Not Even Harry Partch Can Be An Island

by Michael Schell

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

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

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

Neighborhood Roots

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

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

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

A Mexican Maverick

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Back in the Old World…

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Synthesis

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

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

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


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

Women in (New) Music: Remembering Graciela Agudelo (1945–2018)

by Michael Schell

Composer Graciela Agudelo, who passed away on April 19, was a well-loved figure within the Mexican new music community, but her work is largely unknown in the United States. This is a shame, because surveying her output reveals it to be that of a talented and forward-looking musician whose creativity has seemingly been hidden from us by a line drawn on a map.

Born in Mexico City in 1945, her full name was Graciela Josefina Eugenia Agudelo y Murguía. As a young girl, she displayed proficiency on the piano, and she went on to study the instrument in college, eventually turning to composition in her mid-20s. Despite that relatively late start, she developed quickly, and wrote a number of solo, chamber and orchestral works in an avant-garde style enlivened by an individualistic approach to national identity that avoided folkloristic clichés.

Her percussion quartet, De hadas y aluxes, is a good introduction. It comes from a long line of Latin American percussion works that originated with Amadeo Roldán’s Rítmicas 5 and 6 of 1930 (thought to have edged out Varèse’s Ionization as the first modern compositions for percussion alone) and continued through Chávez’s 1942 Toccata (one of the most popular works by any Mexican composer). Agudelo’s title refers to Mayan mythology: an hada is a fairy and an alux is a counterpart to the Celtic leprechaun. The piece rumbles through a zigzagging array of different moods, with textures built from sustained rolls and soft tamtam strokes abutting more active passages featuring mallet instruments. The first steady beat appears at 6:52 in the above track, a soft four-note march in the timpani:

It soon speeds up, other drums joining in at their own tempo, eventually turning into a cacophonous spritely dance. A vibraphone cadenza ushers in a slower, quieter section (the sprites need a breather), then at 11:10, a sudden bass drum stroke sets off a vigorous bacchanal. When this winds down, the coda emerges, based on a pentatonic theme—the only real melody in the piece—which refers back to the earlier march riff:

This piece is so obscure that it has no performance history in the United States, but I think it holds its own against many newer, better-known percussion works.

Even when Agudelo’s models are obvious, she still displays invention and craft. Her Arabesco (1990) is inspired by Berio’s Sequenzas, a series of solo pieces written for new virtuosi proficient in both traditional and extended techniques. But whereas Berio wrote for modern instruments, Agudelo applied this zeal for finding new sounds to the recorder, one of the oldest, most hackneyed instruments imaginable. At various points the performer is called upon to sing, perform glissandos and multiphonics, and even play two recorders simultaneously (one with each hand).

Like Arabesco, Agudelo’s suite Meditaciones sobre Abya Yala for solo flute explores a variety of standard and modern techniques, this time in service of an anguished nostalgia. Abya Yala is an indigenous name for all the Americas, and the movements include such suggestive titles as Curare, Guanacos, and Tacuabé (the name of the last surviving Charrúa tribesman of Urugray, captured in 1833 and taken to France where he was displayed as a museum piece). The last movement is entitled Tambor (drum), and befittingly explores a range of percussive and noise effects. In one notable passage, flutist Alejandro Escuer is heard whistling and playing simultaneously.

A highlight of Agudelo’s oeuvre is the 1993 orchestral piece Parajes de la Memoria: La Selva (Places of Memory: The Jungle). It proceeds in moment form, a succession of recollected mental snapshots inhabiting a timbre-centric world that anticipates several recent (and admired) compositions from the US and Europe (compare her bird flock at 3:02 with Georg Frederich Haas’ In Vain). Latin American rattles and drums add a touch of local color, and the music even breaks out into the briefest of bossa novas at the end, but Agudelo constructs her personal rainforest without sentimentality and without backing into full-fledged Villa-Lobos style folklorism.

Besides being a pianist and composer, Agudelo was also one of Mexico’s most important music pedagogues. She considered communal music-making to be an important socialization tool (“music-making is harmonious, not only in an intrinsic sense but also in a social sense”), and fought for musical education in primary schools. She wrote instructional books and music for students, and lobbied for the protection of Mexican traditional and art music against the onslaught of mass media. Her talents even ranged into literature: she wrote numerous short stories, recently gathered into the collection En Los Claros del Tiempo (In the Clearings of Time).

For much of the 20th century, Western art music in Mexico was dominated by the figure of Carlos Chávez (1899–1978), whose style of neoclassicism spiced with indigenous Mesoamerican elements established the first post-Revolutionary paradigm for Mexican composers. But his influence and personality was so towering that little else thrived in its shadows. By the time composers of Agudelo’s generation came of age in the 1960s, it was clear that a new and more contemporary movement was needed, one based on post-WW2 musical techniques meaningfully informed by a Latin American sensibility. It is this legacy that Agudelo—along with her contemporaries Mario Lavista and Julio Estrada—has bequeathed not only to a fresh cadre of 21st century Mexican composers, but also to all of us who enjoy and cherish new music.

Frederic Rzewski at 80: Directions Inevitable or Otherwise

by Michael Schell

Photo by Michael Wilson.

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

Beginnings and Musica Elettronica Viva

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minimalism

Photo via Lovely Music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Composer-Pianist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Profundis

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

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

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

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

Retrospective

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

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

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

Remembering Cecil Taylor (1929–2018)

by Michael Schell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Essential John Luther Adams

by Michael Schell

Did you miss Second Inversion’s John Luther Adams Marathon on March 28? Are you interested in exploring the music of America’s most famous ecologist-composer by sampling a few key pieces? If so, check out this selection of JLA’s most indispensable albums to date.

Earth and the Great Weather

If you’re ever remanded to a desert island where you can take along a single John Luther Adams album, this is the one to pick. Subtitled A Sonic Geography of the Arctic, this ten-movement composition from 1993 was Adams’ breakout piece. It’s both an ecological oratorio of the far North and a compendium of the techniques that Adams would hone over the next 25 years: haunting drones and trills, ritualistic taiko-like drumming, and overtone-based textures inspired by his teacher James Tenney (compare the latter’s Shimmer to this album’s track Pointed Mountains Scattered All Around). It even has some things you don’t find in other Adams pieces, such as Alaska nature recordings and texts from Native Alaskan languages


The Far Country

This is another fine sampler album from 1993 that features three medium-length pieces for large ensemble. Dream in White on White is a plaintive work for strings and harp reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Orpheus. The early choral composition Night Peace openly displays its debt to Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. The Far Country of Sleep begins with a solo trumpet motif that’s almost identical to Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, but as this orchestral piece progresses, it makes clear that its philosophical affinity is with Rachel Carson rather than Nietzsche.


Inuksuit

This outdoor piece for multiple percussionists has been performed all over North America (including here in Seattle in 2015). Adams considers this recording, three years in the making and captured on location in rural Vermont, to be a definitive representation.


Become Ocean

And here it is: Seattle Symphony’s Grammy Award-winning recording of Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. Released in 2014, it’s the first recording of Adams’ music by a major orchestra. Although the sound world of Become Ocean isn’t all that far from Ravel’s daybreak scene in Daphnis et Chloé, Adams’ instinct as an ecologist is to let his textural soundscape unfold on its own terms and at its own pace, with a minimum of intervention. Indeed, this work is so well proportioned that it seems much shorter than its 42-minute duration. Become Ocean is both a fulfillment of the trajectory of Adams’ work since Earth and the Great Weather and a searchlight illuminating the wonders yet to come from this imaginative composer.


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

A Spotify version of our Essential JLA playlist is available below:

Music for the (Un)faint of Heart: Bernd Alois Zimmermann at 100

by Michael Schell

People ill-disposed toward modern music often claim that it sounds like the work of tormented souls. It’s a philistine argument, but there’s one case where the old cliché might ring true: the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918–1970), whose centenary has just arrived.

Born and raised in a small Catholic town near Köln (Cologne), Zimmermann spent most of his life in Western Germany. Readers attuned to historical details will have already done the math—Zimmermann’s youth encompassed the Nazi period, and he was eventually drafted into the Wehrmacht, spending over a year on the Eastern Front and in France before receiving a medical discharge in 1942. Germany’s collective shame over the Holocaust—amplified by a generous dose of Catholic guilt and Cold War apprehension—weighed heavily on Zimmermann, and he struggled with depression and anxiety for the rest of his life.

After the War, Zimmermann started writing neoclassical music in the tradition of Hindemith. His Fairy Tale Suite from 1950 displays his formidable sense of rhythm and his ease working with large orchestras. The Epilog from the suite seems to be one of the models for what became a standard Hollywood genre of triumphalist marches.

After becoming acquainted with modern composers such as Schoenberg, whose music had been suppressed under Nazism, Zimmermann wrote increasingly experimental music until by the end of his career he had fully embraced the aesthetics and techniques of the postmodern avant-garde. Like other German composers, he also became interested in African-American music, both because of its anti-authoritarian associations and because the flexible swing beat of jazz offered an alternative to the regular beat associated with the martial music that the Nazis had relentlessly broadcast to “tune in” their populace. An early convergence of these interests is the 1954 trumpet concerto Nobody knows de trouble I see, a kind of funky 12-tone fantasy on that famous spiritual.

The stylistic eclecticism on display in this concerto became a trademark in Zimmermann’s music. He called it pluralism: mixing disparate elements and influences within the same composition. His 1962 viola concerto Antiphonen is another example of this. The fourth movement begins innocuously enough with a cadenza for the soloist, but then we start hearing the voices of several musicians reading passages aloud from Dostoevsky, Camus, Dante, the Bible, and most prominently of all, the ending of Joyce’s Ulysses. Post-Webernian pointillism continues to alternate with text readings, leading to the final movement, which features slow, overlapping F♮-G♮ trills on several instruments until a soft ride rhythm emerges on the snare drum to close out the piece. Within a few years, this kind of eclecticism would burst out all over Europe and North America, often described using terms such as totalism or polystylism.

Besides quoting literary texts, Zimmermann also grew obsessed with musical references. He often quoted the Dies irae hymn (like many other composers before and since). And his ballet Music for the Suppers of King Ubu is made up almost entirely of quoted material, both old and new (even Stockhausen gets cited), creating an atmosphere of prickly levity, befitting the self-indulgent title character of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play Ubu Roi.

But the burdens of the past never left Zimmermann, and his music took a particularly dark turn during the 1960s. His Requiem for a Young Poet (finished in 1969) is kind of an evil twin to the contemporaneous Mass (1971) by that other 2018 centenarian, Leonard Bernstein. Both works appropriate liturgical and modern texts, employ singing and speaking, mix live music with prerecorded material, move musicians around in the concert space, and blend contemporary composed styles with vernacular idioms (jazz in Zimmermann’s case, folk and rock in Bernstein’s). But Zimmermann’s Requiem has none of the manufactured optimism that prevails in Bernstein’s offering. Even the title is despairing, referring to the death by suicide of three of the poets whose texts Zimmermann set. And whereas Bernstein’s work is a pastiche, Zimmermann’s quotes actual music—from Wagner to the Beatles. It’s interesting that the greatest Requiem settings of the 20th century (including those by Britten, Stravinskyand Ligeti) all came from the 1960s, amid social turmoil in the West, the specter of nuclear annihilation, and the still fresh memories of WW2 and the Holocaust.

But it’s Zimmermann’s most famous work that really sets the bar for unmitigated cynicism: his opera Die Soldaten. Seemingly tailored for people who find Berg’s Wozzeck too soft-hearted, this magnum opus, premiered in 1965, is an angry denunciation of military power, greed and authoritarianism. In some ways it’s comparable to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, a landmark of early opera that’s likewise set in a police state with an array of (mostly) morally compromised characters. But few music theater works mete out the pessimism quite as brutally as Zimmermann’s. As it reaches its climax, the middle-class protagonist Marie is sexually assaulted, whereupon her estranged lover Stolzius fatally poisons the aristocratic perpetrator and then himself. In the last scene, Marie is shown as a vagabond begging alms from her passing father, who does not recognize her.

Not surprisingly, Zimmermann’s music is loud, ruthless and discordant. It opens with a succession of drumbeats over shrieks and flurries in the rest of the orchestra that seem to depict a phalanx of storm troopers despoiling a city whose residents scream and flee chaotically in horror. Even the opera’s love scenes have an angular dissonance to them, implying that the participants are ultimately two-faced manipulators. Though Jakob Lenz’s original 1776 play sets the action in 18th century Lille, Zimmermann makes his intentions clear by changing the timeframe to “yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

The absolute apogee of musical expressionism, Die Soldaten is not for the squeamish, and the sadistic violence is difficult to watch (Zimmermann saw the rape of Marie not just as a depiction of society’s pervasive misogyny, but also as a metaphor for how totalitarianism penetrates the psyche of everyone living under it). Despite this, and despite the incredible technical and financial challenges that the work presents (among other things it requires an enormous orchestra, with organ, jazz band and more than a dozen percussionists), its power and sheer audacity continues to intrigue audiences, and to attract the attention of leading singers, directorsand opera companies. As current events remind us of the brittleness of democracy and civic society, the themes of Die Soldaten are looking more ominously relevant.

If Die Soldaten overwhelms with its scale and ambition, then Stille und Umkehr (Stillness and Return), Zimmermann’s last orchestral piece, astonishes with its fragility and single-mindedness. It’s basically a ten minute essay on the note D, sustained softly and passed gently among groups of instruments to the accompaniment of a snare drum tapping out one of Zimmermann’s beloved ride rhythms, now devolved into a kind of faltering heartbeat. Above this background rise fleeting splashes of color, such as the heterophonic flute murmurings that open the piece. The heartbeat, played with bare fingers, is the only trace of a distinct pulse, and it has enough rests in it that you generally lose the beat when it isn’t playing. It’s as though we’re inside the mind of a deathbed patient whose fragmentary memories are playing out one last time.

After a few minutes, a musical saw adds a somewhat sinister buzzing sonority to the mix. Bass instruments start to be heard, and the heartbeat shifts to a deeper tenor drum played with brushes. But the mood of the opening returns, the color splashes dissipate, and the impact of this gripping soundscape lingers long after the music stops.

Stille und Umkehr is a remarkable departure for such a normally maximalist composer, and deserves to be counted among postmodernism’s masterpieces. Zimmermann wrote it in 1970 during a psychiatric hospitalization—perhaps subconsciously prefiguring his own demise. Later that year, haunted by the demons made so visceral in his music, and by deteriorating physical health, Zimmermann took his own life at the age of 52. His last work was a theatricalized setting of Ecclesiastes which he titled Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne (“I turned and saw all the injustice there was under the Sun”).

Few composers in any era have felt so impelled to confront the uncomfortable things around and inside them, and articulate them in a way that is musical, contemporary and provocative. In exchange for this expressive honesty, Zimmermann demands a commitment from his listeners to receive the music with patience and integrity. To engage with his work is to explore a deeply intense and personal idiom. In the end, one wonders whether the lens it offers into the composer’s psyche is also a mirror.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘No Answer’ by Steve Layton

by Michael Schell

Steve Layton is a noted creator, producer and journalist of new music. He edits the Sequenza 21 website, and stands as one of the foremost figures in Seattle’s busy electronic music scene. His proficient studio chops are showcased on No Answer, a new collection of 17 short solo tracks available on Bandcamp.

The general tone for the album is set right at the outset with “Bullfrog,” an uptempo, beat-driven affair, quirky enough with its polyrhythms that it comes “with no guarantee you’ll be able to dance to it.” Other pieces, like “The Moment of Equinox,” contrast this with a darker, more drony feel. And for novelty value there’s the title track, whose source material comes from the telephone answering machine of Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991): cellist, producer, and frequently risqué collaborator of Nam June Paik and other avant-gardists. Altogether, the set makes a worthy introduction to Layton’s prolific output.