Ever since first hearing about ‘the minimalists’ I’d been intrigued about other, lesser-known composers outside the three or four Big Names*…
In my last post I forgot to add the footnote to that asterisk. That’s okay, because part of my point was going to be that these footnotes should be elevated into the main body, at least from time to time. In fact, that post about Dennis Johnson is just such an example.
I particularly wanted to know about other minimalists, to find out whether such an ostensibly reductive approach to music was a viable artistic means, or just a term that could be applied to what Young, Riley, Reich and Glass were doing at the time. If you only followed the careers of the last three and their “successor” John Adams, you’d conclude that minimalism’s usefulness as a principle was limited. Perversely, the pervasiveness of minimalism as an influence in so many forms of music over four decades have reinforced the perception that this particular little group of composers are a Really Big Deal. In truth, minimalism’s potency is fuelled by a wide variety of musicians who continue to find their own ways of adopting its aesthetic values.
I was lucky that, immediately after first hearing a radio broadcast of the Philip Glass Ensemble, the announcer then put on Jon Gibson playing his own piece, Untitled. Straight away, I got the idea that there was more than one way to do it, and I wanted to find as many of them as I could.
This brings me back to Andy Lee’s two nights at Cafe Oto last month. The big event was his playing of Dennis Johnson’s November, but his first night’s recital of Paul A. Epstein, Jürg Frey and Alvin Curran was almost as significant. This was part of Lee’s “Minimalism in 12 Parts” tour, of which November was one more part of a larger statement about minimalism in music. All three composers on the first night take what they want from minimalism and apply (not dilute) in their own way.
Parts 2 and 8 from Curran’s Inner Cities cycle are long spans of harmonically, rhythmically and dynamically consistent music, written mostly through the 1990s. As Curran himself writes, “in all of these pieces the writing is instinctual, and obsessed with detail: how to use only two triads, then three, then none then one, then turn your back on the whole thing and use all the triads”. The reductive technique is used as a jumping-off point for a stream-of-consciousness flow of digressions, which in turn are reined in from excess by the reductive technique. Frey is best known as part of the Wandelweiser collective, and his Klavierstück 2 is appropriately focused on silence, isolated sounds, and a long stretch of obsessive repetition. I’ve heard only one other piece by Epstein, so it was good to hear some of his Drawings for piano and the premiere of his piano version of Landscape with Triads. These works gave the impression that the tonal and contrapuntal complexity of Milton Babbitt’s piano music had been digitised into a rhythmic and dynamic grid, with evident harmonic processes set to a regular pulse were developed into rich patterns just beyond full comprehension.
All these recent works had readily discernible connections to minimalist music at their heart. None of them relied upon an attachment to popular sentiments in the news or the cinema as a source of expressive power.
A lot of good things came together on the night of 9 March. A bit over five years ago I first heard of Dennis Johnson and his piece November, when Kyle Gann described it in some length on his blog: a minimalist piano piece written in 1959, which La Monte Young remembers being about six hours long but survived only as a wonky 2-hour tape from the early Sixties. Gann’s blog post gives a good rundown on what makes this forgotten piece of music so fascinating, particularly in the way it embraced so many neglected musical ideas that soon came to dominate new music over the next fifty years. Ever since first hearing about ‘the minimalists’ I’d been intrigued about other, lesser-known composers outside the three or four Big Names*, and Dennis Johnson’s mammoth piano piece sounded almost too good to be true.
Nearly two years later I heard a recording from a piano recital by R. Andrew Lee, which he’d uploaded, with a superb performance of Tom Johnson’s minimalist puzzlebox An Hour For Piano. I immediately became a fan and soon after started following his Twitter feed, largely in the hope of glomming onto some more mp3s.
Meanwhile, Gann announced that he had almost finished analysing and transcribing November. In 2007 he was trying out various, ultimately unsatisfactory methods of notation, lamenting that “we can’t ask Dennis Johnson about it: he’s disappeared.” By 2009 he’d discovered that November was more than “a kind of crazy, off-beat experiment… instead I’m thinking we’ll be unveiling a whole new formal paradigm that deserved to have more of an after-history than it’s had.” In the meantime, Daniel Wolf had provided a contact for Dennis Johnson, who in turn had sent the score.
Another two years later, I read some exciting news. Andy Lee has a copy of the score to November. I immediately forwarded it to a friend of mine, Mark Harwood at Penultimate Press, knowing that he gets excited about obscure and rediscovered artists, and wonky old piano recordings. We’d both heard and loved the recordings of November made by Kyle Gann and Sarah Cahill when the finished transcription was presented at a conference in 2009, as well as a rip of that old 1961 tape. The prospect of Lee recording November seemed unlikely, but tantalising.
On 9 March this year I finally got myself somewhere regular to live (still without regular internet) but I was more interested in being at Cafe Oto to hear and watch Lee play November in its entirety, as part of its joint release on CD by Penultimate Press and Irritable Hedgehog.
Over five hours, the music works a strange effect on the listener. The intervening decades of minimalist and ambient music have made us familiar with the concepts of long durations, tonal stasis, consistent dynamics, repetitions, but November uses these techniques in an unusual way. The sense of continuity is very strong, but there is no fixed pulse and few strict repetitions. The slowness, spareness and use of silence, with an organic sense of rhythm, make it seem very similar in many respects to Morton Feldman’s late music. The harmonic language, however, is very different. Johnson’s piece uses clear, familiar tonality to play with our expectations of the music’s ultimate direction, whereas Feldman’s chromatic ambiguity seeks to negate any feeling of movement in harmony or time.
The semi-improvised nature of November adds another element to a performance. It was interesting to watch Lee relax as he moved from the fully-notated transcription of the piece’s first 100 minutes, into the more open notation that made up the next three hours of playing. He seemed to go into a serene state of focused timelessness, perfectly matching the music he was playing. The music itself takes on the aspect of a musician feeling their way through the material, venturing into new areas then circling back onto familiar ground, adding new parts along the way to reveal older material in a different light. Lee’s interpretation of the open notation took on a similar character, meditative at times, almost casual at others, building up the strong impression of of a unified whole, gradually revealed. In effect, the music sounded like a inspired burst of improvisation, a fleeting run of chord changes and leading tones, slowed down 100 times to linger over every sensuous detail.
As I said before, it sounds almost too good to be true: a forgotten composer with a very short career (if it could even be called that), who disappears after writing a work of vast scale and great precedence, with said work languishing unknown for fifty years before it is rescued from obscurity, reconstructed and performed to great acclaim. The thing is that November is a truly great work, beautiful and captivating, which holds the listener’s interest more than could be hoped from a novel gimmick stumbled upon by a dilletante, and with far more substance and longevity than a piece of purely historical or musicological interest.
About twenty minutes into the performance Harwood held his phone out towards the piano for a while. He’d dialled Dennis Johnson’s number in California. Earlier that evening he’d told me a bit more he’d learned of Johnson’s career in mathematics: some of his work had gone into the Mars Curiosity rover programme.
I’ve spent a couple of rootless months while finding a new permanent home in London, hence the lack of updates to the blog and the website. Some major bits of news will be going up over the Easter break, both about my own work and other people’s stuff I’ve seen. In particular, I need to set down my experiences from a couple of weeks ago, when I had the privilege of meeting R. Andrew Lee and hearing him give a spellbinding performance of Dennis Johnson’s incredible piece November.
In the meantime please enjoy some more blurry photographs of Berlin.
I spent Saturday afternoon in an empty art gallery in Camden listening to a live performance of Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston. In a high-ceilinged back room of the gallery, twenty folding chairs were set out in front of the musicians from the Guildhall School: Siwan Rhys playing piano and celesta, Alasdair Garrett and Martha Lloyd tag-teaming on the flute parts, and finally George Barton on the tuned percussion (once he’d finally turned up, wearing an inside-out jumper and clutching a stack of a hundred-odd dog-eared pages of the score.)
The first four notes sound almost too hushed, like one voice heard amongst the hubbub of the crowd in the other rooms of the gallery. Eventually, but quite quickly, all other noises from the rest of the gallery fade away. I’m assuming everyone else has left us alone, musicians and audience, in the back room. The playing is beautiful and I relax, knowing that I’m going to be hearing a piece of music and not a bystander in an Art Stunt. At times the playing is a little rough around the edges. I can only assume that in writing such unforgiving parts, and making the whole piece four hours long, human frailty must be considered as part of the work itself. The piccolo sections – all soft, sustained notes – must be especially Not Fun.
Every time I hear For Philip Guston I hear something else. Last time I noticed how the piece fell into large sections that repeated the same process, of starting in an even flow and then gradually winding down into stasis. This time I hear how Feldman tricks you into hearing individual sounds outside of their continuity. There’s always the suggestion of those opening four notes returning – and they do, but never in quite the same way. As the pattern gets passed from one instrument to another, you find yourself waiting to hear each sound, and then weighing it in your mind.
The two flautists take one-hour shifts, which unfortunately signposts the passing of time. On the other hand, the sky outside is getting steadily darker and the room starts getting cold, so this feeling is inevitable. I start dozing off a little about an hour into the piece, but that feeling passes and for the rest of the piece I’m more attentive than before. The ensemble passages are beautifully written but today I’m less interested in these more complex effects and become transfixed when the music dwindles to nothing. For minutes on end the piece can be silent, articulated at intervals by a single, repeated note. So little needs to be done. Polyphony sucks.
I think John Cage first described Feldman’s music as heroic, and there is something heroic in the way he can break away from such simple silences after lingering on them for so much time. A minimalist could build a career on them. When the sky is dark and the audience is chilly and the music finally ends it’s like a blanket’s been taken away. Everyone hovers uncertainly in the silence, a little apologetic that it’s over, a little embarrassed that we can’t bring ourselves to applaud. Not just yet, just a little bit longer.
My very first blog post was about the sale of the house I was renting, and the imminent need to find new accommodation as a matter of urgency. (I’d set up the free blog account about six weeks earlier. Inspiration does not come to me easily.) My post gave an honest account of the deplorable condition the house had fallen into over the decades before I moved in, and pretty much every punter who inspected the place before the auction made no secret of their plans to gut the structure for renovation, if they were legally prevented from razing it entirely.
I’ve just returned from an unexpected trip to Australia, and one afternoon I happened to walk down my old street. I wondered what the old dump looked like now it had been cleaned ip.
Pretty much nothing’s happened to it in the last eight years. In fact, it looks worse. The old doorbell’s been removed, the windows in the front door crudely patched over, and random sections of the front wall have been painted various shades of grey. A new shed’s been erected in the back yard, but other than that there’s no sign of work done.
When Google Street View first came to Australia I looked up this street but it wasn’t covered. I just checked again and it is now, with photos from late 2009. In that photo it looks no different from when I left it, so these tentative changes are even more recent. Looks like the new owners work even more slowly than I do.
During a five-year slough of depression Conlon Nancarrow occupied himself by doggedly copying out his Studies for player piano in conventional music notation. He did this not only to secure copyright for his compositions, but in the hope that his son would one day grow up to understand that he hadn’t wasted his life.
I don’t have any kids but I am staying with my parents for the first time in years, so maybe this is why I am passing the time in the heat and the damp of the Queensland countryside by writing some of my pieces out as musician-readable scores. This may have not been such a good idea. Luckily I don’t have to prove anything to my parents, but we’ve been looking through old photographs and stuff which is still embarrassing, albeit for slightly different reasons than in the past. So much of what I’m doing now seems so similar to kid’s play way back then.
Anyway, I’ve prepared four pieces from Redundens so far, all for piano. The Redundens web page is still a bit of a mess, but at least it’s now a bit more up to date.
The series of works collectively titled Redundens was begun in 2001. All the pieces take Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano, Op.11 as their starting point: only the top line in Schoenberg’s pieces is retained as an unaccompanied melody. Each set of pieces uses a different method of encoding this melody; by pitch, register, timbre, duration, dynamics, or other means. Redundens 1b keeps each pitch class in the same register and duration throughout the piece, determined by the nature of their initial appearances in the original. Dynamics are unspecified.
Redundens 4 plays the sequence of pitch-classes with durations and rhythms removed, always making the smallest leap possible from one note to the next.
Redundens 7 plays the sequence of pitch-classes with durations and rhythms removed, always making the smallest leap possible from one note to the next. The resulting melody is then split between two voices, alternating from one note to the next. The second voice is then shifted back one beat to produce a series of intervals. Unisons are played as a single note at half duration.
Redundens 11a removes durations and rhythmic articulation but preserves pitch class. Each pitch class is progressively transposed upwards by an octave to produce series of rising intervals, in repeatedly ascending figures of four notes each.
Each piece is written for two speaking voices, with an added tape component. The two speakers are given almost identical chance-determined texts to read aloud, with variable time-frames in which each passage may be spoken. Each voice may speak in either English, German, or a mixture of both. For this recording I’ve overdubbed myself, speaking in English only.
I’m not sure if it’s better appreciated lying in the dark with headphones on, or just letting it drone away in the background while getting stuff done. Anyway, full details about the piece, along with mp3s for streaming or downloading are on the main website which definitely needs freshening up soon.
I was going to say ‘disinterestedly’ but that’s too self-aggrandising. ‘Distractedly’ is probably more apt. Write a sentence, pace around the house. Look up a reference, end up rereading half of Vainglory. As I think I’ve mentioned before, figuring out all the details is OK, but the execution is where I start to lose interest. Once I see it’s going to do what I hoped for, I get sidetracked again and start working on something else.
After that, work progresses in infrequent dribs and drabs. Even trivial pieces can have a longer gestation period than Ulysses. There’s no sense of anticipation when a piece is nearing completion, either to hasten or delay the end. The work continues indifferently, in small increments until, quite unexpectedly, there’s no more to do. Like absent-mindedly munching on crisps until you dip your hand in one more time and realise you’ve finished the bag. You weren’t even all that hungry.
A whole bunch of composer deaths at the end of the year, including Jonathan Harvey (73) and Elliott Carter (not quite 104). I’ve only just started to familiarise myself with and appreciate Harvey’s music in the past year or so, and I’m trying to explain this twinge of regret that I didn’t see any of the concerts dedicated to him earlier in 2012. It’s not as though I would have seen him in person, as he was too ill to attend, but it seems sort of churlish now that I didn’t support him with my presence while he was still alive.
Why is it so galling to come to a person’s work at the end of their career, after ignoring it for so long? Discovering an artist after they’re dead is another matter: by then their art is a given, a received object over which they have no further input. Everything may be dealt with in retrospect. When the artist is still alive and creating, the audience is engaged in a process of learning how to respond to the artist’s work – an understanding that develops with each new piece. Coming in late to this process frustrates you by breaking it off while your own, personal response is unformed an incomplete. I guess my regret is for passing up the chance to have a less mediated response before it’s all in the hands of the critics and historians.
It’s nearly seven years since I happened to see Elliott Carter himself, at a series of concerts. Re-reading what I wrote about it at the time, I’m surprised at how snarky I was. Most of the cynicism is directed at the reputation Carter had accumulated, which makes it all the more surprising as by the time of Carter’s death this received wisdom was already out of date. Nearing a century, Carter’s “late period” of more transparent, freely written works had been in flow for about twenty years, yet critics persisted in portraying his music as some sort of cross between Stephen Hawking and Dostoyevsky. In my snarky blog post I noted his neo-baroque tendencies and predilection for concertos, while deriding writers who wished to big him up as a “Beethoven-like hero”.
Six years later, that received opinion seems as distant and old-fashioned as me using the term “Beethoven-like hero” (of course I should have said “Mahler-like hero”.) In April, The Guardian kicked off its “Guide to contemporary classical music” with Tom Service extolling Carter’s “profoundly joyful, or youthful, music” and summarising him, quite neatly, as “the closest any of us will probably ever experience to new music’s Haydn.” Later, this was also the general tone of eulogies for Carter’s passing. In my snarky little blog post I write that Carter “has the rare privilege of attending his own funeral obsequies.” With the luxury of extending his late period by a further decade, it turns out that he hung around long enough to see the historical revisionists at work, too.
I’ve complained about the piano at Cafe Oto before. Just about everybody has, particularly John Tilbury, who refused to come back until it was replaced. The new piano’s been there for a while now; there’s just the question of paying for it.
Tuesday night’s Tilbury concert was intended as a fundraiser for the instrument. Instead of angling for broad, populist appeal, the programme consisted entirely of Tilbury playing Morton Feldman’s early solo music. With the exception of his last piano piece, Palais de Maris, and an arrangement of Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety, all of the music was from the Fifties. Before playing, Tilbury announced he would be playing the entire programme without a break and requested no applause between pieces. The chairs had all been gathered around closer than usual, in a tight huddle around the piano and away from the bar. This was a Serious Concert.
Amazingly, for a freezing, foggy December night in London, no-one in the audience had a cough. It was like the end of the John Cage Prom all over again.
At the start of the evening Tilbury said something that I’m sure a lot of us were thinking: that Feldman is still an overlooked composer in that attention is focused almost entirely on those long, late works from the last decade of his life. He added that “early” Feldman was where he started with this music and mentioned ruefully that “you can’t make a career out of playing early Feldman.”
Cafe Oto is not the best place for concentration, but everyone knew that they needed to give full attention for this music to be heard properly (even the punter in front of me who fell asleep during Palais de Maris.) The first piece began abruptly – short notes, isolated, no pedal, so that it sounded accidental – inconsequential but obtrusive all the same. Hearing Feldman’s early music is a reminder of the idea in the air at the time, as expressed by Cage, that this music existed in the now-moment alone, where all you can do is suddenly listen.
The sounds are simple in themselves, but the effect they produce is complex – both reasons working against this music as a career vehicle. So much of the music’s affect comes from the placement of the sounds in a given place and time, instead of the usual uninterrupted flow of musical rhetoric that tries to shut out its surroundings.
I’ve heard Tilbury play the last two pieces on this programme before. This night’s performances were very different; more restrained, less variable, less… not less romantic, less demonstrative. Interpretations can change over six years, but it seems likely that this is music to which the performer intuitively responds and allows to emerge differently, as clear as possible in consideration of its surroundings.
When I woke up last week to hear on the radio that it was MIDI’s 30th birthday I couldn’t help but wonder (a) if it really was thirty years to the very day, and (b) if some beardy geek had a free MOTU wall calendar next to his framed photograph of Peter Zinovieff with the date circled and “1 sleep till MIDI’s birthday!” scrawled on it.
The first time I heard about MIDI was on a radio show 20-odd years ago when some guy from Severed Heads or something was complaining about how you couldn’t do dick with it, and for this flimsy reason I’ve always been a bit suspicious of MIDI. I’m sure there’s a whole subculture of MIDI Malcontents out there but I don’t want any contact with them because I’d prefer working with what I have then complaining about what I don’t have. For me, MIDI is a useful way of sending controller messages between different devices. Just don’t ask me what synching means; that whole concept is beyond me.
What I really dislike about MIDI is that it’s too precise, too specific, especially the way so many people use it as a sequencer. Every note comes out the same, same pitch, same intonation, on the same beat at the same time, all the instruments moving in lock step. It’s boring. You have do a whole lot of extra work and fiddling about to vary all these attributes just a little bit, to make it halfway interesting. It is, in effect, the absolute reverse of every other musical technology that preceded it. When you learn any other instrument you start of very uncoordinated and inaccurate and have to put a lot of practice into getting things somewhat precise. My ideal MIDI system would be very vague about what it did and when it did it, requiring plenty of tweaking and coding to rein it in.
When I do use MIDI as a sequencer, it’s to take advantage of the two things it does well: giving precise control over pitch and rhythm. This is a big reason why a lot of my music involves microtonality and impossible rhythms.
You’ve probably noticed that there have been no updates for a month. That’s not because of a lack of news; just because I’ve been kind of rootless the last few weeks. In fact, there’s an awful lot I need to post about here. I’ve seen two opposing extremes of what might be opera for the 21st century, and what with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and Robert Ashley’s Vidas Perfectas there’s a lot to digest.
I have also witnessed another manifestation of Robin Fox’s ingenuity, and a second, very different, performance by the Scratch Orchestra of John Cage’s Song Books. Sadly, I won’t get started on addressing this backlog, and my own work, until next weekend.
I played my set just before Rob came on with his computer rig that plays the sounds his software generates as both audio and as waveforms projected across the room with a laser.
My piece was pretty good, I guess, but then who’s going to remember when it’s immediately followed by this?
My own drab little table of gear just tried to look inconspicuous behind the smoke machine.