Composers of Northern California, Other Minds 19


OM 19, the final bow.  Left to right: Charles Amirkhanian, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Joseph Byrd, Wendy Reid, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, John Schott, Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Don Buchla

OM 19, the final bow. Left to right: Charles Amirkhanian, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Joseph Byrd, Wendy Reid, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, John Schott, Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Don Buchla

This past Friday and Saturday the San Francisco Jazz Center hosted the 19th annual Other Minds Festival concerts.  This is the first year not to feature an international roster.  Instead the focus was on composers from northern California.  (Strictly speaking these composers’ creative years and present residence is northern California.)  It was not a shift in policy but a focus on a less generally well known group of artists who have not enjoyed the exposure of east coast composers but have produced a formidable body of work that deserves at least a fair assessment.  In fact these concerts presented a fascinating roster of composers from essentially three generations.

The first generation represented was one which came of age in the fabled 1960s and included electronic music pioneer Don Buchla, AACM founding member Roscoe Mitchell and proto-minimalist Joseph Byrd.  The second was represented by Wendy Reid, Myra Melford and John Bischoff.  And the youngest generation by Mark Applebaum and Charles Celeste Hutchins.

The program opened on Friday night with a sort of pantomime work by Stanford associate professor of music Mark Applebaum.  The piece, called Aphasia (2010) consists of an electronic score to which the composer, seated in a chair, responds with a variety of carefully choreographed gestures.  The result was both strange and humorous.  The audience was both amused and appreciative.

Applebaum's Metaphysics of Notation (2008) performed by the Other Minds Ensemble.  Left to right: Myra Melford, John Bischoff, Wendy Reid, John Schott, Joseph Byrd, Charles Amirkhanian and Charles Celeste Hutchins

Applebaum’s Metaphysics of Notation (2008) performed by the Other Minds Ensemble. Left to right: Myra Melford, John Bischoff, Wendy Reid, John Schott, Joseph Byrd, Charles Amirkhanian and Charles Celeste Hutchins

Applebaum’s graphic score Metaphysics of Notation (2008) was projected overhead while the ensemble played their interpretations of that score.  The ensemble, dubbed the Other Minds Ensemble, consisted of most of the composers who participated in the festival including Mr. Amirkhanian displaying his facility with  a percussion battery among other things.  (Presumably Roscoe Mitchell, who was reportedly not feeling well, would have joined the ensemble as well.)  Mr. Applebaum was conspicuously absent perhaps so as to not unduly influence the proceedings.

Ribbons strewn across the stage, a part of the Other Minds Ensemble's interpretation of the Metaphysics of Notation

Ribbons strewn across the stage, a part of the Other Minds Ensemble’s interpretation of the Metaphysics of Notation

The piece was full of minimal musical gestures, humorous events like ribbons strewn across the stage and the popping of little party favors that emitted streamers.  The ensemble appeared to have a great deal of fun with this essentially indeterminate score which they are instructed to interpret in their own individual  ways.  It was a rare opportunity to see and hear Mr. Amirkhanian (who is a percussionist by training) as well as an opportunity for the other composer/performers to demonstrate their skills and their apparent affinity for this type of musical performance.  Again the audience was both amused and appreciative.

Mark Applebaum performing on his invented instrument.

Mark Applebaum performing on his invented instrument.

Projection of Applebaum performing with view of the composer/performer stage right as well.

Projection of Applebaum performing with view of the composer/performer stage right as well.

The third piece by Applebaum featured the composer with his invented instrument and electronics playing on a balcony stage right with a projection of himself on the big screen.  He produced a wide variety of sounds from his fanciful computer controlled contraption that seemed to please the audience.  This is the kind of unusual genre-breaking events which tend to characterize an Other Minds concert.

The second composer of the night was the elusive Joseph Byrd who is perhaps best known for his cult classic album The American Metaphysical Circus by Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies from 1969.  A previous band, The United States of America released a self-titled album which received critical acclaim in 1968.  Both are apparently out of print but available through Amazon.

Joe Byrd studied music with Barney Childs and worked with La Monte Young, cellist Charlotte Moorman, Yoko Ono and Jackson Mac Low.  Byrd went on to produce a great deal of music by others and also wrote music for films and television but his own compositions have only come to light again recently with the release of a New World CD released in 2013 which presents his work from 1960-63.  Mr. Amirkhanian said that it was this disc that got him interested in inviting Byrd to Other Minds (Byrd also taught at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California.).

This is the sort of musical archeology for which Other Minds has become known.  Amirkhanian is known for his ability to find and bring to performance and recordings music which has been unjustly neglected.  Hopefully this appearance will be followed by more releases of Byrd’s other music as well.

Byrd was represented here by performances of Water Music (1963) for percussionist and tape with Alan Zimmerman (who was one of the producers of the New World album) played the spare percussion part which integrated well with the analog electronic tape.

Alan Zimmerman performing Joe Byrd's Water Music.

Alan Zimmerman performing Joe Byrd’s Water Music.

A second piece, Animals (1961) was performed by the brilliant and eclectic bay area pianist Sarah Cahill with Alan Zimmerman and Robert Lopez on percussion and the fiercely talented Del Sol String Quartet (Kate Stenberg and Richard Shinozaki, violins, Charlton Lee, viola and Kathryn Bates Williams, cello).  This was another piece with soft, mostly gentle musical gestures involving a prepared piano and predominantly percussive use of the string players.  It was interesting to contemplate how this long unheard music must have sounded in 1961 but it was clear that it communicated well with the audience on this night.

Animals (1961)

Animals (1961)

John Bischoff performing his work Audio Combine (2009)

John Bischoff performing his work Audio Combine (2009)

Following intermission we heard two pieces by Mills composer/performer John Bischoff.  The first was Audio Combine (2009) which featured Bischoff on this laptop producing a variety of digitally manipulated sounds.  It was followed by Surface Effect (2011) with creative lighting effects/animations that nicely complemented the laptop controlled analog circuitry.  Bischoff’s music is generally gentle and clear.  It belies the complexity of its genesis in state of the art computer composition and performance for which he is so well known.

John Bischoff performing Surace Effect (2011)

John Bischoff performing Surace Effect (2011)

All this led to the final performance of the evening by Don Buchla whose modular synthesizers were developed in the early 1960s with input from Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley at the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center (which later became the Mills Center for Contemporary Music).  Buchla also designed the sound system for Ken Kesey’s bus “Furthur” which featured in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Don Buchla on the Buchla Bos and Nannick Buchla on the piano with film projection performing Drop by Drop (2012) in its American premiere.

Don Buchla on the Buchla Bos and Nannick Buchla on the piano with film projection performing Drop by Drop (2012) in its American premiere.

The conclusion of Friday’s program consisted of the American premiere of a Drop by drop by Don Buchla for Buchla 200e, electronically controlled “piano bar”  (another Buchla invention) and film projection.  The film was made in collaboration with bay area film maker Sylvia Matheus.  The sequence of images began with a dripping faucet and proceeded to a waterfall and then to emerging pictures of birds all the while accompanied by the various sounds from the synthesizer and the piano.

OM190028

Nannick and Donald Buchla receiving warm applause from the audience.

The Saturday night performances began with Charles Celeste Hutchins and his laptop improvising system.  Hutchins, a San Jose native, describes his system as related to Iannis Xenakis’ UPIC system and utilizes a live graphic interface which the computer uses to trigger sound events.

Charles Celeste Hutchins at his laptop performing Cloud Drawings (2006-9)

Charles Celeste Hutchins at his laptop performing Cloud Drawings (2006-9)

The drawings were projected onto the overhead screen.  There seemed to be a somewhat indirect correlation between the drawings and the resultant sounds and much of the tension of this performance derived from wondering what sounds would result when the cursor reached that particular drawing object.  The audience is basically watching the score as it is being written, a rather unique experience and the Other Minds audience clearly appreciated the uniqueness.

The projected graphic score for Cloud Drawings.

The projected graphic score for Cloud Drawings.

The Actual Trio: John Schott, guitar, Dan Seamans, bass, John Hanes, drums.

The Actual Trio: John Schott, guitar, Dan Seamans, bass, John Hanes, drums.

John Schott and his Actual Trio then took the stage to perform his own brand of jazz which seemed to be a combination of free jazz, Larry Coryell and perhaps even Jerry Garcia.  But these descriptions are merely fleeting impressions and are not intended to detract from some really solid and inspired music making.  After the conclusion of the set this listener half expected an encore.

But the program moved on toWendy Reid’s performance as we watched the stage being set up with music stands, some electronic equipment and a parrot in a cage.

Tree Piece #55 "lulu variations" with Tom Dambly, trumpet, Wendy Reid, violin and electronics and Lulu Reid on vocals.

Tree Piece #55 “lulu variations” with Tom Dambly, trumpet, Wendy Reid, violin and electronics and Lulu Reid on vocals.

Reid’s Tree Pieces are an ongoing set of compositions incorporating nature sounds with live performance.  This is not unlike some of Pauline Oliveros’ work in that it involves careful listening by the musicians who react within defined parameters to these sounds.

Lulu the parrot appeared nervous and did a lot of preening but did appear to respond at times.  The musicians responded with spare notes on violin and muted trumpet.  It was a whimsical experience which stood in stark contrast to the more declarative music of the previous trio but at least some of  the audience, apparently prepared for such contrasts, was appreciative.

Myra Melford performing selections from Life Carries Me This Way (2013)

Myra Melford performing selections from Life Carries Me This Way (2013)

The diminutive figure of Myra Melford took command of the piano and the hearts of the audience in her rendition of several pieces from her recent CD.  She played sometimes forcefully with thunderous forearm cluster chords and sometimes with extreme delicacy but always with rapt attention to her music.  Her set received a spontaneous standing ovation from a clearly roused audience.  She is a powerful but unpretentious musician who clearly communicates well with her audience.

Roscoe Mitchell, Vinny Golia, Scott Robinson and J.D. Parran  following their performance of Noonah (2013)

Roscoe Mitchell, Vinny Golia, Scott Robinson and J.D. Parran following their performance of Noonah (2013)

The finale of OM 19 was the world premiere of an Other Minds commission, the version for four bass saxophones of Roscoe Mitchell’s Noonah (pronounced no nay ah).  It is the latest incarnation of a piece of music that Mitchell describes as having taken on a life of its own.  It exists now in several different versions from chamber groups to orchestra.

The piece is vintage Roscoe Mitchell, a combination of free jazz and sometimes inscrutable compositional techniques which clearly enthralled the very focused performers.  What the piece seemed to lack in immediate emotional impact it made up in mysterious invention which was brought out grandly by the very experienced and committed players.

Mitchell, who was not able to attend on the previous night, appeared rather tired but played with a focus and enthusiasm that matched his fellow musicians.  Like all of Mitchell’s music there is a depth and complexity that is not always immediately evident but does come with repeated listenings and performances.

Thus concluded another very successful edition of Other Minds.  Now we look forward to the gala 20th anniversary coming up in March, 2015.

 

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Coming Up, Other Minds 19 at the SF Jazz Center


Official Other Minds logo

Official Other Minds logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On February 28 and March 1 the SF Jazz Center will host Other Minds for the first time.  OM 19 is the latest incarnation of this annual festival which presents an amazing range of new music.

The Other Minds Festival, brainchild of filmmaker/producer Jim Newman and musician, composer and broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian, was first heard in 1993 and, except for the years 1994, 1998 and  2007, has been an annual event in San Francisco  gathering mostly new but  always innovative composers to share their inspirations and innovations with each other and with bay area audiences.  Being curious about those apparent gaps in this festival I sent a query to the Other Minds office and received a prompt reply from none other than Charles Amirkhanian.  He stated as follows:

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his ...

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his office with ASCAP award in background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Hi Allan,
Here’s the story:
After our first festival in November 1993, we needed time to raise more funds to produce OM 2 and get back on the Yerba Buena Center’s schedule. So we postponed until March 1995, the next available spot in the Djerassi schedule. Our timing for the festival is determined by when we have access to empty rooms at DRAP, so we need to be there either in Feb/March or November.
In 1997, once again, we needed time to raise more funds and simply postponed to the next available Djerassi time. Same for OM 13.
In each case, the delay was about eight months (for a November event) or four months (for a March event), giving us a festival in succeeding concert seasons, but not “annual” events. (A concert season is Fall ’07 through Spring ’08, for example.)
Thus the mysterious gaps.
Charles”

This internationally known festival is not just a series of concerts.  The diverse selection of composers gathers first for an artistic residency at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program (DRAP in Mr. Amirkhanian’s note), a pastoral setting nestled between the Pacific coastline and the hills west of Palo Alto, where the invited composers live, work and share ideas for a week prior to the public concerts. The Djerassi Foundation for the Arts was founded by biochemist Carl Djerassi whose daughter, an artist, committed suicide in 1978.  The area is a sculpture park and the facility operates all year round with residencies for artists of all media.  Charles Amirkhanian is one of the former directors of this venerable artist colony and is now the executive and artistic director of Other Minds. The selection process for OM artists is based on the incredible range of interests of the Other Minds Operating Board and in consultation with their advisory board which are very open to suggestions from the general public.  Just e-mail them.  They actually read all their e-mails and respond. This along with New Music America, the ONCE festival, the Telluride Festival (also one of Amirkhanian’s efforts) are among the important music festivals which have yet to receive adequate treatment and exposition of their histories. This year’s OM 19 (which also looks forward with eager anticipation to a very promising gala OM 20) includes Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Donald Buchla, Joseph Byrd, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, Wendy Reid and John Schott.  For the first time in the history of the festival all the composers will be from northern California.  The dates for the festival, which moves this year to the new SF Jazz Center, are Friday February 28 and Saturday March 1. One might think that limiting the selection of composers would be limiting in the variety of artistic efforts to be had but one would be quite wrong.  In fact it would not be difficult to argue that music by musicians from northern California have been unjustly neglected in favor of the more dominant musical cultures of New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.  A quick look at the roster for OM 19 reveals a great deal of variety:

Mark Applebaum at TEDx Stanford

Mark Applebaum at TEDx Stanford (Photo credit: Tamer Shabani Photography)

The Chicago born Mark Applebaum is currently associate professor of composition and theory at Stanford University.  He counts Brian Ferneyhough, Joji Yuasa, Rand Steiger, Roger Reynolds and Philip Rhodes among his teachers.  He also performs as a jazz pianist. He appears to be the first composer at these concerts to have given a TED talk.  In this talk he speaks of being “bored with music”, at least with traditional music and how he used that boredom to break through to another level of creativity creating new instruments and elaborate scores.  He is an engaging speaker and his presentation will no doubt be fascinating.

John Bischoff (1949- )

John Bischoff (1949- )

John Bischoff studied at the California Institute of the Arts and Mills College.  His teachers include Robert Moran, James Tenney and Robert Ashley.  He is currently visiting professor and composer at Mills College. He is one of the pioneers of live computer performance and he is a frequent performer at the Garden of Memory concerts held annually on the summer solstice at Oakland’s beautiful Chapel of the Chimes. Mills College with its Center for Contemporary Music can be said to be the primary life blood of northern California composers.  Bischoff is part of a long line of composers who  have guided musical pedagogy in the Bay Area and have included Chris Brown, Luciano Berio, Darius Milhaud, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, John Cage, Chris Brown, Maryann Amacher, Maggie Payne, Larry Polansky, Robert Ashley, and many others. Bischoff has released 16 albums and numerous publications.  He founded the League of Automatic Composers, the first computer network band and continues to be a driving force in the computer music scene. Don_Buchla_and_200e

Donald Buchla is one of the elder statesmen of new music in California.  His collaboration with Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick produced one of the first modular synthesizers in 1963.  He continues to develop synthesizers with his Buchla and Associates corporation (founded in Berkeley in 1962) . He studied physics, physiology and music.  His importance in the field of electronic music and music synthesis cannot be underestimated.  His electronics have driven many classical, rock and jazz music.  He and his corporation continue to make new electronic instruments such as the marimba lumina and the piano bar and has made available again some of the classic analog electronics which first made his name familiar to musicians worldwide. I was able to find very little about his musical compositions but it is worth noting that his electronics will power the performances of several of the artists in this concert series in addition to his own.

Joe Byrd in 1968

Joe Byrd in 1968

Kentucky born Joseph Byrd is an electronic musician, composer and producer.  His album, “The American Metaphysical Circus” (1969) is legendary and considered a cult album which has been reissued on CD and can also be heard on You Tube.  His band, Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies never performed live but this work of 60s psychedelia has established itself as a landmark recording and a cult classic.  He also did an album of synthesized Christmas Carols in 1975. Byrd has also been a producer with estimable credits such as producer and arranger of Ry Cooder’s amazing ‘Jazz’ album from 1978.

I can’t imagine how his latest work sounds but I am looking forward to it.

Charles Céleste Hutchins at SOUNDkitchen

Charles Céleste Hutchins at SOUNDkitchen (Photo credit: hellocatfood)

Charles Celeste Hutchins is, as far as I can tell, the first instance in which an Other Minds operating board member has been featured as a composer in this series.  The advisory board consists largely of composers who have already been featured on OM concerts.  Until this booking I was not aware of this man’s work.

Hutchins worked in the dot com business for a time and is now working on his musical interests.  His work involves the digital music program called Supercollider which he uses to manipulate sounds.  Discogs lists an MP3 compilation of some of his work in this area.

Melford in Helsinki, 1993

Melford in Helsinki, 1993

Myra Melford is an internationally known jazz pianist and composer with some 17 albums and some 20 years of playing.  Melford is originally from Illinois.

She has played with AACM musicians like Leroy Jenkins, Joseph Jarman and other musicians including Marty Ehrlich, Henry Threadgill, Mark Dresser, OM alumni Han Benink and Tyshawn Sorey.  Currently she teaches at the University of California Berkeley.

saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell at the Pomigliano ...

saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell at the Pomigliano Jazz Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Roscoe Mitchell is one of the founding members of the venerable AACM (American Association of Creative Musicians) which redefined both jazz and contemporary classical music from its founding in 1965 to the present.  Other notable members include Anthony Braxton, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, George Lewis and Lester Bowie among others.  Mitchell is currently professor of music at Mills College where he holds the Darius Milhaud chair.  He has collaborated with Frederic Rzewski, George Lewis, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, Muhal Richard Abrams, Albert Ayler, Henry Threadgill, Thomas Buckner and many others.

Mitchell is one of the acknowledged living masters of American music and he plays and teaches widely.  In 2012 her performed at the “All Tomorrow’s Parties” festival in Minehead, England.  Any performance by this musician is an event.

Wendy Reid is a new name for me.  She is a composer who works with nature sounds.  I did buy her CD entitled “Tree Music” which features 5 of her Tree Pieces with various combinations of violin, percussion, piano, mandolin, oboe and Don Buchla on “thunder” interacting with nature sounds.  For her OM performance she will be sharing the stage with a parrot.  Yes, it does sound like a Monty Python sketch, but this promises to be interesting if not revelatory.  Her work is clearly concerned with the sounds of nature and is at least distantly related to the work of Pauline Oliveros whose album ‘Troglodyte’s Delight’ involves musicians responding to the sounds of water in a limestone cave.

John Schott is another name with which I am not familiar.  But lack of familiarity spells adventure in this series of concerts.  A quick internet search reveals that he is a Berkeley based composer, guitar player and banjo player.  His web site is a blog which reveals his interest in a wide range of musical styles and literary interests.  He lists 8 CDs which feature his work.  He also lists his “compositions in the classical grain”.  It’s anyone’s guess as to what he will present at Other Minds but if the preceding artists are any indication it will be unique and interesting.

All in all this promises to be a very exciting event with the ‘revelatory’ music which Other Minds uses as a tag line in their publicity materials. I won’t miss it and neither should you.

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Final Culmination of a Long Collaboration: Alcatraz/Eberbach by Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston


Starkland's Alcatraz DVD

Starkland’s Alcatraz DVD

The music of Ingram Marshall (1942- ) first came to my ears via the New Albion recording of the Gradual Requiem (1994) written in memory of his father.  The spare sounds in this abstract electroacoustic piece remind one of the music of Harold Budd or the ambient music of Brian Eno.  Like them Marshall has developed a unique and significant voice drawing from methods including minimalist repetition, drones and static harmonies.  He also incorporates electronic music techniques and the techniques of the modern recording studio as well as non-western tunings and instruments.  But even given all the comparisons and qualifiers it is difficult to describe his voice because it is a unique style that, once heard, will leave it’s stamp of individuality much as the distinction between the above-named artists or, for that matter between a Mozart vs. Haydn style.  Very difficult to describe in words alone.

Ingram Marshall in his Hamden, CT studio.

Ingram Marshall in his Hamden, CT studio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now a visiting professor of composition at Yale School of Music, Marshall has had a successful career as a professor, composer and performer.  He has written for a variety of instruments including electronic sounds, piano, guitar and voices as well as for chamber and orchestral groups.  He has released 8 (now 9 with the present DVD) albums.

Jim Bengston (1942- ), born in Evanston, IL developed an interest in photography while in the army.  His work will be familiar to music fans through his work on many albums including the characteristically beautiful photographs seen on albums from  ECM.  His work has been exhibited at MoMA, Art Institute of Chicago, Walker Art Center, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Lillehammer Art Museum and many others.

JimBengston in studio 2009 crop1107

Jim Bengston in his studio 2009

Starkland pioneered a wonderful DVD audio release in 2000 (which includes Marshall’s ‘Sighs and Murmurs’) called Immersion which contained works commissioned for the new Dolby 5.1 system, the first disc of it’s kind and still a landmark production.  Now comes this DVD from the always interesting Starkland records of two collaborative works between these fine artists making full use of the medium.

Like that earlier disc, this is a venture into another type of art object.  The disc contains musical tracks and a series of photographs leisurely timed with the flow of the music.  But this is not a commercial DVD experience of a film nor is it a traditional slide show.  It is not didactic and only incidentally linear.  It is not just a piece of music for listening either.  The experience that I come away with is more of a hybrid experience of something like a living electrovisualacoustic sculpture (sorry for the improvised neologism).

Alcatraz is a 1991 piece realized on tape as is the companion piece.  It is a sonic reworking by the producers into Dolby 5.1 surround sound.   Here it is paired with photography lovingly displayed on the video format by Jim Bengston.  There is a second work on the disc which is a fitting companion piece called Eberbach (1985) after the abandoned monastery Kloster Eberbach in Germany.  Both works are video sequences of images by the photographer accompanied by Marshall’s hypnotic, impressionistic and elegiac  music.

The audio version of Alcatraz was originally released on a New Albion disc in 1991 and Eberbach (the first two of the “Three Penitential Visions”) was released on a Nonesuch disc in 1985.  According to the liner notes the two artists, who first met at Lake Forest College in Illinois, had been discussing a collaboration such as this for many years and a quick look at the copyright info confirms the dates of the photography to 1984 and 1985 for Alcatraz and Eberbach respectively.  They reportedly exchanged photos and cassette recordings for some time  and the quality of their collaboration is apparent.  And now this formerly languishing collaboration is now completed as it was intended with the release of this DVD.

The first work, Alcatraz consists of environmental sounds as well as electronic music and recorded acoustic instruments.  Marshall creates a glowing ambient texture attempting to reflect the history of the famous prison island in the San Francisco Bay.  The piece is in 7 sections nicely divided into tracks.  Each section reflects different aspects of the prison and the location.

The first section is a minimalistic piano piece which has added ambiance apparently from some added electronic manipulation adding a slight echoing which reflects the open empty reflectively resonant chambers of the stone confinements of the old prison structures.  It is followed by some musique concréte incorporating sounds of the prison environment like the ominous slamming of a metal cell door and its echo.  These sounds are manipulated with minimalist techniques of repetition creating a disturbingly oppressive memory of a sound which cannot ever have had a happy connotation for anyone.  And, of course, throughout the stark, at times almost colorless photographs flow in a gentle rhythm from one to another with a few instances of “jump cuts” or quicker transitions.  One gets the sense almost of the visual and sonic events having been co-composed into this hybrid art form.

English: Monastery Eberbach, Germany

English: Monastery Eberbach, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eberbach is based on impressions by the artists of Kloster Eberbach, the first Cistercian Monastery which was established in 1136 by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.  It is no longer in use as a monastery but is actively used as a concert space, wine tasting space (there is a large vineyard and winery on the property which is run by the state) and has been used for scenes in films such as ‘The Name of the Rose’.  It is in fact an acknowledged architectural heritage site as it preserves fine examples of architecture from Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque periods.

Eberbach was conceived and works as a companion to the first piece in several ways.  The same attention is paid to the use of environmental sounds as well as use of conventional instruments to evoke the scenes depicted in Bengston’s photographs.  Both the prison and the monastery are about isolation from the larger society, monks in their cells, prisoners in theirs.

The press room of Kloster Eberbach, a Cisterci...

The press room of Kloster Eberbach, a Cistercian monastery in Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This disc works on many levels.  You can enjoy it as a focused experience sitting in front of the television listening to the music as the pictures flow by.  But you can also experience it as it was played in an installation type setting with the pictures and the music as this sort of ambient living sculpture object.  One can, of course, also experience the pictures or the music alone.  This is a very pleasant and enjoyable disc which is a satisfying culmination of these long gestating projects.

The original recordings were mastered by Bob Shumaker and the current surround sound mix was done by the equally talented Tom Lazarus.  Photo to digital transfers were done by Lavasir Nordrum Design.  Executive producer Thomas Steenland did the design of the package and the DVD menus.

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Alvin Curran at 75, Experimentalism with an Ethnic and Social Conscience


English: The American composer Alvin Curran pl...

English: The American composer Alvin Curran playing the shofar in his composition “Shofar 3,” for shofar and live electronics (2007). Photo taken at a concert of Curran’s music in Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Alvin Curran (1938- ) is an American composer currently living and teaching in Rome whose career began as an expatriate artist working with the cutting edge improv electronics group Musica Elletronica Viva (MEV) in 1966. He turns 75 on December 13, 2013.

Curran was born in Providence, Rhode Island.  His father was a musician in a dance band and he learned to play piano and trombone early on.  He was exposed to big band music, jazz, traditional Jewish music and western classical music during his formative years.  Following his father’s example he also played in dance bands during boat crossings of the Atlantic.  He earned a B.A. in music from Brown University in 1960 where he studied composition with Ron Nelson.  He went on to complete his M.M. at Yale in 1963 were he studied with Elliott Carter and Mel Powell.

A 1964 Ford Foundation grant allowed him to go study in Darmstadt where he met the likes of Stravinsky, Xenakis, Berio, Yuji Takahashi, Andriessen, Remo Remotti, and above all Frederic Rzewski.  He joined with Rzewski,  Richard Teitelbaum and Allan Bryant, all fellow expatriate American musician/composers, with whom he formed the legendary ‘Musica Elettronica Viva‘ or MEV.  This was in early 1966 where their use of largely home made electronics in their improvisational ensemble live performances preceded the days of easily obtainable and operated electronic musical instruments. That wouldn’t begin to happen until about 1964 when Don Buchla, in collaboration with Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and the San Franciso Tape Music Center created the first modular instrument, the “music easel” later known as the ‘Buchla Box’ and Robert Moog on the east coast developed the “Moog” synthesizer.  Curran crossed paths with many of these people during his tenure teaching (1999-2006) at Mills College in Oakland where the San Francisco Tape Music Center had been integrated into the Mills Center for Contemporary Music.

Curran says that during all his years in Rome he met and interacted with many in the Italian avantgarde and new music circles like Franco Donatoni and Guiseppe Chiari.  He was mentored by the reclusive (think Thomas Pynchon) Giacinto Scelsi who held regular salons at his villa.  It was in these days that Curran developed his individual style further.  He lived and taught in Rome from 1966 to 1999 and was very active on the European scene.  After his teaching stint at Mills College Curran returned again to Rome.

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to electronics he uses acoustic instruments ranging from conventional instruments such as piano, strings, woodwinds, voices, etc. to the ancient shofar and environmental sounds including site-specific sound installations, multi-media works and film scores.  His works include the massive set of piano pieces ‘Inner Cities’ (1993-2010) which lasts about 6 hours in a complete performance, the early multi-media Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden (1973), Maritime Rites (1984) written to be played by musicians in boats in various harbors incorporating, of course, the ambience of the given harbor’s acoustic properties.  Maritime Rites has been performed in its various incarnations in Central Park in New York as well as Philadelphia, Berlin and Sydney.

In a wonderful interview from 2003 with the ever vigilant composer/journalist Frank Oteri (published online at New Music Box) he was asked about the political and ethnic/religious content of his music.  Curran replied that he did not set out to express these things as aspects of himself, that the pieces  just happened due to an inspiration at the time.  He says that he is composing all the time and his influences are as wide ranging as his teachers and his milieu.  His style varies widely in part due to his many influences but also because a given style seems to work for the piece.  It sounds as though music is channeled through him.

Unfortunately, as with most expatriate composers, his music is generally less well known in his native country but there are quite a few recordings including some recent releases of some out of print recordings.  In addition there are quite a few videos on YouTube including pianist Kurt Jordan’s live performance of Inner Cities 1-13 from 2009 at Azusa Pacific University which is more than the previously complete recording by Daan Vandewalle who recorded 1-11 (as of 2010 there are 14 parts according  to Curran’s official web site).   As is frequently the case with much contemporary music YouTube provides a great resource, especially for the casual and/or cash-strapped listener.  It is a really good way to get familiar with this man’s diverse and fascinating music.

Not infrequently his music takes on sociopolitical issues as well as inspiration from the composer’s Jewish heritage.  His Schtetl Variations (1987), dedicated to Morton Feldman is an improvisatory meditation on these poor villages of eastern Europe and Russia (think of Fiddler on the Roof) which became the settings for the notorious anti-semitic pogroms. A later piano piece called 11 Schtetl Settings (1988) continues his exploration of this part of his ancestry.  Animal Behavior (1992) for sampler keyboard and optional percussion is a pretty transparent indictment of 1990s American politics.  And the list goes on.

His “Nineteen Eighty Five: Piece for Peace” (1985) involved three ensembles performing at 3 different radio stations in Venice, Amsterdam and Frankfurt (which was simulcast by all three countries) is a a sort of precursor to what is perhaps his most integrated and powerful political composition, his ‘Crystal Psalms’ of 1988.  Here the historical, sociopolitical, ethnic and even geographical are joined to the avant garde in a stunning sonic commemoration and condemnation of the fascism and genocide that characterized the horrors of the second world war.

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Seventy Five years ago this November (9th and 10th) Jewish shops and synagogues were vandalized and looted over those two nights throughout much of Nazi Germany and Austria in a most extreme incarnation of the “pogroms” that became known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass“.  It was one of the first major and overt expressions of Hitler’s genocidal plans then still being formulated. Unfortunately this event continues to be imitated by like-minded hateful individuals and groups worldwide. So the sociopolitical context of this musical work written for the 50th anniversary of that event sadly has an ongoing relevance for our contemporary world even 25 years after its creation.

At its most basic level this piece is a sort of concerto for six instrumental ensembles playing in radio stations in six different countries live mixed by the composer and broadcast throughout Northern Europe on October 20th of 1988. There is no text as such but the sounds of people praying and the apparently random Hebrew letters and German numbers are scattered throughout the piece along with environmental and found sounds on the tape Curran prepared which plays throughout the performance as a sort of political pedal point.

English: "Hebrew alphabet" in Hebrew...

English: “Hebrew alphabet” in Hebrew, modern serif typeface. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The liner notes of the recording describe the piece as “radio concert for six choruses; six sextets each including a quartet (violas, cellos, bass clarinets, bass flutes, trombones, tenor sax/tuba) plus accordion and percussion; tape.”  All were individually conducted with the conductors coordinated by a click track and mixed live by the composer. The recording on New World records is the document of that broadcast.

The effect is that of a collage connected by the electronic nervous system, the radio stations, which link the various performances.  The program is largely implicit here and listening to this piece evokes images that can vary from one listener to the next as any great piece of art provokes different experiences. The sound images here are not pretty and the work is very emotionally intense. Those images are guided by the tone of the music and fueled by the cryptic words and sounds mixed in with the live performances.  It is, in effect, his Mitzvah to the memories of the fallen.  You will not come away unmoved.

Kristallnacht occurred in November of 1938, a month before Curran was born but  the impact of that action continues to resound from that generation to this.  As a politically aware artist he was compelled to respond and he did so in a most emphatic, creative and powerful manner.  Perhaps it is the inherited duty of one generation to exorcise the demons and the atrocities of the previous ones.  Curran has certainly contributed most memorably to such an effort with this work.

Thank you, Mr. Curran, for your prolific and varied contributions to music and your efforts through your art to exorcise the demons of our collective past.  I wish you a happy 75th birthday and wishes for many more creative years to come.

Peace through “A Sweeter Music”


President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civ...

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Album cover

Album cover

It is fitting that this CD, this music has been released in the 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington and just prior to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The series of 18 pieces in this major commissioning project by the wonderful bay area pianist, producer and new music advocate Sarah Cahill called “A Sweeter Music”, its title taken from a phrase in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Prize lecture.  Though only 8 composers are represented on this recording this is a fine document of some truly wonderful and heartfelt music.  And Cahill’s introductory note indicates that there are plans to record the other ten pieces as well.

The project was planned to include video projections by Cahill’s husband, the skillful video artist John Sanborn.  The first formal performance took place on the Berkeley campus and the video projections across three screens added a dramatic perspective on the various pieces.  I was present at the first performance in Berkeley and later at a small multi-purpose hall in Point Reyes in the north bay.  At the smaller venue the projections were limited to a single screen but the images still added to the impact.  At the time of this writing Sanborn has posted some of these videos on You Tube ( http://www.youtube.com/user/sanborn707?feature=watch).

Still from one of Sanborn's videos.

Still from one of Sanborn’s videos.

Each of the recitals contained a selection of the pieces commissioned.  Sarah Cahill kindly provided the complete list which includes: Be Kind to One Another by Terry Riley, Peace Dances by Frederic Rzewski, There is a Field by Jerome Kitzke, Dar al-Harb by Preben Antonsen, The Olive Branch Speaks by Mamoru Fujieda, The Long Winter by Phil Kiline, Two, Entwined by Paul Dresher, War is Just a Racket by Kyle Gann, B’midbar by Larry Polansky, drum no fife by The Residents, Devotion to Peace by Michael Byron, Sonamu by Carl Stone, After the Wars by Peter Garland, A New Indigo Peace by Pauline Oliveros, Movement (Deep in My Heart) by Ingram Marshall, Study War No More by Bernice Johnson Reagon, toning by Yoko Ono and excerpts from Steppe Music by Meredith Monk.

The pieces represented on this recording are a diverse set including those by Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Yoko Ono, The Residents, Phil Kline, Kyle Gann, and Carl Stone.  Missing from this disc, and planned for a future release, are the pieces by Jerome Kitzke, Larry Polansky, Pauline Oliveros, Preben Antonsen,  Sanborn’s images definitely enhanced the experience of the music and this writer hopes that some day this music might be released in a DVD format with those images but the pieces here stand easily on their own merits.

The disc opens with Terry Riley’s ‘Be Kind to One Another (rag)’ (2008-10).  Riley takes his title from a statement made by Alice Walker which followed the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.  Rather than express an anti-war stance Riley harkens to the days of his youth when he played barrel house piano music while he studied composition.  This is a jaunty and entertaining but substantial piece which expresses the wish for kindness.  It is a challenging work to play but not to hear.

‘Steppe Music’ (1997) is apparently a reworking of a 30 minute piano piece (the piece at hand lasts about 8 minutes) commissioned by Sarah Cahill for another masterful pianist, Nurit Tilles.  Meredith Monk is of course best known for her extended vocal techniques and dance/theater pieces.  Little of her piano music has been recorded and one hopes that there will be more to come.  This is a less literal contribution which, the composer says, is about “color, texture, resonance, and gesture…”.  Like her performance pieces this is music about images which evoke emotion and it is unlike any of Monk’s recorded piano music.

The seven ‘Peace Dances’ (2007/8) were written by a composer/pianist well-known for his political statements in music as well as for his virtuosic music.  Frederic Rzewski is probably best known for his massive set of variations on the protest song ‘El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido‘ (The People United Will Never Be Defeated) commissioned in 1976 for Ursula Oppens.  His catalog contains a great deal of music with explicit and implicit political references.  Rzewski’s music sounds deceptively simple but is in fact very challenging to play.  These are part of a much larger set of compositions called “Nanosonatas”.  The dances here contain a variety of musical and political references that will entertain and frustrate musicologists for years to come but present the listener with some welcome additions to the repertoire.  Cahill plays them effortlessly and repeated listenings reveal more of the rich textures.  Rzewski’s inspiration, like that which inspired this series, is rooted in the same struggles as represented by Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, gospel music and contemporary folk music.  The last of these dances was a birthday present for the 100th birthday of Elliott Carter.

Kyle Gann’s ‘War Is Just a Racket’ (2008) is written for speaking pianist.  He takes Christian Wolff’s ‘Accompaniments’, which was written for Frederic Rzewski in 1972 requiring the pianist to sing and speak as well as play.  It reminds this writer of Rzewski’s own ‘De Profundis’ of 1992 for speaking pianist using a text by Oscar Wilde.  Gann takes as his text a very interesting text by one General Smedley Butler who gave this speech in 1933.  Like Rzewski, Gann is no stranger to politics in his music.  This addition to the “speaking pianist” repertoire is spoken with feeling by Cahill as she pounds out the angry chords and melodies.  This is perhaps the most literal of the pieces on the disc and probably the least friendly to a conservative audience.

Sonamu (2010) was written by Carl Stone for piano and electronics.  It’s not the electronics your grandmother listened to either.  Stone uses a computer to perform “spectral convolution”, a process, the composer explains, which isolates various aspects of the sounds to “…shape and enclose the pitch and harmonies of separate voices…”.   The intention stated by Stone is to evoke ghosts and memories of the aftermath of war.  This most complex and abstract piece reminds me of the ghost electronics compositions by Morton Subotnick.  This piece requires repeated listenings and would no doubt be enhanced by Sanborn’s images.

Composer Phil Kline describes a process of using various musical fragments edited together to evoke images of living in a land under siege.  Kline was an eyewitness to the World Trade Center disaster and his personal experiences contained metaphorically in ‘The Long Winter’ (2009) have a memorial-like quality.  In the liner notes he describes his fantasy images leading to the realization that he (and we) do live in a land (or perhaps a world?) under siege.  The piece is in two sections ‘Crash’ and ‘Embers’.

Yoko Ono’s ‘Toning’ (2008) purports to be an effort to heal both performer and audience through sound.  As with much of her work this piece has an anti-art quality like the work she produced for the Fluxus performances.  This is perhaps the technically simplest of the pieces on this recording.  I think that reactions will vary to this music much the way that they vary to Ono’s oeuvre.  Those familiar with her work will see the threads that connect and others may simply dismiss her work entirely.

The enigmatic San Francisco based group “The Residents” aspire to anonymity as individuals in the hope that their audiences will focus on their art.  This is clearly one of their performance art pieces and is fairly explicit in its anti-war stance.  It consists of recorded voices and sounds in addition to the live piano performance and demonstrates the eclectic range involved in these commissions.

This CD was recorded at the recital hall at the University of California at Santa Cruz by Tom Lazarus.  It was released as another of the fine recordings of contemporary music on the Other Minds label with Charles Amirkhanian of ‘Other Minds’ as executive producer.  It is a major addition to the recordings of this political classical genre and a significant contribution to the solo piano repertoire as well as a snapshot of an eclectic range of contemporary music of the moment.  Highly recommended.

The Feeling of the Idea of Robert Ashley: Kyle Gann’s Appreciation of the Composer


Kyle Gann

Kyle Gann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I first encountered the work of Robert Ashley in the early 1980s when I purchased the Lovely Music vinyl LP titled ‘Private Parts: (the record)’. It contained two tracks, one on each side, called, respectively, ‘The Park’ and, ‘The Back Yard’ (which happen to be the first and last acts of ‘Perfect Lives’). I took to the music rather quickly listening to its various layers of musical sounds and Mr. Ashley’s unique voice intoning the equally unique and unusual texts.

That record earned a special place in my mental favorites library (iTunes had yet to be invented) and spurred me on to the purchase of more of Ashley’s music. But other than the liner notes (which I read closely and repeatedly) there was surprisingly little information on this mysterious and wonderful composer whose music and words so captured my sensibilities.  The publication of this volume, ‘Robert Ashley’ (one of a great series of books on contemporary composers from the University of Illinois Press) fills this long standing void in the realms of music scholarship and biography.

I encountered the author’s work at about the same time as I did Ashley’s.  He was writing fascinating and accessible reviews in the local (Chicago) free newspaper, ‘The Reader’. He would later be selected as classical music reporter for New York’s ‘Village Voice’. Kyle Gann, composer, critic, musicologist and new music raconteur contributes a most essential work to help fill that void. His biographical sketch, analysis, bibliographic and discographic references serve also as a much needed exegesis of Robert Ashley’s work.

As it happens, the author was involved in the premiere of ‘Perfect Lives’ when he was a student at Northwestern University in Illinois in 1979. He developed and maintained a close connection with the composer and his music.

Photo by Joanne Savio, 2006

Photo by Joanne Savio, 2006

Robert Ashley (1930- ) is an American composer born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His experience growing up in the American Midwest informed his vision, speech and temperament affecting his compositional style. He spent the formative years of his youth in Ann Arbor.  He studied at the University of Michigan with Ross Lee Finney and at the Manhattan School of Music earning, respectively, undergraduate and graduate degrees in music.  Ashley declined an offer to pursue a doctorate in speech pathology (one of his many interests) to pursue music.  He organized and participated in the ONCE Festival of contemporary music in Ann Arbor from 1961 to 1969.  In 1972, he accepted an appointment at Mills College as director of the Center for Contemporary Music succeeding Pauline Oliveros, Lowell Cross and Anthony Gnazzo. In 1978 he left for New York which would become his new creative home base.

Ashley and his collaborators have performed internationally and a great deal of his music has been recorded.  His collaborators include Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma and David Behrman (who along with Ashley formed the performing group Sonic Arts Union), Roger Reynolds, “Blue Gene Tyrrany”(aka Robert Sheff), Pauline Oliveros, filmmaker George Manupelli and many more.  There were recent performances in New York and Miami of his early operas and a big new opera ‘Quicksand’is reportedly in progress and due to be premiered some time after this book was issued.

Gann acknowledges the limitations of his analyses saying quite correctly that Ashley’s work will require more time as well as access to the composer’s sound archive and consideration of his unrecorded works. He never pretends that this is more than a relatively brief treatment of a very large subject. Many works are not analyzed and little attention is given to either the ONCE Festival or the Sonic Arts Union.  His collaborations and influences get little space.  And George Manupelli’s films for which Ashley composed soundtracks deserve a book to themselves.  Nevertheless there is an awful lot accomplished in under 200 pages.

Gann discusses some of Ashley’s early works, his involvement in the too little known ‘ONCE festival‘ and his very important time teaching at Mills College where he became director of their Contemporary Music Center. But the real substance of this book comes in Gann’s analysis of Ashley’s operas which most certainly form the core of his creative output. It is the music that gets the closest attention here.   The author’s detailed analyses of the rhythmic schemes and harmonic structures that underlie the (mostly spoken or chanted) texts reveal the complexities of these deceptively simple sounding and seemingly impenetrable works and provide a means of appreciating and even understanding these unusual pieces that hardly fit any conventional definition of opera.

Gann also discusses some of the literary and intellectual ideas that permeate Ashley’s work.  The ideas come from a variety of sources including speech, speech pathology, geography, television, film, history, culture, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, writings of the Italian mystic and martyr Giordano Bruno and the writings of scholar Frances Yates in ‘The Art of Memory’ and ‘Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition‘ among many others.

Beginning with the earliest ‘Music With Roots in the Aether’ and then continuing with the most familiar ‘Perfect Lives’ the reader is treated to loving and insightful descriptions of the series of works which comprise his trilogy: ‘Atalanta’, ‘Perfect Lives’ and ‘Now Eleanor’s Idea’.  He proceeds to subsequent opera projects and “spin off” works.  At one point Ashley told Gann that he had figured out the structure for his “next 72 operas”.  This writer is eager for more on the man, his works and his wide artistic circle.

The electronic version of this book (unlike that of Gann’s ‘No Such Thing as Silence’) contains all the images in the hard copies and is formatted, for the most part, very skillfully.

If you already know and love the work of Robert Ashley this volume will deepen your appreciation and if you don’t know this man’s work this is the book which will tell you why you should.

Music 109, Alvin Lucier’s personal view of the post 50s avant garde


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This little volume is an endearing record of an undergraduate course, a music appreciation course designed for students with an interest in the music of the avant-garde of the 1960s, 70s and 80s taught by a man who was an integral part of that era as a composer, performer and teacher. The class, which he taught at Wesleyan University was reportedly very popular continues to be offered today. And this book is required reading for fans of new and experimental music.

In just over 200 pages Professor Lucier takes the virtual class of readers through a very personal journey of the music, experiments and performances of some of the highlights of some of the major works and composers of this time period. And he manages to navigate all this wildly experimental music in a way that is understandable to a general audience (remember that this is an undergraduate course for non music majors).

What makes this book so special and unique is its personal nature (Lucier was a composer, performer, organizer and interpreter of much of the music) and the particular networks to which he connects. Few historians save for Kyle Gann pay significant attention to the techniques which arose from the orbit of Ann Arbor, Michigan and composers like Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and Lucier himself among many others. But this group is indeed an orbit and not a universe unto itself. David Tudor, for example, crossed paths with these composers as well as, more famously, with John Cage and the New York School.

This delightfully readable volume narrates Lucier’s vast experience with and love for a variety of experimental trends. Lucier writes of his own works and places them within the contexts of fellow innovators including the above mentioned artists as well as diverse voices such as Pauline Oliveros, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, Roger Reynolds, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Christian Wolff, David Tudor, Karlheinz Stockhausen and many others. This personal inside view makes for entertaining and compelling reading which provides a historical context as well as insights to the “method behind the madness” of a diverse and innovative time in music history.

Except for Kyle Gann’s fine volume on Robert Ashley this is the only book length treatment (known to this reviewer) of artists connected with the ONCE festival and the Sonic Arts Union. Lucier’s place in music history is connected across east coast academia as well as far less academically connected groups like these. This book connects some of those dots placing an important perspective on this era.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking with Paula Matthusen, a composer who now teaches at Wesleyan. In fact she has inherited this delightful and inexplicably popular course. She told me that not only does the course continue to be popular, many of the students come in with some level of experience of this music and a desire to know more. How cool is that?

Matthusen shares many of her teacher (Lucier’s) concepts in her own work but she is clearly the next generation in experimental music reminding us that art of the era documented is receding into the past yet we hardly know it. And how can we appreciate the latest work without some understanding of how we got there? Lucier’s book provides a great introduction and hopefully will encourage more attention to this important and fascinating time in American music history.