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.

Women in (New) Music: Women Who Score

by Angela Drăghicescu

About a year ago I was given some music to play by Louise Farrenc. The music was so heavenly it moved me to my very soul. It had the same quality that the music of the most famous composers of the era had, and I wondered as a trained pianist with an extensive repertoire list how it came to pass that I had never heard of this composer or her music.

I looked for more pieces of hers and found an incredible body of work, greater than or equal to the best composers of her era. I read up on her and not only discovered a life and experience of heroic proportions, but a life spent fighting uphill battles simply to get the respect she deserved. Despite ultimately earning the respect and admiration of the finest composers of her era, the musical establishment after her death ignored her work both in performance and in education, and in an insidious fashion erased her from history.

Much of her work sat in libraries collecting dust for over a century until a French graduate student rediscovered her in the 1980s. I quickly began to realize that this was a pattern that spanned centuries and crossed oceans. Scores of talented female composers were treated in this fashion. Measures were taken to prevent them from joining the classical canon of composers, and when their talent was too great to be contained, the music itself was shunned by the establishment, or subjected to specious and clearly bigoted smears in the press. 

It is a universal truth that great music, like great art, is a pure expression of the soul and a thing of deep and abiding beauty. It is priceless, unique, and each piece has a power to stir the soul. To anyone capable of appreciating such things—whatever the gender—the idea of destroying or hiding this music from the world is truly appalling. The fact that so many women’s legacies and achievements, along with their incredible music, were deliberately erased from history by the bigotry of small minds is a profound injustice that cries out to be rectified.

This year Felipe Vera and I co-founded a new concert series in Seattle titled Women Who Score with the goal of showcasing musical works by women whose creative voices were stifled or silenced as a result of religious, racial, cultural, or systemic oppression. This Sunday, March 11 we are proud to present a special preview concert featuring music by a handful of history’s most influential women composers: Louise Farrenc, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, and Libby Larsen.

But these women are just the beginning. Throughout our inaugural concert season, we plan to commission new works, highlight local living composers, and also pay tribute to historic women composers who paved the way for today’s generation of musicians. This series is about empowerment; about a community uniting in sharing the untold stories. With an open mind and open ears, we can work to diversify the world of classical music and continue to discover the musical voices of women across history.

Warmly,

Angie Drăghicescu
Artistic Director of Women Who Score


The Women Who Score preview concert is Sunday, March 11 at 7pm at Nordstrom Recital Hall. For tickets and more information, please click here.

Eric Salzman Remembered (1933–2017)

by Michael Schell

Eric Salzman’s death on November 12, 2017 closed out one of American music’s most multifaceted careers. An accomplished composer, producer, and critic, Salzman was a prominent advocate of new music theater and the author of several important texts on contemporary music.

It was in his capacity as a writer that Salzman probably reached the most people. His textbook Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction spanned four editions from 1974 to 2001, during which time it was the most highly respected single-volume survey of modern music in the English language. Concise and levelheaded, it’s also one of the few such books written by a composer. It provided thousands of music students and enthusiasts with their first coherent tour through the sprawling expanse of 20th century musical innovation.

Salzman also edited The Musical Quarterly, and wrote several articles for Stereo Review, including a 1971 feature on Edgard Varèse (with an accompanying two-page tribute from Frank Zappa) that helped stir up interest in the Franco-American master’s music among young and non-specialist listeners.

Salzman’s last book, from 2008, is The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body. Co-authored with Thomas Desi, it’s a fascinating and opinionated exploration of work outside the realms of conventional opera and Broadway-style musicals. Its subjects include John Cage’s happenings, Harry Partch’s corporeality, Philip Glass’s operas with Robert Wilson and JoAnne Akalaitis, the work of post-opera composers from Europe (Louis Andriessen) and Asia (Tan Dun), and newfangled interactive/intermedia creations like Tod Machover’s Brain Opera. An ongoing concern is the relationship between vocal technique and the musical genres based on it, whether the vibrato-heavy bel canto style used in opera houses, or the more “natural” (and often amplified) style of folk and commercial singers. Special attention goes to musicians such as Meredith Monk who have created a corpus of stage works based on extended vocal techniques. Also discussed are the trade-offs between voice projection and clarity of diction, a topic critical for any genre of sung music but one that is neglected in most books on music.

Salzman’s own stage works often inhabit the space between traditional operas and musicals. His one-act Civilization and its Discontents, written with Michael Sahl in the late 1970s, is sung-through like an opera but employs Broadway-style voices backed up by a small combo in the manner of today’s touring musicals. Its debt to Weill and Sondheim is obvious, both in the tonal, syncopated melodies, as well as the contemporary, adult-oriented subject matter. It centers on a love triangle between Jill Goodheart, a frustrated young New York thespian, Jeremy, her singles bar pickup, and Derek, her live-in boyfriend. When the latter unexpectedly barges in on the other two, the men recognize themselves as business partners and rather than fight, start negotiating a deal in front of the chagrined bachelorette. An alto-voiced emcee named Carlos Arachnid intervenes periodically to offer easy paths to fulfillment—kind of a Mephistopheles character for the self-help guru era. Back at the bar, the chorus intones the moral: “If it feels good do it”.

By contrast, The Nude Paper Sermon from 1969 is closer to the postmodern tradition of pastiche and collage. This 45-minute gallimaufry combines synthesizer blurts, poetry by John Ashbury, and mixed vocal/instrumental passages modeled after English madrigals. The latter are performed by a Renaissance consort led by Joshua Rifkin, an early case of archaic instruments being appropriated for avant-garde purposes (the viola da gamba player, incidentally, is none other than Richard Taruskin prior to his emergence as America’s most provocative musicologist). After six minutes, a spoken stream of consciousness joins the right channel, delivered by a young Stacy Keach. The whole mix was released by Nonesuch on an LP that was well distributed in North American record stores, allowing the piece to ride Keach’s subsequent Hollywood fame to “hit” status as a kind of American counterpart to Berio’s contemporaneous Sinfonia.

Another Berio piece, Laborintus II, got its American premier along alongside Salzman’s Foxes and Hedgehogs, the latter eliciting a disapproving boo from Morton Feldman’s seat in the audience. Apparently this indiscretion was forgiven, since Salzman went on to produce the premier of Feldman and Samuel Beckett’s opera Neither. Salzman’s other credits as a producer include the revival and first modern recording of Partch’s Revelation in the Courthouse Park, and several recordings for Nonesuch and Koch International, including the popular Tango Project albums, which combine traditional and contemporary renditions of this popular dance.

Salzman co-founded the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia and was composer in residence for the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York. He also taught music periodically, and had two stints as music director of the outré WBAI radio in New York. Among Salzman’s last projects is a string quartet arrangement of five classic John Cage piano and prepared piano pieces, and the lovely a cappella “madrigal comedy” Jukebox in the Tavern of Love that was recently recorded by The Western Wind alongside Meredith Monk’s Basket Rondo. A lifelong New Yorker, he was married for over 60 years to Lorna Salzman, a noted environmentalist who was the Green Party’s 2004 presidential candidate. Their children include the poet Eva Salzman.

In an influential 1972 New York Times article, Salzman wrote “It is not necessary to call the new music theater into being; it is taking place under our eyes and ears; it is only the simple, encompassing definition that is elusive.”

What is likewise elusive is a tidy summation of a career as varied as Salzman’s. Perhaps his most impactful legacy is embodying a 20th century composer’s commitment to tackling the most challenging and universal artistic problems anew, over and over.

Women in (New) Music: The Pure Cold Light in the Sky

Kin of the Moon is an improvisation-centric chamber series featuring three cutting-edge and iconoclastic women performers. Violist and composer Heather Bentley reflects on the music and meaning behind their debut concert, The Pure Cold Light in the Sky this Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8pm at the Good Shepherd Chapel.


by Heather Bentley

Kin of the Moon violist, improviser, and composer Heather Bentley.

It’s Armistice Day today, also known as Veteran’s Day, also acknowledged in astrology to be a particularly high vibrational day for the planetary deity Venus, who supports us to think with our hearts, and not just with our heads. It’s a good moment for reflection on this past year of seismic cultural upheaval that is continuing without abatement as I write.

The existential importance of music in my life has been magnified through the lens of all the enormous societal challenges we face. Creating Kin of the Moon is the outgrowth of a powerful desire to combine my private discipline of improvisation with my lifelong experience of presenting and performing concert music. Becoming an improviser in my late 20s was an attempt to liberate my own voice through my instrument. While I have always held composers like Brahms, Bach, and Shostakovich deeply in my heart as my best friends, there are aspects of professional classical music life that challenge my sense of creative agency.

I met Kaley Eaton on stage at the Royal Room, doing an improvised show with Steve Treseler’s Game Symphony. We’ve been close collaborators ever since, working together on her electroacoustic opera Lily, and co-creating our piece Atmokinesis for improvisers and SuperCollider processing. Leanna Keith is simply a spectacular flutist/improviser—we have been playing shows together since this summer and I couldn’t be happier with our Kin of the Moon team!

Here is our statement:

Kin of the Moon is an improvisation-centric chamber music series incubated in Seattle’s rich musical scene. Headed by violist/improviser/composer Heather Bentley, vocalist/composer Kaley Eaton, and flutist/improviser Leanna Keith, the group explores sonic rituals, promotes cross-pollination of genres, emphasizes the communicative power of specific performance locales and celebrates the creativity that multiplies itself through the collaboration of performers and composers. The artists of Kin of the Moon devote their lives to reaching higher vibrational levels through sound creation.

Kin of the Moon flutist and improviser Leanna Keith.

I was asked about the fact that our first concert features all women performers and composers. Actually, we were aiming to create the most compelling program to go with our new piece Atmokinesis and Kaley’s new sound installation wilderness, and it happens that we were very excited by Jessi Harvey’s quantum physics-inspired work The Multiverse and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kate Soper’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say for voice and various flutes.

Kin of the Moon vocalist and composer Kaley Lane Eaton.

I am inspired to work with artists who exhibit a spirit of creative inquiry and practice a discipline of collaborative generosity. That many people who hold these qualities dear are women is not surprising. There are also countless men I have worked with who are equally inspiring in this way. And there are non-binary people I have worked with who are inspiring, generous, and boundlessly creative. Our choices about who we present and who we work with have everything to do with these considerations.

Back to Armistice Day. Last Nov. 11, 2016 was very difficult for so many of us. I am fortunate to co-own and operate ELF House, a music space/artist retreat on Whidbey Island, with the magnificent composer, saxophonist, and flutist Jessica Lurie. I went up by myself after the horrific election and had the opportunity to regroup. This is what I wrote, and it feels very much like a statement of purpose about my music:

“I’ve had a moment to recoup from the dreadful election result up at my sanctuary by the water on Whidbey. Here there’s no internet yet and the sunrise pinks up the sky and water birds carry on like nothing has changed—and in this world that is true. I needed space and time to reflect on how to carry on. First of all, I want to acknowledge
my sons Miles, 19, and Aaron, 29, for their response to the debacle of this election.
Representing the two halves of the millennial generation, Aaron reminded me to stay
levelheaded and through his lead, I greatly increased my contribution (now monthly) to
the ACLU, an organization that has stood at the frontline of defending the marginalized
in the US for decades. And Miles took to the streets to protest on Nov 9. Feet on the
ground. I know my sons are aware of their privilege as white, cis, straight men of
comfortable economic status. I am beyond proud that they immediately took steps to
exert what influence they can on behalf of those who stand to lose the most under the
new administration.

For myself, I needed time for darkness. I felt like it wasn’t time for kumbaya or sentiments that we can just unify now that the election is over. Or pretend that a nice concert can heal our divisions. This is what I think today, on Veterans Day: as artists, we are aware of our ability to conjure heaven on earth. The moments come seldom, and they are hard won through the assiduous honing of our craft, but the allure of creating deep, unassailable beauty and terrible and ferocious gorgeousness from a deep vein, is what compels us in the face of economic absurdity to continue. Relentlessly. This is the truth and depth and gift that artists hold and offer. Let our vein flow for the world. Let the truth of our witness and offering stand as a real testament to the fragile and tenacious beauty of existence in this sphere. Let us always, always encourage the outpouring of our colleagues and treasure our audiences and followers.

Let us actively conspire to collaborate. Let our vision extend to radical inclusiveness of those in our midst as well as those out of sight.”

Kin of the Moon takes its name from a W.B. Yeats poem, “The Cat and the Moon.”

THE CAT AND THE MOON
by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnaloushe runs in the grass
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet,
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.


Kin of the Moon’s debut concert is this Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8pm at the Good Shepherd Chapel. For more information, click here.

Mutable Depths: Remembering Matt Shoemaker

by Michael Schell

Second Inversion bids a reluctant farewell to Matt Shoemaker (1974–2017), an admired member of Seattle’s vibrant electronic music scene. A native of the Pacific Northwest whose sensibilities were also formed by extended stays in the Bay Area and Indonesia, Shoemaker plied his craft here for many years, performing with Gamelan Pacifica, presenting “electroacoustic soundscapes” using a laptop and amplified objects, and releasing several solo albums in various formats. His most characteristic music falls under the dark ambient genre: extended pieces built from natural and synthetic sounds woven into a complex and slowly-changing timbral environment.

 

Mutable Depths, available from Bandcamp or as an EP from Ferns Recordings, is my favorite Shoemaker concoction. It begins with the sounds of water and wind, joined by a diverse poltergeist of thumps and creaks. There’s an odd premonition to this combination, as though we’re watching the opening scene of a horror movie. At 3:45 the texture (plot?) thickens to include a continuous crackle that’s soon joined by a squeaky “melody” that seems to be narrating a saga in some sort of extraterrestrial pseudo-avian language. (Shoemaker, like Messiaen, liked to use musical lines that imitate bird calls, and he once spent several weeks in the Amazon recording the songs of tropical birds.)

At 6:00 we start to hear an irregular pounding sound, but it and the squeaky obbligato soon give way to a rich composite texture that’s so typical of dark ambient: static overall, but constantly changing and evolving at the micro level. Whatever strange world has been dialed up is now fully upon us. Feedback sounds begin to come in from various directions, and the crackling sound returns more animated than before. But what might have seemed ominous at first passes over us peacefully. After a while, the feedback drifts away, and by 19:00 most of the bottom has dropped out of the soundscape, leaving the crackle to dissipate alone into the distance.

I enjoy listening to this music at bedtime—beautiful, relaxing, with no distracting drumbeat or isolated loud sounds, it’s a thinking person’s modern lullaby. What sets it apart from most ambient and drone music is the skill and complexity of the sonic layering, and the sense that a narrative is unfolding that’s open-ended enough to accommodate the projections of our own imagination.

You can read more about Shoemaker in memoirs published by The Stranger and Tiny Mix Tapes. And in the deal of the century, one of his record labels, Helen Scarsdale Agency, is offering two of his CDs (Spots in the Sun and Erosion of the Analogous Eye) for only the cost of shipping. Take advantage of this while their stock lasts, and listen to his music with both regret for a career prematurely silenced and gratitude for its highlights that remain available for us to enjoy.


On Saturday, May 5, 2018 at 7pm, a memorial concert will be presented at the Good Shepherd Chapel. For more information, click here.

From April 13 through May 18, 2018, Jack Straw New Media Gallery will present Brain Goreng, an installation of paintings and audio by Shoemaker. For more information, click here.

A Singer’s Account of György Ligeti’s Requiem

by David Gary

Last week the Seattle Symphony and Chorale presented the Pacific Northwest’s first ever performance of György Ligeti’s ethereal and rarely performed Requiem (1965), conducted by Music Director Ludovic Morlot. This weekend, they’ll present a portion of it again as part of their live performance of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Perhaps best remembered for his dense harmonies, tone clusters, and micropolyphonic textures, Ligeti was famous for crafting nearly impossible repertoire—and the fact it has taken half a century to mount a Seattle performance of his Requiem is a testament to its difficulty. This musical undertaking was certainly out of the typical chorale wheelhouse and was an audacious selection for the Symphony to perform. As a member of the chorale, I had the opportunity to learn this requiem and will share my experience in doing so.

Looking at the Score for the First Time

The physical score is bulkier than a standard choral scores, elongated both vertically and horizontally by the 20-part chorus notation. As singers, we are typically accustomed to four-part staffs—so it was immediately evident that this was not our standard choral repertoire.

Much of the Introit movement is written with sustained tones with shifts in tonality over quintuplet figures. The intended effect mimics a large crowd murmuring the Latin text of the Requiem Mass. However, the text throughout this movement remains entirely discernable because it is melismatic over so many different parts. (Ligeti’s own instructions call for a distant sound.) For many of us this piece was well outside our comfort zone, so this movement was a pragmatic place to begin breaking into Ligeti’s musical paradigm.

We quickly realized that pitches would not be our main focus throughout our work on the Requiem. Given the short time we had to learn the piece—only about three or four months with multiple other concerts sprinkled in—and the sheer difficulty of the written pitches, our pitch focus was aimed more at staying within certain range clusters and not wandering too far from the tonal core we were looking to find. Because finding pitches was going to prove so difficult, we put much of our initial energy on learning the rhythmic regime of this piece

Unique Musical Challenges

Like many musical undertakings, this piece presented three large challenges: notes, rhythm, and musicality.

Notes: One of the first things we realized was that we would not be able to learn our pitches as they were written. (This is not to say it is an entirely impossible task, but given our time constraints it would have proven impossible.) During the time of composition, Ligeti himself had to retract and edit some of his harmonies because choirs were unable to learn and perform their parts. There are times in the score where a thick black line appears over a vocal part indicating sections where exact pitches can be jettisoned. This is a challenge for any choir who is accustomed to learning and performing exactly what is on page.

Rhythm: This piece was easy to get lost in, so fighting to stay on track in this score was important. For instance, Ligeti subdivides some of his beats over 7 or 9. These unconventional rhythmic figures create an aural effect of dense clouds of quickly moving harmonies—but they are also incredibly difficult to learn and even harder to execute in context. Another challenge of this piece was remaining on your part’s staff within the score. In rehearsals, there were frequent times where upon flipping a page I would shift to a different line without noticing I was singing the wrong part for several measures.

Musicality: Some of the more important musical gestures in the piece have less to do with notes or rhythms than they do with the shaping of a particular phrase to achieve a human (rather than musical) effect. This sometimes proved a bit of a challenge, since many of us as singers are used to having our phrasing guided by melody and word stresses rather than purely visceral emotion.

Presenting the Performance

We had no idea how this piece would be received. For many of us, a piece like this wasn’t exactly the reason we had joined the chorus. Because it was so easy to get lost in the score, performing was a frantic combination of counting, score following, watching our conductor for the count, and finding first pitches. As any performer knows, one does not get on stage to necessarily listen and enjoy the performance but rather to focus in on one’s task as a musician: to present an audience with entertainment and an unforgettable experience. I believe we achieved this goal and helped evoke emotions in the audience that Ligeti strove to encapsulate in this piece.

Though this was an atypical finale for our regular season, I think many of us ultimately found great satisfaction in how this piece was received and the level of admiration bestowed upon presentation. As we move on to our next challenges, we can all agree that as a group our musicianship has been augmented—and I look forward to bringing what I learned from Ligeti to my next musical projects.


David Gary is the Development Coordinator at Classical KING FM 98.1 and a bass in the Seattle Symphony Chorale. The Seattle Symphony and Chorale perform Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on June 30 and July 1 at 8pm. For tickets and additional information, click here.

Harry Partch: Celebrating a Musical Maverick

by Michael Schell

No composer better fits the “American maverick” moniker than Harry Partch (1901–1974). A genuine U.S. hobo during the Depression era, he invented his own tuning system, built his own instruments, and during the second half of his life managed to scrounge up enough support to leave behind a body of music whose uniqueness and individuality is virtually unprecedented.

Partch riding the rails atop a boxcar. Photo by Levy-Jossman.

Since his music requires specialized instruments and specially-trained musicians, live performances are very special occasions. So we’re particularly fortunate here in the Pacific Northwest to have his original instruments in residence at the University of Washington (see Second Inversion’s virtual tour of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium). And fresh on the heels of Partch’s Oedipus comes another great opportunity to see and hear the instruments: the Harry Partch Celebration at Meany Studio Theater May 31 through June 2, which will feature three concerts of music by the crusty master himself, along with several works by other composers written or arranged for the Partch instruments.

With dozens of pieces and arrangements on the docket (including several premieres), there’s too much music to do justice to in just one article, so what follows is a closer look at a couple works on the program that summarize the vast range of Partch’s music:

Li Po Lyrics and the Adapted Viola

On May 31, Luke Fitzpatrick starts off the Celebration the way Partch started off his career, with a program of music for intoning voice and Adapted Viola. Partch always hated the highly-affected “classical” style of singing, finding it unnatural, and feeling that its emphasis on volume and vibrato came at the expense of diction and nuance.

Searching for a vocal style that was expressive while preserving the comprehensibility of the text, Partch hit on the idea of using microtones (intervals narrower than the half-steps between adjacent piano keys) to simulate the subtle contours of natural speech. He applied his discovery to some texts by Li Po (nowadays spelled Li Bai), an 8th century Chinese lyric poet—one of the greatest ever—who, like Partch, was a wanderer with a noted penchant for alcohol. These ancient texts, so innocent in their emotional directness, and little-known in North America back then, must have struck Partch as an ideal vehicle for his new style.

The grass of Yen is growing green and long
While in Chin the leafy mulberry branches hang low.
Even now while my longing heart is breaking,
Are you thinking, my dear, of coming back to me?
—O wind of spring, you are a stranger.
Why do you enter through the silken curtains of my bower?

The Intruder by Li Po

Listen to Partch performing his setting of this poem in 1949 (above). Notice the ease, the fluency with which the imagery comes through, and the diction is absolutely clear despite the crude acetate recording technology. It doesn’t have all the colors of his later percussion-centric music, but the seeds are clearly there, like comparing an early Beethoven piano sonata to one of his great symphonies.

Partch playing the Adapted Viola, 1933.

The instrument that Partch is playing in the video is his Adapted Viola, built in 1930 to give him a suitable accompanying instrument that was also portable (this being during Partch’s itinerant homeless years). It’s Partch’s earliest surviving original instrument, basically a standard viola with an elongated neck and a flattened bridge. It’s held between the knees to facilitate microtonal slides, and the modified bridge facilitates sustained double and even triple stops. In the recording, when the voice sings “O wind of spring”, the Adapted Viola indeed seems to wail like a mournful wind, perhaps representing the disembodied voice of an unrequited soul.

Adapted Viola fingerboard. Drawing by Irvin Wilson.

To help the player find all those strange microtonal pitches, Partch hammered brads into the fingerboard, giving the instrument a pretty intimidating appearance. The fractions you see in the fingerboard diagram are actually frequency ratios, which Partch used to denote his intervals with a precision not available in conventional notation.

In this score excerpt you can see that he dispenses with the normal five-line staff and just writes the ratios. Those last six ratios in the viola part, for example, are incredibly fine gradations of pitch between concert F♮ and G♮. It takes a lot of practice to read this notation and play those pitches in tune—remember what I said about needing “specially-trained musicians”? Curiously, despite being so precise about pitch, Partch doesn’t bother with rhythmic notation at all, but simply directs performers to follow the natural rhythms of the poem.

Satisfied with his new approach, Partch famously destroyed his earlier, more conventional compositions with a ritual immolation in a pot-bellied stove. He went on to write 17 Li Po Lyrics, all of which will be performed on May 31 using Partch’s original Adapted Viola, recently restored by Charles Corey (Director of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium) and Luke Fitzpatrick after sitting unused in its case for many years. How inspiring it must be to glide ones fingers along the same surface where Partch’s fingers slid 80 years ago!

Over the next four decades, Partch built up his Instrumentarium with the percussion and plucked string instruments that he’s most famous for, but he kept using his Adapted Viola, even including it in his final composition, The Dreamer that Remains (from 1972). This unpretentious instrument, newly reclaimed from the dark, bears witness to a lifetime of discovery and gives eloquent voice to its legacy.

Partch Gets Popular, plus Castor and Pollux

Although Partch wrote most of his music between 1930 and 1966, it wasn’t until later that he really became a cult hero, beloved by listeners that weren’t themselves musicians. The turning point was the 1969 Columbia LP The World of Harry Partch, which was the first modern recording of Partch’s music and its first release on a major record label. The cover photo showing Partch as an old man—that cantankerous-looking bearded iconoclast—with his instruments in the background resonated with the rebellious spirit of the times.

And the Columbia brand got Partch’s music into mainstream record stores and FM airwaves. The LP featured definitive performances of three great percussion-centric Partch compositions, including Daphne of the Dunes and the notorious Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California, whose irreverent and downright naughty texts by a few frustrated Depression-era drifters attracted the attention of novelty DJs like Dr. Demento, thus exposing Partch’s music to millions of young listeners outside the usual classical music crowd.

But it’s the last track on this LP, Castor and Pollux, that eventually became my favorite Partch piece. Conceived for dance, it’s slated for the June 2 concert and will be performed with choreography by Stephanie Liapis—a very rare opportunity to see the piece staged as Partch intended!

As befits its subject (the celestial twins of Greek mythology), the work is in two halves. Each half consists of three instrumental duets, followed by a sextet where all three duets are played simultaneously. In contrast to the speech-driven rhythms of the 17 Li Po Lyrics and their simple voice and viola texture, Castor and Pollux is a lively, beat-driven piece showcasing a battery of Partch’s most characteristic percussion and plucked string instruments.

Excerpt from Partch’s Castor.

Each of the duets last 234 beats. In the first half (Castor) the music alternates between 4 and 5 beats to a bar, and there’s usually a rest on the eighth of the nine beats. In the second half (Pollux) the rhythm’s a bit more complicated, with six bars of 7 beats alternating with six bars of 9 beats until 234 beats are reached. Of course, Partch had to compose the duets so that they’d sound good both separately and together.

Like many of Partch’s works, Castor and Pollux was conceived as a complete aesthetic experience: musical and visual—what Partch called “corporeality.” And seeing the piece performed live helps to follow its unique structure.

Partch’s was an art with no phoniness to it—among the most authentic ever conceived by one person. It belongs alongside that of Ives, Varèse, Cage and Sun Ra in the pantheon of great American composers who created a unique musical identity from a deeply personal world view. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you owe it to yourself to experience the sight and sound of the Partch instruments up close and live while you can!


The Harry Partch Celebration is May 31 through June 2 at Meany Studio Theater at the University of Washington. For tickets and additional information, click here.