what new music was, and what I did hear I didn’t like,” she admits, but then a friend invited her to participate in one of the ensemble’s improvisational activities. “I was really uncomfortable, and then once I realized that anything goes, that kind of opened up a whole new world for me. And it also helped me in my classical music world, too, because I became less self-conscious as a musician.”

Daniel Rhode, a composer who is finishing up his studies to be a music teacher, credits the program with inspiring him and a classmate to start their own concert series. “It would be foolish to say we would have even come to that conclusion of starting to try to do this if I hadn’t been able to be in the New Music Ensemble, help set up, and talk to all the artists that Dr. Ryan brings in,” he acknowledges.

And as Ryan outlined in that early job interview, that’s why the climate of new music he’s worked to build at GVSU is so essential. “Life as a composer, there’s a lot more than just writing notes. It’s building relationships and being able to corral people and rehearse well.” He tries to provide his students with not only the skills to write a piece, but also an understanding of how to give the resulting work a public life by being able to work well with performers and present concerts, both at home and on the road. A recent inaugural multi-city tour expanded these lessons even further, adding performances in non-traditional venues as well as dealings with the minutia of travel and stage setup to their resumes.

“All that back stuff is almost as important as the actual training in the craft of writing,” Ryan maintains. “And I think as a result, they’re much more successful when they leave, because they’re a little more grounded in reality about what it entails to get their music out there.”