Other Minds 20 and Why You Shouldn’t Miss It


Official Other Minds Logo

Official Other Minds Logo

The three days of concerts scheduled for March 6, 7 and 8 of this year at the beautiful SF Jazz Center will mark the 20th anniversary of Other Minds opening the ears and minds of bay area new music audiences.  Previously composers could only appear once at this festival (thought performers frequently return) but the anniversary celebration is marked by the return of several alumni.  In fact the entire program consists of composer alums.

Other Minds is an annual festival of new and unusual music curated by bay area composer, producer, broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian and his crew at Other Minds.  Along with co-founder, now president emeritus Jim Newman and a varied and sometimes changing crew of talented and dedicated archivists, fund-raisers and coordinators this festival was born in 1993.

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Every year (though the actual month has changed for various reasons related to venue availability and funding) an international group of composers is brought together first at the Djerassi Arts Center just west of Palo Alto where they share their work and ideas with each other for a week in preparation for the performances of their work to come at the concert series.  This residency is a sort of private retreat open only to the composers and the staff of the center.  And given the range of musical styles it must be a fascinating thing to witness as composers largely unfamiliar with each others’ work gather to share and wonder at each others’ strange and innovative ideas.  Who knows what seeds may have been sown?

Sadly, Dr. Carl Djerassi who founded the center passed away on January 30, 2015.  His arts advocacy will live on through his beloved Djerassi Arts Center and this OM 20 will be a testament to that legacy.

What makes this festival so significant is the fine tuned and prescient nature of the selected composers.  Just a quick look at the list of composers and performers who have participated in the past looks almost like a who’s who of new music as practiced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  One of their commissions, Henry Brant’s (1913-2008)  won a Pulitzer Prize (Ice Field, 2001, Pulitzer Prize, 2002).  And it is programming with a uniquely west coast ethic, whatever that means.  I just know these programs are a different take on new music than that of the east coast.  Not a value judgement there, just a celebration of a different, equally important, point of view.

 

WHY YOU SHOULDN’T MISS OM 20

First you will find a generous (though hardly complete) selection of music by Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ) who has been at the helm of this festival from the beginning and was for 23 years the music director of KPFA radio where his programming and interviews with composers and performers of new music spanned a wide and eclectic gamut of styles and techniques.  Perhaps most significant has been his support of northern California composers whose work would otherwise have been poorly represented.  Amirkhanian’s keen ear has introduced a great deal of new and interesting music to bay area audiences and beyond.

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his ...

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

In addition to his abilities as producer and interviewer Charles is also a noted composer.  Trained as a percussionist, he has written quite a bit of music which deserves recognition for its innovation.  His best known works are those with tape recording, sound poetry and the uses of language.   His music will be featured in several performances and will be a welcome and tantalizing complement to the overall diverse tone that characterizes OM programming.

Amirkhanian’s oeuvre will be represented by “Rippling the Lamp” (2007) for violin and tape, three short pieces for voice and tape, “Dumbek Bookache IV” (1988), “Ka Himeni” (1997), “Marathon” (1997) and, on the third concert, “Miatsoom” (1994-97), a piece based on sounds (vocal, ambient and musical) recorded during the only trip Charles and his father made to Armenia in 1994.  This approximately half hour work is typical of his ability to create a fascinating and meaningful sound collage.  Miatsoom is Armenian for reunion, indeed the apparent theme of OM 20.

In an uncharacteristically political expression this year’s festival is in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.  Amirkhanian is the descendant (both he and his father Benjamin were born here) of Armenian immigrants and grew up in Fresno, California.  The genocide of 1915 (also the year of Benjamin’s birth) was in fact only the most infamous and fatal of the ongoing abuses by the Ottoman Turk government in response to Armenians seeking equal rights (a familiar social issue both then and still today).  Charles has been tactfully apolitical in his programming but his music at times has paid respectful homage to his ancestry and their struggles. It seems right to pay respect to one’s ancestors and perhaps acknowledge that we still have much to do and learn in our imperfect world.

Tigran Mansurian

Tigran Mansurian

Appropriately the esteemed Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian (1939-  ) has been welcomed back and will be represented by two major works.  Romance for Violin and Strings (2011) and Canti Paralleli (2007-8) for soprano and string orchestra are both scheduled for the third concert of the festival.  I was unable to find any details about these pieces but Mansurian’s work certainly deserves to be better known and these performances are a welcome opportunity to hear this major compositional voice.

Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Homage will be paid to two past masters who are no longer with us, American  composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014).  Harrison was a beloved bay area figure whose work with gamelan and other world musics led him to experimentation with alternate tuning systems.  Harrison will be represented by his “Scenes from Nek Chand” (2001-2) played on a National Steel Guitar tuned in just intonation by the wonderful guitarist David Tannenbaum who will also play Sculthorpe’s “From Kakadu” (1993) for conventionally tuned classical guitar.  Sculthorpe, born in Tasmania, was one of Australia’s best known composers who essayed widely in chamber, choral and orchestral music. His 14th string quartet (with didgeridoo played by Stephen Kent) “Quamby” (1998), played by the amazing Del Sol Quartet (who recorded all 18 of the composer’s string quartets) is scheduled to conclude the first concert.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

 

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros (1932- ) is one of the grand ladies of new music.  Her theoretical work in defining music and the act of listening as partners in the creative process and her subsequent compositions including ground breaking work with early electronics with the San Francisco Tape Music Center and later at Mills College characterize her wide range of interests and her insights.  Her principal instrument, strangely enough, is an accordion and she will be performing as well.  OM has commissioned a new work from her, “Twins Peeking at a Koto” (2015, world premiere) for two accordions and koto.  to be presented at the second concert.  Playing the koto will be Miya Masaoka (1958-  ) whose second string quartet will receive its world première on the first night by the  Del Sol Quartet.  Masaoka, Japanese/American native of Washington D.C., is a New York based composer whose work brings her to the west coast frequently where she is a founding member of the Bay Area experimental improv trio Maybe Monday.  Her work involves improvisation and frequently uses unusual sound sources like bees and even cockroaches (not to worry, no insects are slated to perform) and creates site specific multi-disciplinary works in collaboration with musicians and dancers.

Miya Masaoka

Miya Masaoka

Errolyn Wallen (1958-  ) can be said to embody the OM ethic.  Born in Belize, Wallen  left the Dance Theater of Harlem to study composition in England and says of her work, “We don’t break down barriers in music…we don’t see any.”  Her Percussion Concerto (1994)  was the first work by a black woman to have been performed at the London Proms Concerts.   Her “London’s Burning and other songs” will be played on the second night by the SOTA string quartet and Wallen voice and piano.

Errollyn Wallen

Errollyn Wallen

Don Byron (1958- ) similarly states that he strives for “a sound beyond genre”.  Steeped in classical, jazz and folk musics, Byron’s quartet (Don Byron, clarinet; Aruán Ortiz, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; John Betsch, drums) is featured at the conclusion of the second night of the festival.

Don Byron

Don Byron

Maja S.K. Ratkje (1973- ) from Norway whose work is perhaps related to Mr. Amirkhanian’s  in her exploration of the possibilities of the human voice.  Her “Traces 2” (2014-5) will receive its U.S. premiere on the first night’s concert.

Maja Ratkje

Maja Ratkje

The third concert will be unusual for two reasons.  First it will take place beginning at 3PM and, second it will feature a full orchestra.  This night will conclude with U.S. premiere of the Second Symphony (2014) by Michael Nyman (1945- ) .  Nyman is perhaps best known for his numerous wonderful film scores but is also highly accomplished in his work in the concert hall.  In the past three years Nyman has turned for the first time to the Symphony form and has completed to date no fewer than 11  symphonies.  Quite a feat.

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès

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

Tickets still available as low as $15/night.  Quite a festival!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alvin Curran’s Fake Book at the Berkeley Arts Museum


Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

On a cool Friday evening in Berkeley April 11th I proceeded to the Berkeley Arts Museum which sits across the street from the University.  It is a beautiful modern architectural creation with a large and resonant space where there was a large and colorful rug, a series of pillows and behind that a set of conventional chairs for the audience.  Many chose to sit on the rug close to the performer.

The set up consisted of a piano on loan from the Piedmont Piano Company, an electronic keyboard on loan from Paul Dresher along with Mr. Curran’s computer and and amplifier driving two speakers on either side of the keyboards.  The open space is just off the entry way of the museum and tends to have a fair amount of traffic and ambient noise of the people on the various levels.

Curran, now 75, has been a prominent figure on the contemporary music scene internationally since about 1964 when he was partnered with fellow expatriates Frederic Rzewski, Allan Bryant, Richard Teitlebaum and Carol Plantamura among others in the ground breaking Musica  Elletronica Viva.  They created events and happenings using live electronics in the days before such things were easily accessible.  He has continued to explore the leading edge of musical creativity throughout his long and ongoing career.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

The concert began with Curran circumnavigating the audience in clockwise fashion beginning stage right and going around the audience making a full circle and returning to the front of the audience stage center.  he began by playing two simple chords on the instrument repeating them several times.  He then switched to another woodwind type instrument playing some unusual sounds.  When he took his place in front of the keyboards he set those instruments down.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

He alternated between playing the piano and the electronic keyboard sometimes playing both.  He began with some simple sounding piano music and then turned to the electronic keyboard and began playing some of the samples on it.  They ranged from speech to electronic sounds.

At first the ambient noise of the crowd echoed gently in the museum along with the music.  Gradually as the music became more complex and louder the audience seemed entranced, taken on the ritualistic journey that comprises Curran’s work, Fake Book, a reference to books of musical lead sheets that musicians have used over the years to quickly and easily access a variety of materials for live performances.

The louder music then suddenly changed back to a softer dynamic and the reduction in the ambient noise of the audience and casual museum goers had noticeably decreased and one sense an increased attention and focus on the music.  All seemed to be drawn in to the variety of sounds and styles which Curran refers to as his “common practice”, a practice in which the composer uses any and all sounds, instruments and styles strategically to evoke the things the composer wishes to express.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

Curran played for just over an hour without pause an encyclopedic diversity of styles and ideas evoking the musical past in classical sounds, jazz sounds, modernist sounds.  The electronic keyboard samples played voices, radio snippets, electronic sounds and electronic manipulations of these sounds.

Curran effectively involved us all in a ritual performance respectfully evoking the past and blending it all into our experience of the moment.  From the beginning as he walked clockwise around the audience and through the complex collage of musical and sonic ideas he created a genuine ritual, a sacred performance if you will.  His music this night was an homage to the past and a celebration of the present.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram's horn) over the undamped piano strings.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram’s horn) over the undamped piano strings.

He signaled the end of the performance as he blew the ancient shofar, an instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn, over the undamped piano strings creating a beautiful sympathetic resonance.

The audience responded with warm applause and appreciation.  Curran, who told me that he began work on this music while he was in residence at nearby Mills College, is clearly embraced and appreciated by the local audience.  He continues his tour and will return to his adopted  home in Rome, Italy but this evening he was clearly one of our own.

Overhead view of the keyboard set  up for the April 11th performance.

Overhead view of the keyboard set up for the April 11th performance.

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In the Mood for Food, a unique underground dinner/concert series returns to the east bay


The door is open to the underground restaurant.

The door is open to the underground restaurant.

This past Monday October 7th there was a gathering of twelve people at a small loft space in West Oakland.  This is not a neighborhood known for about anything but light industry and cheaper rents.  But there are gems to be found in nasty old Oakland, CA and this is one of them.  It was the return of an irregular (approximately monthly) series of dinners and dinner concerts hosted by local vegan caterer and chef extraordinaire (and shakuhachi teacher as well) Philip Gelb.  These concerts, according to Mr. Gelb, were inspired by the Creative Music Studio which flourished in Woodstock, New York from 1971 to 1984 which featured many of the brightest and most innovative musicians in jazz, free improvisation and experimental music.  But the inclusion of such high quality creative cooking is unique here.

View through a glass, lightly.

View through a glass, lightly.

It has been many months since he last hosted one of these at his loft space.  Phil has chosen to combine his substantial cooking talents with his interest and connections with the music community to create this unique blend of freshly shopped and created vegan dishes with local and visiting musical talent.  This series, dubbed “In The Mood for Food”, is named after one of his favorite films, “In the Mood for Love” by Wong Kar-Wai.  The series has occurred more or less monthly for the last 8 years. To date I have enjoyed the creative and varied multi-course meals (which are frequently themed to the season or to the performer’s preferences) and have enjoyed both dinner conversation and performances by Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Stuart Dempster, Gyan Riley, Tim Rayborn, Michael Manring, Barre Phillips, Mark Dresser, Amy X Neuberg and Pamela Z to name just a few.

The meals are always multi-course, locally created, sourced and shopped meticulously by Phil himself.  He serves only farm fresh ingredients, never canned or packaged and the recipes are his personal creations.  Food is served by the chef and one or two assistants depending on the size of the audience (maximum capacity is about 20 people).  Cost ranges from $40 to $60 per person, about what you would pay at a good area restaurant.  The musicians are either people with whom Phil has collaborated or found by word of mouth from other musicians and friends.  He has had many musicians call him to ask if they can play at his venue.  Why would that be?  There is no significant publicity or profit to be had here.  The answer, I believe, is the intimacy which is a combination of the loving creation of both food and music, both raised to an art form by their execution as well as their content.

There is reportedly a cook book in the works which, in addition to many carefully tested vegan recipes, will tell some of the history of this series.  Phil is occasionally soliciting recipe testers via Facebook.  He is also known for his hands on cooking classes.

As it happened, Monday’s event did not include music but it did include some familiar faces who I frequently encounter at these dinners as well as an overall interesting collection of guests who make for great conversation and frequently share their BYOB offerings.  In fact the bartender from the great San Francisco vegan restaurant, ‘Millenium’, asked to attend and to prepare some delicious cocktails specially designed by him and incorporating some of the food ingredients to enhance the experience.  Two of the guests were the operators of a local new tempeh making business called Rhizocali and their superior product was featured in the night’s food offerings.

Unfortunately I forgot to get a picture of the wonderful dessert course which consisted of pumpkin waffles, spiced pumpkin sorbet and maple tea poached pears.  Characteristically the attentive chef went around offering more scoops of the refreshing pumpkin sorbet which no one appeared to refuse as they engaged each other in pleasant conversations.  It is good to have this series back again and, well, let’s just say no one walked away unsatisfied.

Appetizer- Fresh rice noodles wrapped with apple smoked tofu and miso glazed, grilled pumpkin hijiki salad

Appetizer- Fresh rice noodles wrapped with apple smoked tofu and miso glazed, grilled pumpkin hijiki salad

First course- Kim chi soup with rice cakes, homemade kim chi in a seaweed/pumpkin broth and a little side dish of Pumpkin tempura brushed with gochujang

First course- Kim chi soup with rice cakes, homemade kim chi in a seaweed/pumpkin broth and a little side dish of Pumpkin tempura brushed with gochujang

Entree- Dumpling pumpkin stuffed with Thai red curry with Rhizocali Tempeh, gai fan, snap peas and Thai eggplant; jade pearl rice, green mango salad and lotus root pickles
Entree- Dumpling pumpkin stuffed with Thai red curry with Rhizocali Tempeh, gai fan, snap peas and Thai eggplant; jade pearl rice, green mango salad and lotus root pickles

Happy diners chatting after a fantastic dinner.

Happy diners chatting after a fantastic dinner.

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.

Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries


My earliest listening adventures in new music, the ones that shaped my present interests, included the early Odyssey vinyl which contained Steve Reich’s tape piece of 1966, “Come Out”, Frederic Rzewski’s 1974 recording which contained Attica (1972) and Coming Together (1972) and the RCA budget disc of new music which contained Penderecki’s harrowing Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960). In addition to satisfying my fascination with new sounds they were also pointedly political in their messages.

In late 2008 or very early in 2009 I read of a recital to be held at Mills College premiering some of the pieces in a set of piano pieces commissioned by Sarah Cahill called, “A Sweeter Music”, a title taken from a speech by Martin Luther King. I was already familiar with Cahill’s fine pianism and her support of new music. Pieces had been commissioned from Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Paul Dresher, Carl Stone, Ingram Marshall, Jerome Kitzke, Phil Kline, Mamoru Fujieda, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, The Residents, and Preben Antonsen. I think this was a significant set of commissions and I am happy to read on Cahill’s website that a recording will be forthcoming from Other Minds records.

The recital was a very informal affair in a small concert room at Mills. Many of the pieces were in stages of rehearsal and none of them had the later added multi-screen video projections which were created by Cahill’s husband, the fine videographer and filmmaker, John Sanborn. The audience was small and only a few pieces were actually played but Cahill discussed the project plans and afforded the opportunity for the audience to examine the actual scores.

Needless to say I enjoyed the evening. I spoke with Ms. Cahill and asked if she knew of any books on the subject of political classical music. She concentrated seriously for a moment, searching her knowledge of the literature and replied, “No, I don’t know of any, you should write one.”

That idea has continued to intrigue me so I have decided to begin a series of blog posts on what I do know about contemporary classical music written with the intention of stating a political or social issue. It didn’t take much thought or research to know that this would be a big topic.

At some point I will need to construct a sort of taxonomy of the types of political music to more widely define the area. Fo)r now, though, I decided to limit my research to music written after 1950 by non-pop composers (much has been written about folk/pop political music) which was written with the intention of stating and/or influencing a political or social issue.

I found a great article by Kyle Gann (he always seems to know about music I like, including his own) which appeared in 2003. It is a fine starting point for these efforts.

I will begin by trying to construct a list of such music and, in addition to the pieces listed above, I would suggest  Rzewski’s magnum opus The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975), Salvatore Martirano’s L’s GA (1968), Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza (1960), Hans Werner Henze’s Essay on Pigs (1968), George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970).

I am open to suggestions in the construction of this list and welcome comments as I attempt this project.