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.

A lifelong Texan who lived with his partner on a central Texas ranch, 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 crypto-electric 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, 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 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.

ALBUM REVIEW: Marc Mellits’ ‘Smoke’ ft. New Music Detroit

by Gabriela Tedeschi

“Moderately funky” is not usually a tempo marking you see on a classical music score—unless it’s the music of Marc Mellits.

Mellits has a gift for animating his chamber music with funky grooves and driving beats. Sometimes called a miniaturist, he frequently uses small, contrasting sections to create one large, dynamic work with a rich emotional palette.

In his newest album, Smoke, all of this works together to create lively and diverse additions to the classical genre. Featuring the adventurous ensemble New Music Detroit, the album unfolds across 23 tracks, most just short movements of one to three minutes each. As a collection of diverse musical snippets, Smoke creates the effect of meandering through a city of street performers and finding yourself captivated by the wide range of musical worlds.

Encompassing eight short movements, the title piece is scored for saxophone, guitar, marimba, and percussion. Smoke explores the timbral possibilities of the ensemble as it traverses through wide-ranging genre influences: funky saxophone grooves, distorted electric guitar, circling marimba motives that create a soundscape ambience. This makes for a piece that is dramatic, complex, at times jarring, but always accessible.

The same could be said for Red, a six-movement piece for two marimbas. The intricate interlocking patterns—impressively complex for just two players—create a colorful array of harmonies and textures. While it’s no surprise that the bright, gentle timbre of the marimba lends itself well to a peaceful aura, Mellits also manages to generate suspense and mystery with dark harmonies and driving rhythms.

New Music Detroit.

Mellits’ String Quartet No. 3 is subtitled Tapas and, like Spanish appetizers, each of its eight movements offers a quick burst of distinct flavor. Though this piece harkens back to traditional classical influences more so than the rest of the album, Tapas also finds ways to subvert expectations. Starting with simple motifs, it rearranges and layers these patterns to create intriguing composite rhythms and lush harmonies. The quartet introduces different bowing and plucking techniques over time to create unusual timbres, adding to the rich texture. Like the rest of the album, Tapas is highly emotional, but difficult to interpret: as it alternates between dark and hopeful themes, distinctions begin to blur, yielding a powerful and bittersweet combination.

Prime—scored for bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, two percussionists, and piano—unfolds in one long movement that traverses through wildly different sound worlds. Percussion and baritone saxophone take the lead in the beginning with a suspenseful, funk-influenced theme, but the piece transitions on a dime into a soft, slow, and melancholy piano interlude. Mellits bounces back and forth between the disparate musical styles but eventually, the ideas begin to integrate; the sultry sax and clarinet mingle with the delicate, gloomy piano and percussion theme to create a beautifully unorthodox mix of moods and timbres.

Smoke is a fascinating experiment in construction and integration, piecing together works with short, contrasting movements and diverse musical influences. Yet each unique flavor unites to create a delectable whole: the complete and complex palette of Marc Mellits.

Sneak Peek Audio Leak: Ken Thomson’s Sextet

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Naomi White.

Ken Thomson’s music dances at the crossroads of contemporary classical and jazz—filled with boundless verve, blistering improvisations, and contrapuntal complexity. When he’s performing, his energy shines onstage—and when he’s writing music, it leaps off the page.

Though the clarinetist and saxophonist is perhaps best known as one of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Thomson’s new album of original compositions, titled Sextet, features him performing alongside a hand-picked cast of jazz all-stars: saxophonist Anna Webber, trumpeter Russ Johnson, trombonist Alan Ferber, bassist Adam Armstrong, and drummer Daniel Dor.

The album begins with Thomson’s own arrangement of György Ligeti’s melancholic Passacaglia Ungherese before spiraling through a collection of six original groove-driven compositions that float freely between the rigor of through-composed music and the spontaneity of improvised solos.

We’re excited to premiere a track from the brand new album ahead of its September 7 release date. Click below to hear Thomson’s “Phantom Vibration Syndrome.”

Learn more about the music from the performers themselves in the trailer below!


Ken Thomson’s Sextet comes out September 7 on New Focus Recordings. Click here to pre-order the digital album.

ALBUM REVIEW: Michael Gordon’s ‘Clouded Yellow’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Michael Gordon. Photo by Peter Serling.

After throwing out a piece he’d been working on seriously for months, Michael Gordon sat down for just nine days to create something new, something uninhibited where “all the colors are flying.” That piece became “Clouded Yellow,” titled after the smudged, colorful wing patterns of the clouded yellow butterfly. It also became the title track for his new album, a collection of string quartets where blurred, distorted, and layered sounds coalesce into a vibrant, fluttering haze.

Gordon, one of the three co-founders of Bang on a Can, has a passion for exploring ways in which classical chamber works can be warped with electronic effects and guitar pedals. His latest album is the product of a decades-long collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, an ensemble comprised of violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang that is committed to stretching the limits of string quartet music. Clouded Yellow features four works that revel in blurred harmonies and melodies, shedding light on the beauty of opaqueness.

Kronos Quartet. Photo by Jay Blakesburg.

The title piece, “Clouded Yellow” creates this blurred effect with driving melodic lines and overlapping rhythms that obscure the beat. Chromatic movement with slides and trills encompasses much of the violin lines, developing dark, intricate harmonies that flutter restlessly around the listener.

Similarly, “Potassium” layers different sliding lines of sustained notes and uses a fuzz box to distort the strings, creating a mysterious cloud of sound. The piece alternates between slower, melancholic sliding sections, dramatic periods where the violins slide rapidly above driving viola and cello accompaniment, and conventionally beautiful sections with tender, lyrical melodies. As these contradictory elements are woven together, “Potassium” becomes an ornate musical web that is impossible to untangle.

The album’s blurred aesthetic brilliantly suits the thematic content in “Sad Park,” a four-part piece that layers the quartet’s music under sentences from toddlers who were asked to explain the events of 9/11. Following the pattern laid out by the previous tracks, the piece features electronic sounds, slides, and complex, interlocking patterns that intentionally disorient the listener. As the young children’s words are replayed over and over, they are electronically warped, becoming eerie non-verbal sounds—almost like wails of pain at some moments. The children’s confused words and the distortion of both their voices and the instruments reflects the confusion, pain, and helplessness felt in the wake of 9/11.

“Exalted,” the final track, serves as a response to the mourning of “Sad Park.” Featuring the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, the piece sets the opening of the Kaddish, a prayer sequence recited for the dead in the Jewish faith. The voices layer chromatic, descending lines over a rhythmic violin pattern and the slides of the cello and viola. While the dark intensity of the piece never diminishes, it begins to move over time toward a quiet finality that offers a sense of peace. “Exalted” both captures the complexity of mourning and artfully juxtaposes something ancient and religious with the immediacy of modern sounds.

Clouded Yellow documents Gordon and the Kronos Quartet’s innovative experimentation with electronics, clashing layers, and disorienting rhythmic patterns. The resulting music is intricate, dramatic, and thought-provoking: it speaks powerfully to the confusion we all experience when so much of the world around us is blurred.

All Tomorrow’s Parties: Paying Homage while Looking Ahead with Nadia Shpachenko

Photo by Albert Chang.

by Dacia Clay

Nadia Shpachenko is a multiple Grammy-nominated pianist and Professor of Music at Cal Poly Pomona University who has never stopped playing with her toys.

Shpachenko’s love of playing—both with toys and on her piano, and sometimes, with her toy piano—is part of what makes her new album, Quotations and Homages, so much fun to listen to. She’s got this wide-open sense of adventure that comes across not only in her playing, but in the pieces she commissions and the composers from whom she commissions them. (Shpachenko seems to choose composers by their willingness to be co-conspirators in her exploits as much as for their compositional aptitude.) An album of pieces that pay homage to everyone from Messiaen to the Velvet Underground? Yes! A piece inspired by Stravinsky called “Igor to Please” written for 6 pianists on 2 toy pianos, 2 pianos, and electronics? Yay! Let’s do it!

In this interview, Nadia talks about why she’s such an advocate for new classical music, about the ideas that inspired this new album and the pieces therein, and about breaking piano strings. 

Notorious RBG in Song

by Dacia Clay

Today—that’s August 10, 2018 if you’re reading this from the future world—marks Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 25th year on the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1993, she became the second woman in history to be confirmed to the court, and since then, she’s been a part of important court decisions on everything from gender equality and same-sex marriage to Bush v. Gore. When the Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion was so impassioned that she earned the nickname “Notorious RBG” after a college student started a meme on Tumblr.

Patrice Michaels and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Glimmerglass Festival, 2016.

Notorious RBG is now the name of a new album of art song released to celebrate Ginsburg’s 25 years with SCOTUS. The album came about organically through a series of family commissions and personal projects. As it turns out, Ginsburg’s son James is the head of Cedille Records, and her daughter-in-law is soprano and composer Patrice Michaels. In this interview, James and Patrice tell the story of how the album came together, and talk about the woman its songs were inspired by.

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).Learn 

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. 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.