Friday night July 17 and Boston Court in Pasadena was the venue for a concert titled Music From Text presented by Synchromy, the Los Angeles-based composers collective. Brightwork newmusic was the featured performing group and a sell-out crowd gathered for an evening of contemporary music based on the spoken word.
Breathe by John Frantzen began the concert and this performance was the world premiere. Breathe is based on a poem written by composer’s brother about the trials, hardships and relationships as experienced in military life. In the program notes John Frantzen states that the music “strives to frame these words of support, honor and camaraderie in a journey of love, loss and enlightenment.” The piece began with a short section of the text spoken by a narrator followed by high-pitched bird calls and some bowing of the strings that suggested a lonely breeze in a far away place. The sound of a distant snare drum effectively evoked the military setting. The soprano voice of Justine Aronson was heard and the generally unsettled character of the passages in the strings hinted at the stress and confusion that is present in wartime. This was also portrayed by two actors on the stage whose movements intentionally suggested the strong bonds shared by soldiers in the field. At length the music gave way to a slow, dirge-like unison that was very beautiful. More dramatic action followed, ending in a sudden silence and the spoken word ‘breathe’. The viola and cello again took up the sorrowful theme and this was especially moving, even as the snare drum recalled the military context of what was fundamentally a story about relationships. Frantzen was able to draw a surprising amount of emotion out of the small musical forces in this piece. Breathe is a powerful work that captures both the anxiety and deep emotional attachments that are the essential elements of a soldiers life lived in harm’s way.
The next two pieces on the program were both based on text by Tao Lin and were played consecutively. The text of the first of these was taken from the poem I will learn to love a person and the music by Christopher Cerrone bore the somewhat expansive title I will learn to love a person and then I will teach you and then we will know. This began with spoken text followed by gentle tones in the vibraphone and clarinet. The entrance of Ms. Aronson’s lyrical soprano voice added to the delicate, airy texture and carried the melody forward by weaving in and around the vibraphone line. The dynamics here were carefully observed, adding an extra element of vividness to the realization. This piece agreeably reflects the calm character of the poetry and, as Christopher Cerrone states, “In writing these pieces, my hope is to create a work that reflects the strange and beautiful experience of growing up at the turn of the (21st) century – and will continue to have meaning after that moment passes.”
A declarative sentence whose message is that we must try harder by Jason Barabba followed the Cerrone piece without pause. This was played by a viola, cello and contrabass trio and started with a high pizzicato in the viola and some fast dissonant passages in the lower strings. There was tapping on the wooden parts of the instruments and this added to the feeling of a distant uncertainty as the anxiety mounted in a series of running phrases in the bass, viola and cello. Rapid running of the fingers up and down the strings produced a series of soft, unworldly screeches that added to the tension. This music is also based on the poetry of Tao Lin, but provided a fine contrast with the serenity of the previous piece. Jason Barabba writes that “Because this work is a reaction to a complex and provocative poem, I’ve chosen to take advantage of some of the more unusual techniques that have been introduced for these instruments.” These were deployed with good effect and the string players managed everything quite smoothly. The piece briefly turned warm and dark, but held to the tension of the preceding sections. The fast and turbulent finish was fittingly taut and mysterious. The playing of a declarative sentence whose message is that we must try harder was well matched to the writing of the music and these combined to persuasively express the composer’s intentions.
Hänschen Klein by Helmut Lachenmann followed and this was paired with Vera Ivanova’s The Laughing Man Alphabet, played sequentially without pause. The text of Lachenmann’s piece comes from a poem by Franz Wiedemann about a school boy – ‘little Hans’ – who moves away, returning seven years later having grownup and changed – and this became the basis of the first movement of a larger piano suite. The Laughing Man Alphabet is a series of variations on Lachermann’s original ‘little Hans’ theme, further exploring the story in the poem through a flute and piano duo. The flute playing by Sara Andon was superb, and included extended techniques such as vocalizing while intoning a passage – in this way the text was included, both in German and in English. The piano playing by Aron Kallay was of like quality, but more in a supporting role – the flute and piccolo were at the focal point of this piece. The Laughing Man Alphabet proceeded in various moods, sometimes as quiet and mystical with calm tones in the flute and soft strumming of the piano strings, sometimes mysteriously, as when whooshing sounds of air were heard, and sometimes with an active and powerful sound that gave off a sense of confusion and alienation. Vera Ivanova’s variations on Lachenmann’s original theme artfully extended the scope of the story and the virtuoso playing of Ms. Andon was received with enthusiastic applause.
After a short intermission the concert concluded with Settings from Pierrot Lunaire by William Kraft. This piece was commissioned by the Arnold Schoenberg Institute as part of the 75th anniversary commemoration of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912). The same instrumentation was included: vocalist, flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello and the text, by poet Albert Giraud, was sung in German. In the program notes William Kraft writes that “…the settings are an odd mix of a 12 tone row; double-mode hexachords formed into another row, an octatonic scale and the overtone mode (raised 4th and lowered 7th). All this will be exemplified in notes taken from various programs where the individual settings were premiered.” The intent of the Institute was to commission musical settings of the remaining 29 Pierrot cycle poems to compliment the 21 settings composed by Schoenberg in 1912. The conductor for this performance was Andreas Levisianos.
Settings from Pierrot Lunaire began with an instrumental Prelude that included a series of riffs in the piano and sustained tones in the strings. The strings and flute soon became agitated and a strong tutti entrance marked the beginning of the Feerie section; here the music turned angular and unsettled – nicely paralleling early 20th century sensibility. The singing of the textby Ms. Aronson and the ensemble playing was excellent, finding just the right balance between mystery and anxiety. An Interlude followed, featuring some bowed percussion that added a sense of mysticism, reinforced by strong phrases from the cello. A vibraphone entrance then formed a duo with the active cello riffs, and this was very effective. The percussion playing by Nicholas Terry in this section was exactly on target: precise and carefully nuanced.
Another sequence – Mein Bruder – followed, featuring more of the expressive singing of soprano Justine Aronson, whose voice seemed to hover weightlessly in the air. The instrumentation here added a palpable layer of tension to the text, especially Brian Walsh’s bass clarinet. Another short Interlude followed, made mysterious and unsettling by the excellent ensemble in the piano, flute, percussion and bass clarinet. Harlequinade was next and this had a more active and playful feel, as animated by the strings. The vocals were especially spirited, sometimes as recitative but more often with impressive acrobatics. Another interlude, Fantasmagoria, followed and this opened with a bell-like ringing and wild runs from the flute, clarinet and violin. The different lines chased each other around and around, adding to the sense of fantasy and movement. The percussion added a series of loud, rhythmic riffs and all the parts became more frenzied and agitated until the sound seemed to be coming in waves. Silence, broken only by a single ringing bell ended this section.
The final part of Settings from Pierrot Lunaire was the Selbstmord or Suicide section and for this the stage was bathed in a lurid blood red glow as the house lights dimmed. This section began with an expressively rendered spoken text followed by strong opening chords in the instruments. The soprano voice began softly, in an almost confidential whisper and roared upward in a gathering tension with the instruments following. Selbstmord proceeded in this way, alternating between quiet declamation and loud pyrotechnics in an altogether scary sequence. A slow decreshendo of instruments and voice seemed to die away in a fitting finish.
Settings from Pierrot Lunaire is, simply, a masterwork. William Kraft was in attendance and was acknowledged with enthusiastic applause and cheers by the audience at the conclusion of this expertly performed concert.
Brightwork newmusic is:
Aron Kallay, piano
Terry Stanislav, violin
Brian Walsh, clarinets
Sara Andon, flute
Nicholas Terry, percussion
Ashley Walters, guest cellist
Other musicians and actors in this concert were:
Alma Lisa Fernandez, Viola
Andreas Levisianos, conductor
Charlotte Gulezian, narrator
Justin Huen, narrator
Jessica Salans, director
Scott Worthington, contrabass
Three cheers for the home team! Jay Batzner, a Contributing Editor to Sequenza 21, has a new recording out on the Irritable Hedgehog imprint. as if to each other …, a 25 minute long EP played by pianist R. Andrew Lee, is now available via their website.
pianist Matthew McCright
At the risk of sounding like an Internet meme, one does not simply perform Olivier Messiaen. A performer must take certain risks, and prepare for the very real possibility that the performance may not show the mysteries of the piece. Minnesota-based pianist Matthew McCright, a member of the piano faculty at Carleton College and pianist for the new music group Ensemble 61, has proven to be an intrepid explorer of new music, and knows where to go to find the inner machinery of Messiaen’s works. In his fifth CD release, Contemplations: The Music of Olivier Messiaen (available from Albany Records), McCright tackles six of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty contemplations of the infant Jesus), as well as the eight Préludes from Messiaen’s early output.
The six Regards chosen by McCright work well as a sub-unit of the full collection (which would take nearly two hours). McCright opens the CD with the ten-minute “Regard du Père” (“Contemplation of the Father”). This piece, the first of the Vingt Regards, requires a deft, sustainable touch, and McCright proves equal to the task, never letting the sound overwhelm the listener. This is Messiaen at his most introspective, and McCright lets the music breathe and meditate. McCright does get a chance to show off impressive technique with the sixth track, “Noël” (“Christmas Day”), which depicts the joy of the Nativity and the sounding of bells throughout all Christendom. The pianist has done his homework throughout the Vingt Regards, bringing Messiaen’s many leitmotivs to the listener’s attention without being pedantic.
In the Préludes of 1929, Messiaen is paying tribute to Debussy, but goes beyond Debussy’s vocabulary to lay the foundation for the language and mysticism we find in the later Vingt Regards. The backwards chronological focus of the CD provides a nice contrast to the “this happened then this happened then this happened” path that many performers have taken in the past with recordings of these works. McCright approaches the Préludes in a manner that is both appropriately athletic and musical; this is most obvious in the final section of the third movement, “Le nombre léger” (“A light number”). McCright proves that for Messiaen, “light” need not mean “insubstantial.”
McCright gets Messiaen, and that is no small feat.
It used to be that you could pick up the phone and call someone, and they would answer. And so it was perhaps a decade ago that I called Gunther Schuller’s Manhattan publicist John Gingrich innumerable times to see if Schuller was available for a date with the San Francisco branch of The Duke Ellington Society, which I headed at that time. John was forever patient–he told me he’d noted all the times I’d called– as he went over Gunther’s schedule to see when he’d be free, and after many calls we arrived at a date when Gunther could talk to our little band of Ellingtonians.
Happy birthday to composer Terry Riley, who turns 80 today.
There are CD releases out this week to celebrate the composer. My assessment of ZOFO Plays Terry Riley appears in the CD Reviews section of Sequenza 21 and on my blog.
But wait, there’s more.
Nonesuch Records has done right by Riley. They have released One Earth, One People, One Love, a 5-CD boxed set of the complete recordings of Riley’s music composed for Kronos Quartet. The set contains a disc of unreleased tracks, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector: Music of Terry Riley. For those of you yelling – “No fair! I already have the Kronos discs. I want to buy the unreleased recordings as a separate CD!” – Nonesuch is allowing you to do just that, separately releasing these recordings on a single disc.
Once again, happiest of birthdays Mr. Riley! May you continue to write the eloquently beautiful music we have come to know and love for many years to come.
Saddening news. Gunther Schuller has died at the age of 89. A musical polymath, Schuller was active as a composer, conductor, arranger, historian, educator, arts administrator and, earlier in his career, French horn player. He pioneered the concept of “Third Stream” music: works that combine influences and materials from jazz and classical music.
In Schuller’s honor, today I’m listening to a Boston Modern Orchestra Project recording of his pieces for jazz quartet and orchestra. Given all of the attempts over the years to synthesize jazz and classical, it is amazing how fresh these pieces remain, how effortlessly Schuller (and BMOP) move from one style to another, and how seamlessly they blend the two.
I was looking forward to this summer’s tribute to Schuller at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. Now this concert, with Magical Trumpets, a new work by Schuller, as well as his formidable Concerto da Camera, will serve as an elegy in memory of an extraordinary man of extraordinary talents.
The International Contemporary Ensemble – ICE – was one of the featured groups performing at the 69th Ojai Music Festival. On Friday, June 12, 2013 ICE presented a varied concert of virtuosic pieces at the gazebo in the center of Libbey Park. A good-sized crowd turned out to hear the ICE artists play traditional acoustic instruments artfully combined with amplification and electronics.
Dan Lippel was first with Electric Counterpoint, a piece for guitar and tape by Steve Reich. The music was immediately recognizable as classic Reich and bubbled along with a satisfying groove. The playing by Dan Lippel here was seamless with the tape and the sound reinforcement system seemed to be up to the task of projecting out into the open spaces of the park. The recorded bass line was particularly effective when present and there was all the energy typical of the music of Reich. The piece unfolded in several sections that were variously festive or a bit more introspective, but all consistently active and upbeat. This was the perfect opening piece for the afternoon and the audience was visibly pleased.
This was followed by Jennifer Curtis and David Bowlin performing Apophthegms, a piece by John Zorn for two violins. This was very different and surprisingly complex music, with fast runs, flurries of pizzicato and unexpected changes in direction. Quiet passages followed loud sections, and fast, complex sections were followed by softer and more uniform stretches. Some of the quiet parts had a decidedly sinister feeling and a creaking sound from the violins added to the tension. The amplification, for the most part, worked in favor of the instruments although there were times when very soft segments were lost in the ambient noise of the park. As the piece concluded, a faster and more animated feeling took hold as the two violins weaved wonderfully bright and complex patterns that shimmered to the finish. Apophthegms is a virtuoso piece in every respect – from both a composing and performing standpoint.
Rebekah Heller was next, playing Concatenation, for bassoon and electronics by Rand Steiger. This began with a low rumble of notes that seemed to be re-processed for echo and delay and then sent to the speakers – this nicely increased in density as the playing continued. The sounds soon came in rushes with great clouds of notes pouring out over the audience. There were also slower sections where the sustained bassoon tones and electronics gave a distant, lonely feel that contrasted well with the busier stretches. These sounds were pleasantly matched to the backdrop of oak trees and shrubs, perfectly at home in the woodsy surroundings. As bursts of notes echoed away, it was as if the music was receding back into a forest. The sound also seemed to move from left to right at times, giving a convincing sense of motion and movement. A low trill accompanied by some futuristic electronic sounds at the conclusion gave the impression of a flying saucer rising rapidly upward, taking off and leaving the earth behind. Rebekah Heller’s performance – played with out a score – was a triumph of energy and concentration and the audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
Nuiko Waddenh followed with Polvere et Ombra a piece for solo harp by Suzanne Farrin. This began with a series of rapid arpeggios, fast notes and a low strumming sound that gave a somewhat darker edge to the piece. There was a sense of rapid movement and velocity throughout and a series of sharp, furious chords that were expertly delivered. Towards the end the feel of the piece turned a bit lighter, but still mysterious, becoming very quiet at the finish. The amplification was both necessary and precisely applied to allow the naturally soft harp to be heard in the open spaces of the park.
San, by Du Yun, a piece for cello and electronics was next, and this was performed by Katinka Kleijn. Ms Kleijn took the stage clad completely in black and wearing a white mask. A large bass drum, equipped with a foot pedal, was situated next to her chair. The piece began with low, scratchy tones from the cello and several solid strikes on the bass drum gave this a very Asian feel. Some higher knocking sounds coming from the electronics – and the white mask worn by Ms. Kleijn – added a strong sense of ceremony and ritual to this. As the piece progressed there were complex, layered sections that alternated with slower and more somber stretches. There was a sense of struggle woven throughout and as the piece concluded the percussive sounds in the electronics and the striking of the bass drum conjured images of a violent battle. The complex playing, the combination of electronics, a bass drum and the wearing of the mask were all smoothly handled by Ms. Kleijn who delivered a spirited and drama-filled performance.
Next was a piece by Mario Diaz de Leon, Luciform, for flute and electronics. This was performed by Claire Chase and began with some light trills and rapid runs from the flute with a kind of low roar in the electronics that seemed to be moving slightly in pitch. This soon became very complex in the electronics with the flute supplying a series of fast repeating phrases. The pace slowed and the flute took up a low, dark melody while the deep roar returned to the electronics, producing an overall sense of menace. As the piece continued the electronics became very active and the volume increased, as if sending a warning. The tension increased in the somber flute, evoking a melancholy sense of pervasive alienation and the piece concluded with a frenetic finish. Luciform was another instructive example of how electronics and solo instruments can be artfully combined given good writing, playing and sound engineering.
The final work on the program was Rock Piece by Pauline Oliveros and this was performed by all the ICE musicians. They began in front of the audience, each with two smooth ocean rocks, striking them together more or less randomly. There is not supposed to be a common beat or volume in this – your brain actually works to find rhythms and counterpoint from the perceived sounds. As the players fanned out into the audience, the sounds of the striking lessened and became more diffuse. The players slowly returned back to their starting point and the sounds again became more distinct. The outdoor acoustics ultimately worked against the hearing of this and the one piece in the concert that was performed without electronics seemed to suffer the most.
This concert by ICE provided a lively and forward looking series of pieces that featured exceptional playing and impressive writing that skillfully combined the strengths of acoustic instruments and electronics.
Photos by Bonnie Wright (used with permission)
The 69th annual Ojai Music Festival featured the West Coast premiere of Sila: The Breath of the World by John Luther Adams, staged outdoors in Libby Park as a free community event. Performers from ICE, red fish blue fish and Cal Arts – some 80 musicians in all – were placed in selected positions in the center of the park and the audience was invited to move around and among them as the piece progressed.
Sila is an Inuit concept for the spirit that animates the world and marks the second outdoor piece by John Luther Adams at Libby Park. Inuksuit was performed here in 2012 under similar circumstances and was judged a great success. Sila is perhaps a more ambitious piece in that there are more players and a more diverse orchestration. Inuksuit is a dynamic percussion piece that was spread out over the entire park. Sila has strings, horns, woodwinds and voices organized into sections, all ringed by percussion stations. Sila probably occupied a bit less than half the area of the Inuksuit installation.
Sila is also a more delicate piece – its subject matter is intangible and highly spiritual. In a recent article by Tim Greiving the composer was quoted: “My image of the piece is really quite simple, It comes up, very slowly, out of the earth, out of these very low sounds — of bass drums and double basses and bassoons and tubas. And over the course of an hour or so, it just gradually rises up through this series of harmonic clouds and goes out and rises, and blows away in the wind.”
Sila opens with a great roll of the bass drums accompanied by sustained tones from the low brass. There is a primal, elemental feel to this that increased as the bass clarinet and oboe entered. The entrance of each section of instruments, in turn, contributed more sustained tones that gradually rose and fell in volume. The early parts of Sila were heard in the lower registers, but the sounds gradually rose in pitch over the course of the one hour performance. The musicians and singers slowly rotated as they played, adding a swirling effect to the texture.
Microtones were notated in the score and the musicians were equipped with a cell phone app that helped to monitor the pitches and provide stopwatch time to mark the entrances of the various sections. There was no formal beat, but rather a series of long tones – always entering and fading – and producing a constantly changing color and texture to the sound. At times the ensemble sounded like a great sigh.
The crowd pressed in among the musicians and depending where one stood, there was a markedly different character to the listening experience. Standing near the woodwinds or voices, for example, one heard a lighter, ethereal sound while standing near the brass or percussion evoked a feeling of expansiveness and grandeur. Given its more diverse instrumentation, Sila is a much more position-sensitive experience than the percussion-driven Inuksuit.
About midway into the piece there were high trills on some of the xylophones while others were bowed and this produced a lovely mystical wash on top of the sustained pitches coming from the instruments. The soprano voices were also very effective when within earshot. The press of listeners as they moved among the players had a somewhat damping effect on the sound – especially among the higher woodwinds, strings and voices. The audience was quietly attentive and fully engaged for the entire hour. The piece gradually wound down in volume and in the final moments all that could be heard was the rushing sound of air coming from the instruments and voices. John Luther Adams was in attendance and acknowledged the sustained applause that followed.
This performance of Sila was well matched to the Ojai Festival which, after all, is built on the idea of music outdoors. Much credit goes to the 80 musicians who had to bring off a subtle piece in the park setting and contend with microtones, stopwatches and the distractions of having their audience moving among them. The performance was successful, in part, because it involves the audience in a way that can’t be duplicated in the concert hall. Sila – and the other outdoor pieces by John Luther Adams – have added an important new dimension to the presentation of new music.
Composer and conductor Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.
If you’re a fan of new music, be it “indie-classical” or whatever it’s being labeled this week, then you must check out the music of composer and conductor Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. Phillips’ music, composed and arranged for his ensemble Numinous, a large chamber group (or small orchestra?) of woodwinds, brass, strings, tuned percussion, electric instruments and vocalists, is a complex, finely detailed amalgam of classical, minimalist, South American, Asian, and African American influences, with a distinctive “sound” that is instantly identifiable, yet full of surprises. (You know those descriptive terms “Brahmsian” or “the Mingus effect”? It’s like that.) Phillips’ latest album, Changing Same, due out August 28 on New Amsterdam Records, is perhaps his most autobiographical musical statement to date.
While his previous recordings, Numinous: The Music of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. and Vipassana include notes that detail the inspiration for his compositions, Changing Same has no notes; just a quote from 1966 by writer, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka (then Le Roi Jones) that describes a “post-black aesthetic,” one that unapologetically digs both the down-home and the downtown, the highfalutin and the funky, the Anglo-centric and the Afro-futuristic, the “what it is” and the “what the hell is goin’ on?” The titles for each of the six movements of Changing Same offer some additional clues . . . “Behold, the Only Thing Greater Than Yourself,” “Miserere,” “Unlimited,” “Alpha Man,” “The Most Beautiful Magic.” The first track, “19,” which can be streamed and purchased here, refers to November 19, 1970, the date of the publication of James Baldwin’s essay, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, opus 19, from 1911, and the age Phillips began studying music as an undergrad, after two semesters as a bio-chemistry major.
Changing Same is another intriguing chapter in Phillips’ journey, from growing up listening to both Holst and Prince, to conducting Numinous onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a performance of his score for the 1922 silent film The Loves of Pharoah, to producing this latest release. In the following interview, Phillips provides some details about that journey, and explains how his life experience, be it past, future or present-day-craziness, is reflected in the music of Changing Same.
On the back of your new album, there’s a quote by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) from his 1966 essay, The Changing Same:
“R&B is about emotion, issues purely out of emotion. New Black Music is also about emotion, but from a different place, and finally toward a different end. What these musicians feel is a more complete existence. That is, the digging of everything.”
So, my first question with regard to this quote is, do you dig everything?
Well, of course, I have my standards. [laughs] There are things I like and don’t like.
In that essay, Baraka is explaining the spontaneous compositional processes of the creative improvisational people at that time, and putting them in a continuum of what had come before in terms of black music. He’s saying look, these guys might seem like they’re acting wild and crazy, But really, this “New Black Music” harkens back to earlier music.
When I read the essay, the quote just jumped out at me. I thought it was a perfect encapsulation of what I’m doing or hoping to have happen with my piece. With Changing Same, I wanted to take the cultural and musical things that I grew up with and incorporate them into piece. When I read Baraka’s essay, I thought, yes, I grew up with the black music continuum, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince. But I grew up with classical music as well, like Holst, Bach . . . like any other composer, I have a potpourri of influences. Sometimes you can hear these influences very specifically. For example, on the fourth track, “The Most Beautiful Magic,” the initial bass line is actually coming straight from Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
The quote from Baraka comes from a time period in the U.S. where the Civil Rights movement was giving way to what is broadly described at the Black Power movement, and there were a lot of changes happening in the arts that reflected this change.
Your album is dropping at a time when there is a lot of national conversation, some of it hostile, some of it healthy, about race. Did you consider how the Baraka quote might apply to what we, as a country, have experienced in the past year?
Definitely. The thing that got me thinking about this particular piece was Duke Ellington’s 1943 composition Black, Brown and Beige, which he described as “a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America.” I thought, “Well, maybe I could do kind of an update of the history of the American negro.” But then, very quickly, I realized that’s a big subject to take on. [laughs] And no one document could capture the diversity of what has happened since 1940 to the present day. So I decided to make a more personal statement. I looked at myself, and what has happened during my lifetime, and then applied the cultural influences and some of the historical events I grew up with. Things like the James Baldwin essay An Open Letter to my Sister Angela Davis, which was published on November 19, 1970. Things like the 1967 decision Loving vs. Virginia, that effectively ended laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The track “The Most Beautiful Magic” was inspired by that. The title of the second track, “Behold, The Only Thing Greater Than Yourself,” comes from the mini-series Roots. Kunta Kinte as a baby is held up to the sky by his father who declares, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself.” Again, it’s a way of saying you can do . . . whatever!
“Unlimited” was inspired by my being on the National Mall in 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as President, and the two million people there — it really was like black, brown and beige. It was like a new hope, a new beginning. I can remember growing up and not even thinking that was even a possibility. Whether you like Obama or not, the fact is, he’s a historical figure, and now that potential is there. That’s what “Unlimited” is about. All of the sudden, things open up, and you can be whoever you want to be. Look, we can do more than what people think we can do.
You spoke about what’s happening now, and even though what’s been happening lately happened after I had written and recorded Changing Same, I feel like it’s a very timely piece. We’re now we’re having this conversation about the police and a police state, and the brown and black faces who bear the brunt of all sorts of profiling or targeting. . . . In his 1970 letter to Angela Davis, James Baldwin was talking about same stuff we’re dealing with now.
How would you describe your relationship to minimalism?
Minimalism is a big part of what I write, whether it sounds like it or not. It is there, even when it’s not there.
I was in college when a friend of mine first played me something by Phillip Glass, and I thought, “What is this? I don’t like this stuff.” I couldn’t stand it! But then, gradually, in various courses I came across pieces like (Reich’s) Piano Phase, and I began to explore the music on my own.
Minimalism is part of our time. We grew up listening to it, just like we grew up listening to rock or R&B. Once I began to explore it more, it became another piece to help me find out who I was. It helped me figure out where I wanted to go. For me, minimalism is just another technique. It is a big influence on me, but it’s my own take on what it is. It only says what I want it to say, not what Phillip Glass or Steve Reich says.
You transcend your influences . . .
That’s what you hope!
There are times when a person is put into a box. I get this a lot when I meet someone and say, “I’m a composer!” They see me, and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, “Oh, what kind of music do you do? Jazz?” So there’s this assumption, he’s black so he must be a jazz composer. But on everything I’ve done, even my most “jazziest” pieces, almost all of my influences have come from the classical world. This is where the labels can come from. Oh, you’re black, you must be like this! But when you look at someone, you don’t know what’s really there.
I’ve had plenty of people say to me, “You look like a composer!”
[laughs] You look “smart,” right?
My favorite composers, I don’t put into a box. Some writers are of course very good at describing how a composer’s music sounds, but I think music ultimately has to speak for itself.
No composer wants to be boxed in. I do understand this grasping for “a way in” and that a label can be a way to give the listener a starting point. But that’s not actually what happens. Sometimes, when you label someone, people get lazy and they decide okay, that’s what it is. Too often, people feel they can dismiss the music, or dismiss the person who is making the music.
How was Changing Same was recorded? Was it all tracked live?
Every track is live except for the third track, “Miserere.” All of the instrumental stuff was done in two sessions, and then I had another session for just the voices.
On “Miserere,” the soundscape that follows the setting of your poem, sung by Melissa Hughes, has a real organic quality to it.
With “Miserere,” I was thinking of Miles Davis and producer Teo Macero and how they used the studio as an instrument. We first recorded a live take of “Miserere.” I then had some of the musicians play by themselves (over) that take. I conducted each musician and directed them do little effects here and there. I processed those performances separately, and placed them where I wanted them to go in the mix.
What was the inspiration for “Miserere”?
It’s a lament. There’s the famous Bach cantata, Ich habe genug, which means, “I have enough.” The title refers to being fulfilled, in this case, with God’s love. You’re just . . . fulfilled. You have what you need. And I wanted to change that. I wrote the lyrics for “Miserere” while going through a very difficult, frustrating time. So “Miserere” turns the title of the Bach piece around to say, I have had enough, and I don’t have enough, I am not fulfilled. The lyric is kind of ambiguous, in the sense that there’s no real resolution. Just like in life. You have all of this doubt, you have all of this questioning within you about yourself, and there is no answer. I think, having an answer is not how life works. Sometimes, things are ambiguous.
There’s that lecture Leonard Bernstein did, “The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity,” where he talks about the move away from tonality, and how when there’s no resolution, it can be this tension-filled, beautiful kind of thing. But it can also be maddening, because you want some kind of resolution. You want an answer. But in “Miserere,” you don’t have an answer. Sometimes there’s no solution and you have to live with that. You still have to go on.
If we can go back to what we were talking about earlier, about what’s happening in society today, you look at all of the problems and issues we have and sometimes, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get any better. You hear about another black male killed, and you might see it one way, while other people see it a completely different way. It feels like nothing is ever going to get solved, because everyone is at odds. I think “Miserere” can speak to this time we’re living in.
Bernstein ended his lecture by playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, and it’s so intense. He says that with that symphony, you can hear that Mahler knew the horrors of World War I were coming. He foresaw it. And Bernstein ties this into the death of tonality. [laughs] But what Bernstein was saying is that Mahler was of his time. We can read about what it was like before World War I, but we don’t know exactly what it felt like. But Mahler was there, and he was picking up on something.
As an “alt-classical,” “indie-classical,” or whatever it is that I do composer, I feel like, as a black male, I’m coming from a completely different angle than a lot of composers in my circle. There are things I have to deal with, just walking down the street, which many of my friends and colleagues don’t. So naturally, how I feel about that internally, how it feels to have someone cross the street to avoid you, or follow you around in a store, when all you’re doing is just trying to live, finds its way into my music, (even if unconsciously). I want to be able to just write what I want to write. I don’t want to have to be the “weight” of black America in classical music. But, I also want to be able to reflect on that part of me that is there and that you don’t hear in a lot of new music and classical circles.
Going back to “Miserere,” that lamenting feeling is part of the time we are living in. It does feel frustrating, it does feel hopeless. But that doesn’t mean you give up hope. If you asked me when I was 12, if one day we would have a black president, I would have said, “I don’t think so.” But that’s actually happened in my lifetime. Even in just the past five years, with laws being changed to allow gays and lesbians to marry . . . change can happen so quickly, and it can’t help but be reflected in the music we compose.
We like to think that chamber music is an acquired taste but what is chamber music but music played in a room by a few people for a few people or for thousands? So it’s not just the Mexico- founded Cuarteto Latinoamerico, or the American Patricia Barber and her band, or the American quartet Brooklyn Rider, and the Australian Dead Can Dance, or the late lamented Beatles, because all of these groups are playing chamber music. Syrian clarinetist-composer Kinan Azmeh was the headliner on the last installment of Lenore Davis’ St Urban’s poets cum musicians series at Subculture’s handsome downstairs room on Bleecker in New York’s West Village. And the music, by four completely different composers from two different continents, seemed to address the hidden source of sound. We like to think we’re in the light but we’re mostly in the dark, even underground.
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