Memories and Memorials: Guy Klucevsek’s “Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy”


klucevsek

Starkland ST-225

As someone who grew up attending Polish weddings and hearing more than his share of polka music I was fascinated at the unusual role of the accordion as I began to get interested in new music. People like Pauline Oliveros and Guy Klucevsek completely upended my notions of what this instrument is and what it can do.  The accordion came into being in the early 19th century and was primarily associated with folk and popular musics until the early 20th century.  It has been used by composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith but the developments since the 1960s have taken this folk instrument into realms not even dreamed of by its creators.

guyklu

Guy Klucevsek with some of his accordions

Guy Klucevsek  (1947- ) brought the accordion to the burgeoning New York “downtown” new music scene in the 1970s.  He began his accordion studies in 1955, holds a B.A. in theory and composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. (also in theory and composition) from the University of Pittsburgh.  He also did post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts.  His composition teachers have included Morton Subotnick, Gerald Shapiro and Robert Bernat.  He draws creatively on his instrument’s past even as he blazes new trails expanding its possibilities.  The accordion will never be the same.

Klucevsek has worked with most all of the major innovators in new music over the years including Laurie Anderson, Bang on a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn (who also recorded him on his wonderful Tzadik label).  He has released over 20 albums and maintains an active touring schedule.  He recently completed a residency (April, 2016) at Sausalito’s Headlands Center for the Arts.

transoft

Starkland ST-225

freerange

Starkland ST-209

Starkland has released no fewer than three previous albums by this unusual artist (all of which found their way into my personal collection over the years) including a re-release of his Polka from the Fringe recordings from the early 1990s. This landmark set of new music commissions from some 28 composers helped to redefine the polka (as well as the accordion) in much the same way as Michael Sahl’s 1981 Tango and Robert Moran’s 1976 Waltz projects did for those dance genres.

polkfringe

Starkland ST-218

The present recording, Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy (scheduled for release on September 30, 2016), continues this composer/performer’s saga.  His familiar humor and his unique experimentalism remain present but there is also a bittersweet aspect in that most of these compositions are homages and many of the dedicatees have passed from this world.  Klucevsek himself will turn 70 in February of 2017 and it is fitting that he has chosen to release this compilation honoring his colleagues.

On first hearing, many of Klucevsek’s compositions sound simple and straightforward but the complexities lie just beneath the surface.  What sounds like a simple accordion tune is written in complex meters and sometimes maniacal speed.  To be sure there are conservative elements melodically and harmonically but these belie the subversive nature of Klucevsek’s work which put this formerly lowly folk instrument in the forefront with the best of the “downtown” scene described by critics such as Tom Johnson and Kyle Gann.  You might mistake yourself as hearing a traditional music only to find that you had in fact wandered into the universe next door.

Many favorite collaborators have been recruited for this recording.  Most tracks feature the composer with other musicians.  Four tracks feature solo accordion, two are for solo piano and the rest are little chamber groupings from duets to small combos with drum kit.

The first three tracks are duets with the fine violinist Todd Reynolds.  Klucevsek’s playful titles are more evocative than indicative and suggest a framework with which to appreciate the music.  There follows two solo piano tracks ably handled by Alan Bern. Bern (who has collaborated on several albums) and Klucevsek follow on the next track with a duet between them.

Song of Remembrance is one of the more extended pieces on the album featuring the beautiful voice of Kamala Sankaram along with Todd Reynolds and Peggy Kampmeier on piano.  No accordion on this evocative song which had this listener wanting to hear more of Sankaram’s beautiful voice.

The brief but affecting post minimalist Shimmer (In Memory of William Duckworth) for solo accordion is then followed by the longer but equally touching Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels.  William Duckworth (1943-2012) is generally seen as the inventor of the post-minimalist ethic (with his 1977-8 Time Curve Preludes) and he was, by all reports, a wonderful teacher, writer and composer.  Bob Flath (1928-2014) was philanthropist and supporter of new music who apparently worked closely with Klucevsek.

Tracks 10-12 feature small combos with drum kit.  The first two include (in addition to Klucevsek) Michael Lowenstern on mellifluous bass clarinet with Peter Donovan on bass and Barbara Merjan on drums.  Lowenstern who almost threatens to play klezmer tunes at times sits out on the last of these tracks.   Little Big Top is in memory of film composer Nino Rota and Three Quarter Moon in memory of German theater composer Kurt Weill. These pieces would not be out of place in that bar in Star Wars with their pithy humor that swings. They also evoke a sort of nostalgia for the downtown music scene of the 70s and 80s and the likes of Peter Gordon and even the Lounge Lizards.

The impressionistic Ice Flowers for solo accordion, inspired by ice crystals outside the composer’s window during a particularly harsh winter, is then followed by four more wonderful duets with Todd Reynolds (The Asphalt Orchid is in memory of composer Astor Piazolla) and then the brief, touching For Lars, Again (in memory of Lars Hollmer) to bring this collection to a very satisfying end.  Hollmer (1948-2008) was a Swedish accordionist and composer who died of cancer.

As somber as all of this may sound the recording is actually a pretty upbeat experience with some definitely danceable tracks and some beautiful impressionistic ones.  Like Klucevsek’s previous albums this is a fairly eclectic mix of ideas imbued as much with humor and clever invention as with sorrow and nostalgia.  This is not a retrospective, though that would be another good idea for a release, but it is a nice collection of pieces not previously heard which hold a special significance for the artists involved.  Happily I think we can expect even more from this unique artist in the future.

klucevsek

Guy Klucevsek, looking back but also forward.

The informative gatefold notes by the great Bay Area pianist/producer/radio host Sarah Cahill also suggest the affinity of this east coast boy for the aesthetic of the west coast where he is gratefully embraced and which is never far from his heart (after all he did study at the California Institute of the Arts and has worked with various Bay Area artists). Booklet notes are by the composer and give some personal clues as to the meaning of some of the works herein.  Recordings are by John Kilgore, George Wellington and Bryce Goggin.  Mastering is by the wonderful Silas Brown.  All of this, of course, overseen by Thomas Steenland, executive producer at Starkland.

Fans of new music, Guy Klucevsek, accordions, great sound…you will want this disc.

 

Copyright, Copyleft, Creative Commons, the Presidency and Artists’ Rights


Curiously enough the upcoming presidential elections have brought to some prominence the name of Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law Professor and intellectual property expert who now, as ‘Larry Lessig’ has thrown his hat into the ring as a presidential candidate.  And it is this man’s work on copyright and commons issues that speaks to my concerns in this blog to the impact of these practices on music.  Lessig makes his case in ‘The Future of Ideas’ and in the later freely available, Creative Commons licensed, ‘Remix’ in which he advocates for reform of copyright laws to foster creativity.

Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig

Few would argue that copyright law is overdue for a major overhaul and fewer still would deny that non-top forty composers gain little from the present form of these laws aside from the ability to deny performance, recording and distribution rights (assuming, of course, that they can afford an attorney and litigation costs).  Yet current copyright law appears to be the dominant practice.

Much of my thinking here has also been influenced by the work of Lewis Hyde whose ‘The Gift’ and ‘Common as Air’ are essential reading as well.  A subject for a future blog most likely.

Professor Lewis Hyde

Professor Lewis Hyde

There are notable exceptions such as Frederic Rzewski‘s embrace of “Copyleft” and others embrace (including yours truly)  of the Creative Commons licensing.  My very basic understanding of these non-traditional licenses is that they allow for use and distribution of the artists’ works without charge unless a profit is made.  This worked well for me when a photo which I uploaded to Wikipedia (they recommend Creative Commons licensing for media uploads), a picture I had taken of the working model of Babbage’s Difference Engine at the Computer History Museum in Menlo Park, California, was found by someone at Harper Collins who contacted me and negotiated a fair price to include this photo in Walter Isaacson’s ‘The Innovators’.

Babbage Difference Engine at the Computer History Museum

Babbage Difference Engine at the Computer History Museum

Now I believe I tread more contentious ground with my concerns about the consumers, the listeners, the audience.  As an avid listener to new music I have encountered barriers that block my ability to listen to new music.  High ticket or CD prices and geographical distance are well-known barriers. However some  artists like La Monte Young hold their work so tightly under copyright so as to effectively limit the availability of both live and recorded performances, restricting access to perhaps thousands of listeners (Would you believe maybe hundreds?)

La Monte Young

La Monte Young

Others such as my friends David Toub, Kyle Gann and many others put much of their work, scores and recordings, online for all to access.

David Toub

David Toub

 

Kyle Gann

Kyle Gann

As an avid listener and collector of new music I have amassed an archive of air checks, live recordings, bootlegs, free copies, etc. of a great deal of new music.  Indeed there are vaults of broadcast and other live recordings that languish awaiting the ravages of time to destroy them.  If I didn’t catch the original broadcast there seems to be no way to access these recordings, even just to listen.

I am a listener and like to promote what I think sounds interesting.  I do not and will not sell these recordings but I have given them away to interested folks.  I see this as sort of dissemination of what might not be heard at all.

I am aware that the nature of the music I tend to address in this blog appeals to a rather small audience.  I once had the experience while driving and playing a favorite CD having a friend comment, “You know I think that if someone broke into your car they probably wouldn’t steal your CDs.”  Some months later I did find my car stereo gone and, as predicted, the CDs were left on the seat untouched.  My point is that promoting this music by making it available to interested listeners may help promote the music and is not likely to take money out of the artist’s pocket.  Just my opinion of course.

Another current issue, that of the freely distributed YouTube  short film series, ‘Adult Wednesday Addams’ may serve as a useful parable here.  These 3-5  minute films by star Melissa Hunter and her crew were pulled from Melissa’s YouTube channel after an injunction was obtained by the estate of Charles Addams whose drawings served as the basis for The Addams Family television series and subsequent films.

However one can still easily find these episodes which appear, at least for a time, on others’ YouTube channels.  No money was apparently made here and Hunter’s site appears to be respecting the terms of the injunction.  The videos which are at once creative, entertaining, darkly funny and nostalgic certainly serve to illuminate the talents of Hunter and her associates and do not appear to present a credible threat to the Charles Addams Estate.  And it appears now that they can’t really make this Lessigian Remix (apologies for the clunky neologism) go away, ever.  So this raises the question of what such an injunction actually accomplishes.

Melissa Hunter in character as Adult Wednesday Addams

Melissa Hunter in character as Adult Wednesday Addams

I am in the process of cataloging and digitizing my archives and look forward to both listening and sharing them with folks who actually might have considered stealing those quirky CDs from my car.

I appreciate comments of course.

Belated Happy New Year and My Personal Best


Having taken a bit of a hiatus in blogging I am now preparing to get back to work on several projects languishing in the digital storage of WordPress and the recesses of my own mind.

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as well as the 50th anniversary of the “war on poverty”.  As I read further I’m sure I will find many more such milestones and, in the spirit of this blog, will explore connections to music and musicians.

Among the issues pressing for my attention in the beginning of this year are Black History Month, the upcoming Other Minds 19 and some overdue reviews of recent recordings.  I haven’t looked further into 2014 as yet.

I have actively avoided creating one of those “best of” lists that are ubiquitous at the end of every year.  I do read those lists but have no desire to compete at this point by creating yet another.  I have, however, taken a look back at the most viewed blog posts published in this blog.

Aside from my Home Page, About Page and Archives the top ten posts for the past year have been:

1. Secret Rose Blooms: Rhys Chatham at the Craneway Pavilion (actually my all time most viewed post)

2. Other Minds 18, three nights on the leading edge

3. Black Classical Conductors (Black Classical Part Two)

4. Far Famed Tim Rayborn Takes on the Vikings

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

6. Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries

7. Annie Lewandowski, Luciano Chessa and Theresa Wong in Berkeley

8. A Fitting 100th Birthday Celebration for Conlon Nancarrow

9. Undercover Performance Practices in the Bay Area

10. The Feeling of the Idea of Robert Ashley: Kyle Gann‘s Appreciation of the Composer

You can certainly expect me to address some of the subject matter in these most read posts.  Revisiting the site of the crime is a time-honored tradition.  I responded with “shock and awe” at the amount of hits that the Chatham article evoked (418 hits in one day, my top score).  My follow-up gallery of some of those 100 guitars did become my 11th top viewed of the past year.

But as intoxicating as that boost of views was  I will not be able to resist focusing on that which finds its way into my attention for whatever reason.  I am grateful for the support and encouragement I have received from Adam Fong, Charles Amirkhanian, Steve Layton, David Toub, Tom Steenland, Tim Rayborn, Philip Gelb and all of my readers.  I apologize in advance if I have left someone out of this impromptu list but hope that my gratitude is understood among you as well.

 

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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.

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.

Right of Spring, Left of Spring but Not Necessarily in Spring


Disruptions, dissatisfactions and even stronger reactions are not actually that uncommon in classical concerts. But some of these disruptions have taken on a sort of mythical dimension while others remain lesser known. The significance of these disruptions is usually based on failure of expectation or fulfillment of a foregone conclusion. Either the audience is unpleasantly surprised by the music or they come with preconceived notions of the inherent difficulty and/or insignificance of modern music. I think that these events signal a revolution not so much in music as in hearing. Audiences’ horizons are being expanded and many rebel against being taken out of their comfort zones. It is much like the paradigm shifts in science delineated by Thomas Kuhn in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. Indeed some of these concerts seem to signal aesthetic revolutions.

English: Kiss to the Earth. 2nd variant. Scene...

English: Kiss to the Earth. 2nd variant. Scenery sketch. 1912 (from a reproduction) For Diaghilev’s production, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1913 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

May 29th, 2013 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ at the then newly constructed Champs-ÉlyséesTheatre in Paris. The performance was a dance concert with the Ballets Russe with the mercurial Vaclav Nijinsky and with choreography by Serge Dhiagalev and sets by Nicholas Roerich with Pierre Monteux conducting the orchestra. The audience reaction disrupting the performance and the composer subsequently sneaking out the back way is the stuff of legend now (if not strictly truth). The public and the news media love anniversaries so it is no surprise that a great deal of writing, lectures and concerts fill this, the year of that anniversary.

The score went through several revisions (1921, 1926, 1929 and 1943). It is the 1929 score that is the one most performances now follow. Curiously the 1943 revision of the Sacrificial Dance has never been performed as far as I can determine. The Paul Sacher Foundation is making the 1913 version of the score available for the first time in celebration of the centennial.

The first work on that concert was a performance of Les Sylphides, a ballet consisting of piano music by Frederic Chopin orchestrated by Alexander Glazounov. For this concert orchestrations were commissioned from Anatoly Liadov, Nicholas Tcherepnin, Sergey Taneyev and Igor Stravinsky. It was followed by the Hector Berlioz 1841 orchestration of Carl Maria von Weber’s piano piece,’Invitation to the Dance’ (1819). This certainly satisfied mainstream expectations but provided a stark contrast for the next work which was the now infamous Rite of Spring. In the tradition of well-trained professional performers the musicians and dancers continued in spite of the disruptions and even concluded with another tamer work, the ‘Polovetsian Dances’ from Alexander Borodin’s Opera ‘Prince Igor’ (1887).

Musikverein - Dumbastrasse - Innere Stadt -Vienna-

Musikverein – Dumbastrasse – Innere Stadt -Vienna- (Photo credit: Million Seven)

Almost two months before on March 31, 1913 there was a concert in the Musikverein in Vienna by the RSO Wien (Vienna Radio Symphony) under the direction of Arnold Schoenberg. Alex Ross brought this incident to my attention in his blog. The music on the concert was Anton Webern’s ‘Six Orchestral Pieces’ (1909-13), Alexander Zemlinsky’s ‘Four Songs on Poems by Maurice Maeterlinck’ (1913), Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘First Chamber Symphony in E major Opus 9’ (1906, played in version with an augmented string ensemble of 1913), two (out of five) of Alban Berg’s ‘Altenberg Lieder Opus 4’ of 1912 (“Sahst du nach dem Gewitterregen den Wald”, op. 4/2 and “Über die Grenzen des All”, op. 4/3) and the last programmed (but not played due to the police shutting the concert down) first of Gustav Mahler’s ‘Kindertotenlieder’ (1904).

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, bel...

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, believed to be taken in 1948. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even before this there was the unwelcome reception of musicians and audiences to Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera ‘Pelleas and Mellisande’. Both the musical language and the frank treatment of sex in the libretto contributed to the initial hostile reception. Of course the work is now acknowledged as a masterpiece.

The 1926 première of George Antheil’s ‘Ballet Mecanique’ (1924) in Paris was promoted as radical new music seemingly to create another controversy like that of the Rite of Spring some 13 years before in the very same theater. As near as I can determine there was only one other work on the program (Symphony en fa) and it is not clear whether or not it was the first or last piece on the program (though I suspect it was last). The audience was clearly divided and perplexed by the music and likely also by the technical failures that occurred in this complex work whose demands on mechanically operated instruments wouldn’t actually be executable as the composer intended until the year 1999 . The première in Carnegie Hall New York in 1927, again a concert entirely of Antheil’s works also created controversy and supposedly the controversy continued outside the concert hall with some minor rioting in the street. This concert was duplicated by conductor/historian Maurice Peress and recorded on CD. That concert began with the 1925 Jazz Symphony (played by the W.C. Handy orchestra) followed by the 1923 Sonata for Violin, Piano and Drum and then the String Quartet of 1925. The second half of the concert contained the Ballet Mecanique. While both the Paris and New York premieres were significant and somewhat controversial they did not quite have the impact of the Rite of Spring.

English: Shiraz Art Festival: David Tudor (lef...

English: Shiraz Art Festival: David Tudor (left) and John Cage performing at the 1971 festival.(Photo courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation archive) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On August 29th, 1952 pianist David Tudor performed one of the most controversial musical pieces of all time. In Woodstock, New York audiences sat (mostly perplexed) as Tudor opened and closed the lid of the piano and marked time with a stopwatch. It was the première of 4’33” by John Cage in the aptly named “Maverick” concert hall. Kyle Gann writes in his book, ‘No Such Thing as Silence’ (written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the première) that, like the Schoenberg concert, the program consisted of other contemporary pieces. Morton Feldman’s ‘Extensions 3’ (1952) began the program followed by one of the pieces from Christian Wolff’s ‘For Prepared Piano’ (1951) and then the very complex Piano Sonata no. 1 (1946) by Pierre Boulez.

Cage’s was the penultimate work which was followed by Henry Cowell’s ‘Banshee’ (1925). The concert was followed by a question and answer session. There was no riot in the cool intellectual atmosphere of this concert venue but Gann states that one artist exclaimed at one point, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these people out of town.”

John Cage would have a much more unpleasant experience at the hands of the New York Philharmonic with the première of his ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’ (1962). On February 9, 1964 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein this piece was performed as part of a series of contemporary pieces played by the orchestra that year. Concert programmers sandwiched the work between performances of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and the Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony.

Benjamin Piekut, in his excellent book, “Experimentalism Otherwise”, investigated the circumstances surrounding this concert attempting to separate history from legend by interviewing some of the musicians who participated. He reports that there were technical problems with contact microphones, mixing consoles and amplification. But there was also rebellion by the musicians some of whom destroyed the contact microphones and/or declined to play the notes provided. These technical issues which occurred seem similar to the Antheil concert in that technology was behind the composer’s intentions but the willful destruction and misuse of the technology by the musicians themselves suggests an added level of hostility which of course did not help the audience’s reaction which was anything but favorable.

A 1971 concert by the Boston Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas included a work for 4 organs and maracas by Steve Reich. The piece, titled simply ‘Four Organs’ (1970) is a study in ‘augmentation’ the lengthening of notes and musical phrases, stretching time as it were. The maracas simply play steady 8th notes creating a pulse that the musicians can count. They wind up having to count up to 120 beats at times and concentration is paramount in a successful performance of this music.

The first recording of Four Organs

The first recording of Four Organs

The piece had been premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in 1970 and was reportedly pretty well received. The context of a new music concert in a non-traditional venue no doubt contributed to the more favorable response because the audience was expecting a challenge. Reich was skeptical about the presentation of this music in a more traditional venue and indeed he was correct in assuming that it would receive a different response.

The theme of the concert was ‘multiples’. The first piece on the program was the Sinfonia for two orchestras by Johann Christian Bach (one of the sons of J.S. Bach). It was followed by Mozart’s Notturno for four orchestras and the Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936. Again the newest and most controversial piece would hold the penultimate position followed by Franz Liszt’s Hexameron Variations for six pianos.

English: Michael Tilson Thomas

English: Michael Tilson Thomas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Tilson Thomas, who was at one of the farfisa organs (along with the composer, Ayrton Pinto and Newton Wayland), reports that there were wide differences in the reactions to the music, a great deal of noisy reactions both pro and con. Thomas appeared to like the music (and likely the reaction to it) well enough to program the piece again in 1973 in New York’s Carnegie Hall to an even more hostile response which, according to Thomas, included a woman who came to the stage and banged her head against it saying, “Stop, please, I surrender”. Clearly the issue here in not one of technology but definitely one of failure to meet expectations of many listeners. It was a very different sound especially in the context of the concert hall and programmed with far more conservative music preceding and following it.

These are just a few of the most prominent such responses in the twentieth century. One is left to wonder when and where such a strong reaction might occur again. It is one of the joys, I believe, of going to concerts. The audience response is a valuable part of the experience.