Women in (New) Music: Remembering Pauline Oliveros

Tribute event added: Deep Listening: Stuart Dempster on Sunday, December 11 at Henry Art Gallery, 12:30pm-1:3pm

Introduction by Maggie Molloy with subsequent contributions from staff and community members

“Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening,” Pauline Oliveros said in her 1998 keynote address at the ArtSci98 symposium.

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Nearly 20 years later, those words have come to encapsulate the astonishing legacy left behind by the late composer, who died on November 24 at the age of 84. An artist, accordionist, and pioneer of experimental and electronic art music, Oliveros is remembered for her revolutionary tape experiments, her poetic and aleatoric musical scores, her groundbreaking musical philosophies, and above all, her unwavering devotion to the exploration of sound.

Oliveros investigated new ways of listening to music, most notably through her philosophies of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness,” ideas which explored the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature of listening.

Throughout her career, her music and her teachings promoted experimentation, improvisation, collaboration, and discovery—and her work inspired not only musicians, but also artists, scientists, philosophers, and everyday people to think critically about the way we listen.

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To celebrate her lasting legacy, we asked Second Inversion staff and community members to share some of their favorite memories and musical works by the extraordinary Oliveros.


I first met Pauline through my teacher, mentor, and friend: Stuart Dempster. She was visiting Seattle when I was in graduate school at UW, and I had the honor of talking with her about music. That led me down a decades-long rabbit-hole of deep listening and sound awareness.

I think that much of the experimental music in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest is deeply influenced by her work and teachings. So many of the artists I work with and play with in Seattle have a connection to her musical thinking. I know that her influence and reach is national and global. But there is something about the work in this part of the country that owes a great debt to her long and dedicated explorations. She will be missed, and we are all fortunate for her body of work. Listen.

Tom Baker, Professor of Composition at Cornish College of the Arts


I never formally studied with Pauline, but I learned a lot from her and consider her a mentor as well as a colleague and friend. She was always supportive and encouraging, always so present. Her generosity and boundless curiosity were inspiring, she never stopped being open to and learning new things.

I love that her main instrument was the accordion, which some consider an anachronism, yet she was consistently on the cutting edge of new technological developments. I would be a very different composer (perhaps not one at all) and possibly even a very different person without her influence and example.

Steve Peters, Seattle-based composer, sound artist, producer, curator, and writer


Dear Pauline

thank you for your guidance
as we struggle
to hear beyond
what we see
and even what we think
as we try to
silence our busy
minds
and find instead
that silence is not
stillness
but sound moving
us and each other

between us
and within us
we are
busy seeking order
and you taught us
that sound moving from one
to the other
is merely truth
and all else flows
just from that
sound
that moves

Heather Bentley, violist and co-founder of North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO)


My first exposure to Pauline’s music was with the tape pieces she made in the 1960s. These often originated as improvisations using simple oscillators processed through filters and elaborate tape delay systems that she designed herself. Pauline was intrigued by the sustained sounds of modern life, things like motors, ventilation systems and electric hum. So rather than simply tune oscillators to static pitches, she created complex electronic drones that simulated the “myriad shifting of a constant tone or noise” in real-life drones.

I love the quivering, trembling sonorities in “Once again / Buchla piece” and the intense crackling sounds in “Big Mother Is Watching You,” which dates from 1966 but resembles a lot of today’s dark ambient music. Pauline was one of the true godparents of ambient, and was also an enormous trailblazer for women in electronic music.

I first met Pauline at a 1984 conference in Ohio where the evening concert billed her, Jerry Hunt, Urban 15 and myself (all Texas natives!). Frank Zappa had just delivered a funny but acerbic keynote speech railing against both the music industry and university composers. Since the latter comprised the bulk of the audience, there was a bit of tension in the hall, but it soon dissipated when Pauline opened with one of her soothing solo accordion and electronics sets. Nevertheless, my heart still belongs to those gritty early tape pieces!

Michael Schell, Seattle-based composer and intermedia artist


I’ve just recently come to Seattle. I remember the feeling that came over me the moment the plane’s wheels left the ground the second time I traveled to this city: I’m going home. When I realized the place where John Cage’s prepared piano was born was a few minutes away by public transit, it was startling and wondrous. Now, when I discover that the immensely echoic cistern that gave name to Pauline Oliveros’s “Deep Listening” is just on the other side of the Sound at Fort Warden in Port Townsend, I am unsurprised.

This place calls for it. It calls for transformative listening, for progressing the world by observing it, getting it. Maybe it’s something in the air that wanted to be filled with 45-second reverberations.

 

Maybe it’s something in the water. Maybe it’s what we call the water:

 

Sound.

 

Jacob Mashak, Seattle-based composer, conductor and variable instrumentalist


In the most basic sense, the heart of every great composer’s talent is a heightened ability to communicate. The psychology of Pauline Oliveros’ creations is one of communication and the bringing-together of souls, and many of her works use a Cage-like aleatoric element to achieve this in a way that is very physical and immediate. I am particularly awed by the power of To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, which harnesses collective improvisation to reconcile the community and the individual, and to present a sonic memorial to the experiences of Solanas and Monroe. Bringing together a sex symbol and a feminist thinker as the work’s subject matter helps highlight the similarities in their vastly different lives. Solanas wrote SCUM Manifesto, which has been translated into over a dozen languages and is excerpted in several feminist anthologies, and was first read by Oliveros in 1968. Both women suffered at the hands of men, and both lives were marked by violence, as Monroe killed herself and Solanas attempted to kill Andy Warhol. As Oliveros said, “Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality.” Her composition asks the performers to choose five pitches each and to play very long tones, modulated or unmodulated. In the middle section of the piece the performers are invited to imitate each other‘s pitches and modulations. If any one player becomes dominant, the rest of the group should rise up and absorb that dominance back into the texture, “expressing at the deep structure what the SCUM Manifesto meant.” It’s a fascinating work in its conception, powerful in its execution.

Geoffrey Larson, KING FM and Second Inversion host/contributor and Music Director of Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra


Pauline Oliveros does not allow listeners to cut corners; whenever you sit down for one of her pieces, you’re in for the long haul temporally, intellectually, and emotionally. Although she was not a “minimalist,” her music does have a similar effect (at least on me). By wrenching listeners out of their normal experience of time, she creates experiences that are nearly automatically profound. Sound Geometries for chamber orchestra, expanded instrument system (EIS), and 5.1 surround sound is an excellent way to experience her special use of time. This piece puts familiar instruments through a compositional filter that yields a soundscape only reminiscent of the idiomatic uses of those instruments in the faintest of ways; these sounds do not represent those of a traditionally-structured ensemble. That is one of the reasons why Pauline Oliveros’s music is good for us; it stretches us in a way that we desperately need and reminds us to seek the expressive limits of the tools we already have.

Seth Tompkins, Second Inversion host/contributor


I first encountered the work of Pauline Oliveros through her witty feminist deconstruction of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Her 1965 piece, titled “Bye Bye Butterfly,” is a real-time tape-delay collage work which utilizes a recording of Puccini’s opera—along with two oscillators, two amplifiers in cascade, one turntable with record, and two recorders in a delay setup.

But the cool thing is, you don’t have to be a 1960s electronic music gearhead to understand and appreciate it. Amplified sounds oscillate through sky-high frequencies amidst haunting excerpts of the Puccini classic, transforming the operatic arias into an eerie, intergalactic sound experiment.

Composed at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (which Oliveros co-founded in 1962 along with a number of other musical giants of the avant-garde), the significance of “Bye Bye Butterfly” is twofold: not only was it a bold departure from the classical traditions of the past, but it was also a pointed commentary on centuries of socially-prescribed gender roles.

Ultimately, Oliveros’ Puccini deconstruction was a critique of Butterfly’s tragic fate—her life defined and ultimately destroyed by a society that insists on male dominance. The piece ushered in a new generation of classical music, bidding farewell, as Oliveros wrote, “not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.”

Maggie Molloy, Second Inversion host/contributor


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Photo courtesy Steve Peters

 

CONCERT PREVIEW: The John Cage Musicircus

by Maggie Molloy

This Saturday, the circus is coming to town—the Musicircus, that is. Come one, come all for a most unusual evening of art, dance, music, and chaos.

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Created by the avant-garde and always-iconoclastic composer John Cage in 1967, the
Musicircus is more of a “happening” than a traditional classical music concert. The score invites any number of performers to perform any number of pieces (musical or otherwise) simultaneously in the same place.

And this Saturday, Seattle-based percussionist and Musicircus ringmaster Melanie Voytovich has planned a multimedia presentation of this innovative work at Town Hall.

The John Cage Musicircus will feature over 40 musicians, dancers, performance artists, and poets performing pieces written (or inspired) by Cage and his explorations into the avant-garde. Woven in among the chaos are live performances of many of Cage’s best-known works, including the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, In a Landscape for (unprepared) piano, Child of Tree for amplified cactus, Third Construction for unorthodox percussion instruments, Cartridge Music for amplified small sounds, 45’ For a Speaker for spoken voice, and other works of all styles and artistic disciplines.

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Performers will be stationed all over Town Hall, with audience members encouraged to explore how the sonic and visual experience shifts as they wander freely throughout the circus, gawking at the oddities within. Like much of Cage’s work, the event erases the boundary between performers and audience members, beckoning even the most ordinary among us to run away and join the circus.

And so without further ado, allow me to introduce you to just a few of this weekend’s circus performers:


melanie-voytovichName: Melanie Voytovich

Performing: John Cage’s Third Construction and Composed Improvisation for snare drum

Describe your pieces in one word:
Third Construction: Historic
Composed Improvisation: Exploration

What makes your pieces unique? Cage composed Third Construction in 1941 during his time at Cornish. Through this work (and others in his Construction series), he sought to recreate the effects of tonality and harmonic progression upon traditional aspects of musical form—but using only non-pitched percussion instruments. The result was what Cage called a “micro/macrocosmic structure”: a musical form in which the grouping of units of time was the same on the small and the large scale.

Third Construction calls for four performers and a large assortment of exotic and unorthodox instruments, including a teponaxtle (Aztec log drum), quijadas (jawbone rattle), lion’s roar (a washtub with a small hole through which a rope is noisily pulled), and an assortment of cymbals, shakers, claves, tom-toms, and tin cans. By exploring these otherwise unconventional percussive colors and timbres within a controlled musical structure, Cage creates a work that is endlessly inventive—yet surprisingly unified.

Composed Improvisation for snare drum alone is similarly oxymoronic. Composed in 1987, the piece was composed using chance procedures derived from the I Ching: an ancient Chinese classic text that is commonly used as a divination system. The “score” for Composed Improvisation is literally just two pages of instructions which build the structure to the improvisation (number and duration of sections, use of implements, preparations, etc).


ania-ptasznikName: Ania Ptasznik

Performing: John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s HPSCHD, live coded

Describe your piece in one word: Transparent

What makes your piece unique? In the year when HPSCHD first debuted, computers were in their infancy.

What was extremely complicated to do then is surprisingly simple now. This performance, among other things, is a reflection on the evolution of technology and the changes that have taken place since the work was first created.

Live coding is the act of composing music with computer code. Unlike Ed Kobrin, the original computer programmer behind HPSCHD, one can now create music in real time, on the fly. As I execute functions based the patterns of I Ching hexagrams, the code will be available for everyone to see. I intend to bring the audience into the bare, yet elegant language of the computer while providing a subdued backdrop to a room of human performers. What makes this piece unique, I think, is in the dualities that take place: between head and heart, “high art” and debauchery, visibility and invisibility, and human and machine.


kerry-obrienName: Kerry O’Brien

Performing: Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra and John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)

Describe your pieces in one word: Shimmering

What Makes Your Pieces Unique? Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra (1988) is a solo for amplified triangle. Typically heard as part of an orchestra, the triangle is lucky to be struck once or twice each performance. There’s value in this: triangles can teach patience. But the triangle has other lessons to teach. In Silver Streetcar, Lucier instructs a percussionist to examine this instrument thoroughly, discovering the peculiar ways it can clang and quiver, reverberate and sing. With one hand, I’ll strike the triangle, varying the speed, intensity, and location of my striking, while with my other hand, I’ll dampen, mute, and manipulate the triangle to create further variations. As it turns out, there’s a world of complexity inside the shimmer of a triangle. 

Every so often, I’ll take a break from triangle playing to read the first few installments from John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)a mashup of musings that may shimmer with relevance (or shimmer with contradiction) given America’s recent politics. If you listen closely, you might hear some of these musings amidst the Musicircus chaos.


ilvs-strauss

 

Name: ilvs strauss

Performing: John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing

Describe Your Piece in One Word: Wordy

What Makes Your Piece Unique? I’ll be using Cage’s text as a starting point for discourse, both literal and physical.

 

 


michaud-savage-2Name: Michaud Savage

Performing: John Cage’s Eight Whiskus, Aria, and 8 Mesostics Re: Merce Cunningham

Describe your pieces in one word: Someantics

What makes your pieces unique? These pieces speak to Cage’s interest in disparity and cohesion, seen realized in three inventive approaches: sketch, collage, and notation.


tom-bakerName: Tom Baker

Performing: The Cage Elegies (original work inspired by Cage)

Describe your piece in one word: Elegiac

What makes your piece unique? The Cage Elegies is a “conversation” between myself and John Cage. The piece uses Cage’s recorded voice as its main material, around which the electric guitar circles and interacts.

It is in three movements, entitled: 1) Nowhere 2) Middle 3) Questions, with improvisations as prelude, interludes, and postlude. Many aleatoric procedures were brought to bear on the composing of this work, including the spoken text and length of all sections. 


jesse-myersName: Jesse Myers

Performing: John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (for prepared piano)

Describe your piece in one word: Ever-changing

What makes your piece unique? The piano preparation process and sounds in this music are always changing. The music is a process in itself which transports the listener through a series of moods based on Indian aesthetics called ‘rasas.’ This music is alive as the sounds, preparations, music, and process is ever-changing.


bonnie-whitingName: Bonnie Whiting

Performing: John Cage’s Third Construction and 51’15.657″ for a Speaking Percussionist (an original, solo-simultaneous realization of Cage’s 45′ for a Speaker and 27’10.554″ for a Percussionist)

Describe your pieces in one word: Third Construction: Joyous; 51’15.657″ for a Speaking Percussionist: Multiplicity

What makes your pieces unique? Cage’s 45′ for a Speaker and his 27’10.554″ for a Percussionist are vintage pieces: music from the mid-50’s and part of a series of timed works that he enjoyed mixing together and referred to in notes and letters as “the ten thousand things.” A culmination of 14 months of work and study, this version is the first to feature one performer executing both pieces in their entirety.

Cage subjected several of his lectures to chance procedures, and the result is his quirky and imaginative 45′ for a Speaker. Additionally, this particular version of Cage’s 27’10.554″ score is a very faithful realization, focusing on a performer-determined search for most uniquely beautiful and interesting sounds: a fusion of traditional percussion instruments as well as an array of found-objects, non-percussive sounds, and electronic sounds.

This idea of simultaneity: of layering rather than true interpolation is one of the most fascinating branches of Cage’s output. He stumbled upon it in his work with collaborative (and life) partner dancer Merce Cunningham. In some ways, this realization of these pieces is a microcosm of the (later) Musicircus idea, making it a great fit for this event.


stacey-mastrianName: Stacey Mastrian

Performing: John Cage’s Experiences No. 2 for voice, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs for voice and closed piano, A Chant with Claps for voice and hand claps, and selections from Song Books for voice with or without theatre and electronics

Describe your pieces in one word:  Eclectic

What makes your pieces unique? The first three pieces I will perform come from the 1940s—early in Cage’s output—when the voice appears in a simple and unaltered manner but is paired in unusual ways, whereas the last grouping of pieces spans the artistic and stylistic gamut, employing speaking, singing in various modalities, other noises, and electronics.

Experiences No. 2 (1948), for solo voice to text by e. e. cummings, was originally written for a dance by Merce Cunningham. Cage writes a straightforwardly beautiful melody that is interspersed with measured silences, and the singer can choose a comfortably low key in which to perform the work. This performance will feature nine dancers from Souterre, with world premiere choreography by Eva Stone.

A Chant With Claps (194?) exists only in manuscript form, and C.F. Peters and the John Cage Trust have graciously granted me permission to perform this rarity. This very brief, unpublished work bears the dedication “For Sidney,” which likely refers to ethnomusicologist Sidney Cowell, the wife of Cage’s former teacher, Henry Cowell.

Guitarist Mark Hilliard-Wilson and I will perform a version of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942), with alliterative, imagery-rich text fragments from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake that describe the infant Isobel; Joyce himself said this passage was inspired by a piece of music. Cage’s piece has a rather conventionally notated melodic line, but it is composed of only three pitches, which gives it a chant-like quality.

Song Books (1970) embrace far more than singing. In this iteration I will be performing Solos for Voice No. 7 (which involves me building an object resembling a wigwam out of toothpicks and tissues), No. 43 (I utilize electronics and improvise a duet with myself), No. 53 (I vocalize in ten different styles and five languages), No. 57 (I must achieve immobility), No. 71 (I write a card with note or sketch in ink), and No. 78 (I take off my shoes and put them back on).


Name: Michael Schell

Performing: John Cage’s Cartridge Music

Describe your piece in one word: Noisy

What makes your piece unique? A milestone of live electronic music and a classic of indeterminate notation, this uncompromising work from 1960 directs the performer(s) to use ceramic phonograph cartridges with various objects other than a conventional stylus. These objects are then “played” by the performers, along with auxiliary sounds created by attaching contact microphones to various objects, the resulting mix being amplified and projected through loudspeakers.

Performers build their score independently using Cage’s graphic pages and transparencies. The result is a sound world built from typically “undesirable” sonorities (hum, white noise, mechanical shuffling), small sounds (sounds of soft amplitude that take on very different characteristics when greatly amplified), and sounds that partake of more conventional meaning (such as toys or standard musical instruments played unconventionally and amplified using contact microphones). What gives the work coherence is the common electromechanical origin of its sound sources, and the consistent, largely non-metric, rhythmic milieu enforced by its unconventional notation and performance directions.

In other words: this is a rare example of an indeterminately-notated, non-improvisational composition that has a recognizable character and always comes out sounding good.


maggie-molloy-headshotName: Maggie Molloy

Performing: John Cage’s Dream and In a Landscape for solo piano, and an original zine titled Diary: How to Read John Cage

Describe your pieces in one word: Translucent

What makes your pieces unique? Dream and In a Landscape are both pretty tame by Cage standards: there are no chance operations, no graphic notations, no amplified cacti, no screws or bolts inside the piano. In fact, each of these pieces is comprised of just a handful of notes and a whole lot of sustain pedal. The melodies drift slowly and freely from one hazy note to the next, with the pedal blurring all of it into a beautifully simple and ethereal dreamscape. And although these pieces are certainly a far cry from most of Cage’s more daring compositions, they are still unmistakably Cagean: the gently meandering melodies evoke his quiet nature, his slow, thoughtful manner of speaking—his utter willingness to lose himself entirely in sound.

If Dream and In a Landscape are explorations of Cage’s character, then my next piece is an exploration of his mind. Diary: How to Read John Cage is a zine I created in response to Cage’s monstrous five-hour art piece, Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). Written and recorded in the years leading up to Cage’s death, the Diary’s contents range from the trivial details of everyday life all the way to the vast expanse of history, philosophy, and global politics—and all with an idiosyncratic dose of humor and wit. Over the course of eight weeks, I read and listened through Cage’s entire Diary and created my own personal diary tracking the experience. Copies of my John Cage Diary zine will be available free of charge at the Musicircus.


The John Cage Musicircus is Saturday, Nov. 19 from 7-10 p.m. at Town Hall Seattle. Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy will present a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Reich at 80: A Second Inversion Reichathon

We are celebrating Steve Reich’s 80th birthday in great style with a 24/7 streaming marathon of his music. Tune in all day!

We’re also paying tribute with reflections on these three ECM recordings, re-released in honor of the big 8-0.

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Two sonic worlds collide in Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians: the mechanical and the meditative. The piece layers the intimate, organic rhythm of the human breath above the hypnotic rhythmic pulse of pianos and mallet instruments, thus creating two different aural experiences of time—simultaneously.

Composed amidst the social revolution following the Vietnam War, Music for 18 Musicians spoke volumes about that period in American history: its driving rhythms and circling melodies suggested optimism, harmony, and progress. In fact, Reich included more harmonic movement in the first five minutes of this work than in any other composition of his to date.

He based the entire work on a cycle of eleven chords played at the very beginning of the piece, which are then stretched out across the entire 60 minutes to serve as a larger harmonic backdrop—effectively turning that eleven-chord cycle into a pulsing cantus for the entire piece.

Masterfully performed with his Grammy award-winning ensemble Steve Reich and Musicians, Reich arranged for each of these harmonic shifts to be cued audibly by the melodies of the metallophone (a vibraphone with no motor) rather than through a conductor. His reasoning? “Audible cues become part of the music and allow the musicians to keep listening.” – by Maggie Molloy

 

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The second disc of the ECM New Series anniversary set of Reich recordings features three works: the Music for a Large Ensemble of 1978, Violin Phase of 1967, and the Octet of 1979. A reissue of the label’s 1980 release, the polished sound of this recording is somewhat astounding. The performances are fantastic and un-conducted, performed by a crack team of chamber musicians that play with excellent pitch and execute the rapid, sparkling eighth note runs that drive this music with flawless technique. The composer himself performs on piano in Music for a Large Ensemble. Though occasionally balance can feel biased toward the endlessly jamming notes in the piano and mallet instruments to the detriment of female voices or long string chords, the sound of this recording is generally well rounded. These performances don’t at all have the feel of a premiere recording of music that is brand-new; instead it seems like we’re hearing accounts of works that have been performed many times and have already entered the canon of late-20th Century music, as Reich’s works now have. It may have been recorded in 1980, but this is an album fit for 2016 and beyond.

This part of ECM’s exploration offers us different perspectives of Reich’s instrumental works, both large and small. Shem Guibbory’s performance of Reich’s Violin Phase is placed between the two ensemble works, standing apart both in character and in compositional process. A recording of the violinist performing one phrase is repeated, with the same recording layered over itself first in perfect unison. The recordings are then shifted gradually so they play in an ever-changing canon, eventually adding a third recording of a countermelody that helps to spin the work into an almost symphonic concert piece. Rhythm alone drives the tension and release of this work, as we are occasionally frustrated by the chaos of the sound of the same phrase being played just slightly out of sync with itself, but find repose when the clatter locks into a cohesive rhythm. I love the way the stereo sound is mixed in this recording, such that we can feel the different Shems standing in a sort of semicircular ensemble in front of us.

The addition of voices to the mix of a wind and percussion instruments, as Reich does in Music for a Large Ensemble, is an interesting choice on multiple levels. First, it most explicitly characterizes this genre of Reich’s music as a result of the singing of the human voice, when in other Reich works, the constant bouncing of the eighth note runs can make it feel mechanical and, well, un-singable. This quick figuration often disguises the more vocal qualities of his instrumental works like the Octet, which features long lines in the string instruments, and in some works Reich makes a point to use brass and woodwinds to play a recurring chordal figure that can only be played in one breath. The human breath is then more of a measure of time in Reich’s music than the bar, that tyrannical measure of music that organizes everything into groups of four beats (or less often in Reich’s music, three, five, six, etc.). Thus, the use of voices and trumpets in Music for a Large Ensemble not only adds interesting timbres of sound, it changes our perception of units of time. The juxtaposition of these fast and slow elements happening simultaneously (and often in canon within themselves), shows Reich firing on all cylinders.

These effects that work so well in Music for a Large Ensemble are accomplished on a slightly more intimate level in the Octet “Eight Lines,” where two pianos are the only instruments of percussion used, joined by two flutes, two clarinets, and four strings. Like an intricate painting that reveals stunning detail when viewed very close but grandiose images when viewed from far away, Steve Reich’s music offers different levels of experience when listened to in different ways. A gradual zooming-out seems to take place over the course of the Octet, with the long line in the strings that starts with a single chord transforming into a long, flowing melody by the end, threatening to overwhelm the eighth note motor of the pianos and woodwinds.

All three performances have a sparkling joy to them which, beyond showing a technical mastery of the many elements of these works that are difficult to accomplish in precisely the same way throughout, show off groups of musicians that act as fantastic advocates for Reich’s music. In a way, the fact that so much of this music could be performed well by computers in all their unfailing precision is dangerous, because it is this element of joy that is the crucial end goal of all those notes and repeating figures, an element of distinctly human touch. It makes the artistry of these Reich recordings all the more valuable. – Geoffrey Larson

 

tehillim1In celebration of Steve Reich’s 80th birthday, I am delighted to be writing about the re-release of the fantastic 1981 ECM recording of Tehillim. This is a superb recording of a fascinating piece. This performance (which includes the composer as a player) is practically perfect, showcasing the beautifully clean, warm, and streamlined sound of Reich’s music. Furthermore, the intricately economical construction of this piece, which reveals more layers of internal connection the more deeply one delves into it, makes these two tracks an excellent way to spend 30 minutes.

In Reich’s own words, Tehillim can be seen as both “traditional and new at the same time.” This pleasing dichotomy, referring to both Reich’s own traditions and those of Western Art Music as a whole, runs throughout the piece. Tehillim is Steve Reich’s first explicit musical foray into his Jewish heritage. Reich began studying Jewish cantillation in 1976, and traveled to Israel the following year; these experiences would contribute to the eventual composition of Tehillim in 1981. In total, even though this piece diverges from many of Reich’s typical practices, Tehillim still has the balance of energetic and meditative elements that makes all of Reich’s music so appealing. Additionally, Tehillim is remarkable in the tightness and efficiency of its construction; many elements of this piece interlock and relate to one another in a manner that is extremely pleasing in its economical nature.

The balance between old and new in Tehillim is in large part connected to Reich’s choice of source text. The word “Tehillim” is the Hebrew word for Psalms; it from that book of the bible that the text for this piece comes. In making this choice, Reich gave himself space in which to create; in almost all modern versions of Judaism, the traditional of singing the Psalms has been lost. This allowed Reich to select source text that was not loaded with accompanying musical baggage.

Getting into the actual music of Tehillim, many elements of Tehillim center on the source text. The instrumentation, musical patterns, and harmonic movements all have roots in the Psalms. Psalm 150, an excerpt of which forms the text for the final part of Tehillim, even provides basic instructions for instrumentation! It mentions drums, strings, winds, and multiple types of cymbals as instruments with which to execute praise, and all of those instruments are represented in the piece. Reich’s inclusion of clapping and maracas also have roots in the music of the Biblical period.

The rhythmic patterns in Tehillim are significantly different from minimalism for which Reich is best known. Instead of the short repeating patterns seen in piece like Music for 18 Musicians, the rhythms in in Tehillim stem from the rhythms of the text itself; Reich would later use this technique in pieces including The Cave (1993) and Different Trains (1998). So, instead of the “traditional” repeated short rhythms expected in Reich’s music, he achieves continuity with four-part canons, “functional” harmony, and imitative counterpoint, techniques which are more closely associated with more traditional Western Art Music than with Reich’s music.

Although those traditional techniques come from the Common Practice period of Western Art Music, there are other influences here, too, that contribute to the juxtaposition of old and new in Tehillim. In addition to the biblically-inspired instrumentation, the vocal parts are sung without vibrato, harkening back to ancient singing styles. Additionally, the rhythmic action that underpins most of the work has the complex interlocking structures that, while common in much of Reich’s music, do not come from any Western tradition.

Despite all of the intricately crafted and tightly interrelated elements of this piece that apparently diverge from Reich’s standard techniques, Tehillim still sounds like Steve Reich. While not repetitive, the rhythms here still have an energetic constancy that recalls Reich’s other work. The non-vibrato vocal parts also sound like Reich; the same technique is present in Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ and Music for 18 Musicians. Also, in Tehillim, as in Music for 18 Musicians, the voices are used as instrumental colors, although since there is text Tehillim, the voices do more than just add color. However, Reich does not seem to draw a distinct line between these two functions of the voice in Tehillim; the voices enunciate the text in repeating phrases, then extend the final sounds of those segments to blend back into the ensemble color, returning to more purely instrumental vocal sounds of Music for 18 Musicians. So, while the four-part canons and (gasp!) functional harmony may not be expected, Tehillim is clearly still classic Reich.

Overall, the effect of this piece is one of meditation followed by joy. The instrumentation, although strongly tied to the Psalm 150 text, provides a comforting sense of intimacy when combined with Reich’s supremely effective orchestration. This is perhaps a reflection of the meditative and self-searching origins of the piece.

Like many larger-scale works of minimalism, the feeling at the end of this piece is one of a coming ecstasy. It is the building knowledge that a tremendously positive event is imminent, and that the event will be overwhelming but also at least partially unknowable. In the case of a work focused on exploration of religion, this feeling might be better described as the sense of approaching a great mystery: one which will be joyful and significant, even though it remains eternally enigmatic. – by Seth Tompkins


And for some more memories down Steve Reich lane, here are some of our past features on his music:

Third Coast Percussion Album Review

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New Music Apps, including Steve Reich’s Clapping Music

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Videos produced by Second Inversion:

And a bonus tribute from community member Michael Schell:

Steve Reich at 80

A triumvirate of composers — Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass — has come to epitomize minimalism as it coalesced in New York in the 1960s. Of the three, Riley can claim precedence (his In C got the ball rolling in 1964), and Glass can claim the most commercial success. But I think it’s Reich who earns the most admiration from other composers, perhaps by a wide margin. It’s not just because his music is sophisticated and groundbreaking, but also because it has a kind of integrity that reflects the rigor and commitment to exploration that Reich has always brought to his creative process (and indeed to his life). Consider the range of Reich’s early experiments:

  • Tape pieces where he layers short loops of recorded speech until they become melodic (Come Out)
  • Live electronic music (Pendulum Music)
  • “Phase” pieces for a solo instrument playing in and out of sync with its prerecorded copy
  • The piece Four Organs, unique even in Reich’s output, basically a 20-minute rhythmic elaboration of a single E11 chord

It wasn’t until after he went to Ghana in 1970 to study Ewe drumming that Reich’s most recognizable style took shape: percussion-centric ensembles playing highly contrapuntal music built from short, repeated, syncopated phrases. This is the sound world of his most famous works (like Music for 18 Musicians) and there was every opportunity to cash in and churn out piece after piece using the same formula. But instead Reich kept moving forward, trying out atonal harmonies in The Desert Music, digital sampling in Different Trains and intermedia in The Cave, always meticulously crafting the finished product to his highly self-critical standards.

At 80, Reich has seen his compositions recorded, discussed and analyzed many times over (well, except for Come Out, which lacks a conventional score, though I have a go at transcribing one here). And nowadays it’s easy for composers to write music that sounds like Reich. But it’s the integrity behind Reich’s work that I think will most powerfully define his legacy and keep it relevant for generations to come. – Michael Schell

 

Contributors

Maggie Molloy SI PhotoMaggie Molloy is a music journalist at Classical KING FM and Second Inversion. She manages all of Second Inversion’s programming and platforms, including curating the 24/7 online stream and website features, producing written and multimedia content, and serving as an on-air host for Second Inversion.

Maggie is also the founder, director, and editor of Second Inversion’s Women in (New) Music series, which explores feminist issues within and beyond the classical music sphere.

Maggie graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music from Seattle University. She also studied experimental music composition in Paris at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique. She primarily plays piano, though she also has performance experience on guitar, violin, and double bass.

 

Seth TompkinsSeth Tompkins is the Program Director of Classical KING FM and a founder of Second Inversion. He also designed the Second Inversion logo. A native of Southeast Michigan, he relocated to Seattle in 2009.

Seth has been with KING FM since 2011. He has served as the Assistant Music Director, an on-air producer, and a voice on Second Inversion.  He holds a Master of Music degree from the University of Washington and a Bachelor of Music degree from Central Michigan University.

Outside of KING FM, Seth enjoys hiking, cooking, live music, and most forms of DIY.  Seth is also active as a freelance tuba performer and teacher in the Seattle area, having performed with Seattle Symphony, Olympia Symphony, Saratoga Orchestra of Whidbey Island, Seattle Modern Orchestra, and Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, among others.

 

Rachele HalesRachele Hales is KING FM’s Operations Manager. She maintains station equipment, ensures FCC compliance, handles engineering/IT tasks & remote broadcasts, does sound production & pledge producing, and is one of the four founders and voices of Second Inversion.  She received a Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcast Production from Washington State University in 2005.

Outside the office she is actively involved in several volunteer groups and enjoys biking, weight lifting, reading, theatre, learning Korean, and napping with her cat.  She writes short works of fiction and is even published in a few places if you know where to look.  Rachele confesses that she also compulsively double-checks the syllabic integrity of any haiku on her fingers.

 


Geoffrey LarsonGeoffrey Larson is Assistant Music Director at KING FM, where he programs the Seattle Symphony Channel, Opera Channel, and Evergreen Channel, in addition to his work as a host on Second Inversion. He has held the position of Music Director of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra since 2009.

A passionate advocate for new music both as a clarinetist and conductor, he has performed with Seattle Modern Orchestra and recorded with the Carnegie Mellon Contemporary Ensemble. He has worked closely with composers such as Reza Vali, Leonardo Balada, Nancy Galbraith, Gabriel Prokofiev, Binna Kim, and Erberk Eryılmaz.

 

imageOakland native Brendan Howe began his international musical career at the age of four, performing a rousing rendition of the right-hand-only piano line of the first eight bars of Star Wars: Main Theme on a boat to Ensenada. Since then, he has learned to sing and play guitar, performing Carl Orff with choirs in the Sydney Opera House, and original music with bands in dive bars everywhere from Tahoe to Tierra del Fuego. He plans to add Seattle to the list as soon as possible, and has been listening to a great deal of Peter Gabriel, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Sviatoslav Richter lately.

 

Micaela Pearson is the Underwriting and Development Coordinator for Classical KING FM 98.1, where she helps raise funds for KING FM’s operating budget through individual giving campaigns and business sponsorships.

Micaela graduated magna cum laude from Seattle University with a BA in Fine Arts, Music with Honors. She is a vocalist and conductor, working with the Seattle University Chapel Choir and the Seattle University music department. She has served as stage manager and page turner for Byron Schenkman and the Seattle Baroque Orchestra for concerts at Town Hall and Benaroya Hall. She is a board member of Key to Change, a local non-profit organization which provides music lessons to disadvantaged youth in south King County.

Micaela enjoys finding unique classical vinyl records for her collection, playing piano, and identifying mushrooms on nature walks.

 

Michael Schell has been passionate about modern music ever since being spooked by a recording of The Rite of Spring as a toddler. He has two degrees in music, and has had various avocations as a composer, intermedia artist, systems engineer and cribbage player. He’s lived in Texas, California, Iowa, Nepal and New York, and now enjoys life in Seattle.

 

 

Maggie StapletonMaggie Stapleton is the former Assistant Program Director at Classical KING FM and one of the founders of Second Inversion. Under her leadership Second Inversion grew into a multimedia project featuring our 24/7 online stream, weekly album reviews and other blog content, and community outreach projects.

Maggie holds B.M. (Furman University) and M.M. (University of Washington) degrees in Flute Performance and is currently a member of the Seattle Rock Orchestra, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra, and Parnassus Project.

Outside of the office and rehearsal hall, Maggie loves to cook, rock climb, run, bike, hike, and explore the beautiful city of Seattle and surrounding areas of Western Washington.

 

Jill KimballJill Kimball is a blog contributor and occasional announcer for Second Inversion.

Before moving to Boulder, CO, Jill was the primary administrator and content creator for www.king.org and for Classical KING FM’s Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in News-Editorial Journalism from the University of Oregon, and before coming to KING FM, she was a reporter and intern for several newspapers and magazines including The Seattle Times, the Oregon Daily Emerald, Palo Alto Weekly and Monterey County Weekly.

Jill is a soprano in two Boulder choral groups, Ars Nova and Seicento. She has also sung with Seattle Pro Musica, the Seattle Symphony, Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul, and GRAMMY-winning recording artist Ricky Kej. She enjoys listening to all sorts of music, including folk, jazz, and even Top 40.

 

10458543_10205017981582818_8832719797470816859_nDavid Wall is the former Event Manager at KING FM, coordinating the station’s presence in the arts community, as well as the volunteer program.

An active musician, David plays bassoon in a number of community groups, including the Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra and Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra. He hopes to attend University this Fall to pursue a degree in music.

Outside of the office, David enjoys reading, photography, hiking, backpacking, and has even toured the United States twice for two months at a time, where he played saxophone in ska band.


Jim HoltJames Holt is a composer, podcaster, and arts administrator. Born in California and raised in Washington, he went to graduate school in Indiana and lived for several years in New York City before settling back here in Seattle. His music has been performed across the country and internationally. He produces the Switchboard Music Festival and has contributed to SecondInversion.org (through KING-FM in Seattle), Q2music.org (through WQXR in New York City), Sequenza21.com, and Polyphonic.org.

 

KMoravec_MVoytovich_PromoPhotos35Melanie Voytovich is a contemporary percussionist and educator located in the Pacific Northwest. She is currently working with West Side Music Academy and often gives clinics at local schools and Day of Percussion events.

Dedicated to encouraging innovation and collaboration, she pioneered the Washington State New Works for Percussion project, a committee focused on commissioning new repertoire for percussion. She is also the Chapter President of the Washington State Percussive Arts Society and is currently working to expand its reach and influence throughout the state.

 


roger downeyRoger Downey has lived in Seattle for 50 years and has never considered living anywhere else.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Christophe ChagnardFrench conductor, composer and guitarist Christophe Chagnard joined KING FM as Digital Content Manager in July 2015. One of the most sought-after musicians in the Pacific Northwest, Chagnard is an all-around artist acclaimed for his finely etched performances and charismatic approach to music.

As co-founder of the Northwest Sinfonietta in 1991, Chagnard built what the Seattle Post-Intelligencer calls “the finest chamber orchestra in the Northwest” which he led for 24 years. Chagnard is also Music Director of the Lake Union Civic Orchestra and is equally versed in a vast repertoire of chamber, symphonic, operatic and ballet works of all styles and periods, Chagnard has gained a reputation as an insatiable conductor with a broad musical reach.