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 modern composed music. 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 occurs 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 omission reflects the idea 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 whose backgrounds were impediments to 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.

NUMUS Celebrates New Music in the Northwest

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Jim Holt.

You like new music? Then you’re going to love NUMUS Northwest.

Now in its second year, NUMUS Northwest is a day-long event dedicated to the creation, performance, and experience of new music in Seattle and beyond. Join us Saturday, January 20 from 8:30am-9:30pm at Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall for a full day of new and experimental music. Click here to RSVP.

NUMUS is created and curated under the direction of six new music luminaries: Kevin Clark (New Music USA), James Falzone (Cornish College of the Arts), Jim Holt, Shaya Lyon (Live Music Project), Kerry O’Brien (Cornish), and Maggie Stapleton (Jensen Artists). This year’s event features everything from workshops on audience cultivation to live performances of music for electric kitchen appliances. Plus, Second Inversion’s own Maggie Molloy and Seth Tompkins will lead a panel on new music in the media.

Check out the full schedule below:

8:30-9:00am: Registration, coffee, & bagels

9:00-9:15am: Welcome

9:30-10:30am: New Music Speed Dating

It’s the fastest way to meet everyone in the room! All NUMUS attendees are paired up in groups of two, switching partners every 60 seconds until everyone is acquainted.


11:00-11:50am: The Other Side of the Inbox: Media Perspectives on New Music

Leah Baltus, City Arts Magazine Editor-in-Chief
Maggie Molloy, Second Inversion Editor
Sarah Zwinklis, Relevant Tones Producer (WFMT Radio)
Seth Tompkins, 98.1 Classical KING FM Program Director

Radio and print media professionals in Seattle and Chicago discuss the media’s perspective on new music and offer tips, tricks, and strategies for how to pitch new music to local and national media organizations.


12:00-12:50pm: Where the Wild Things Are: The New Age of Organizations and Audiences

Andrew Goldstein, Emerald City Music Executive Director

Emerald City Music Executive Director Andrew Goldstein explores methods for building an organization, attracting an audience, and elevating engagement in classical and new music, providing real-world examples from his experience co-founding Emerald City Music.


1:00-2:30: Lunch Break | Ask a Fundraiser | Piano in Perpetual Progress

A leisurely lunch break allows time to set up an appointment with professional fundraiser and musician Rose Bellini, or drop by Neal Kosaly-Meyer’s long-form piano improvisation which studies the very slow evolution from one note to two to three or more.


2:30-3:30pm: Afternoon Concert: Younge, Arias, Molk, Akiho

An afternoon of experimental percussion music featuring electric junk, spoken text, field recordings, digital playback, and more.

Program:
                                                               

Bethany Younge – Electric Speak! Junk for Me! (10′)
Melanie Sehman, voice and percussion

Spencer Arias – Other Cities (20’)
Chris Sies, percussion

David Molk – hope (6.5′)
Melanie Voytovich, glockenspiel

Andy Akiho – Stop Speaking (6’)
Storm Benjamin, percussion


4:00-4:50pm: Why Are Women Composers Stuck Talking About Being Women Composers?

Lily Shababi, Cornish music student

In this homage to Pauline Oliveros, third-year Cornish student Lily Shababi takes a look back on the historical lack of women composers on concert programs and a look forward toward how we can dismantle the patriarchal systems at play in classical music.


5:00-5:50pm: Funders on Funding

Irene Gómez, Office of Arts & Culture Project Manager
Charlie Rathbun, 4Culture Arts Program Manager
Kevin Clark, Moderator
Additional panelist(s) TBA

Leadership from 4Culture and the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture discuss the arts funding process in a session moderated by philanthropy consultant and composer Kevin Clark.


6:00-7:30pm: Dinner Break


8:00-9:30pm: Evening Concert: Eaton, Soper, Furrer, Lang, Mazzoli, Triptet

NUMUS Northwest ends with an evening concert of solo and chamber music that combines acoustic instruments and live electronics.

Program:

Kaley Lane Eaton – karma repair kit (6′)
Kate Soper – Only the words themselves mean what they say (12′)
Stack Effect Duo

Beat Furrer – Voicelessness, The Snow Has No Voice (11′)
David Lang – Cage (6′)
Missy Mazzoli – Orizzonte (5′)
Missy Mazzoli – Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos
Jesse Myers, piano

Triptet – Slowly, Away (20′)
Triptet


NUMUS Northwest is Saturday, Jan. 20 from 8:30am-9:30pm at Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall. Click here for tickets and more information.

Women in (New) Music: Happy 75th Birthday, Meredith Monk!

by Maggie Molloy

Meredith Monk has secured a place in history as one of the most singular and significant voices of the 20th and 21st centuries. For nearly six decades, she has redefined and revolutionized contemporary vocal music and performance, seamlessly weaving in elements of theatre and dance to create visceral musical experiences that transcend the confines of the classical tradition.

Monk’s compositional range is as wide as her vocal one—but her inimitable creations are united in their merging of ancient and modern musical ideas. In her music, abstract vocalizations, primal rhythms, hypnotic dances, and ritualistic soundscapes come together in an intimate embrace of the human experience.

In honor of Monk’s 75th birthday today, we take a look back at three of our favorite Monk masterpieces:

Education of the Girlchild (1972):

Benjamin Button meets feminist deconstruction in this interdisciplinary (and unapologetically avant-garde) one-woman opera which traces the life of a woman in reverse from old age to childhood.


Turtle Dreams (1983):  

Sprawling vocal textures, hypnotic organ loops, and unconventional choreography are spliced together with black and white turtle footage in this surreal 30-minute film exploring themes of time and space.


On Behalf of Nature (2016):

Extended vocal techniques pirouette above a whimsical instrumental accompaniment in this wordless exploration of the space where humans coexist with the natural and spiritual world.

A Singer’s Account of György Ligeti’s Requiem

by David Gary

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

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

Looking at the Score for the First Time

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

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

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

Unique Musical Challenges

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

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

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

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

Presenting the Performance

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

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


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

Harry Partch: Celebrating a Musical Maverick

by Michael Schell

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

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

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

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

Li Po Lyrics and the Adapted Viola

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

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

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

The Intruder by Li Po

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

Partch playing the Adapted Viola, 1933.

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

Adapted Viola fingerboard. Drawing by Irvin Wilson.

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

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

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

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

Partch Gets Popular, plus Castor and Pollux

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from Partch’s Castor.

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

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

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


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