Scott Johnson: Mind Out of Matter, Music Out of Speech

by Michael Schell

Musicians of every stripe have spent centuries exploring the range of vocal expression from straight speaking to pure singing. The development of recording technology has added a few new possibilities to the mix, and one of them, called speech melody, has become closely associated with the American composer Scott Johnson.

Born in 1952, Johnson grew up and studied in Wisconsin. Like Joni Mitchell, he played guitar, moved to New York in his 20s, and for a time fancied himself more of a visual artist than a musician. Johnson quickly integrated into the Downtown New York music scene, performing with Rhys Chatham and Laurie Anderson (before her pop star days), and exploring the regions where minimalism, jazz, rock, and electronic music all came together.

His breakthrough came in 1982 with the album John Somebody, which inaugurated his speech melody technique. Its workings can be easily discerned from the title track (above). Johnson starts with a snippet of recorded speech, then makes it into a tape loop as Steve Reich had done in his piece Come Out:

Johnson then fashions a guitar melody that aligns with the contour and rhythm of the speech, and plays this melody in sync with the loop. Accompanying chords, extra tracks of looped speech and guitar obbligatos, and an increasingly dense texture soon follow by way of musical development.

Photo by Patricia Nolan.

Johnson compares his speech transcription style to Messiaen’s practice of transcribing bird songs for use in compositions. He also cites the call-and-response patterns common in blues (as in this exchange between Bessie Smith and trombonist Charlie Smith) as an influence alongside Reich and Messiaen (“those three things kind of collided one afternoon”). Other musicians have experimented with speech melody in the years since John Somebody, including Florent Ghys in Petits Artéfacts (2015) and Reich himself, borrowing back from Johnson in Different Trains (1988).Learn 

Now Johnson is out with a new piece conceived for Alarm Will Sound. In place of the humorous tape loops of John Somebody, this work features the digitally sampled and recombined musings of Daniel Dennett, one of America’s leading philosophers and cognitive scientists, and a noted freethinker whose writings and speeches about the evolution of human consciousness are aptly reflected in the work’s title: Mind Out of Matter.

A good demonstration of Johnson’s updated approach for this composition comes at the start of “Winners,” the third of its eight movements. From the following spoken phrase…

“you can’t get ‘em out of your head”

…Johnson constructs a stuttering four-bar phrase using progressively longer excerpts:

Next, drums and percussion come in to reinforce the rhythm. Then, four bars later, the piano starts to melodicize the sampled speech…

…whereupon chords and other instruments are added to complete the texture:

You can hear this passage starting at 2:37 of the following rehearsal video:

With a length of 74 minutes, a gestation period of six years, and a broad timbral pallet befitting the instrumentation and virtuosity of Alarm Will Sound (a 21st century chamber orchestra equipped with wind, string, percussion and electric instruments), Mind Out of Matter is Johnson’s most elaborate composition to date. It has been called an “atheist oratorio,” not altogether ironically, since like Handel’s Messiah, it’s an epic, multi-movement voice and instrumental setting of texts about religion (and there’s even a “choral” movement where several of the musicians sing). In its structure, theme, and dimensions it also strikes me as a rationalist counterpart to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Johnson says he “tried to imbue this music with the sense of awe and wonder that lie at the heart of Dennett’s scientifically informed philosophy, while still emulating his gift for crafting a disarmingly playful presentation.” Mind Out of Matter succeeds by ritualizing the rational, creating a kind of secular age surrogate for religious music that acknowledges our persistent human attraction to sacralized culture.

Neal Kosaly-Meyer: Playing the Piano One Note at a Time

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Neal Kosaly-Meyer performing Gradus at NUMUS Northwest. Photo by James Holt.

Neal Kosaly-Meyer plays the piano one note at a time. Or at least, that’s the idea behind his ongoing performance series Gradus: For Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler. He devotes an extended improvisation (20 minutes or longer) to each individual note on the piano, and to as many combinations of notes as possible.

This Saturday at the Chapel Performance Space he will perform one installment of the series: 40 minutes on one note (C sharp to be specific), 20 minutes on five notes in multiple octaves, and 60 minutes on two notes. Extended periods of silence are incorporated into all three sections. Kosaly-Meyer flips a coin to determine the number of notes per movement, how long the movements will be, and how much silence will be interspersed in each movement.

The idea for Gradus presented itself to Kosaly-Meyer over 30 years ago while he was a graduate student in the School of Music at the University of Washington. He had been thinking a lot about John Cage and how composers could follow in his footsteps by challenging preconceived notions of what music could be.

“It’s hard to find the frontier after a composer like Cage, who went right out to the edge of so many frontiers,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “This thought, learn to play the piano one note at a time, was kind of a thread to be able to push to do music that felt like it was on an edge, that felt like there was a risk being taken.”

Still, it wasn’t until he moved to San Diego with his wife and was able to play on a grand piano at a church he attended that he began to really explore the idea. Kosaly-Meyer believes performing on a grand piano is pivotal to Gradus.

“It’s not something you could do on an electronic keyboard or even an upright piano,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “I think to do something where you actually have enough sound, enough reverberation for a project like this to be interesting requires a grand piano.”

He began with 40 minutes improvising on the lowest A on the piano, and then began using combinations of As. Implicit in the idea of learning to play the piano one note at a time was the idea of learning to play differently by finding artistry in each sound. With attack, duration, dynamics, and intricate pedaling techniques, Kosaly-Meyer developed the ability to make a wide assortment of sounds using just one A.

His work temporarily came to a halt when he moved again and no longer had access to a grand piano. But years later, in 2001, his friend Keith Eisenbrey helped solve that problem.

Kosaly-Meyer met Eisenbrey while taking composition courses at the UW. They had done a lot of improvisation work together, and Kosaly-Meyer was able to develop the Gradus project and other works by bouncing ideas off of Eisenbrey. They became family when Eisenbrey married Kosaly-Meyer’s sister Karen, and in 2001 Kosaly-Meyer was able to continue with Gradus by rehearsing on Eisenbrey’s grand piano.

When he began sharing Gradus, it was positive feedback from Eisenbrey and other composers that emboldened Kosaly-Meyer to move forward with this musical venture. He began his annual performance series in 2002 in Seattle.

Kosaly-Meyer determined that Gradus works best with a two-hour, three-part structure that allows him to separate what he sees as three distinct ways of making music.

“I had come to a conclusion after working on this a little bit that playing with one note is a particular kind of making music, playing with two notes is another kind of making music that’s very different than just playing with one, and that playing with 3 or more notes is very different than playing with two,” he said.

Drawing inspiration from Cage, Kosaly-Meyer chose to incorporate silencewhich really means all unintended ambient soundsas an equal partner in the performance. If weather permits, Kosaly-Meyer leaves the windows open at the Chapel, allowing highway noise, barking dogs, and audiences’ creaking benches and coughs to form a chorus that supports his playing.

“I always found in improvising that music happened much more organically with an ensemble. Even if it was just an ensemble of two, it was so much easier for something musical to happen,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “Gradus is really the first kind of solo improvisation project I find that can stay musical and I think the trick is that it’s not really a solo project.”

This particular performance is dedicated to the late jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, who displayed incredible control over each and every note he played, no matter how intricate the performance. Kosaly-Meyer was also interested in exploring the interplay between the ideas of Taylor and Cage, who were at odds during their lifetimes because of Cage’s aversion to jazz and improvisation. Gradus combines Taylor’s spontaneity with Cage’s interest in silence as an equal partner.

“One thing that’s going on in Gradus is an attempt to harmonize a Cage way of thinking with a Cecil Taylor way of thinking,” Kosaly-Meyer said.


Neal Kosaly-Meyer presents Gradus: For Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler this Saturday, July 14 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. For more information, click here.

Dieter Schnebel (1930–2018): Radical Reverential Music

by Michael Schell

Photo by Peter Andersen.

With the passing of Dieter Schnebel on May 20, Germany lost one of its last links to the post-WW2 generation of composers who built a new paradigm of music after the old ideas had been pulverized beneath the wreckage of war, fascism, and genocide. As a student of the famous Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music, Schnebel eagerly soaked up the influence of his fellow students Nono, Kagel, and Stockhausen, as well as their spiritual predecessors Ives, Webern, and Varèse. Like many of his contemporaries, he was also deeply influenced by John Cage, and went on to experiment with indeterminate and graphic notation, distribution of sound sources in space, extended vocal and instrumental techniques, and theatrics of the sort that North Americans often associate with happenings and performance art.

But Schnebel didn’t always follow the script of the stereotypical European avant-gardist. For one thing, he earned degrees in both music and theology, eventually teaching both subjects and becoming an ordained Lutheran minister. And in contrast with the reputation of some composers as vain and temperamental, Schnebel exuded a gentle, collaborative personality that displayed little trace of Stockhausen-sized ego or Partch-sized shoulder chips.

These traits seem to define Schnebel’s oeuvre from its very beginnings. The short piece dt 316 (completed in 1958) is a humble attempt to articulate a modern religious sensibility using the methods of modern music. Written for 15 voices dispersed throughout the performance space, its title refers to Deuteronomy 31:6 (“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because the Lord goes with you, and will never leave nor forsake you.”). Fragments of that verse are sung, spoken, and whispered both in ancient Hebrew and in various translations. Don’t worry if you can’t make out the words though—Schnebel treats the text almost as a found object, preferring to highlight the transcendent, mystical side of scripture. As he puts it “in the course of the piece, language becomes music and music becomes language.”

dt 316 is the first piece in a trilogy of a cappella sacred works. The second piece is entitled amn (the vowelless Hebrew rendering of “amen”). This work is longer, about 15 minutes in the linked performance (it starts at 33:24 in the video). This time the text comes from the Lord’s Prayer, once again rendered in multiple languages and sometimes paraphrased. Apart from a few coordinated outbursts (like the one in this score excerpt that corresponds to 42:43 in the video), the 16 solo voices proceed independently in a way that suggests the private nature of personal prayer. Indeed the variety of idioms and vocal techniques heard in the piece suggests an assembly of people from diverse cultures and nations, consistent with the universalist ideals of the Lutheran faith.

Such devotion to exploring the full range of human vocal expression can easily lead a composer toward theater, and Schnebel indeed went on to pioneer a hybrid of new music and theatrics that is still influential today. The video linked above is a good sampling. In its use of nonsense syllables, moving sound sources, and strange hand gestures and choreography, it shows the influence of Schnebel’s friend Mauricio Kagel, but also connects with the work of like-minded American contemporaries such as Kenneth Gaburo. Efforts like this helped pave the way for such postmodern classics as Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, the new music theater of Meredith Monk and pieces like Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia.

Schnebel’s theatrics also had an occasional whimsical side. Do you participate in a sport where the players wear special headgear? So do these singers. Do you wish that a cello could play sustained chords? Try a special curved bow. Do you prefer riding your Harley-Davidson to attending prim and proper concerts? So do these people:

In the 1970s Schnebel developed an interest in collage-quotation music, one of the quintessential styles of musical postmodernism. His collection Re-Visionen takes a fresh look at several Central European warhorses from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of them (such as his setting of Contrapunctus I from Bach’s Musical Offering) are straightforward arrangements of the original. Others might remind you of the Swingle Singers in their heyday. The most admired movement is the Schubert-Phantasie, which sounds like an orchestral acid trip with Schubert’s late and poignant G major Piano Sonata playing on a nearby stereo. It was written for the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death in 1978:

These days a piece like Schubert-Phantasie might be called a “remix.” Either way, it’s a clear precedent for two much newer Schubert homages that have been featured at Second Inversion: Eric Wubbels’ Gretchen am Spinnrade and Vladimir Martynov’s Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished).

Schnebel’s music took a more contemplative turn in his old age, as evidenced by a pair of string quartets that were recorded by Quatuor Diotima. The beautiful String Quartet “Im Raum” (“in space”) from 2006 sounds like the satisfied musings of an old man near the end of a fulfilling life. The texture is slow and sparse, punctuated by several musical quotes, most notably the plaintive beginning of Stravinsky’s Orpheus and the similar-sounding opening of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. In a live performance there are elaborate instructions for how the performers should move on stage, which explains both the title and the footsteps you hear in the last movement.

In the Second String Quartet (2000–07) two actors join the quartet, reciting numbers and occasional snippets of text in German and English. It reminds me of Crumb’s Black Angels (without the amplification) and Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet (without the helicopters), but it also belies the notion that intellectual Germans can’t write sensual and playful music. Unusually for Schnebel, the music is often beat-driven, with melodic fragments and little repeating riffs emerging from the instruments. But more characteristically, it explores the full range of associations from abstraction to meaning, and even incorporates musical quotations too, including the familiar Tristan chord, which rears its head in the second movement.

Even as he entered his 80s, Schnebel stayed active, still exploring, still fascinated by the voice and the sacramental connotations of theatricalized performance. One of his last works is a ritualistic setting of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses. It seems fitting that the coda of Schnebel’s career should come from the coda of the 20th century’s most exemplary literary work.

Schnebel with John Cage ca. 1979 (via Croatian Society of Composers).

Though Schnebel’s aesthetic and philosophical interests remained fairly consistent throughout his career, any survey of his work reveals that the music itself varies greatly from one composition to another. This is partly the result of his penchant for graphic and text-based scores, but he also seemed eager to avoid repeating himself. “You ask whether I have a style? I hope I don’t. I would like my pieces to have been born each in its own manner—for each to have a style of its own.”

Can one reconcile this eclecticism with the constancy expected of a Christian clergyman? According to his colleague Godfried-Willem Raes, Schnebel “was not very church minded, and I think his idea of god was rather abstract, certainly not prescriptive. However, he believed in the meaning of rituals.” Perhaps the variety that Schnebel sought in his own music expresses a concept of God as embodying the multiplicity of the world and the cosmos. And perhaps Schnebel’s lifelong interest in ritualized performance expresses a human awe and reverence for that same multiplicity.

Second Inversion’s 24-Hour Star-Spangled Marathon

by  Maggie Molloy

This Fourth of July, Second Inversion is celebrating the history of American musical innovation. Tune in all day long on July 4 for our 24-hour Star-Spangled Marathon, featuring American composers across history.

Throughout the day we’ll take you from the spiritual fantasias of Florence Beatrice Price to the jazzy rhapsodies of George Gershwin, from the musical nuts and bolts of John Cage to the tape experiments of Pauline Oliveros—from the minimalist musings of Philip Glass to the spacious landscapes of John Luther Adams, the avant-jazz stylings of Don Byron, the musical tapestries of Gabriela Lena Frank, and far beyond.

This Fourth of July, we’re celebrating the history of American music in all of its sparkling diversity, from sea to shining sea. Click here to tune in.

Plus, discover our hosts’ favorite musical selections from the marathon below.

Florence Beatrice Price: Fantasie Negre (Sono Luminus)
Lara Downes, piano

Fantasie Negre is such a cool piece, a fascinating mix of romantic era Western European influence and African American spiritual—it’s almost as if Liszt visited the American South and immediately rushed to a piano to interpret the melodies he heard. Fantastic gospel-like moments seep through dazzling displays of technique. It’s even more impressive when you think about all the things Price had to overcome just to compose: a black woman born in Little Rock, Arkansas, she attended New England Conservatory in 1906 but had to pass as Mexican in order to avoid abuse. Though she returned to Arkansas and married, she moved her family to Chicago to flee lynchings; her husband eventually became abusive and she filed for divorce, a rare step for a woman of her time. Despite these difficulties, her prodigious talent produced 300 works in her lifetime.
 Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


Steve Reich: Come Out (Nonesuch)
Daniel Hamm, voice

In 1966, Steve Reich took a four-second audio clip and spun it into one of the most harrowing musical works of the 20th century. Come Out takes as its basis a mere scrap from an analog tape interview of Daniel Hamm, a black teenager who was wrongfully arrested for murder in 1964 (one of what would come to be known as the Harlem Six). In the clip, Hamm describes the horrific police brutality he faced behind bars. But the police would not take him to the hospital unless he was bleeding—so he ripped open one of his bruises and “let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.”

Come out to show them. Reich gradually loops, phases, and transforms these words beyond recognition over the course of 13 minutes, transporting the listener beyond language and into the dizzying and devastating reality of the situation at hand. Over 50 years later, we find ourselves still spinning in the same tape loop, Hamm’s words still echoing in the race relations of today. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


John Luther Adams: Dream in White on White (New Albion)
Barbara Chapman, harp; Apollo Quartet and Strings

Many artists have long recognized that one of the United States’ most powerful attributes is its natural landscape and the massive scale thereof. However, this essential characteristic of the country has been something that many American composers have neglected (or at least struggled) to incorporate effectively into their music, focusing instead on human-centric cultural or traditional elements.

John Luther Adams breaks that mold, using the beauty, power, complexity, and scale of the American landscape itself as the inspiration for much of his work. Going further, Adams lived in Alaska, that state that perhaps best encapsulates the awesome power of the American landscape, for many years. He has managed to forge a unique and engrossing musical language that transports listeners to mountaintops, ocean shores, and glacial snowfields. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


Nico Muhly: Mothertongue (Bedroom Community)

Nico Muhly is an American contemporary composer whose mission is to gnaw at the edges of classical & rock/pop. Mothertongue is a fun example of how he melds genres, combining the intimacy and beauty of chamber music with a conceptual pastiche that adds fidgety energy to the mix. In the first movement, “Archive,” Muhly accomplishes this by incorporating the beauty of Abby Fischer’s voice speak-singing a jumble of numbers and places which, turns out, are all addresses where Muhly & Fischer have lived.

In “Hress,” the frenetic third movement, found sounds (pouring coffee, crunching cereal, etc.) create a morning routine. Don’t expect “Hress” to evoke a lazy Sunday sunrise, though. As the music picks up it’s clear these are the sounds of someone either hungover or extremely jet-legged going through the motions to get out the door and on with the day. Mothertongue proves Muhly has a knack for finding the sweet spot between concept and emotional connection; he’s corroding classical boundaries and inviting the next generation to explore his musical Pangaea. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


Amir ElSaffar: Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy

I love this music! I’ve never heard anything like it. ElSaffar has fused together a lot of different musical traditions in this, but what stands out to me most are the jazz and the Middle Eastern sounds. ElSaffar is the child of an Iraqi immigrant and an American. He was born outside of Chicago, and grew up listening to his dad’s jazz collection. His first musical training was in a Lutheran church choir. Iraqi music came later for him—in 2001 he used the money he got from winning a jazz trumpet competition in to go to Iraq and study something called maqam music, and he spent the next five years studying with Iraqi masters in the Middle East and Europe. Anyway, I love how these traditions come together in his music so effortlessly to make something new. – Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Third Coast Percussion’s Paddle to the Sea (Act II)

by Maggie Molloy

Third Coast Percussion performs an entire ocean of sounds in their new film score for the 1966 classic Paddle to the Sea. From skittering wood blocks to water-filled wine glasses, each instrument adds its own unique shimmer to the sound of the sea.

We’re thrilled to premiere a video of the group performing Act II of their original score, which was co-commissioned by Meany Center for the Performing Arts and performed there earlier this year.

(Click here to watch our video for Act I, which we premiered in May 2018.)

The Oscar-nominated film Paddle to the Sea is based on Holling C. Holling’s 1941 children’s book of the same name, which follows the epic journey of a small wooden boat that is carved and launched by a young Native Canadian boy.

“I am Paddle to the Sea” he inscribes on the bottom of the boat. “Please put me back in the water.”

Over the course of the film, the boat travels for many years from Northern Ontario through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway out to the Atlantic Ocean and far beyond—and each time it washes ashore, a kind stranger places it back in the water.

Third Coast’s new film score (recently released as an album on Cedille Records) is inspired by and interspersed with music by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, along with traditional music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. All of the music in the score is inspired by water, with Third Coast performing an array of sounds ranging from pitched desk bells to bowls of water, glass bottles, sandpaper, and one particularly special instrument: the mbira.

The mbira is a thumb piano that plays a leading role in the Shona music from Zimbabwe. In fact, one of the pieces on the album, Chigwaya, is a traditional song used to call water spirits in the Shona religion—a song which was taught to Third Coast by their mentor Musekiwa Chingodza. By incorporating elements of their Western classical training with their study of the traditional music of the Shona people, Third Coast weaves together their own epic musical journey.

And in the spirit of Holling’s original story, the music itself becomes the small wooden boat: rather than keep it for themselves, the musicians add what they can and send the story out into the world again for others to discover.


Third Coast Percussion’s Paddle to the Sea is now available on Cedille Records. Click here to purchase the album.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Mark Applebaum’s ‘Aphasia’

by Maggie Molloy

Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia is scored for a singer that doesn’t sing. Instead, the singer performs an elaborately choreographed set of hand gestures synchronized to a pre-recorded tape.

Yet there is still an element of voice: the tape itself is an explosion of warped sounds comprised exclusively of pre-recorded, digitally transformed vocal samples. On stage, the live performer of the piece is completely silent, singing through the inaudible yet piercing music of gesture alone.

This year percussionist Michael Compitello took Applebaum’s Aphasia into his own hands for a new video we are thrilled to premiere right here on Second Inversion. This video was created by Four/Ten Media.

So, how exactly does a percussionist go about playing a silent vocal piece? Learn more in our Q&A with Michael Compitello:

Second Inversion: What are some of the unique challenges of performing a piece without making any sound?

Photo by Matt Fried.

Michael Compitello: What I love about Aphasia is that the performer’s hands are able to represent the character of both attack and sustain in the tape part. Some gestures peter out, while others end sharply. Some sounds require a more resistance in the air, and others float buoyantly. For me, this is a challenge. Percussionists in general tend to think a lot about how our notes begin, and less so about how they end. “Let ring” is a fairly common notation in scores, and without a tremolo, it’s rather difficult to play with the sustain on a marimba or xylophone. 

With this piece there’s also nowhere to hide! Most of the time, I appear on stage with a lot of stuff. Marimbas alone are as large as sofas. One becomes accustomed to the security which a large instrument provides, and learning to sustain an audience’s focus with just a chair is frightening at first.

You’re also playing chamber music with a relatively stubborn partner. I came to Aphasia after playing Mark Applebaum’s Straitjacket, a four-movement work for solo percussionist and quartet. One movement of Straitjacket uses the same gestures as Aphasia, except they are accompanied by Foley sounds from the quartet. While percussion quintets are able to engage in very flexible chamber music, the sonic portion of Aphasia is fixed. Learning to follow the timing in the tape while appearing to create the sounds took a lot of practice, especially in the piece’s opening, where “centurion greeting” and “turn key” pierce long and varied silences.

SI: How does performing this piece relate to your experiences playing percussion music?

MC: As percussionists, much of what we do is theatrical as a matter of course, ranging from the impressive spectacle of drumlines to the graceful ballet of a single performer attending to a gigantic battery of instruments. Striking, scraping, and shaking objects seems to evoke inherent theatrical undertones, and what’s fun about percussion is the way in which great percussionists exist at the intersection of sonic poetry, visual drama, and athletic exertion.

There exists quite a significant strain of “concert” percussion music which concerns itself with the theatrical. These works range from the amplification and foregrounding of the physical gestures required to play percussion instruments to full-blown stage dramas with percussionists as the protagonists. 

The most immediate parallel to learning and performing Mark Applebaum’s works is the “instrumental music theatre” of Mauricio Kagel and his spiritual descendants: the body of work created by the pioneering Trio Le Cercle in France in the 1970s and 1980s, including wonderful pieces by Georges Aperghis and Vinko Globokar.

In particular, Kagel’s works for percussion are similar to the types of execution required in Aphasia. Kagel’s music expresses a what he calls “exaggerated protest against the mechanical reproduction of music” and a move towards “an enjoyment of music with all senses.” (They’re also devastatingly funny—a sly criticism of the overt and sometimes opaque complexity and ritualistic spectacle of his peers at Darmstadt in the 1960s). In Match, the two cellists compete in a musical tennis match, with the percussionist acting as a referee. And in Dressur, three percussionists present a staged drama for wooden instruments. 

As a performer, I love that Kagel’s works mobilize classical musicians’ most innate skills—closely and diligently following instructions, appearing serious, and creating a ritualistic spectacle of aesthetic abstraction. For me, Mark Applebaum’s works demand similar skills from their performers: a rigorous attention to detail without imbuing a personalization of gesture. 

Photo by Matt Fried.

Similarly, the indelible works of Belgian filmmaker, composer, and sound designer Thierry De Mey (b. 1956) are also wonderful preludes to Aphasia. De Mey’s long-term collaborations with choreographers Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus have engendered works which foreground the physicality and gestures inherent in performance, what he calls “the music of music.” In Musique de Tables (1987), he invents a vocabulary of gestures that directly mirror dance figures. Three performers sit at amplified tables, tapping, scraping, sweeping, flicking, and plié-ing through a percussive Grand Divertissement where the constituent sections—overture, rondo, fugato, gallop, etc—emphasize a witty unity of visual and sonic gesture.

In Silence Must Be! (2002), the apparatus of sound-making is removed, creating an ethereal, magical plane. Rather than a ballet of the hands, this is a ballet of the air: a single figure creates various gestures, mostly moving in silence but eventually evoking the once-imagined sounds. Moving from gestures of a conductor to balletic figurations in the air, De Mey eventually fuses his visual vocabulary with speech, spelling out the piece’s name (an anagram for long-time collaborators Ictus Ensemble) on a flat plane for the audience to read.

Lastly, I’d say that life as a percussionist imbues one with a particular kind of attitude—a willingness to try new things, an enjoyment of being a beginner, and immunity to looking silly on stage. We really exist at corner of rigor and absurdity. Even though Aphasia does not require the performer to make sound, I feel that a lifetime of ripping paper, breaking glass, hoarding styrofoam, and other pursuits gets one in the mood.

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.