Eye Music Revives a Memento of 1960s Openness

by Michael Schell

Sapporo, excerpt from score page 1.

Seattle’s Eye Music ensemble is a collection of ten-odd musicians specializing in the performance of graphic scores. Their new album on Edition Wandelweiser is a 50-minute traversal of Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo, a 1963 composition that hails from a unique crossroads in music history where East Asian aesthetics were being combined with Western avant-gardism by artists from both traditions eager for a fresh start.

Excerpt from Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo, performed by Eye Music.

Ichiyanagi, born in Kobe in 1933, belongs to the breakout generation of Japanese composers that includes Tōru Takemitsu, Toshiro Mayuzumi and many others. Like his peers, Ichiyanagi saw parallels between the music of Webern (whose emphasis on sparse, isolated sound events was the springboard for the post-WW2 European avant-garde) and traditional Japanese music and painting (which likewise emphasized empty space and time). Eager to exploit this insight, Ichiyanagi came to New York in 1952, studying at Juilliard and later attending John Cage’s lectures at The New School in the company of his bohemian wife, a budding vocalist and conceptual artist named Yoko Ono. The couple returned to Japan in 1961, brought Cage over for his first Japanese tour, then divorced. Shortly thereafter, Ichiyanagi, deeply influenced by the graphic scores of Cage and his associate Earle Brown, composed Sapporo for “any number of performers up to fifteen.”

Ichiyanagi (left) with Mayuzumi and Ono in 1961.

Sapporo’s score consists of several loose-leaf sheets, assigned one per performer. Each sheet contains symbols denoting sustained sounds (horizontal lines), glissandos (angled lines) and short, accented sounds (dots), to be played over the course of the performance, whose duration and instrumentation (conventional or otherwise) are left to the discretion of the interpreters. Additional symbols mandate occasional points of interaction between the performers, but the majority of their actions are uncoordinated, lining up by chance.

The score excerpt above shows how the aesthetic of sparseness is implicit in the notation itself, guaranteeing that regardless of the musicians’ specific choices, the end result will be a slow-moving landscape marked by long tones (often sliding up or down) sprinkled with short sounds. Since the number of symbols on each page is fixed, the density and pacing of the music depends on the chosen length and ensemble size. A brief performance, such as the 14-minute 1972 recording by Ensemble Musica Negativa, will be dense and compact. A more discursive one, like Eye Music’s 50-minute rendering, will be drony and marked by numerous silences. The prevalence of glissandi is part of the work’s distinct sound environment, affirming a characteristic of the most enduring open-form works: that their core identity comes through in any good performance.

An illustrative passage begins at 2:15 of the Eye Music recording (see the linked audio sample above). A long silence is broken by a multiphonic from trombonist Stuart Dempster who plays a D♭ while singing the A♭ below it. This leads into a complex of sustained bowed string and percussion tones accompanied by a deep synth glissando and anchored by a low F♮ from Jay Hamilton’s cello. Dempster reenters with another multiphonic, this one sliding downward. When it concludes, it leaves behind a strange tremulous electric drone on A♮. More long tones from Dempster and flutist Esther Sugai appear before they’re cut off by a sharp pluck on a prepared electric guitar followed by a soft drum stroke. Another silence ensues before the next complex begins at 4:00.

The juxtaposition of silent sections with passages built on continuously-sounding drones and tremolos helps to avoid the sense of rhythmic regularity that often plagues performances of chance music. It also helps to fulfill the essential timelessness implicit in Ichiyanagi’s instructions. A proper performance of Sapporo has no real beginning or ending—it just starts and stops, emerging gently from its surroundings like a Japanese garden.

Eye Music (photo: Rachael Lanzillotta).

As the 1960s faded out, interest in open-form composition began to wane. Most musicians, it turned out, either wanted to be told exactly what to play, or else felt that through improvisation they could produce comparable results without having to share control or credit with a composer. Ichiyanagi returned to writing conventionally notated works, eventually packing an impressive work list with symphonies, operas and concertos for both Western and Japanese instruments. Among the highlights of his later career are Time Sequence (an unusual marriage of minimalist rhythm and atonal harmony reminiscent of Ligeti’s Continuum) and Paganini Personal (one of the more offbeat entries in the seemingly endless line of variations on Paganini’s last violin caprice). Today at 85, this old avant-gardist is regarded as the senior statesman of his craft in Japan.

Ichiyanagi in 2015 (photo: Koh Okabe via Japan Times).

Nevertheless, Sapporo continues to stand as one of the few classics of its genre. And Eye Music’s recording demonstrates why this Pacific Rim-based ensemble is particularly well-suited to its advocacy. With a diverse group of musicians drawn from the local drone, improv and electronic music communities, performing on a combination of conventional and homemade instruments of both acoustic and amplified means, Eye Music delivers an optimal mix of rigor and abandon to Ichiyanagi’s aleatory landmark. In this recording, their first for a major contemporary music label, they offer a snapshot of a zeitgeist best defined by its eager exploration of new freedoms: social, sexual, economic, political…and artistic.

Phill Niblock at 85: Austere, Unpopular, Astounding Minimalism

by Michael Schell

Phill Niblock via Festival Mixtur Barcelona.

As a throng of third generation minimalist composers rides the movement’s most fashionable waves, an intrepid handful of the genre’s pioneers continue to sustain it in its original, unalloyed and uncompromising form. Phill Niblock, who turns 85 today, is one of those pioneers. His austere music and sense-saturating intermedia performances are as powerful today as they were at their inception half a century ago.

Niblock’s path to new music was an unusual one. He studied economics at Indiana University, then worked as a photographer and cinematographer for dancers and jazz musicians. His 1966 film of Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra is a classic of its kind. As Niblock became more involved in the New York arts scene, he outfitted his loft in downtown Manhattan as a studio and performance space that soon became one of North America’s most important venues for avant-garde music and intermedia—a distinction it still holds today, over 1000 events later.

Niblock contemplating his creation myth (photo JJ Murphy).

While this was going on, Niblock, following a path established by La Monte Young (the father of drone music and godfather of the more rhythmically active minimalism practiced by Reich and Glass), began to develop his own variety of drone minimalism. A formative experience came while riding a motorcycle up a Carolina grade behind a slow-moving diesel truck:

Both of our throttles were very open…Soon, the revolutions of our respective engines came to a nearly harmonic coincidence. But not quite. The strong physical presence of the beats resulting from the two engines running at slightly different frequencies put me in such a trance that I nearly rode off the side of the mountain.

In 1968 Niblock unveiled the result of this epiphany, a style of music built from overlapping layers of sustained instrumental tones, usually multitracked recordings of the same instrument playing closely spaced pitches. There’s no melody, no change of dynamics and no pulse—the close, microtonal intervals create their own beats. What distinguishes his music from that of Young, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros and all the other minimalist composers of his generation, is his consistent emphasis on tight, dissonant harmonies.

Early Winter, from 1993, is a typical specimen. Its 44 minutes feature the Soldier String Quartet, two flutists and 38 channels of recorded sound. It starts on an E♮ drone in octaves, with microtonal neighbor tones entering on either side. These intervals increase to minor and major seconds, and gradually the central drone shifts down to D♮ by the end of the piece. The bright instrumental timbres coupled with the dense texture create clashing high-frequency overtones, and this music is best heard with large loudspeakers powerful enough to fill the listening space.

Even the album covers are minimalist.

The arc of Niblock’s career has been as relentless as this one piece. He has continued to make new work, along the way transitioning from analog tape to digital recording to laptop-based tools. But each new composition is an additional data point along an unbroken line. His oeuvre shows no discontinuities, no sudden breakthroughs, no abrupt shifts in style or aesthetics. Individual pieces differ in their details and their range of timbres, but they all inhabit a shared space that allows them to be chained or even superimposed.

Thus, choosing a favorite Niblock composition often comes down to instrumentation. For sleep time I enjoy the clear tones and natural breath sounds of Winterbloom Toos multitracked bass flutes: an enveloping aural blanket without sudden sounds or other distractions. For more intensity, there’s the strident soundscape of Niblock’s Hurdy Gurdy piece. In between is Sweet Potato with Carol Robinson playing a variety of clarinets. Sethwork features an acoustic guitar played with an EBow (a handheld gadget that magnetically stimulates metal-wound strings—it’s normally used with electric guitars). This creates auxiliary buzzes, a cloud of insectoid artifacts that in a Niblockian context seems practically melodic. For hard core listeners, there’s the mammoth Pan Fried 70 (the number is the length in minutes), whose sole sound source is the rubbing of nylon threads attached to piano strings.

The full Niblock effect, though, comes only to those lucky enough to attend a live performance. Most legendary are the annual six-hour winter solstice concerts at his loft that were long a Mecca for the Downtown new music cadre (they still take place, but at Roulette). At their core is an uninterrupted stream of music delivered in loud quadraphonic sound, often enhanced by an ambulatory musician who wanders through the space, doubling pitches from the prerecorded tracks while standing alongside individual audience members.

Accompanying this are several channels of silent video and projected film usually featuring long takes of repetitive human manual labor gathered by Niblock during his travels to dozens of countries all over the world. The movies are minimalistic in their own way, focusing on atomized movement—hands reaching into the frame, the camera moving only to follow the subject—and lacking such traditional cinematic devices as cutaways and reaction shots. In effect, they’re as devoid of gesture as the music is. And just as the music’s rhythm is mainly limited to the natural acoustic interactions of the multitracked sounds, the cinematic rhythms are likewise limited to the intrinsic motion in the shots themselves. You can see an excerpt from Niblock’s film China combined with Early Winter above, and a glimpse of a typical live Niblock intermedia presentation can be seen in this performance preview from the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

With Joan La Barbara in 1975.

As a concert producer, Niblock has had a personal impact on literally hundreds of musicians. As a composer, his influence is prominent in the music of his contemporary Éliane Radigue, several members of the next generation (including Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and Lois V. Vierk), and a multitude of still younger musicians raised on newer digital tools that facilitate the creation of static, multilayered music. Recent examples of the latter include Lea Bertucci’s Sustain and Dissolve (with its multitracked detuned saxophone drones) and Jordan Nobles’ Deep Breath (for multitracked, slowed down flutes).

Today’s conference centers and dance clubs love to tout their “immersive” facilities, equipped with splashy video walls aiming high-tech wallpaper at the attending retinas to the 360° accompaniment of beat-driven consonance. The intent of this encirclement is, ironically, to drive everyone’s attention in the same direction. Meanwhile, in a far less pretentious building on New York’s Centre Street, there remains at least one steadfast practitioner of an art that is likewise immersive but sincere, fueled by an admiration for the complexity of raw sound and a respect for the cycles of shared human experience. Niblock’s art manages to be of our time, but not of our clichés. It invites each of us to foster a personal relationship with its materials, whether abstract or mundane. It proves that you don’t have to be dazzling to be astounding.

Niblock at his loft with Shelley Hirsch (seated) and Katherine Liberovskaya (photo from the Wall Street Journal).

Jerry Hunt (1943–1993): From “Ground” to Legacy

by Michael Schell

Other Minds has just released an attractive little album devoted to composer Jerry Hunt—and this one is personal. Jerry, you see, was a collaborator, friend, and key influence of mine, as well as being one of the most eccentric musical minds that America has produced.

from “Ground” by Jerry Hunt

A lifelong Texan who lived with his partner on a ranch outside Dallas, Jerry is best known for a his solo performances which combined intense electronic music (emanating from homemade interactive instruments) with physical movements, gestures, and vocalizations suggestive of shamanism. That this spectacle was being delivered by one of the most mundane-looking individuals in American music history—bald, slender, fidgety, usually bedecked in an unironed dress shirt and tie, the sort of fellow you’d imagine doing crowd control at some dusty county fair—only added to the mystique. It was like peeping in on the secret ritual of a cryptoelectric Skoal-chewers sect.

Jerry Hunt performing at Roulette, New York, 1983.

Seeing Jerry in action was something that you never forgot, but the music was remarkable in its own right, as evinced by from “Ground” and its single half-hour track. It’s taken from a 1980 studio recital at Berkeley’s KPFA-FM where Jerry used tape playback (inexpensive samplers being still a year away), an assortment of small rattles and bells, and his trademark vocal sounds.

The performance divides into three equal sections. The first features distorted high-pitched sounds that seem to originate from a guitar with a fuzz box and a cheap amp. These eventually transform into a haze of trills, accompanied by rattling and obsessive stuttering on words like “mortgage” and “occasionally” (taken, according to liner notes contributor David Menestres, from George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss). Ten minutes in, all this subsides, to be replaced by a new soundscape based on softer sustained sounds, mostly filtered loops of string orchestra playing. As before, there’s plenty of ritualistic rattling and high frequency chirping, but now the vocalizations are non-verbal. At 21 minutes, the sustained sounds fade out, setting up the final section, which features hand clapping and irregular, percussive synth bounces. Jerry’s vocalizations here are mostly whispers, eventually returning to Fluxus-style stammering on George Eliot texts as we heard in the opening.

I wrote about Jerry in the years just after his early death, comparing him to Harry Partch (both were gay, fascinated by ritual, built custom instruments, and remained tied to their native milieus far from America’s cultural mainstream) and inventorying his direct influence on musicians like Shelley Hirsch who emphasize sound layering and theatricalized performance.

Now, two decades hence, listening to this first new album of Hunt material since 2004, I see that he has also become an important link between the earliest pioneers of live electronic music (Stockhausen, Cage, the Sonic Arts Union, etc.) and today’s denizens of noise music (everything from Merzbow to Paul Lytton to Seattle’s own Driftwood Orchestra). Without video footage to convey his unique performance style, an audio recording such as from “Ground” will always be an incomplete document—somewhat like looking at a black and white photo of a Chagall or a Matisse. But an imperfect record is better than none at all, and it’s great to see that the work of one of America’s most heterodox musical mavericks is still remembered and relevant today.

Oliver Knussen (1952–2018): Music of New Epiphanies

by Michael Schell

Oliver Knussen’s recent passing occasioned an outpouring of tributes to this much-loved British conductor and composer. His most iconic compositions are two one-act operas based on the Maurice Sendak children’s books Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!. With their Sendak-derived décor and full-body costumes they must be seen to be fully appreciated, and there’s an attractive DVD that offers both. Easier to sample online are his orchestral works, which combine the colorful sound world of early 20th century music with a contemporary approach to time and melody.

Knussen’s Horn Concerto from 1994 is a good example. Written for the great Barry Tuckwell, it begins with some woodwind chirps and string harmonics that sound right out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. After some flute flurries reminiscent of early Stravinsky, the soloist enters with the most fragmentary of melodic ideas: a three-note trill that gets longer and more discursive—but hardly more substantial—as it recurs throughout the piece. Though the horn plays almost continuously, its lines are rhetorical and assertive, often beginning with repetitions of that little three-note cell in various guises. It’s an obsessive, postmodern approach to melodic line, quite unlike the neat rounded curves you get in a Mozart or Strauss horn concerto. Knussen’s emphasis is on the soundscape itself, almost like a French impressionist ballet that’s had its melodies removed, causing what was previously introductory or accompanimental to be elevated to the foreground.

Knussen’s chromatic chords and luscious orchestrations often suggest Ravel. One example is a passage toward the end of the Concerto that’s reminiscent of the “Pantomime” from Daphnis et Chloé (with a horn swapped for Ravel’s flute). Knussen is one of the most French-sounding of all British composers, and he was an important influence on younger compatriots like Thomas Adès and Charlotte Bray who favor conventional ensembles, enjoy mixing tonal and atonal harmonies, and embrace the French tradition of sensuous, colorful orchestral writing. His US-based counterparts include many of the New Romantics, such as John Harbison and John Corigliano, but also musicians like Chen Yi, whose octet Sparkle resembles Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks.

If listening to a 19th century concerto is like taking a walk in a familiar neighborhood, then hearing Knussen’s Horn Concerto is like being dropped in a foreign city whose unknown language makes its sights and sounds seem abstract. Sometimes this makes it easier to see the art in previously overlooked details. Knussen’s music is all about the joy in doing just that.

Scott Johnson: Mind Out of Matter, Music Out of Speech

by Michael Schell

Musicians of every stripe have spent centuries exploring the range of vocal expression from straight speaking to pure singing. The development of recording technology has added a few new possibilities to the mix, and one of them, called speech melody, has become closely associated with the American composer Scott Johnson.

Born in 1952, Johnson grew up and studied in Wisconsin. Like Joni Mitchell, he played guitar, moved to New York in his 20s, and for a time fancied himself more of a visual artist than a musician. Johnson quickly integrated into the Downtown New York music scene, performing with Rhys Chatham and Laurie Anderson (before her pop star days), and exploring the regions where minimalism, jazz, rock, and electronic music all came together.

His breakthrough came in 1982 with the album John Somebody, which inaugurated his speech melody technique. Its workings can be easily discerned from the title track (above). Johnson starts with a snippet of recorded speech, then makes it into a tape loop as Steve Reich had done in his piece Come Out:

Johnson then fashions a guitar melody that aligns with the contour and rhythm of the speech, and plays this melody in sync with the loop. Accompanying chords, extra tracks of looped speech and guitar obbligatos, and an increasingly dense texture soon follow by way of musical development.

Photo by Patricia Nolan.

Johnson compares his speech transcription style to Messiaen’s practice of transcribing bird songs for use in compositions. He also cites the call-and-response patterns common in blues (as in this exchange between Bessie Smith and trombonist Charlie Smith) as an influence alongside Reich and Messiaen (“those three things kind of collided one afternoon”). Other musicians have experimented with speech melody in the years since John Somebody, including Florent Ghys in Petits Artéfacts (2015) and Reich himself, borrowing back from Johnson in Different Trains (1988).

Now Johnson is out with a new piece conceived for Alarm Will Sound. In place of the humorous tape loops of John Somebody, this work features the digitally sampled and recombined musings of Daniel Dennett, one of America’s leading philosophers and cognitive scientists, and a noted freethinker whose writings and speeches about the evolution of human consciousness are aptly reflected in the work’s title: Mind Out of Matter.

A good demonstration of Johnson’s updated approach for this composition comes at the start of “Winners,” the third of its eight movements. From the following spoken phrase…

“you can’t get ‘em out of your head”

…Johnson constructs a stuttering four-bar phrase using progressively longer excerpts:

Next, drums and percussion come in to reinforce the rhythm with a hint of mambo groove. Then, four bars later, the piano starts to melodicize the sampled speech…

…whereupon chords and other instruments are added to complete the texture:

You can hear this passage starting at 2:37 of the following rehearsal video:

With a length of 74 minutes, a gestation period of six years, and a broad timbral pallet befitting the instrumentation and virtuosity of Alarm Will Sound (a 21st century chamber orchestra equipped with wind, string, percussion and electric instruments), Mind Out of Matter is Johnson’s most elaborate composition to date. It has been called an “atheist oratorio,” not altogether ironically, since like Handel’s Messiah, it’s an epic, multi-movement voice and instrumental setting of texts about religion (and there’s even a “choral” movement where several of the musicians sing). In its structure, theme, and dimensions it also strikes me as a rationalist counterpart to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Johnson says he “tried to imbue this music with the sense of awe and wonder that lie at the heart of Dennett’s scientifically informed philosophy, while still emulating his gift for crafting a disarmingly playful presentation.” Mind Out of Matter succeeds by ritualizing the rational, creating a kind of secular age surrogate for religious music that acknowledges our persistent human attraction to sacralized culture.

Dieter Schnebel (1930–2018): Radical Reverential Music

by Michael Schell

Photo by Peter Andersen.

With the passing of Dieter Schnebel on May 20, Germany lost one of its last links to the post-WW2 generation of composers who built a new paradigm of music after the old ideas had been pulverized beneath the wreckage of war, fascism, and genocide. As a student of the famous Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music, Schnebel eagerly soaked up the influence of his fellow students Nono, Kagel, and Stockhausen, as well as their spiritual predecessors Ives, Webern, and Varèse. Like many of his contemporaries, he was also deeply influenced by John Cage, and went on to experiment with indeterminate and graphic notation, distribution of sound sources in space, extended vocal and instrumental techniques, and theatrics of the sort that North Americans often associate with happenings and performance art.

But Schnebel didn’t always follow the script of the stereotypical European avant-gardist. For one thing, he earned degrees in both music and theology, eventually teaching both subjects and becoming an ordained Lutheran minister. And in contrast with the reputation of some composers as vain and temperamental, Schnebel exuded a gentle, collaborative personality that displayed little trace of Stockhausen-sized ego or Partch-sized shoulder chips.

These traits seem to define Schnebel’s oeuvre from its very beginnings. The short piece dt 316 (completed in 1958) is a humble attempt to articulate a modern religious sensibility using the methods of modern music. Written for 15 voices dispersed throughout the performance space, its title refers to Deuteronomy 31:6 (“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because the Lord goes with you, and will never leave nor forsake you.”). Fragments of that verse are sung, spoken, and whispered both in ancient Hebrew and in various translations. Don’t worry if you can’t make out the words though—Schnebel treats the text almost as a found object, preferring to highlight the transcendent, mystical side of scripture. As he puts it “in the course of the piece, language becomes music and music becomes language.”

dt 316 is the first piece in a trilogy of a cappella sacred works. The second piece is entitled amn (the vowelless Hebrew rendering of “amen”). This work is longer, about 15 minutes in the linked performance (it starts at 33:24 in the video). This time the text comes from the Lord’s Prayer, once again rendered in multiple languages and sometimes paraphrased. Apart from a few coordinated outbursts (like the one in this score excerpt that corresponds to 42:43 in the video), the 16 solo voices proceed independently in a way that suggests the private nature of personal prayer. Indeed the variety of idioms and vocal techniques heard in the piece suggests an assembly of people from diverse cultures and nations, consistent with the universalist ideals of the Lutheran faith.

Such devotion to exploring the full range of human vocal expression can easily lead a composer toward theater, and Schnebel indeed went on to pioneer a hybrid of new music and theatrics that is still influential today. The video linked above is a good sampling. In its use of nonsense syllables, moving sound sources, and strange hand gestures and choreography, it shows the influence of Schnebel’s friend Mauricio Kagel, but also connects with the work of like-minded American contemporaries such as Kenneth Gaburo. Efforts like this helped pave the way for such postmodern classics as Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, the new music theater of Meredith Monk and pieces like Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia.

Schnebel’s theatrics also had an occasional whimsical side. Do you participate in a sport where the players wear special headgear? So do these singers. Do you wish that a cello could play sustained chords? Try a special curved bow. Do you prefer riding your Harley-Davidson to attending prim and proper concerts? So do these people:

In the 1970s Schnebel developed an interest in collage-quotation music, one of the quintessential styles of musical postmodernism. His collection Re-Visionen takes a fresh look at several Central European warhorses from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the Re-Visionen (such as his setting of Contrapunctus I from Bach’s Musical Offering) are straightforward arrangements of the original. Others might remind you of the Swingle Singers in their heyday. The most admired movement is the Schubert-Phantasie, which sounds like an orchestral acid trip with Schubert’s late and poignant G major Piano Sonata playing on a nearby stereo. It was written for the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death in 1978:

These days a piece like Schubert-Phantasie might be called a “remix.” Either way, it’s a clear precedent for two much newer Schubert homages that have been featured at Second Inversion: Eric Wubbels’ Gretchen am Spinnrade and Vladimir Martynov’s Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished).

Schnebel’s music took a more contemplative turn in his old age, as evidenced by a pair of string quartets that were recorded by Quatuor Diotima. The beautiful String Quartet “Im Raum” (“in space”) from 2006 sounds like the satisfied musings of a man nearing the end of a fulfilled life. The texture is slow and sparse, punctuated by several musical quotes, most notably the plaintive beginning of Stravinsky’s Orpheus and the similar-sounding opening of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. In a live performance there are elaborate instructions for how the performers should move on stage, which explains both the title and the footsteps you hear in the last movement.

In the Second String Quartet (2000–07) two actors join the ensemble, reciting numbers and occasional snippets of text in German and English. It reminds me of Crumb’s Black Angels (without the amplification) and Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet (without the helicopters), but it also belies the notion that intellectual Germans can’t write sensual and playful music. Unusually for Schnebel, the music is often beat-driven, with melodic fragments and little repeating riffs emerging from the instruments. But more characteristically, it explores the full range of associations from abstraction to meaning, and even incorporates musical quotations too, including the familiar Tristan chord, which rears its head in the second movement.

Even as he entered his 80s, Schnebel stayed active, still exploring, still fascinated by the voice and the sacramental connotations of theatricalized performance. One of his last works is a ritualistic setting of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses. It seems fitting that the coda of Schnebel’s career should come from the coda of the 20th century’s most exemplary literary work.

Schnebel with John Cage ca. 1979 (via Croatian Society of Composers).

Though Schnebel’s aesthetic and philosophical interests remained fairly consistent throughout his career, any survey of his work reveals that the music itself varies greatly from one composition to another. This is partly the result of his penchant for graphic and text-based scores, but he also seemed eager to avoid repeating himself. “You ask whether I have a style? I hope I don’t. I would like my pieces to have been born each in its own manner—for each to have a style of its own.”

Can one reconcile this eclecticism with the constancy expected of a Christian clergyman? According to his colleague Godfried-Willem Raes, Schnebel “was not very church minded, and I think his idea of god was rather abstract, certainly not prescriptive. However, he believed in the meaning of rituals.” Perhaps the variety that Schnebel sought in his own music expresses a concept of God as embodying the multiplicity of the world and the cosmos. And perhaps Schnebel’s lifelong interest in ritualized performance expresses a human awe and reverence for that same multiplicity.

Not Even Harry Partch Can Be An Island

by Michael Schell

Partch and musicians for “The Dreamer That Remains.” (1972, photo by Betty Freeman.)

No one lives up to the American Maverick sobriquet better than Harry Partch (1901–1974), whose hand-built instruments and 43-tone scale will be on display once again at this year’s Harry Partch Festival on May 11–13 at the University of Washington.

But as much as we admire the uniqueness and audacity of Partch’s career (see Harry Partch: Celebrating a Musical Maverick and Meet the Instruments of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium), even a gadfly like Partch has his influences—however disparate and contrarian they might be. Let’s take a look at a few of the raw ingredients that fed the cauldron of one of music history’s most unusual thinkers.

Neighborhood Roots

Partch spent much of his childhood in rural Arizona Territory where his neighbors included the Pasqua Yaqui people, who at that time were refugees from the ethnic cleansing policy of the Díaz regime in Mexico. Though Partch’s contact with the Yaquis must have been limited, as an adult he could remember hearing their music—the origins of a lifelong sympathy and appreciation for Native American culture.

In 1933 Partch landed a short but interesting job at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles transcribing Native American songs recorded on Edison wax cylinders by the Museum’s founder Charles Lummis. Partch must have been struck by the diffuse and inflected pitch of many of the indigenous singers, whose vocal delivery was often closer to heightened speech than to Western folk or classical singing. A good example from the Loomis cylinders is this Brush Dance Song from the Hoopa (Natinook-wa) tribe in northwest California. Partch’s own intoning technique, honed in early works like the 17 Lyrics by Li Po, owes an obvious debt to this style.

One of the transcribed songs from an Isleta Pueblo resident impressed Partch so much that he quoted it years later in his short piece Cloud Chamber Music (which will be performed at the Festival’s closing concert). The tune is first heard on the Adapted Viola starting at 2:18 in Partch’s own recording:

A Mexican Maverick

Partch wasn’t the first modern composer to explore microtones. The 1920s, for instance, had seen a minor heyday of music based on quarter tones: intervals halfway between the adjacent keys of a keyboard tuned in conventional equal temperament. A few manufacturers even designed new instruments for this 24-notes-per-octave system. One of them was a piano that inspired Ives’ Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, one of the few enduring masterpieces of this vogue.

Partch with his Kithara II in 1959. (Photo by Danlee Mitchell.)

One man who leaped wholeheartedly into the interwar microtonal craze was the Mexican composer-conductor Julián Carrillo (1875–1965). Carrillo postulated a system that he called trece sonido (“13th sound”, meaning that it went beyond the usual 12 notes per octave) where the scale was divided not just into quarter tones, but into eighth and even sixteenth tones (creating, at least in theory, a 96-tone scale).

Partch mentions Carrillo’s work in his book Genesis of a Music, which, in addition to describing his own music and instruments also includes a fascinating and opinionated survey of intonation systems from antiquity through the mid-20th century. But being obsessed with acoustically pure intervals, Partch disdained any system based on equal temperament (with its irrational frequency ratios). And history, abetted by the difficulty of procuring instruments adapted to the trece sonido, has largely consigned Carrillo’s output to the novelty bin.

Nevertheless, Carrillo’s best-known piece, Prelude to Christopher Columbus, bears a striking resemblance to some of Partch’s mature compositions. Written in 1922 for soprano, flute, strings, quarter tone guitar and a special sixteenth tone harp, it was known to Partch through a Cuban recording made in the early 1930s, and later through the publication of its score by Henry Cowell in 1944. Listen to the microtonal plucked string tremolos and glissandos at 4:00 of the above video, and compare them to the similar timbres at 5:23 of Partch’s Daphne of the Dunes.

Meanwhile, Back in the Old World…

Partch had European influences too. There was the drama and music of Ancient Greece, as best Partch could grasp it from the scholarship of the day. And there were the very first European operas, developed around 1600 by such now-obscure foot soldiers as Peri and Caccini, eager to build a new and expressive technique for declaiming texts with fidelity to their natural contours and rhythms. To Partch’s way of thinking, things went downhill soon afterwards, derailed by such blasphemies as bel canto singing, equal temperament, and abstract forms like sonatas and symphonies.

Detail from “The Dreamer that Remains” (1972).

Europe finally started emerging from the Dark Age of the Three Bs around the turn of the 20th century. The sprechstimme in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) impressed Partch as a workable middle ground between overwrought operatic singing and accompanied rhythmic recitation (whose “inharmonic relation between instruments and voice” he found objectionable). Partch was also impressed by the simple and austere vocal writing in Satie’s Socrate (1919) which, though sung, closely tracks the natural flow of its French text.

And then there’s Carl Orff. Partch admired the archaic directness of the text settings in his Carmina Burana (1935–36). But it’s Orff’s musical adaptations of Greek dramas—works largely unknown outside the German-speaking world—that display the most tantalizing similarities to Partch.



The first of them, Antigonae, was premiered in Germany in 1949, a couple of years before Partch’s first big theater work, Oedipus. Antigonae was not produced in the US until 1968 though, so the earliest exposure Partch seems likely to have had to it was a 1955 recording on Columbia Records. Nevertheless, the parallels between the two works are remarkable, and the similarities would continue as both composers independently built their catalog of ancient drama settings: Orff with Oedipus the Tyrant (1959) and Prometheus (1968), and Partch with Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1960, an adaptation of The Bacchae) and Delusion of the Fury (1964–66, based on a Noh drama and an Ethiopian folk tale). All of these works emphasize the theatricality of ritual, which for Partch was a key element in corporeality: an integrated and meaningful artistic experience spanning multiple disciplines.

Production still from Partch’s “Oedipus” at Mills College in 1952. (Photo by Carl Mydans, Life Magazine.)

The first act of Orff’s Antigonae is a good showcase of these seemingly Partchian traits: the use of intoning voices and recitative (often on a single pitch), and the percussion-centric orchestra. Orff even calls for some new mallet instruments of his own design (conceived for his music pedagogy approach called Orff Schulwerk) to go alongside six pianos and a chorus of winds and double basses. One can compare Orff’s duet between Kreon and the Messenger with Partch’s duet between Oedipus and Tiresias, or the percussive jigs in Act I of Antigonae and the opening of Partch’s Revelation.

But Orff’s instrumentarium uses conventional 12-tone tunings, inhabiting a sound world established by Stravinsky in Les Noces, whereas Partch’s inventions reflect his legacy in the American tradition of percussion music (to which he was directly linked through his friendship with Lou Harrison), which emphasized an individualistic, build-your-own ethic.

Synthesis

Vaughan Williams said that art, like charity, should begin at home. And it’s when Partch drew from his own scraggly biography that he created his most admired works. The apogee of “hobo Partch” comes in The Wayward, a personal portrait of Depression-era Americana that includes the compositions Barstow, The Letter, San Francisco, and U.S. Highball, and which will comprise the centerpiece of the Harry Partch Festival’s evening concerts.

The Wayward masterfully combines borrowed concepts of the sort we’ve seen above with ideas that only Partch could have come up with: the custom tuning system and instruments obviously, but also the dialogue, themes and sonic evocations of a particular subculture that he had uniquely assimilated.

Partch’s ability to integrate both Classical and vernacular elements—to bridge, so to speak, the highest of the high and the lowest of the low—may be what most deeply defines his legacy. However wide one’s influences may range, it’s often the intimacy of authentic experience that produces the most compelling art.


The Harry Partch Festival is May 11-13, 2018 at the University of Washington’s Meany Theater. For tickets and additional information, please click here.