Frederic Rzewski at 80: Directions Inevitable or Otherwise

by Michael Schell

Photo by Michael Wilson.

Composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski, who turned 80 on April 13, has had one of the most impactful careers in modern music. He has experimented with, embraced and advanced many of contemporary music’s most significant ideas, and his credits include such landmarks as the minimalist masterpiece Coming Together and the monumental piano variations The People United Will Never Be Defeated!. He’s arguably the most important living composer of piano music, and is surely one of the dozen or so most important living American composers.

Beginnings and Musica Elettronica Viva

To his colleagues he’s “Fred Shevsky,” the silent “R” a marker of his Polish-Jewish parentage. Born near Springfield, Massachusetts in 1938, he studied music at Harvard and Princeton, then went to Italy on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1960. There he joined the circle of Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–1975), a much-admired teacher and composer whose music was an important bridge between the neoclassicism of older Italian composers like Respighi and the post-WW2 radicalism of Berio and Nono. Rzewski quickly made a name for himself as a piano virtuoso capable of performing new and difficult music, and he went on to premiere and record works by Stockhausen, Pousseur, Christian Wolff, and others.

MEV in the 1960s, with ample hair and idealism. (Left to right: Rzewski, Teitelbaum, Curran.)

Living in Rome in 1966, Rzewski and two fellow expatriate Americans, Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, began presenting group improvisations using a mix of acoustic instruments, vintage synthesizers, and homemade electronic gadgets. They called themselves Musica Elettronica Viva, or MEV for short, and their performances, often augmented by a rotating roster of vocalists and other musicians, frequently went on for hours.

SpaceCraft was an early MEV workhorse, ultimately receiving over 80 performances in Europe. Its “score” was an elaborate set of abstract verbal instructions written by Rzewski as an example of what he called prose music (other examples are Pauline Oliveros’s meditation pieces, and Stockhausen’s intuitive music pieces in the collection Aus den sieben Tagen). Conceived in the social and musical maelstrom that was the 1960s, SpaceCraft’s goal was to “create unity and harmony among human beings through the creation of a sound-space environment.”

But heady idealism aside, the sonic results bear comparison with contemporaneous free jazz epics such as Song for Charles (recorded by the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969, when they were based in Paris) as well as more conventionally composed works like Mauricio Kagel’s Acustica (1970). Although MEV’s own inspiration had been primarily drawn from the live electronic music of John Cage and his brethren, they would soon collaborate directly with prominent African-American musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis, helping to link these traditions in anticipation of the international free improvisation movement that rose to prominence in the 1980s.

MEV’s activity peaked in the late 1960s, but its core musicians have continued to perform together over the years, including a 2016 appearance here in Seattle.

Minimalism

Photo via Lovely Music.

Rzewski spent the early 1970s back in the US amid the rising tide of musical minimalism. He had been an evangelist for the movement in Europe (it was Rzewski that introduced Louis Andriessen to Terry Riley’s In C, something that the Dutch composer later acknowledged as a turning point in his career). Rzewski’s own innovation was to combine the rhythmic energy and musical process of a piece like In C with the collectivist philosophy that informed MEV. Several of the resulting compositions have become classics of their genre.

Les Moutons de Panurge is one of those classics. The instrumentation is unspecified, and everyone plays the same 65-note tune. But they play the notes as follows: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3 etc., until the entire melody is heard. Then the musicians begin subtracting notes from the beginning, playing notes 2 through 65, 3 through 65 and so on, holding the very last C♮ until everyone has finished. A key performance direction reads “Never stop or falter…Stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost. Do not try to find your way back to the fold.”

If things go as expected, musicians gradually lose their place, and the unison turns into a multi-voice canon that resembles a line of sheep meekly following one another, hence the reference to the character Panurge and his gullible flock in Rabelais’ Gargantua. Rzewski’s piece succeeds because of the elegant simplicity of its form and because it has a really great tune.

Coming Together, from 1972, is an even more iconic classic. It uses a text adapted from a prison letter written by Sam Melville, an anarchist bomber who was killed in the Attica uprising in 1971 (depending on your politics he was either a political prisoner, a domestic terrorist, or both). 

As usual with Rzewski, the text is declaimed, not sung, to ensure its comprehensibility and emotional impact. Its treatment in Coming Together is similar to the treatment of the melody in Les Moutons de Panurge—that is, we hear the first sentence, then the first two sentences, then the first three and so on (an effect akin to stuttering), after which sentences start getting dropped from the beginning until we’re left with only the last one:

I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

The accompanying music is remarkable for its limited range, constrained to a mere seven pitches in a simple G minor blues scale:

From this, Rzewski spins 392 bars of continuous single-line sixteenth notes. They start out tethered to low G, trying to climb the scale, first to B♭, then as high as C in bar 2 and D in bar 4. But we keep stumbling, falling back to G, starting over…

The incarceration metaphors are obvious: prisoners trying to escape, to find some variety within the drudgery of their daily lives, or even to “feel for the inevitable direction” of their lives. Rzewski is a practical musician, so for textural variety he gives performers the latitude at various points to choose notes to sustain or play in counterpoint with the running bass line. And none of the measures are literal repetitions (this idea of a continually striving but never repeating bass line was embraced more recently by David Lang in his symphony without a hero, which was premiered by Seattle Symphony in 2018).

But though we finally make it to the end of the text, the music winds up where it started: chained to low G. In fact, the ending of the piece is an exact retrograde of the beginning, and the final three-quarters of the piece are constructed from serial-style inversions and retrogrades of material in the first quarter. Whatever inevitability is attained is only partially liberating.

Rzewski’s own musical direction seemed to be inevitably leading him toward postminimalism, but in a remarkable career shift, his next major piece became a landmark of a different kind.

The Composer-Pianist

The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, composed in fall 1975, is an hour-long set of variations on a protest song associated with resistance to the 1973 CIA-backed coup in Chile that ushered in the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Premiered in 1976 and first recorded in 1979, the piece was widely embraced as a breakthrough for what was then called the New Romanticism: a prominent move away from the Darmstadt-era avant-garde toward traditional tonality and forms.

The categorizations of the moment are often simplistic though, and Rzewski’s work, while predominantly tonal, includes enough atonal passages and postmodern devices such as verbalizations, proportional notation, piano harmonics, and noise effects to be more appropriately positioned within the American tradition of eclecticism that originated with Ives. Regardless, it has since become Rzewski’s best-known and most recorded piece, firmly ensconced in the pantheon of the 20th century’s epic piano compositions. So powerful and substantive is the music that Igor Levit’s recording can place it alongside Bach’s Goldman Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with no loss of continuity.

The 36 variations are organized into a unique scheme where every sixth variation (up to No. 30) is a summation of the previous five. Variation 31 in turn summarizes the first variation of every set, while Variation 32 summarizes the second, and so on. It can be tough to follow all this without a score—some variations follow the theme more closely than others, and the theme itself includes two passes through the same melody. Here are a few highlights, with timings referring to the above video:

  • Variations 9 (10:39) and 10 (11:48) present a striking contrast: No. 9 is soft and tonal, suggesting Respighi’s Pines Near a Catacomb, while No. 10 plays homage to Stockhausen’s groundbreaking and unapologetically avant-garde Klavierstück X (which Rzewski once recorded for Wergo).
  • Variation 11 (12:50) continues the “shock value,” with effects such as whistling, crying out, and slamming the keyboard lid shut (with the pedal down) seeming to come out of nowhere. The vocalization effects return in the summarizing Variation 35 (51:50).
  • Variation 13 (15:09) has a gospel/swing feel to it, and ends with a cadenza where the right hand quotes the Italian labor song “Bandiera Rossa.”
  • After a succession of relatively short variations, No. 27 (35:44) begins in a rhetorical style before moving into a funky Herbie Hancock-esque episode that digresses from the theme for two minutes. After a brief return to the opening style the variation ends with a Sibelius-like ostinato that leads directly into the martial Variation 28 (41:12).
  • After the final variation, the pianist is invited to improvise a cadenza (54:50) to transition back to the restatement of the theme (1:00:46).

It’s hard to convey how disorienting this piece was when it was first heard. It’s not a straightforward return to 1930s neoclassicism or 1960s collage/quotation style, but an attempt to construct a new and coherent language from elements previously considered disparate. That it no longer sounds jarring is testament to its success.

Rzewski and his daughter in 1990. Photo by Françoise Walot.

In 1977 Rzewski returned to Europe to take a teaching position at the Royal Conservatory of Liège. Since then he has spent most of his time outside the US, focusing his compositional energy on solo piano music whose reputation owes much to Rzewski’s own skills as a touring performer. Rzewski has been compared to Liszt in this regard, and his career-summarizing The Road (1995–2003), a semi-autobiographical album of 64 pieces lasting nine hours in all, is a postmodern counterpart to Lizst’s Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). In it, Rzewski covers even more stylistic ground than in The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, channeling the rhetorical philosophizing of Ives, the improvisational flourishes of Cecil Taylor, and various folk tune quotations and twelve-tone techniques.

Second Hand, or, Alone at Last (2005) is at the other extreme, an album of six miniatures for left hand alone. Written in a single week when Rzewski was suffering from stiffness in his right hand, it’s a fine sampler of his late style, an American counterpart to Ligeti’s Piano Etudes.

Somewhere in between are the American Ballads, a group of fantasies on folk and political songs that make an easy introduction to Rzewski’s more accessible side. The fourth Ballad, “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” is especially popular, its lively riffs suggesting the constant movement of the spinning machinery. Following the example of Ives, Rzewski holds back on quoting the full song until the very end. You can hear Pete Seeger singing the original tune here.

De Profundis

The most admired of all Rzewski’s post-People works has to be De Profundis (1992), a 30-minute essay for speaking pianist based (again!) on a prison letter, this time written by Oscar Wilde during his incarceration in Reading Gaol in 1897. The piece alternates between textless musical commentaries and accompanied delivery of excerpts from the letter. Despite the despairing tone of the text, the music is often playful, and includes a quote from “London Bridge is Falling Down,” a Bachian four-voice invention, and a body and piano-slapping passage punctuated by toots from a Harpo Marx horn.

Wilde’s narrative—significantly condensed by Rzewski—describes his humiliation and anguish while in custody, reflects on his earlier life (including his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas), and searches for redemption in his sufferings. Eventually Wilde tries to gird himself for the future…

While for the first year of my imprisonment I did nothing else, and can remember doing nothing else, but wring my hands in despair, and say, “What an ending, what an appalling ending!” now I try to say to myself, and sometimes when I am not torturing myself do really say, “What a beginning, what a wonderful beginning!”

…but the music knows better, and the piece ends in a quiet, resigned mood. In real life, Wilde was broken by his physical and emotional ordeal, and he died three years after his release, aged 46.

Retrospective

With Elliott Carter in Berlin in 1965, via Paris Transatlantic.

Minimalism, free improvisation, verbal scores, electronic music, neoromanticism, serialism, pastiche and quotation, indeterminate notation, composer-performer praxis—almost every major trend in postmodern art music is present somewhere in Rzewski’s output. Rather than “an inevitable direction,” his lifetime of exploration seems to have circled and zigzagged in many unpredictable ones. Even as he reaches 80—his younger revolutionary visage transformed into a more grandfatherly persona—he continues to perform and compose, including a new work for the Del Sol String Quartet being unveiled during his birthday week.

True to his socialist leanings, and carrying an unusually modest personality as creative musicians go, Rzewski avoids many of the trappings of musical careerism. Long skeptical about the commercial exploitation of music (“If you write music for a living, you’re doing the wrong thing—it won’t be very good.”), he makes most of his scores available for free at IMSLP and eschews the regimen of self-promotion embraced by many of his colleagues. What he relinquishes in fame and fortune he retains in a sincere independence of thought and action that has enabled him to help define the landscape of contemporary music for half a century.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Pascal Le Boeuf’s ‘Into the Anthropocene: I. Cognitive Awakening’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

The cover of Into the Anthropocene, Grammy-nominated composer Pascal Le Boeuf’s new video EP,  is a photo from the Trinity nuclear test of 1945. That’s because the Manhattan project’s successful test of the atomic bomb is widely considered to be the start of the Anthropocene epoch, an ecological era characterized by significant changes in the earth’s ecology and biodiversity as a result of human activity.

Into the Anthropocene tells the story of humanity’s impact on the earth in three movements: “Cognitive Awakening”, “Requiem for the Extinct”, and “Amid the Apocalypse.” With the use of electronic layering, “Cognitive Awakening” features Gina Izzo on the flute, bass flute, and piccolosometimes all at once.

As a somber, legato melody unfolds over long, sustained chords, the piece is augmented by birdlike twittering from the piccolo, key clattering, electronic sounds, and muffled dialogue that can’t quite be made out. “Cognitive Awakening” is a beautiful evocation of nature, but at the same time, a sobering reminder of what has been lostand what might still be lost.

We’re thrilled to premiere the video for Le Boeuf’s “Cognitive Awakening,” performed by Gina Izzo.


Learn more about Le Boeuf’s new piece in our interview with the composer below:

Second Inversion: Into the Anthropocene features three movements scored for the flute family, viola, and cello, respectively. What was the inspiration behind this form and how do the individual movements relate to one another?

Pascal Le Boeuf: Into the Anthropocene is scored like a lead sheet to be inclusive of any instrument. The score specifies only the most essential elements to dictate structure, basic ideas, and guide improvisation. Beyond the conservation ecology concept, my intention was to create a series of simple pieces to invite classically trained musicians to experiment with improvisation and hardware electronics (guitar pedals). I generally engage with improvisation as a compositional device to provide performers with a platform for self-expression. This allows for a different interpretation with each performance (as opposed to a ridged set of directions to translate the composer’s singular intended expression). 

Commissioned by choreographer Kristin Draucker for the Periapsis Open Series, Into the Anthropocene was written for violinist Todd Reynolds whom I met at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival in 2015. I worked with Todd as well as violinist Maya Bennardo while at Bang on a Can, and later completed the piece with the help of violinist Sabina Torosjan while in residence at the I-Park Foundation’s 2015 Composers + Musicians Collaborative Residency Program. In addition to performing with electronics and improvising in his own music, Todd occasionally works as an educator, specializing in improvisation and electronic music. He has always been kind to me, offering advice and artistic input, especially when I was first began working with “contemporary classical” identifying musicians. I wanted to return his kindness with a piece of music, so when choreographer Kristin Draucker commissioned me to compose a piece, I thought of Todd immediately.

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, Todd was suddenly unable to attend the recording session, so the same day, Todd and I called the best musicians we knew who were uniquely qualified to perform the music (i.e. musicians with experience in classical, improvisation, and electronic music). I thought it best to split the responsibility between multiple performers, and assigned the movements based upon the musical personalities of the performers: Mvt 1 – flutist Gina Izzo, Mvt 2 – violist Jessica Meyer, and Mvt 3 – cellist Dave Eggar. In retrospect, I see this outcome as a happy accident, which not only benefited the music by introducing a variety of timbres and musical personalities, but led to numerous collaborative projects with these wonderful musicians.

The formal structure of the three movements, and the conservation ecology concept in general, were initially inspired by author Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and were further developed through conversations with notable conservation biologist Claudio Campagna and ecological/behavioral biologist Bernard Le Boeuf (my father). 

In Sapiens, Harari recounts our history as a species through a lens of evolutionary biology, postulating that biology sets the limits for global human activities, and that culture shapes what happens within those limits. I became particularly interested in prehistoric sapiens, their initial diaspora, the cognitive revolution, and the resulting extinctions of other species as a result of human impact. Following the cognitive revolution, humans developed the skills necessary to expand beyond the Afro-Asian landmass into Australia, the Americas, and various remote islands. Before humans intervened, these hosted an array of unique and flourishing species ranging from two-and-a-half ton wombats in Australia, to giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats in the Americas. But without exception, within a few thousand years of setting foot on these territories, humans managed to kill off tremendous collections of diverse species. As Harari puts it, “Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s large mammals long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools,” including other human species with whom we once coexisted and even interbred. 

As a musician, I find it interesting to explore the extensions of patterns in sound, but when we consider the extensions of the destructive behavioral patterns we exhibit as a species, it is difficult to imagine a positive outcome. The three sub-movements (I: Cognitive Awakening / II: Requiem for the Extinct / III: Amid the Apocalypse) outline the past, present, and future of our ecological history. Through Harari’s lens, conversations with Campagna and my father, and subsequent research, I learned about the extent to which our planet is currently experiencing a crisis of mass extinction. We are losing species, whole ecosystems, and genes at an ever-increasingly rapid rate. Today, species disappear each year at a rate hundreds of times faster than when humans arrived on the scene. As a species known for 100,000 years to bury our dead, it is amazing we have such little respect for the deaths of other species, dozens of which are disappearing daily as a result of human activities—activities sufficient to mark a new epoch based upon human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems: the Anthropocene.

SI: How does “Cognitive Awakening” relate to the beginning of the Anthropocene and human impact on the Earth?

PLB:
The cognitive revolution is a precursor to our dominance as a species and thus a precursor to the Anthropocene. According to Harari, humans became a dominant species through our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers—an ability derived from our unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination. The evolution of this ability is referred to as the Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE). The first movement represents this cognitive awakening musically through an additive progression of increasingly complex elements. Something like this:

  • Static noise
  • Static droning 
  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Call and Response
  • Speech
  • Improvisation
  • Electronic Manipulation

I like to imagine that the evolutionary progression that resulted in language, expression, and cognitive awareness has an analog in the development of music. This is how I chose to represent such a progression based upon my personal understanding of music (and perhaps based on the order in which many learn/teach music). 

SI: Into the Anthropocene features a lot of electronic layering and manipulating sounds. How does this compositional choice tie in with the overarching themes of the piece? What were some of the unique challenges or rewards of composing in this way?

My intention was to create a series of simple pieces to invite classically trained musicians to experiment with improvisation and hardware electronics (in this case, guitar pedals). Though I have a background in electronic music and enjoy complex approaches, I made a special effort to keep the electronic elements simple and accessible to performers without prior experience in electronic music.

Guitar pedals can be acquired easily at various prices at nearly any music store and are much easier to use than complex software programs like Max MSP, Protools, Logic, etc. (and are easier to understand). Each pedal represents a sound effect (in order from input to output): loop, reverb, vibrato, and delay. Each sound effect has basic parameters that are uniform across most brands. I hope that more classically trained musicians will be encouraged by this project to experiment in a similar fashion, as a gateway into composition, independent artistic development, and interdisciplinary collaborations with artists from backgrounds that transcend traditional classical environments. Every musician involved in this project is a wonderful role model for unconventional approaches to a career that began in classical music.**

**(Dave Eggar, a founding member of the FLUX Quartet, can also be heard on the opening of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida or Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange; Gina Izzo frequently performs with pedals in various contexts, and co-founded the flute and piano duo RighteousGIRLS; and Jessica Meyer, in addition to performing a one-woman show with loop pedal and viola, is a fantastic composer with recent premieres by A Far Cry, PUBLIQuartet, and Roomful of Teeth.)

The compositional choice to include electronic elements preceded the conceptual development of the piece. I view these electronic elements as raw materials for expression, and worked with them to articulate the conservation ecology concepts I described earlier. Most of the compositional challenges I faced were related to the strict parameters imposed by the loop pedal. Using a basic loop pedal means the form of each movement is additive, and will inevitably look something like this:

1
1+2
1+2+3
1+2+3+4
1+2+3+4+5

…with elements of improvisation and knob turning interspersed between stages. 

More complex loop pedals offer more structural options, but I wanted to keep this simple. Fortunately, placing the loop pedal at the beginning of the signal path allowed the subsequent effects pedals to sculpt/develop the existing looped material. Additional challenges included working with each performer to translate the score for their instrument. Since the composition doesn’t specify a particular instrument, I had the pleasure of working with each performer to find extended techniques that produced the desired effects. For example, Dave imitates a rhythmic shaker at the beginning of Mvt III by swiping his hand back and forth along the body of his cello, but if Gina were to imitate a shaker, she would blast air into her mouth piece with consonant sounds like this: [T k t k, T k t k].

The most rewarding aspect of this process is seeing how different performers interpret the music, and how rewarding the process of interpretation can be. Frequently, especially when performing standards, jazz musicians will prioritize the creative expressions of the performer over the composer. One might say the composition is not what makes the music work, but the way it’s played. When John Coltrane plays “My Favorite Things,” it sounds good because of the way he and the band play it—it’s not about the composition. The composition it just a guide. This freedom allows performers a chance to put themselves in the music, self-expression, a cathartic release. Audiences can feel it when it’s happening. I want to bring this aesthetic to classically-trained musicians. These movements are only a guide to highlight the individuals performing them. The performers and what they think about when they interpret this music… they make it work. I only provide a platform.


Pascal Le Boeuf’s Into the Anthropocene video EP will be released April 20. The album art photo is from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and was taken 16 milliseconds after the first atomic bomb test.

Click here to pre-order the video EP on Bandcamp.

Timbre, Sound, and Subjective Time: Seattle Modern Orchestra Plays Orlando Jacinto Garcia

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Composer Orlando Jacinto Garcia takes it as a compliment when listeners tell him his music is strange. That’s what he’s going for.

“The reaction from someone that says, ‘Your music is very strange, but very beautiful,’ that doesn’t in any way, shape, or form offend me,” Garcia said. “On the contrary, I take that as kind of reaching the goal that I want.”

Garcia is less interested in traditional harmony and melody than he is in exploring the timbre and color of instruments with his music. Drawing influence from minimalist composers and the New York School of composers, including his former mentor Morton Feldman, he also works to change listeners’ perception of time.

“I usually do this by using materials that are somewhat restricted that slowly unfold over time with the hope that the listener will be caught up in the moment and once the work is over, they won’t know whether the work was two minutes long or two hours long,” Garcia said. “It creates kind of a subjective time as opposed to an objective or chronological time.”

This Friday, the Seattle Modern Orchestra presents the world premiere of Garcia’s new piece, the clouds receding into the mountains for viola and ensemble, featuring violist Melia Watras. the clouds receding manages to intermix musical fragments with long, angular melodic and harmonic lines, bringing the fragments together at the end of the piece in a more intuitive way to create the sense of subjective time. But because of this trademark quality, the form of the piece presented challenges for Garcia.

“Any time I write a piece for a soloist and an ensemble there are challenges because right off the bat, when you think of a solo work with an ensemble, you think of a traditional virtuosity,” he said. “My music is not really directed toward that virtuosity so I’m looking at some other aspects of technique and control from the soloists.”

Whenever Garcia writes works that feature a soloist, he has a specific performer in mind, one whose sound color and control of their instrument inspire him. Hearing Watras play during a Seattle Modern Orchestra performance in 2015 led him to begin working on this piece.

“Melia played The Viola in My Life by Morton Feldman, my mentor, and I was very taken by her playing,” Garcia said. “The sound that she has, the control that she has.”

Garcia stayed in touch with Watras after the performance and began discussing a work for a violist and chamber orchestra. Together, they approached the Seattle Modern Orchestra about premiering this piece.

As Garcia began to compose, he studied recordings of Watras playing in order to tailor the work to her specific strengths. Understanding her sound was pivotal for Garcia’s unique approach to the solo line. He wanted to create something beautiful and complex enough to keep the performer engaged, but also stay true to his aesthetic.

“The emphasis is on the beautiful sound and the beautiful tone that she has and her beautiful control over the instrument,” Garcia said.

Also on the program are Beat Furrer’s Aria for soprano and six instruments and György Ligeti’s Melodien for chamber orchestra. Furrer is known for his exploration of the human voice. In Aria, making use of extended techniques, he integrates the percussive soprano line with the instrumentals to create an eerie and suspenseful interlocking pattern of quick, jarring sounds.

Ligeti, pioneer of micropolyphony, utilizes a three-layered texture in Melodien, with a melody, secondary ostinato-like figures, and long, sustained notes in the background. Over time, he allows the layers to blur and interact, creating a beautifully dense, complex sound.

It’s the perfect ending to a program that brings texture and timbre to the forefront of music, exploring new ways to interpret time and layers of sound.


Seattle Modern Orchestra’s upcoming concert, The Clouds Receding, is this Saturday, April 14 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. A pre-concert interview with composer Orlando Jacinto Garcia will take place at 7:30pm. For tickets and more information, please click here.

Remembering Cecil Taylor (1929–2018)

by Michael Schell

The passing of Cecil Taylor on April 5 gives cause to reflect on the long life and career of one of America’s most innovative musicians. An enterprising bandleader and a pianist of prodigious technique and stamina, Taylor was one of the key figures in the development of free jazz.

In this respect he is often mentioned alongside his contemporary Ornette Coleman (1930–2015). But whereas Coleman learned to play saxophone in blues bands, and usually worked squarely within African-American musical traditions (jazz and later funk), Taylor was classically trained in composition and piano (including three years at New England Conservatory), and readily combined the rhythms and instrumentation of jazz with the forms and atonal harmonies of modernism. His synthesis of musical influences launched a movement in the late 1950s that was subsequently embraced by Eric Dolphy, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Anthony Braxton before eventually merging with European and rock-influenced styles to form the broad multi-ethnic genre of free improvisation that has been prominent since the 1980s.

Taylor’s approach is well documented by a pair of classic Blue Note releases from 1966 that remain his most frequently cited albums. Taylor begins the title track of Conquistador! with a piano intro that sounds like Stockhausen. But after a few seconds, his side musicians enter with a flourish-filled theme whose vestigial swing feel and instrumentation (two horns, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and two bass players) reveal the music’s jazz roots. We hear an alto sax solo from Jimmy Lyons, then a trumpet solo from Bill Dixon, and then at 7:21 comes a new theme in E♭ minor, the sort of tune that ordinarily comes at the beginning of a jazz track. But then it’s back to improv with an extended clattering solo from Taylor. The E♭ minor melody is reprised by the horns at 13:26, whereupon we get another Taylor solo, this time with Alan Silva adding prominent counterpoint on a bowed bass. The final section features two entrances from the horns bracketing a duo for Silva and the other bassist, Henry Grimes.

The title track from the Unit Structures album employs a similar ensemble (including the same drum and bass players), but the music is more extensively composed, featuring the unpredictable block form used in such landmark 20th century compositions as Debussy’s Jeux or Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The first five minutes is a chain of contrasting ensemble sections, after which an animated jam finally gets going, led by a Ken McIntyre bass clarinet solo. An alto sax solo from Jimmy Lyons follows, then at 10:30 we get another chain of structured ensemble sections. At 12:25 the tempo picks up once again for Eddie Gale’s trumpet solo, followed by a Taylor piano solo filled with glissandos and tone clusters. One last tutti section closes the track.

After recording these Blue Note albums, Taylor started to focus on solo piano work. His closest predecessor among jazz pianists was Thelonious Monk, but in the Indent album from 1973, it’s clear that Monk’s melodic eccentricities and love of dissonance have been jacked up several notches. It was about this time that Taylor’s high-energy atonality, which owed so much to European modernism, began to influence younger composers of piano music, as evinced by Frederic Rzewski’s Squall from 1979 (compare it to the first track of Indent at around 4:40).

Taylor continued to perform as a soloist and a bandleader well into his 80s. He also partnered with artists from different backgrounds, such as the dancer Min Tanaka and the British electric guitarist Derek Bailey. One of his more unusual collaborations was this 2008 duet with composer/accordionist Pauline Oliveros:

The two musicians had never performed together before, and the beginning of the duo is a bit tentative, with Oliveros often echoing Taylor’s licks. But starting at 3:09 the pair establish a more complementary footing. Often Oliveros plays sustained notes and chords as counterpoint to Taylor’s trills and flourishes. In the quiet passage starting at 15:28 you can hear Oliveros exploiting the tuning clashes between her just-intoned Titano accordion and Taylor’s equal-tempered piano.

Though Taylor is usually the one doing the leading, he is conscious of the delicacy of his partner’s instrument, and his playing is notably softer and sparser than usual. The result is a surprisingly compelling musical experience from two unique American masters.

At the same time, though, this coupling highlights a prejudice that continues to haunt conventional narratives of Western art music. Of these two musicians—both of similar age and similar stature among musicians, and both clearly capable of articulating a shared musical language in a public space—only Oliveros is consistently mentioned in textbooks and retrospectives on contemporary classical music (see, for example, the otherwise admirable surveys by Paul Griffiths, Jennie Gottschalk, and Tim Rutherford-Johnson). The oversight comes from the notion that art music requires a score, that it must be “fixed in some sort of notation for a performer or creator to interpret or execute” (Rutherford-Johnson) to be authentic. This was a legitimate premise prior to the 20th century, but it has become obsolete in the age of audio recording, radio, and digital media. Nowadays the record, not the score, is the real “text”, and the persistent conception of classical music as an exclusively literate tradition has pushed the music of Taylor, and his fellow improvising avant-gardists (many of them from backgrounds that effectively barred them from the academy), to the margins of the canon.

Ironically, Oliveros also emphasized improvisation in her work, and almost all of her published scores use verbal instructions rather than musical notation. But she was still invariably described as a “composer”, and was able to achieve success in the milieu of universities, concert venues and foundations, whereas Taylor was always a “jazz musician” who mainly performed at night clubs and festivals. And so his eminence languishes in the domain of jazz history, jazz radio, and jazz CD bins. Despite today’s well-publicized efforts to improve diversity in musical opportunity and programming, it seems that the segregation borne of professional biases can be just as intractable as the cruder chauvinism of social bigotry. Taylor’s music, so powerful and innovative, deserves recognition that transcends these boundaries.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Kevin Clark’s ‘Eleanor & Hildegard’

by Maggie Molloy

In the 12th century one of the Middle Ages’ greatest patrons and politicians, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wrote a letter to one of the the era’s greatest composers, Hildegard of Bingen, asking for advice. Eleanor’s original letter has since been lost, but Hildegard’s reply remains.

That legendary correspondence was precisely the inspiration behind composer Kevin Clark‘s newest chamber work, Eleanor & Hildegard. Commissioned and premiered by Seattle’s own Sound Ensemble with mezzo-soprano Elspeth Davis this past February, the piece celebrates a regular occurrence that is rarely documented in history books: two influential women, talking to each other as autonomous individuals, independent of men.

Watch our in-studio video of Clark’s Eleanor & Hildegard and read the composer’s program note below.

Eleanor & Hildegard

Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most powerful woman in politics in 12th century Europe. Hildegard of Bingen was the most important woman in religion in the same time and place, as well as being a composer.

History doesn’t give us many stories of powerful women, much less of what they had to say to each other. But these two wrote. It was 1170, and Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II was collapsing. She was on the verge of a new life. The queen wrote to Hildegard of Bingen asking for advice. Hildegard’s reply survives.

This piece fills in the missing pieces. Tania Asnes wrote a poem to take the place of Eleanor’s missing letter, which begins the piece. As the composer, I brought in music Eleanor might have heard throughout her marriage by Bernart de Ventadorn. At the end, we hear Hildegard’s reply to Eleanor, telling her to flee, ‘Fuge’, from her troubles.

Within a few years she wasn’t just free from her marriage, but making war on Henry II with the aid of her son, Richard the Lionheart.

– Kevin Clark, composer


This Saturday, the Sound Ensemble turns from the Middle Ages to something a little more modern: an evening of chamber music penned by some of today’s top rock stars. You Didn’t Know They Composed features the Sound Ensemble performing music by the likes of Björk, Beck, Bryce Dessner, and more, plus a new commission by James McAlister.

You Didn’t Know They Composed is Saturday, April 7 at 7pm at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

New Music for April: Music of Earth, Moon, and More

by Maggie Molloy

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Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”

New Music Flyer - April 2018

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: drone cinema, phonetic etudes, murder ballades, and the muted colors of Morton Feldman.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Things That Break
New music merges with stop-motion animation, visual art, and theatre in this multidisciplinary concert centered around the theme of “breaking.” Four Seattle-based female artists come together for a unique presentation of world premieres.
Fri, 4/6, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

The Sound Ensemble: You Didn’t Know They Composed
Did you know some of today’s top rock stars and pop stars have tried their hands at classical composition too? The Sound Ensemble presents an evening of chamber music by the likes of Björk, Beck, Bryce Dessner, and more, plus a new commission by James McAlister.
Sat, 4/7, 7pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$15

The Esoterics: CŌNFIDŌ
The ancient rite of the Christian liturgy, the Mass, is reimagined for modern times in this program of works by Gregory Brown, Giles Swayne, and Kirke Mechem. The Esoterics sing four settings of Mass texts that express crises of faith, criticize organized religion, and prioritize the health of our planet over any individual belief.
Fri, 4/13, 8pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle | $15-$22
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Holy Rosary Catholic Church, West Seattle | $15-$22
Sun, 4/15, 7pm, Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma | $15-$22

Seattle Modern Orchestra: The Clouds Receding
Immerse yourself in the dense sonic clouds of composers like György Ligeti and Beat Furrer, plus a new world premiere by Orlando Jacinto Garcia featuring violist Melia Watras as the soloist.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$25

Sound of Late: 48-Hour Composition Competition
A group of composers each gets 48 hours to compose a new piece for their assigned instrumentation, and a group of performers gets six days to prepare before they perform the works live in concert.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Gallery 1412 | FREE

SMCO: Songs and Dances of Peace
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra performs a powerful program exploring Leonard Bernstein’s now-ubiquitous quote, “This shall be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Featured composers include Bernstein, Barber, Golijov, and Tchaikovsky.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, First Free Methodist Church | $15-$25
Sun, 4/15, 2pm, Rainier Arts Center | $15-$25

What Better Than Call a Dance?
Experimental chamber troupe Kin of the Moon joins forces with dancer/choreographer Karin Stevens and clarinetist/improvisor Beth Fleenor for a program that wildly reimagines dance music from Renaissance to waltz to tango and even EDM.
Fri, 4/20, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

On Stage with KING FM: Earth Day Celebration
The Ecco Chamber Ensemble celebrates Earth Day with a program of music exploring the vital role of water in both our basic survival as well as our art.
Sat, 4/21, 7:30pm, Resonance at SOMA Towers | $20-$25

Symphony Tacoma: Earth Songs from the Harp
Grammy-nominated electric harpist Deborah Henson-Conant joins Symphony Tacoma for a boundary-bursting program ranging from blues and jazz to flamenco, folk, and beyond.
Sun, 4/22, 2:30pm, Pantages Theater | $19-$82

Seattle Art Song Society: Elemental
In honor of Earth Day, the Seattle Art Song Society performs songs inspired by the elements of fire, earth, water, and air. The program features music by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Aaron Copland, Juliana Hall, Ernst Bacon, Björk, and more, plus brand new works by Steven Luksan and Brian Armbrust.
Sun, 4/22, 3:30pm, Queen Anne Christian Church | $20-$40

Seattle Symphony: Stravinsky Persephone
A stunning cast of star soloists, dancers, and puppeteers (plus three choirs and four grand pianos!) join the symphony for an entire evening of Stravinsky rarities, including his Persephone, Les noces, “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” and Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments.
Thurs, 4/26, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $42-$79
Sat, 4/28, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $42-$79

Seattle Symphony: [untitled] 2
Symphony musicians dive into the mind of Stravinsky with a performance of his elegant Octet, a piece which first came to him in a dream. Plus, the Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble brings a scintillating blend of folk traditions and extended techniques to two wild works by Russian composers Vladimir Nikolaev and Alexander Raskatov.
Fri, 4/27, 10pm, Benaroya Hall | $16

NOCCO: Lost Sisterhood; Found Landscapes
The North Corner Chamber Orchestra presents a newly commissioned Cello Concerto by Philip Lasser alongside Louise Farrenc’s stunning Symphony No. 3 and Aaron Copland’s unforgettable Appalachian Spring.
Sat, 4/28, 2pm, University Christian Church | $15-$25
Sun, 4/29, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | $15-$25

Seattle Symphony Spotlight: John Luther Adams on “Become Desert”

by Dave Beck

Composer John Luther Adams describes his work with Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the SSO musicians as “one of the happiest musical relationships of my life.” It’s a collaboration that has resulted in a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award for 2013’s Become Ocean.

Five years later, that collaboration continues with the world premiere this week of Adams’ Become Desert. It takes place Thursday night, March 29, and Saturday night, March 31 in Benaroya Hall—with Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony and members of the Symphony Chorale.

John Luther Adams speaks with Classical KING FM’s Dave Beck in our studios about moving from tundra to desert, his fascination with immense spaces, and the importance of using the right tools—in his case, the best number 2 pencil that can be found.

Listen to the full interview below.


The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31. For tickets and additional information, please click here.