Shared Meanings in the Film Music of Philip Glass by Tristian Evans


This book took me a while to absorb.  It is the first book length treatment that this writer has seen on the subject of Philip Glass’ film music.  Some have suggested that his film music may wind up constituting his most enduring legacy and one need only listen casually to any number of film scores to hear his influence.

This is basically an academic treatise which is what one can reasonably expect from the Routledge imprint.  However the author seems to have taken care to transcend the adequate but sometimes dull prose which suffices for publication reasons but whose weight challenges the attention of all but the most stalwart of academic readers.  This book is quite readable and deserves to be read.

Admittedly it is risky to tread on the “meaning” of music but Evans here makes a case that places him in the company of Leonard B. Meyer’s book, Emotion and Meaning in Music.  Though it is clearly not an attempt to extend Meyer’s work, Evans is in good company as he seeks to examine the emotional content of Glass’ work that underlies his success as a film composer.  Film music, after all, tends to underscore the emotional content of cinematic images to some degree and those mechanisms can and should be examined.  The alternative would be to simply dismiss it as “magic” I suppose.

The cover which  depicts one of those wonderful live performances of Koyaanisqatsi triggers memories of this writer’s first viewing of this intimate and effective scoring of Godfrey Reggio’s non-narrative, no dialogue sequence of images.  Never had I seen/heard a more mesmerizing collaboration since the (stylistically very different) Carl Stallings cartoon scores which exist forever in the near subconscious recall of anyone who was exposed to his work in their childhood.

For many film music means the classic Erich Korngold, Alex North, Alfred Newman, etc. and their more recent successors like Elmer Bernstein, John Williams, etc.  But film music continues to evolve and, though this evolution will not likely supplant these classic styles, there is room for innovation and change.

Glass’ work in Koyaanisqatsi relied on the hypnotic minimalist patterns which amplified the character of the images.  Who knew then that his style could translate to more mainstream films?  But that is exactly what he has done and it is exactly why such a book needed to be written and Evans has accomplished a great deal here.

This is an intriguing and insightful book which opens potential for research in Glass’ music as well as film music in general.  While not the easiest of reads this book covers a lot of territory and is generously referenced.  Clearly there is much work to be done here and Evans has given a wonderful and pretty comprehensive start.  Highly recommended.

 

 

Advertisements

The Piano is Calling Me: Nicolas Horvath’s New Music Pilgrimages


Nicolas Horvath Lyon

Nicolas Horvath at the piano in Lyon

I first heard of this young Monacan pianist and composer when a composer friend, David Toub, told me that he was going to program one of this piano pieces.  That piece along with quite a few other performances are available on Nicolas Horvath’s You Tube video channel here.

Horvath developed a strong interest in contemporary music from Gerard Frémy among others and has been programming a great deal of new music ranging from the more familiar such as Philip Glass to a host of others including quite a few pieces written for or premiered by him as well as his own transcriptions and reconstructions.  He is known for his concerts in non-traditional venues with very non-traditional lengths of performance as well as traditional concerts.

His current projects include Night of Minimalism in which he performs continuously for 10-15 hours with a wide variety of minimalist and post-minimalist pieces and Glass Worlds in which he performs the complete solo piano works of Philip Glass (approximately 15 hours) along with pieces by an international list of composers written in tribute to Glass.  He is also an electroacoustic composer (he counts Francois Bayle among his teachers) and a visual artist all with a passion for contemporary works.

inside my own exhibit

The artist standing in one of his installations.

We had corresponded via e-mail over the last year or so and when I suggested the idea of interviewing him he responded by arranging time after a (traditional length) concert he gave in Minsk, Belarus on December 1, 2014.  I prepared for what I anticipated would be a one hour interview after which I imagined he would probably need to get to sleep.  But when I attempted to wrap up our conversation (at a couple of points) he immediately asked, “Don’t you have any more questions?”.  What followed resulted in approximately three and an half hours of delightful and wide-ranging conversation about this man and his art which he ended with the comment, “I must go, the piano is calling me.”  It appears that his seemingly boundless energy extends well beyond the stage.  The following January (2015) he gave the world premiere performance of all of Philip Glass’ 20 Etudes in none other than Carnegie Hall.

Nicolas Horvath (c) Jean Thierry Boisseau

Horvath with spent score pages as he traverses one of his extended performance ventures. (copyright Jean Therry Boisseau)

Since that time we have continued our correspondence and this affable, patient young artist continues on various projects and no sign of his interest or energy waning.  He recently sent me various photos of him in various settings pursuing his varied artistic interests for this article.

SONY DSC

Composer as well as performer in an electroacoustic performance without piano.

Horvath was born in Monaco in 1977.  He studied piano at the Académie de Musique Rainier III de Monaco and the École  Normale de Musique de Paris.  At 16, Lawrence Foster took notice of him in a concert and, securing a three year scholarship for him from the Princess Grace Foundation, was able to invite him to the Aspen Music Festival. After his studies in the École Normale de Musique in Paris, he worked for three years with
Bruno-Léonardo Gelber, Gérard Frémy who instilled in him a sensitivity to music of our time as well as Eric Heidsieck, Gabriel Tacchino, Nelson Delle-Vigne, Philippe Entremont and Oxana Yablonskaya. Leslie Howard got to know him and invited him to perform before the Liszt Society in the United Kingdom. He has been playing professionally for 7 years and puts his own characteristic style into his productions and performances.

In a move reminiscent of Terry Riley’s all night solo improv fests Horvath has performed several lengthy programs.  He has performed Erik Satie’s proto-minimalist Vexations (1893) in performances that ranged widely in length. One notable performance at the Palais de Tokyo lasted 35 hours, the longest solo piano performance on record as far as I can determine.  Previously this piece has been performed by tag teams of pianists (the first in 1967 in New York was curated by John Cage) to perform the 840 repetitions of the piece whose tempo or recommended duration is not specified.  Horvath, taking on a musicological mantle is preparing his own edition of this unique work.  He has published an 24 hour version on his You Tube channel here.

Given his intense schedule and vast repertoire he has been remarkably responsive and has an irrepressibly strong appetite for new music.  He tells me that he had worked on a project in which he planned to play all the piano music of the French composer Jean Catoire (1923-2005),  some 35 hours of material (in a single program, of course). Unfortunately that composer’s relative obscurity seems to have resulted  in insufficient support for the project which is, for now, on hold.  Here’s hoping that this can be realized sometime soon.

Horvath’s fascination with authenticity, completeness and performances of unconventional lengths uninterrupted by applause where audiences are invited to lay on the floor with blankets and sleeping bags and approach the piano seems unusual but he has been getting enthusiastic audiences and has enjoyed overflow crowds.  Like Terry Riley and perhaps even some of Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts there is a ritual feel to these marathon performances.  Regrettably I have not yet been able to attend one but I would love to partake in what must be a powerful shared experience.  He invites people to come to the piano and to watch, look at the score.  It is unlike the conventional recital and therein lies some of its charm.  At least one of his videos features a small sign which reads, “Don’t feed the pianist” and attests to his warmth and wonderful sense of humor.

His passion has parallels in his spirituality and he has pursued sacred pilgrimages which require a great deal of time and energy but without doubt fill a very deep and sincere need. More details and photos are available on his blog.  And, as with music, he is very open to discussing this very personal aspect of his life.

SONY DSC

The artist braving the elements on one of his pilgrimages.

There are conventional two hour with intermission style recitals in more conventional concert venues that he has played and Horvath also enjoys playing with an orchestra.  His performances of both of Philip Glass’ piano concertos can be viewed on You Tube and you can see the intensity of his execution.  This came through in the course of our interview as well when Mr. Horvath would speak of the music and then verbally imitate the rhythms (no doubt endlessly practiced) which drive his enthusiasm.  The music seems to be deeply integrated into his very being.

His first solo commercial recording was released in 2012.  It consists of Franz Liszt’s ‘Christus’, an oratorio composed in 1862-66 for narrator, soloists, chorus and orchestra.  Horvath plays a piano reduction done by the composer.  This is the first known recording of this unique and virtuosic set of piano works.  It is certainly an unusual choice for a debut recording but it is consistent with his very personal tastes.  (He lists Scriabin and Chopin as among his favorite composers.).   He is in the process of recording all of Philip Glass’ piano music for Grand Piano records distributed by Naxos.  At the time of this writing four well-received volumes have been released.  He is also planning to record all of Satie’s piano music and he has just recently released his rendition of Cornelius Cardew’s indeterminate masterpiece, Treatise.

I have seldom encountered a musician with such intensity and drive.  He is also one of the most skilled in using the internet to promote himself and his projects.  And though this is no doubt a man with a considerable ego he is in fact very unpretentious and very genuinely turned on, driven by the music itself.  Don’t get me wrong, he is concerned with developing his image and career but he seems happy to be doing the work he has been doing and he is, like any really good musician, self-critical and a perfectionist.

A quick look at his YouTube channel here reveals some of the range of his interests which include the standard repertoire along with interest in contemporary works.  Just released is a creative video with Horvath playing Glass’ Morning Passages while he apparently experiences a reverie involving a beautiful woman which could have been on MTV at its height.  Perhaps he is even channeling Oscar Levant who embraced roles in films along with his pianistic talents.  His website is a good resource for updates on his various projects and performances.

c _______ ______

Focused concentration at the keyboard.

As of the time of this writing his discography includes:

horvathchristus

Hortus Records 100 (2012)

A very unusual choice for a debut recording.  Nonetheless this is a distinctive recording which reflects the virtuosity as well as the careful scholarship which continues to characterize his work.  He managed to locate a couple of previously lost pieces in this set of composer transcriptions.  One also can’t miss the spiritual dimension here, as close to his heart as music and an equally important aspect of his personality.

glassw1

Grand Piano GP 677 (2015)

This first disc in the series manages to provide the listener with truly inspired interpretations of Glass’ keyboard oeuvre and gives us a world premiere recording of How Now as well.

glassw2

Grand Piano GP 690 (2015)

The complete Piano Etudes by the man who premiered the set at Carnegie Hall.  These etudes were also recorded by the wonderful Maki Namekawa and the opportunity to hear these really different takes is positively revelatory.

glassw3

Grand Piano GP 691 (2016)

The third disc in the traversal of Glass’ piano music (original and transcribed) also offers world premieres.  Horvath’s inclusion of Glass’ early Sonatina No. 2 reflects his work under the tutelage of Darius Milhaud and provides insight into the composer’s early development before he developed his more familiar mature style.

glassw4

Grand Piano GP 692 (2016)

Haven’t yet heard this disc but I have in queued for ordering in the next few weeks.

acedia

Demerara Records (2016)

Haven’t heard this one yet either but, again, it’s in my Amazon shopping cart.

 

horvathcardewtreat

Horvath’s interpretation of this important work by Cornelius Cardew

Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was sort of England’s John Cage, a major voice in 20th Century experimental music.  Scholarship has yet to do justice to the late composer’s work but this disc is an important contribution toward that end..

Horvath’s career is characterized by innovation and passion combined with astute scholarship and a keen sense of what is new and interesting in music  while clearly being schooled in the classic repertoire.  The piano calls him as do his other passions and I highly recommend paying attention as he answers those calls.  He is truly an artist to watch.
N.B.  Mr. Horvath generously read and approved an advance draft of this article shortly after arriving in the United States for concerts at Steinway Hall in Rockville with a Chopin program and a recital at The Spectrum in New York City which will include two pieces written for him by Michael Vincent Waller along with some Chopin pieces.

Manhattan in Charcoal, a chamber opera by Gene Pritsker


Manhattan in Charcoal  COMCON 0021

Manhattan in Charcoal
COMCON 0021

The efforts to establish a new and functional role for opera in the late twentieth and early twenty first century have produced a wide variety of styles.  One can certainly see the 1976 Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach as a landmark in these efforts in the conventional opera house but the development of chamber opera pioneered composers like recent National Medal of Arts winner Meredith Monk and Eric Salzman (both of whom created innovative works in this genre before Einstein) deserve attention as well.

This recording appears to fit into that tradition of chamber opera.  Manhattan in Charcoal (2014) by Gene Pritsker with libretto by poet Jacob Miller requires six singers and a narrator along with a chamber ensemble of about a dozen musicians.  I don’t know much about how this piece has been staged but it works well as theater for the ears.

I knew little of Pritsker’s work prior to receiving this disc for review and I read that his repertoire of techniques range rather widely from classical, to jazz, rock and rap influences.  So I embarked on a bit of a learning mission.  Fortunately I found his You Tube channel here.  I found his web site a bit too busy and distracting even if it does seem quite comprehensive.  (I dare you to try to sleep after confronting his oeuvre.)

Here is a man born in Russia, moved to Brooklyn at age 8 and attended the Manhattan School of Music graduating in 1994.  While there he teamed up with conductor Kristjan Järvi to create the Absolute Ensemble.   He counts approximately 500 compositions ranging from solo pieces to orchestral and vocal works.  My journey of learning left my head spinning but it was not an unpleasant spin.  Pritsker’s work incorporates jazz, rap, beat boxing and eclectic instrumentation as well.  He has been active in the Manhattan downtown scene and may very well be the next generation of musical magicians to successfully grace that hotbed of musical eclecticism.

His style is mostly tonal and any experiments appear to have been done prior to the composition of the present work.  I must say that his eclecticism and embrace of a wide variety of musical devices puts me in the mind of some of Stravinsky’s work at  times.  But Pritsker is not derivative, rather he wields a large pallete.

What we have here is a form of cabaret, well suited to small venues and friendly to audiences.  It is well within the style and practice of such music and this piece is a good example of the updating of those traditions with contemporary instruments, music and modern performance practice.

The story is not unlike that of La Bohéme and, though hardly Puccini from a musical perspective, is as much a reworking of that old gem as West Side  Story was a reworking of Romeo and Juliet.  Here, however, we don’t see the romantic guise of Puccini but rather the unnecessary tragedy of a Romeo and Juliet beset not by family rivalries but by economic and social realities and perhaps by the inability to see them for what they really are.

This is apparently the first opera (of six) by Pritsker for which he did not write the libretto.  I’m not sure what impact that has had on his overall effort but his ability to set the English language to music is admirable.  All in all a thoroughly satisfying little drama which leaves the audience questioning these issues much as the protagonist has done.

Game of the Antichrist, a spectacular new music drama by Robert Moran


 

Cover of Game of the Antichrist

Game of the Antichrist (Innova 251)

 

Despite the title, this is neither a Stephen King adaptation or that of a given miniseries.  This is an actual medieval mystery play which was performed to disseminate religious ideas during that period.  The medieval passion plays are better known but eclectic composer Robert Moran managed to find an actual drama and added to it his unique blend of experimentalism, minimalism, jazz and lyrical melodies to create this visually and musically striking (there is a Video here) setting of this forgotten little play.

Moran (1937- ) studied in Vienna with Hans Erich Apostel, a student of both Berg and Schoenberg.  He earned a master’s degree from Mills College having studied with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio.  He has produced everything from electronic music, to happenings involving whole cities and has written in musical styles derived from chance operations to minimalism and is not afraid to write beautiful melodies.  His collaboration with Philip Glass in The Juniper Tree (1985) is a fine example of his facility with vocal writing and music drama.

This drama is performed in a cathedral space and Moran takes advantage of the resonant space by the inclusion of Alphorns, harp and organ whose tones are transformed in part by that space.  Musical styles vary suited to the unfolding drama and work well with the staging of the piece.

Moran, who professes a love of opera since about the age of 9 or 10 has a great sense of the dramatic and for beautiful vocal writing.  He says he listens to operas all the time.  His 2011 Trinity Requiem was written for similar forces and performed in a similarly resonant space also to great effect.  And his sense of eclecticism allows him to select from a wide variety of musical styles and effects.

The end result is, for this reviewer, a very successful integration of the composer’s various skills and influences.  It would be hard to imagine a better setting of this piece.  He starts with an anonymous text from Quirinus Monastery Cloister Tegernsee in Bavaria ca. 1150 and, with Alexander Hermann, creates a realization for performance.  The piece is scored for children’s chorus, vocal ensemble, soprano, mezzo-soprano, counter-tenor, oboe, english horn, Alp horn, Bar piano and organ.  In addition there are two other defined ensembles consisting of harp (representing the Heathen and his Babylonian followers), guitar, recorders and synthesizer (representing the Synagogue and Jerusalem), trumpets, horn, trombone, bass trombone, tuba and percussion (representing the Church and its Devotees).

There are roles for dancers and, in the performance depicted on the CD cover, choreography by Jarkko Lemus and Bettina Hermann design by George Veit and menacing puppets created by Fabian Vogel.  Unfortunately there are no current plans to release a DVD of this work but settling for the music alone is hardly a terrible sacrifice.  Moran brings his eclectic musical range, knowledge of opera and music theater combined with careful selection of dramatic text to create a piece that can work as aural theater as well.

The disc concludes with another piece, Within a Day (2014), of aural theater which, in this case, has no specified stage actions.  It is a collaboration with the Thingamajigs Performance Group, Edward Shocker’s improvisational ensemble.  It is an example of Moran’s ability to write less determined music as well as his ability to collaborate with other creative artists.  The piece premiered at San Francisco’s Center for New Music in January, 2014 and subsequently recorded in Lisser Hall at Mills College in May, 2014.  It is a collective improvisation based on what appears to be an indeterminate score by the composer.

This is a clearly different music with more abstract aims and it contrasts strangely with the music drama but this is a good example of Moran’s facility with the art of composition as well as collaboration (Can you get more collaborative as a composer than an indeterminate score?).  This more ambient sort of music is a little sonic theater for the mind based loosely on Moran’s interest in Tibetan texts invoking the gods and goddesses through their chants.

This disc made one of my best of 2014 and I highly recommend it for listeners interested in music drama and sound theater.

Passing Frames, a new CD by Joel Helander, Happy, Gentle Experiments


Let me first acknowledge that I am running behind on my reviews but one of the reasons I have been slow about this one is that I have had great difficulty trying to characterize this music in a meaningful way for readers of this blog.  And by that I don’t mean to imply that this music makes for a difficult listening experience, it doesn’t.

Passing Frames (2014)

Passing Frames (2014)

Passing Frames is the second CD by composer/pianist Joel Helander whose previous release, Flood (2012) is a solo piano effort.  These two CDs published on Bandcamp earned Mr. Helander mention in Forbes magazine in an article about the self-marketing that is available to musicians who are trying to establish themselves in the music business.

Joel Helander

Joel Helander

Helander is a student in theory and composition at Clark University where this very project is featured on their website.  I conducted a sort of interview with Mr. Helander via e-mail exchanges and learned that he has been playing piano for about 10 years including classical training and a more recent interest in jazz performance. He said that this project began as a sort of follow-up or perhaps a natural progression to his previous release.  His earlier album has much in common with this one in terms of atmosphere. Passing Frames is a set of ensemble pieces with the assistance of friends and classmates all drawn from the Worcester area.

His brother Karl Helander, a singer and song writer in his own right, who studied studio drumming at the University of Miami plays drums and percussion.  String and wind players were enlisted from the Worcester Chamber Music Society, fellow Clark students and other friends. He cites Mike Tierney (guitar, engineer, co-producer) as being essential to the creation of the overall sound of the album as well as being an effective instrumentalist in selected tracks.  All in all it sounds like this was a very close creative collaboration which was rewarding for all involved.

When I first received the CD in the mail I was immediately struck by the lovely cover art and overall design which led me to comment to Mr. Helander of the nostalgia for the larger cover art one used to get with vinyl LPs.  He commented that he had looked into this possibility but found it economically prohibitive.  The photo and overall design was by the same artist, Paul Puiia, who had designed his previous release. There are 11 tracks on this CD all with poetic titles that tell you little about the music itself but no doubt have some meaning for the composer and perhaps his collaborators.  That is not intended as a criticism, rather it is a reflection of music that is less concerned with form than expression.  Not program music but little poetic statements.  And given that Mr. Helander aspires to writing film music this sort of focus seems quite appropriate.

On my first few listens to this disc I was reminded in ways of Ludovico Einaudi, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra and perhaps some of the chamber music of Peter Schickele.  Mr. Helander said he was comfortable with those comparisons.  I did ask him to list some of the music he listens to and he provided me with a pretty eclectic list including:

-Debussy’s String Quartet
-Chopin’s Nocturnes
-Beethoven’s “Archduke”
-Satie’s “Gymnopedies”
-Bill Evans’ “Portrait in Jazz”
Randy Newman‘s “Sail Away”
-Rufus Wainwright’s “Want”
-Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue”
-Jon Brion’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Soundtrack”
Van Dyke Parks‘ “Song Cycle”
-John Coltrane’s “Blue Train”
-The Bad Plus’ “Never Stop”
-Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues”
-Tom Waits’ “Orphans: Bawlers”
-Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”
Belle and Sebastien‘s “The Life Pursuit,”
-Chet Baker’s “Chet Baker Sings,”
Chilly Gonzales “Solo Piano I and II”
Brad Mehldau‘s “Highway Rider”
-Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends.”
This is an interesting and varied list.  I didn’t include this list to give prospective listeners and idea of what the music sounds like but I think it does reveal something about the aspirations and inspirations of the composer’s intent.
I had given some thought to trying to describe each of the tracks on the disc and give my analysis and impressions but finally decided to leave my readers with more general impressions.  Each of the tracks is a self-contained musical statement though three of the tracks are identified as being parts of a suite.  As I said, the poetic titles may have meaning for the composer and may invoke ideas in the listener as well but in the end I perceived the entire disc as a sort of unified whole in that the disc appears to be a musical statement which stands as a reflection of the composer’s ideas at the time of this release much as his first disc does.
Further listenings suggested a sort of sophisticated melancholy lounge music born both of the composer’s aesthetic and those of his collaborators (the production and recording certainly add to this effect).  There appears to be more of a classical influence with a jazz ambiance added.  This is an interesting disc which manages to be both gently experimental as well as eminently listenable.  It is a snapshot of this young man’s best efforts at composition and each can be listened to as a potential sound track to a yet to be made film sequence or simply as a pleasant musical statement on it’s own.
With the perspective of the first disc in mind one can see a progression and integration of nascent ideas evolving as the composer works to develop a more integrated and clear statement of his ideas.  He achieves exactly what he intended I think.  That being said I will be interested to see what he does next as I enjoy the work he has done so far.  If you are interested in new music this disc is worth a listen.  If you are just looking for something different to add to your listening selections you would not be disappointed either.

Not Another Minimalist! (NAM): New and Lesser Known Minimalists


Philip Glass portrait

Philip Glass portrait (Photo credit: DailyM = Differentieel + JeeeM)

I have been a fan of so-called minimalist or pattern music for quite a number of years.  Since my first encounter with this type of music in the late 1970s I have listened with interest and been fascinated to hear how each composer expressed their own voice within that general rubric.  Though many have eschewed the label ‘minimal’ and argued over the alternate label ‘pattern music’ there are recognizable characteristics which continue to bind, however loosely,   Perhaps that is just another way of saying that I “know it when I hear it” but I think readers tend to get the general idea and I am open to discussion on what music I should include or exclude from these categories.

Kyle Gann

Kyle Gann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway the point of this rambling little  post is to introduce a recurring series of posts about my personal discoveries in said genre.  You can be assured that I have scoured high and low but lay no claim to being either definitive or comprehensive.  What will follow will be an ongoing series of posts identifying the music of one composer or group whose music sounds minimalist or pattern based at least to my ears and which I find pleasing and/or significant in some way.  I will head each post with the identifying acronym NAM (Not Another Minimalist!).

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most useful books for me on this subject for me are those by Kyle Gann, Tom Johnson, Michael Nyman, Wim Mertens and Robert Fink.  I am listing these as my primary influences and do not mean to discount important works by other writers on the subject.  Gann’s ‘American Music in the Twentieth Century'(1997) and the collection of articles, ‘Music Downtown'(2006) remain among the most lucid descriptions and analyses of minimalist music.  He also maintains a blog with pretty regular posts at (http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/).  Gann’s work might not have been possible without the work of fellow composer and journalist Tom Johnson whose collection of reviews, ‘The Voice of New Music’ (1991) is one of the most important collections of reviews of the burgeoning ‘downtown music’ scene in New York in the 70s and 80s where purveyors of this genre first displayed their wares .  Both ‘Music Downtown’ and ‘The Voice of New Music’ are collections of reviews of concerts and events written for the Village Voice.

UCLA professor and music critic Robert Fink on...

UCLA professor and music critic Robert Fink on the “Different Strokes” panel at the 2009 Pop Conference, Experience Music Project, Seattle, Washington. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Nyman’s book, ‘Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond'(1974) is among the earliest to describe this music and its context.  Wim Merten’s ‘American Minimal Music'(1988) is a great analysis of the essential canon.  Unfortunately these have been difficult to find lately and hopefully some reissues including digital formats may be forthcoming.

Robert Fink is a musicologist at UCLA.  His book, ‘Repeating Ourselves’ provides one of the most wide-ranging and comprehensive analyses of the concept of minimalism and pattern music.  He works across all music genres and cultural practices to identify a sort of minimalist ethic and has done much to shape my thinking in this area.

There are certainly many other fine books on the subject and that itself may need to be the subject of a future post.

I don’t like all music in this category (or any category for that matter) but it is the one which feels kind of like a personal discovery to me and a genre that continues to interest me.   And I can report that there is a good deal of music  outside the classic canon of minimalism that is definitely worth the effort to find.  And there are pieces of music written before the 1960s which appear in hindsight to have been sorts of precursors to this style.

This will be an occasional series of posts and I have decided to gather them under the somewhat facetious acronym of NAM (Not Another Minimalist) for the sake of easy reference should any reader actually find these posts useful.  My intent is both to share my discoveries and to generate debate and comment about this type of music.  I want to explore and share artistically interesting developments that lie outside the Reich/Glass/Riley/Young canon of minimalism.  As always I welcome discussion and feedback.

Guitar Gods Go Classical? Give them a ‘Secret Rose’


Cover of "Crimson Grail"

Cover of Crimson Grail

The implicitly condescending appellation “Guitar God” has been perhaps somewhat jealously applied to virtuosic guitarists in various popular rock bands. Whether your taste runs to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen you cannot discount the technical skill of these and so many other rock/pop guitar players.

Rock and pop artists have distanced themselves from the classical music circles who initially disdained and even condemned their work. But that did not and does not mean that they eschew classical music. Many were initially schooled in classical performance technique and/or were provided a favorable view of some classical masterpieces.

Ian Anderson’s group ‘Jethro Tull’ utilized a movement from a Bach Lute Suite (taking a few rhythmic liberties) in their piece, ‘Bouree’. Roger McGuinn of ‘The Byrds’ acknowledged channeling Bach when he created the now instantly recognizable intro to their version of Bob Dylan’sMr. Tambourine Man‘. Rick Wakeman, keyboardist of the band ‘Yes’ as well as a solo artist peppers his work with snippets of classical melodies no doubt learned in his piano lessons that served him so well. Keith Emerson of ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer‘ went as far as to write a piano concerto.

From the classical side of the aisle there have been composers who wanted to utilize some of the techniques and ideas of rock and pop within the context of their classical training. Stanley Silverman wrote an opera titled, ‘Elephant Steps’ which was championed by the ever eclectic Michael Tilson Thomas. (This piece deserves at least a second hearing and I hope that Columbia will some day release it as a CD.)

Leonard Bernstein, no stranger to popular musical theater, embraced rock and blues including such ensembles alongside the orchestra in major works such as his ‘Mass’. Similar, though less successful collaborations occurred when symphony orchestras were added to the production of albums by the likes of ‘Deep Purple and, more notably, ‘The Moody Blues’.

Many such collaborations have been and occasionally continue to be attempted but the end result most often appears to keep the division between classical and ‘pop’ rather separate. That is not necessarily a bad thing either. Philip Glass‘ work appears to have been pretty heavily informed by rock music. He played piano in a couple of tracks on one of the New York punk rock band, ‘Polyrock’. The driving rhythms of rock are endemic to much of Glass’ music. Steve Reich’s work as a jazz drummer seems to be evidenced in his intricate use of rhythm patterns in his music.

So while ‘pop’ musicians incorporated some of their classical training and influences and ‘classical’ musicians acknowledged and collaborated with their pop counterparts the classical aspects remained for better or worse more decorative than organic. Jazz became an organic part of many classical works starting in the 1920s. And, as mentioned before, rock influences have certainly found an organic role in the music of Philip Glass and, more recently in the music of Michael Daugherty.

Along came Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Jeffery Lohn and their various collaborators. These musicians with strong roots in rock music began to explore what has become, in this writer’s opinion, the epitome of the organic implementation of classical music into the ‘pop’ medium. Using primarily guitars (in ever-increasing numbers) as well as drum kits and the usual accoutrements of rock bands these musicians began writing music that is definitely not pop or rock (neither does it actually resemble classical at times).

English: A self-portrait photograph by and of ...

English: A self-portrait photograph by and of Rhys Chatham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Branca who had worked with Jeffrey Lohn began writing his Symphonies in the 1970s. They now number 12 or 13. Working with multiples of guitars, modified keyboard instruments, alternate tunings and basking in the glory of loud he has created an arguably classical set of works grown out of clearly rock/pop beginnings.

Rhys Chatham, a trumpet player initially, worked with Branca and Lohn for a while and began to develop his own classical path within the rock ethic. Beginning with Guitar Trio (1977).   And continuing into increasingly massive multiple guitar works he has created another distinct set of works that are clearly not rock or pop. He does not use the classical form titles like ‘symphony’ favored by Branca but these pieces like, ‘An Angel Moves Too Fast to See’ and ‘Crimson Grail‘ feature large numbers of guitarists which by necessity must be locally sourced. Even without classical form or titles these are clearly not pop or rock pieces. And perhaps they can’t be called classical either but they are certainly of symphonic proportion.

Both Branca’s and Chatham’s works have been recorded and I highly recommend the recordings. But these musics cannot be fully captured by current recording technology. The acoustics of the space in which they’re performed and the volume levels which elicit their own effects are best experienced live because of the volume levels and also because of the overtones which are elicited by the instruments in the performing space and more audible because of the overall volume and the characteristics of the listening space.

Such a rare opportunity awaits Bay Area audiences this November when Rhys Chatham comes to town under auspices of ‘Other Minds’ and the delightfully insightful and eclectic producer Charles Amirkhanian. They have engaged the architecturally and sonically fascinating space of the Crane Pavilion in Richmond (a few miles north of Berkeley and Oakland) with sweeping views if San Francisco Bay and enlisted many locally sourced musicians to produce the west coast premiere of Chatham’s “A Secret Rose” (2011) for 100 guitarists.

Official Other Minds logo

Official Other Minds logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tickets can be purchased through the Other Minds website (www.otherminds.org).

This is a rare opportunity to hear a uniquely different music in a visually stunning and acoustically interesting space.  Hope to see you there.