What is Happening Now VI – Spectralists and Live Electronics

Spectralism refers to a group of composers that study the acoustic properties of sound and incorporate what they learn into their compositional method. For the most part the IRCAM Centre in Paris is the nexus of the spectralist movement, hosting research, concerts, and education with a focus on contemporary French music and technology.

In music the term “spectrum” usually refers to an analysis of all the frequencies that are present in a sound signal. Every naturally occuring pitched sound has a layered pattern of frequencies called overtones. The number and relative strength of these overtones is a major factor in determining the timbre of different instruments – this is why a flute sounds different from a clarinet which sounds different from a trumpet and so on. As technology evolved it became possible to plot the spectrum of musical sounds in graphs that look like so:

That’s the first few notes of Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute, plotted in a graph. Colors show intensity of sound at a given frequency, and you can see the layered overtones in the horizontal bands.

Sprectralists use the information garnered from computer analysis to make predictions on what a particular combination of instruments will sound like. Generally speaking, this music is about the manipulation of musical timbres – it tends to be somewhat slow and pensive, featuring lots of sustained chords with cool orchestrations. Sometimes the works involve computer generated sound, but one can also write a spectralist work with all acoustic instruments.

Gérard Grisey

Gérard Grisey is one of the founding fathers of the spectral school. His Partiels, from 1975, has been cited as a major inspiration for the generation of composers that followed. Its main idea is based on a repeated low E, played by a trombone. Grisey analyzed a sample of this note and constructed combinations of winds and strings that could mimic and transform it. Thus there is a sense that the entire piece is a kind of X-ray and expansion of that one note.

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Partiels is part of a larger cycle called Les espaces acoustiques. You can get the whole thing on Kairos records.

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Marc-André Dalbavie

Marc-André Dalbavie is a spectralist who tends to write for purely acoustic ensembles. His knowledge of timbral principles results in music that is sonically adventurous but also super-smooth and elegant. Color from 2002 starts out spacey, like Partiels, but it is more conservative – I think you can hear familiar echoes of Debussy in there. Also, even on a first hearing there is a sense that we are going somewhere interesting – unlike many others in this day and age Dalbavie employs a relatively traditional large-scale rhetoric that is easy to follow.

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You can get this on a somewhat hard-to-find CD. The whole thing is very enjoyable.

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Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho is by far the most successful figure to emerge from this scene and a personal favorite of mine. I already posted about her as my Week 3, and I’ll rehash it here for your convenience.

Lichtbogen from 1986 was composed right after a period of study at IRCAM, and Saariaho has described it as a celebration of her newfound abilities to manipulate sound. It uses some electronics (amplification with a lot of reverb) to make the ensemble sound much bigger than it is, but it is otherwise a pretty straightforward chamber piece.

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It is available on this excellent and challenging album:

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Jonathan Harvey

For a while, computers were not fast enough to make interesting music in real time. Pure computer music was painstakingly designed by engineer/composers, transferred to tape, and then simply played back from recording. The spectral composers, with all their computerized analysis of sound, were naturally very interested in making standalone computer pieces as well as tape-and-live-performance hybrids.

English composer Jonathan Harvey‘s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco from 1980 is considered another important referential work from the spectralist movement. It samples the bells of Winchester Cathedral, using this sound as the harmonic basis of the work. (Acousticians find bell tones particularly interesting because they are complex – they are not a neat and predictable stack of overtones like wind or string instruments.) Here’s a wikipedia article that provides more details – I think the most salient fact about the piece is that it is sonically very pleasant and dramatically exciting.

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Sadly, this recording appears to be out of print. Here’s an Amazon listing of the CD.

Live Electronics

Eventually computers became fast and powerful enough to make music in real time and even interact with a live performer. Many composers consider this to be the cutting edge of technology in music, and it is easy to understand why — with a dynamically interactive framework, a performance can take on the spontaneity, individuality, and nuance that we expect from classical music. The previous generation’s electronic music was, in comparison, “canned” – the electronic part would always sound exactly the same. Also, it is now possible to generate a massive conflagration of sound that is wholly derived from the live performer, making the piece seem more organic and less “fake.”

For me the gold standard of interactive electronics is Anthèmes II by Pierre Boulez. Boulez has been a highly influential composer since the 50s, of course, and he was a founder of IRCAM. It is difficult to say whether he is a spectralist, exactly, but his more recent work does sometimes display the timbral delicacy of his colleagues. (That would be a good research topic! “Spectralist Aspects of Recent Boulez”) But anyway, he was among the first composers to create these interactive electro-acoustic works.

This youtube clip shows a violinist playing the solo part for Anthèmes II (which is based on a preexisting piece with no electronics called Anthèmes) while the computer tracks what she is doing. At :30 we get the same performance with the computer’s output added into the mix.

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Here’s a live performance which gives you even more of an idea of what the piece is like.

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To really dig Athèmes II I think you need both the original, solo version and the electronically enhanced one. It really helps one appreciate how much the machine is doing (and how challenging this would be to design.) My solo version comes from this recording by Julie-Anne Derome.

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…and the full version appears here, along with other great pieces by Boulez.

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More Saariaho

I want to finish with Saariaho’s hauntingly beautiful Lonh for soprano and electronics. This live excerpt shows how it is often presented with video as well. I believe in the beginning of this clip all the sounds you are hearing are derived from the singers voice – the drone is basically an extreme form of reverb, and the bird-like sounds are probably the results of filters that can pull certain frequencies out of the signal. Later (around 1:40) you can hear the contributions of pre-recorded percussion and voice parts in the mix. I had the pleasure of hearing this work in person last March, and it was probably the highlight of my whole season.

Live performance with Valérie Gabail.

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Lonh has been recorded by the intrepid new-music soprano Dawn Upshaw. As I mentioned back in Installment II I’m a little tired of Dawn’s voice, but it is still a cool piece.

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More Spectralists

Some other figures who I shortchanged in this summary include Tristan Murail and Claude Vivier. Also, IRCAM and the Spectral school do not have an exclusive claim on interactive electronics – here in the states Morton Subotnick and many others are doing work in this area.

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What is Happening Now V – Mainstream European-Style Composers

The minimal revolution eventually had an effect on all contemporary music — even the High Modernists like Carter and Boulez were persuaded to mellow out a little bit and compose music that was easier to follow. However, not everyone adopted the hypnotic pulsations of Reich and Glass — there are still many composers out there whose music grows seamlessly out of the rest of the 20th century. The work of these guys mixes a little more comfortably with the past – indeed, to an unfamiliar listener it might not be obvious that it was composed recently. What’s new about this stuff is often very subtle.

Thomas Adès

Thomas Adès (whose name is pronounced something like “addiss,” I think) rose to prominence in the 90s as a new English compositional wunderkind. Right away his work exhibited a virtuosity and playfulness that people really responded to. I’ll start with a movement from his string quartet Arcadiana, to show how deeply traditional his music can be. This passage sounds like something Barber, Britten, or even Copland could have composed, save for a few odd flecks of dissonance that mark is as something different. (That is very postmodern of Adès.)

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Arcadiana appears on his debut album of original works:

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I’m also picking this great live clip of his chamber symphony Asyla. (The title is the plural of “asylum.”) This one is much more chaotic and perhaps a little more contemporary, though here I think you get a strong influence of 80s Ligeti with all of those shrill and violent ostinati that bounce off of each other. As it really digs in it briefly reaches the savagery of The Rite of Spring.

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The whole piece is awesome! You can get it on this album:

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Jennifer Higdon

I still haven’t heard much from American composer Jennifer Higdon, but what I have heard has been immediately impressive for its remarkable energy. She first came to my attention when she won the 2010 Pulitzer for her Violin Concerto.

I’m going to embed both movements from her Piano Trio, which is wonderful. These youtube clips present a nice performance by the American Piano Trio, who are faculty at Ball State.

The opening movement, “Pale Yellow,” is lovely and somewhat Romantic – again this could almost be Barber or Copland.

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The second movement, “Fiery Red,” sounds like angry Shostakovich.

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There are currently two recordings of this piece out there – I think this one by The Lincoln Trio is best.

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(I don’t know how interesting the whole album is – I haven’t played the rest of it! – but you could purchase only Higdon’s trio if you wanted to.)

George Benjamin

Benjamin’s early works in the late 70s and 80s seem to have firmly established his High Modernist cred – they sound quite in line with composers like Ligeti and Birtwistle. That’s fine, if somewhat unremarkable. His more recent work, however, has a new intricacy and fragility that I really like, with polyphonic strands that seem to be woven together in an almost Bach-like texture.

His opening movement from the piano piece Shadowlines presents a kind of knot that needs to be unraveled. It eventually starts flowing in a counterpoint that is gentle but still percolates with rhythmic energy. Here it is played by Taiwanese pianist Yin Chiang

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Here’s a work for chamber orchestra, Palimpsest I, which begins with a chorale for clarinets which is interrupted by violent outbursts from the rest of the ensemble. The work morphs in many ways after that, but idea of a sustained, slowly moving stream of tones seems to carry throughout. Don’t miss 4:19 where it becomes an ominous brass dirge.

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Thus, while Benjamin grows very obviously out of the “difficult” music of the recent past, I think there’s something new in there that is worth hearing.

Shadowlines appears on a disc of solo and duo works that is well worth digesting in full. (In particular, Viola, Viola is another excellent piece.)

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…and Palimpsests I is on this collection of chamber music performed by the peerless Ensemble Modern.

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There are many more, of course…

This is a catch-all category for contemporary composers who aren’t in a specific “bag”, so to speak, so there are dozens and dozens more that one could name who might go here. These three are just the ones that I personally find particularly interesting at the moment.

Next week we’ll look at the Spectralist school of composition and I’ll try to show some of the neat things that people are doing with computers that interact with live performers.

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What is Happening Now IV – “Indie Classical”

The Indie Classical generation is basically the wave of American post-minimal composers who are beginning to emerge now. For these guys, the economic landscape is different, even, from what it was for the Bang on a Can composers. On the plus side, they’ve got the internet as a medium to disseminate their music and a network of artsy-fartsy bars that are now hosting Classical music. On the negative side, it’s become even more difficult to actually get paid to compose, since there are fewer big institutions spending money on it.

I don’t actually have as much music to push for this segment, since I don’t know that many of these guys. I’m not really on the bleeding edge! But there are a few that I can confidently cite as people worth knowing.

Jefferson Friedman

Jefferson Friedman writes in an expressive and slightly thorny language that sometimes reminds me of Julia Wolfe. So far he has gained recognition for his string quartets.

One reason why I want to show this clip in particular is that it highlights the preeminent venue for this kind of stuff in New York City – Le Poisson Rouge. This is a club in the West Village that is dedicated to “mixing it up” by booking rock, avant-garde jazz, and classical music. I must say it’s pretty fun to be able to drink a beer and listen to a string quartet.

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Friedman’s quartets are recorded on the New Amsterdam record label, which seems to be the strongest proponent of this generation’s music.

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Other small clubs and art spaces in that program contemporary classical music (and which may or may not have beer) include Roulette, The Stone, Galapagos Art Space, and Issue Project Room.

Nico Muhly

While Nico Muhly at age 31 is definitely in this generation, it’s almost unfair to call him “indie,” because he’s really quite successful and well-connected. Having studied at Juilliard and worked for a while as an assistant to Phillip Glass, he has no problem getting commissions from big ensembles, and he even has an opera forthcoming at the Met.

However, he has also made a series of intimate chamber works that rely on backing tracks that are crafted in the studio – these seem to really go to the heart of the internet-driven music culture. The piece I want to feature is It Goes Without Saying, which has a very interesting orchestration. The main instrument is clarinet, which is overdubbed a few times. The surging and throbbing accompaniment is provided by cello, harmonium (which is a kind of portable organ) and celeste, with the addition of a few percussionists tapping on random things (e.g. clicking two rocks together.) Thus, how the thing was produced becomes an inseparable part of the piece – you are pretty much guaranteed not to hear this combination of sounds anywhere else.

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You can get this and a few other similar chamber works on Speaks Volumes. It’s pretty good.

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Missy Mazzoli

One page from the do-it-yourself playbook is “start a band.” Reich, Glass, Michael Gordon, and Michael Nyman have all done this. Recently, classical performers have begun to do it as well, often moonlighting with a group that plays original music that is more like rock or jazz. New music violinist Caleb Burhans has itsnotyouitsme, and the trio So Percussion alternate between playing other people’s music and their own electronica-inspired stuff. Nico Muhly even plays folk-rock gigs with his friend Sam Amidon and other cohorts.

Composer Missy Mazzoli has made waves with a band called Victoire, which features all female musicians on keyboards, clarinet, violin, and double bass. This stuff really blurs the lines between rock and classical music.

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Their debut is called Cathedral City.

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Missy is not just about Victoire, though. She’s written for orchestra, string quartet, and even has an opera based on the life of Isabelle Eberhardt called Songs from the Uproar. You can stream all of this stuff from her web page. I’m pretty confident that she’ll soon be as big as Nico.

Post-Post Modernism (or The End of Smarty-Pants Music)

So, the indie classical generation really do represent one strand of “what is happening now” in classical music. In some ways it’s a lot like the Bang on a Can generation. But I do think the signature difference is the end of the self-consciousness that characterized the 80s and 90s – back then new music often made an aesthetic argument of some kind, juxtaposing different kinds of music or going for some kind of conceptual extreme. These guys grew up with that stuff and take these clashes for granted (like the erasure of the dividing line between classical music and rock.)

Thus, pieces really don’t show off a conceptual underpinning like they used to. Instead, I would say that composers today are in search of a new authenticity and an intimate connection with their audience. But this trend (if it even is one) is obviously not going to be evident in every work by every composer!

Spillover: IDM (Intelligent Dance Music)

Since composers are blurring the lines between classical music and the stuff outside the concert hall, it makes sense that some people on the other side are trying to incorporate more structure into their work, to appeal to the same sense of complexity, texture, and large-scale organization. One area that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two decades is music made entirely (or almost entirely) on computers. My current favorite is Kieran Hebden, who makes music under the name Four Tet.

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More Spillover: Post-Rock

Post-Rock basically means rock bands that want to make music that doesn’t quite sound like rock. This stuff is usually pretty gloomy and “serious” in tone, and often has the epic scale of symphonic music. I’ll pick this track by the Scottish group Mogwai as an example.

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More Spillover: Band-Geek Pop Stars

This is actually a very pronounced trend in the popular music of the past decade or so — the incorporation of acoustic instruments into an otherwise straightforward pop or rock format. Violins, french horns, and even harps frequently share the stage with electric guitars and drum kits. I suspect this is in part the result of a very successful music education industry in the United States. Rock stars are no longer anti-social misfits who take the stage barely knowing how to play their instruments — they are the kids who grew up in suburban high schools and were deeply involved in their band or chorus.

My example is going to be Sufjan Stevens, who rose to moderate fame with Illinoise, a collection of slightly eccentric, folkish tunes about The Prairie State. This record is tricked out with strings, brass, woodwinds, the whole nine yards.

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In his high-school years Sufjan was at The Interlochen Academy studying oboe (!) and creative writing. Total band geek. I rest my case.

Now, in a sense I’m acknowledging this last “overflow” category under protest, in that I don’t think pop music with lots of acoustic instruments is always going to have that much in common with classical music. It’s not necessarily trying to do the same thing – its goal is usually to create an atmosphere of fun and to deliver a clever text. But, every now and then somebody crafts a tune that would stand up nicely alongside some chamber music. There is even a series here in New York called Wordless Music that presents concerts that are half classical, half indie rock.

We are not done!

Even though I’ve brought this series of posts up to the present, there are several interesting streams of music that I’ve just ignored. It’s not all post-minimalism out there! So, we’ve got at least two or three more posts ahead of us.

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What is Happening Now Part III – The Bang on a Can Composers (+ Andriessen!)

Bang on a Can

The Bang on a Can composers are three friends who studied composition at Yale together in the 1980s. Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe are married to each other, and David Lang is the third member of the group. All three have a post-minimal aesthetic that takes the ideas of Glass and Reich and injects them with a new shot of complexity, often reaching for the loud, aggressive textures of rock music.

Faced with the prospect of leaving school and becoming working composers, these guys realized that they were going to have to build their own scene. They created an annual festival (called Bang on a Can) which featured their own music combined with that of their friends and heroes, an ensemble (called the Bang on a Can All-Stars) that could specialize in their particular flavor of new music, and eventually their own record label (called Cantaloupe). This “do it yourself” approach is also based on the early careers of Glass and Reich (who also created their own groups and even briefly participated in the same ensemble), but here it was taken to a new level. (Here’s a nice New York Times article that reflects on what the group has achieved, on the occasion of their 25th anniversary.)

If you are in New York, you could go see the free marathon concert at the World Financial Center on June 17. I’m not crazy about the WFC as a space to do serious listening, but if you’ve never been it would probably be a fun way to take in some new music and get a taste of “the scene.”

Michael Gordon

Of the three composers, Michael Gordon seems the most like a guy who would rather be a rock star but somehow wound up composing classical music. His sound is usually quite heavy, and it’s sometimes characterized by twisty rhythmic devices that sound like something out of Rush.

His first real breakthrough, in my opinion, was Trance, a 50-minute piece for chamber orchestra that mimics the textures of electronic music. Before this his stuff was more chromatic and thorny, but here he figured out that he could use a very simple tonal language to let his rhythmic counterpoint shine through.

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That’s a live clip performed by the young musical group SIGNAL. I would recommend the original recording by an English band called Icebreaker.

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Gordon does have a friendlier and more contemplative side as well. Here’s a nice slow piece called Light is Calling, for solo violin and electronics. It is paired with a cool film by Bill Morrison which is made entirely out of decaying archival movies.

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Light is Calling appears on an album of the same name, which has Gordon experimenting with various studio-based rock concoctions. Sadly, the rest of it isn’t quite as good as the title track, and you aren’t allowed to buy the piece by itself.

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Other works which I would highly recommend include Weather and his Van Gogh opera.

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Julia Wolfe

Julia is ultimately my favorite of the three composers, because she’s the most complex. She can write very tender, thoughtful stuff (which perhaps might resonate with one’s stereotype of a female composer), but just as often her music is the most extreme and aggressive of the bunch. It’s not ugly, though – I think she is going for (and often achieves) a kind of ecstatic effect by letting the sound just pile up and overflow waaaaaay past the point you might have been expecting.

Here’s a recent piece called Cruel Sister that shows off both sides of her personality. Like many of her works it starts off slowly and carefully, kind of feeling its way along with a few simple gestures (i.e. the pulsing fifths in the low strings, and these clusters and smears that keep poking in), but each section slowly builds tension until it is a massive, pulsing chromatic cluster. Here are the first two parts:

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…and I might as well embed the last two as well. We go through a somewhat severe slow movement to get to a nice payoff at the end (about 8:00), a constellation of pizzicato pulses that swirl and intersect chaotically.

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Cruel Sister appears on the album of the same name –
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I’m going to include one more piece of hers from back in 1994, to demonstrate how over-the-top aggressive Wolfe used to be. You are going to think I am nuts, but I really like this piece. It sounds like a marching band on a murderous rampage! The first time I heard it was in a live performance at one of the marathon festivals and I was very confused by it. But, it grows on you with familiarity. When the storm clears around 4:10 and the violin solo begins it becomes pretty magical.

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This one is on an out-of-print disc on Phillip Glass’s old label – Amazon CD

One other piece of hers I would recommend is Lick, which appears on Bang on a Can Classics. eMusic iTunes Ariama Archivmusik Amazon CD Amazon MP3

Overall I’d say that while Julia Wolfe is less eager to please than the average post-minimalist, her work definitely rewards repeated listening.

David Lang

David Lang is probably the most successful of the three in terms of getting his stuff played and hitting the sweet spot of substance and accessibility. At the height of the BoaC years he penned Cheating, Lying, Stealing, which I think is the essential post-minimal piece. It’s appealing, easy to understand, and yet purposefully twisty and unpredictable.

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(What’s neat about this piece is that if you write the opening rhythms down you can see what he’s doing. Each iteration takes an eighth note in the previous phrase and changes it into a quarter note. When the rhythm is finally all “ironed out” as straight quarters he’s done, and he moves on to a new idea.)

This piece appears on Bang on a Can ClassicseMusic iTunes Ariama Archivmusik Amazon CD Amazon MP3

As time went on Lang started to hit more of an ambient vibe, writing works that sound intensely pleasant and dream-like. His piano solo Wed is a good example. Here is the winner of a youtube-based competition playing it:

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It has appeared on several releases, most recently This Was Written by HandiTunes Ariama Archivmusik Amazon MP3 Amazon CD eMusic

The suite called Child is another work with subdued, dream-like writing. Here’s the second movement.

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Child appears on the album of the same name – iTunes Amazon CD Amazon MP3 Archivmusik Ariama eMusic

Since one of the people I’m writing this for is a percussionist, I should mention that he’s written a few big pieces just for people who hit stuff. This three-movement work called The So-Called Laws of Nature was written for the the group So Percussion, and it is pretty awesome. In the video of the first movement you can see that they are sometimes passing rhythmic ideas down the line in a canon.

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Louis Andriessen

I feel like I would be remiss to write about Bang on a Can without mentioning Louis Andriessen, a Dutch composer who started doing the same sort of slightly-thorny post-minimal writing in the 70s and was thus a major hero to these younger composers from Yale. Andriessen’s point of reference is often commercial jazz and R&B rather than rock, but he will reach for the same aggressive brutality that the Bang on a Can composers do.

We have a small problem here, that the absolute best Andriessen pieces don’t seem to be on youtube. So you know what? I’m going to switch strategies and link to the music streaming service Spotify. You will need to sign up for Spotify (and install an app) to hear them, but it will be worth it.

Perhaps the best intro to Andriessen is De Stijl, an oratorio about the painter Mondrian that is part of a larger, four-part work called De Materie. Here you can definitely hear his jazz influence, with the saxophones and jaunty rhythms and whatnot, and it’s just a really fun piece.


You can get De Stijl as a standalone piece, paired with something called M is for Man, Music, and Mozart — this is what I would do if I was just getting started with Andriessen.

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…or you could invest in the whole De Materie cycle. iTunes Archivmusik Amazon MP3 eMusic Amazon CD

Another piece which you simply can’t live without is De Tijd, a long, slow work which is simply about the passage of time, how it ticks away. It features a long vocal melody that sounds frozen in place, and lots of little pulses and patterns that measure the seconds as they pass. It’s drop-dead gorgeous.


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Finally, I’ll embed a youtube video of Hout (Wood), which involves a marimba, electric guitar, sax and piano playing a super-tight canon – one player literally follows the next a mere sixteenth-note later. It’s a blast.

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You can get a nice recording of this on Gigantic Dancing Human Machine: Bang on a Can Plays Louis Andriessen. iTunes Amazon CD Amazon MP3 Ariama Archivmusik mtraks

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What is Happening Now Part II – European Spiritual Minimalism

European Spiritual Minimalism

Henryk Górecki (of Poland) and Arvo Pärt (from Estonia) are two European composers who picked up the mantle of minimalism and used it to make works with a decidedly different tone from what was happening in America.

Górecki’s work seems to be generally dark and pessimistic in nature, with titles such as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and Already it is dusk. The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, written in 1976, became an unexpected worldwide best seller when a recording was released in ’92. This extended meditation on war and totalitarianism reminds me of something Mahler or Shostakovich might have written, if they had lived long enough to hear Philip Glass.

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The work is the subject of a documentary film by Tony Palmer. Netflix.

There are many recordings — the famous one that introduced it to the world features the London Sinfonietta and soprano Dawn Upshaw.

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Normally I’d say that you want “the original”, but you know what? I have some reservations about Ms. Upshaw’s manner of singing. I feel terrible saying that, because she has done great things for contemporary music, but after listening to her for decades I am vaguely bugged by the way she scoops into notes and her overall tone. It’s not her, it’s me, probably!

Shopping around a bit, I tried the Naxos version, which the Gramophone guide likes, and this recent one with soprano Ingrid Perruche, which would be my pick:

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Arvo Pärt

Pärt seems to be more widely performed than Górecki. He’s written a lot of music for chorus which explores traditional religious themes, sung in latin…

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…and he has a few nice chamber pieces and solo piano works that are popular. “Fratres” has many different versions (for string quartet, cello ensemble, wind octet and percussion, all sorts of things.) Here it is for violin and piano.

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I also really like this simple piece for piano, which an amateur could play.

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I have a few Pärt recordings, and the one that has impressed me the most has been this collection of choral pieces:

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It includes the “Da pacem Domine” that I embedded above.

In general, I think this stuff is well-loved by Classical music fans because it resonates with other strains of music from the past, including the 20th-century symphonists I already mentioned and the sacred choral music of the Renaissance. It delivers a serious, meditative message that people really value.

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Special Series: What is Happening Now Part I – Background

It just so happens that every student I am working with this semester has asked me the exact same question – What is happening now in Classical music? I usually respond by giving a vague spiel about “looking for authenticity” or writing down a list of names for them to check out. But hey, maybe I can do better than that. Why not tackle the question systematically and blog my answer.

1945-1970: A Little Overview

First, you have to understand where we were at in the latter half of the 20th Century. After the Second World War the most prestigious composers were what I like to call High Modernists – people obsessed with creating unique and rigorous systems of composition. Music was thought of as a sort of science or technology, and pieces were a means of creating structure, or delivering information. The musical output of this period is undoubtedly the most dense and complex of any time.

Major High Modernists include Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Elliott Carter, and Milton Babbitt. (I know, one might think of Cage as antithetical to some of these others, but with him too the method was part of the message, and the results were usually complex.)

Now, I’m not necessarily trying to disparage this stuff. Complexity can be pleasant and exciting! Here’s a string quartet from Carter as an example.

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The sounds in this piece are fine on a moment-to-moment basis, and it’s possible to really immerse yourself in this texture and have a vivid experience. What the music of this time tends to lack is a sense of large-scale orientation (where are we coming from, where are we going) and basic memorability. You have to work very hard just to feel that you can “follow” the piece.


Another trend from this period which will be important later is what I’ll simply call Noise. Part of Cage’s agenda was that nothing is noise, that any sound could be music. He’d protest my terminology. However, there is a particular strain of composers beginning as far back as Edgard Varèse who were interested in working with sounds that transcend the usual concept of “musical notes” – their work includes all sorts of glisses, clusters, percussive sounds and even what we would now call “samples” from the everyday world. They weren’t shy about embracing extreme stimuli that are particularly challenging to the senses, those that are loud, shrill, chaotic or violent.

The king of noise was undoubtedly Iannis Xenakis, who produced over 100 works which challenge our idea of what a musical sound can be. This one starts out fairly noisily:

(direct link)

The Minimal Revolution

The emergence of minimalism in the mid-60s represents the last real upheaval we’ve seen in classical music, when an idea emerged that really challenged the prevailing idea of what music should be. Instead of complexity, the minimalists (LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich) presented works with a radical, even challenging simplicity. I’ve already written about this in my last post, where I embedded two pieces by Reich. Here I’ll give Terry Riley’s groundbreaking In C (from 1964) some love:

(Direct Link)

There are lots of recordings of this piece, and they are all quite different (since the instrumentation and number of players is not fixed.) I would recommend this one by the Bang on a Can All-Stars:

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Pomo is a term that was kind of beaten to death in the 80s, and there are many arguments about when it first developed and what it means. I would say that musical Post-Modernism means a few things. First, it is a recognition that musical history does not need to be characterized by constant “progress”, that progress is just one narrative we like to impose on things. Minimalism in itself was post-modern in this way – it killed the idea that “more = better” by refusing to up the ante.

Post-modernism also involves a muddling of the idea of “high art” and “popular art.” Andy Warhol’s soup cans were the classic example, but, again, minimalism did this. It had more in common with the repetitive and propulsive texture of rock than the classical music that preceded it, and it used some rock and jazz techniques (electric keyboards, closely miked vocals, and so on). Glass even made some explicit tributes to popular music, such as in his “Heroes” and “Low” Symphonies which are based on David Bowie albums.

With Post Modernism there is a sense that the artist can stand outside of history and comment on it, creating a meta-work that lets us think about multiple points of view. This is one thing that minimalism didn’t really do, at first. Other composers, however, were playing with this idea, trying to refer back to other times and other works from a somewhat distanced perspective. Really, you could argue that Stravinsky’s entire neo-classical phase (from about 1918 to 1950) does this, as did Ives with his constant references to traditional American music.

Probably the most famous piece made out of other pieces is Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, completed in 1969, which smashes together dozens of disparate strands of music to create a new mind-bending narrative.

(Direct Link)

There was also a sense that Post Modernism was meant to be a critique of the very act of creativity and the idea of the classical “work.” Here the philosophical ideas of Foucault and Derrida were important — they argued that assumptions that are packed into everyday concepts had political consequences, and that in order to be free we needed to deconstruct them.

One composer who seemed intent on delivering a critique with each work is Helmut Lachenmann. His Pression for solo cello (1969-70) is a good example, presenting a cellist who, in a sense, refuses to play, presenting a series of unconventional gestures that create a barren but also beautiful soundworld of their own.

(Direct Link)

(I must admit that the sound of this youtube clip isn’t particularly beautiful at all, but I assure you it can be a good piece.)

It seems safe to say that by the mid-70s with the rise of minimalism and these new strains of self-consciousness in composing we exited the High Modern era and entered a Post-Modern one. Really, you couldn’t discuss art, film, literature, or music in the 80s or 90s without dealing with these ideas.

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Back on hiatus :)

Well, my active period didn’t last that long. 5 weeks, I think! I’ll be going dormant again until I can build up some lead time.

In the mean time you could look at a conference paper I recently presented in Rochester and Santa Barbara.

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Week 13: Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians

Minimalism began as a reaction to what I call “High Modernism,” music by composers like Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt, and Elliott Carter. In the 50s and 60s, when these guys were at the peak of their influence, there was a vague sense that music was almost a scientific pursuit, and the more information you could cram into a score, the better. For example, here’s a Babbitt piece that is actually relatively short and digestible…

(direct link)

Minimalism emerged in the 60s, and it asserted a different agenda – instead of looking to put as much as possible into a piece, composers like Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich wanted to see how simple music could possibly be. There was also a parallel movement in the visual arts – painters and sculptors reacted against messy expressionism by creating works that were defiantly plain. Here’s a piece by Donald Judd, an array of blue boxes attached to the wall.

So, in the beginning, minimalist music was similarly severe. It sought to be challengingly minimal, and as a result achieved a somewhat bad reputation as a kind of anti-music, an emperor’s-new-clothes kind of deal.

Here’s an early Steve Reich piece called Piano Phase, from 1967, which, while cool, is certainly somewhat severe. This clip features lovely and very appropriate choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

(direct link)

In the early 70s Reich and Glass both loosened up, attacking large-scale works with a lot more warmth and generosity. (Critics sometimes split hairs and call this later work “Post-Minimal.”) For Reich, the great breakthrough was Music for 18 Musicians in 1974.

I think that, right away, you hear a great difference in the overall sonority. Here’s a performance from a music festival in Cincinnati:

(direct link)

The pulse continues for 70 minutes, and very slowly evolves into a variety of textures. Here’s a much later section, now in Tokyo:

(direct link)

I find that, listening on recording, it is easy to drift off and lose track of how we get from one section to another – it appears to evolve seamlessly. What’s cool about a live performance is that specific musicians cue changes, so you actually see someone step up to a marimba and start a new detail.


The classic debut recording with Reich’s own group remains beloved, and I really can’t see why you wouldn’t go with it.

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However, this recent recording by the Grand Valley New Music Ensemble has also garnered raves.

Ariama Archivmusik iTunes Amazon MP3 Amazon CD eMusic

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Week 12: Mozart’s Don Giovanni

Opera was invented at the beginning of the Baroque period, around 1600, but the first flowering of indisputably great works came with Mozart. He composed about a dozen, but there are four that are absolutely crucial: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, and The Magic Flute.

Don Giovanni is another name for Don Juan, the legendary figure who sought to seduce as many women as possible, often through trickery. This telling of the story has many resonances with the present, with the intersection of class, power, and sex playing out in an often gleefully ironic manner. Don Giovanni, is, of course, a great villain, but he is also, in a way, the hero of the work.

His foil throughout is his somewhat unfaithful servant Leporello, who enables much of the shenanigans but also complains and cracks wise about both his employer and his female conquests. The “Catalogue Aria” is a famous scene in which he explains his boss’s modus operandi:

(direct link)

Here is a scene in which Don Giovanni attempts to woo a woman by performing a serenade outside her window.

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Early in the first act he kills someone, and this is eventually his undoing, as the ghost of his victim appears and drags him down to hell. Giovanni redeems himself somewhat by going out with dignity.

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The best introduction to this work would certainly be total immersion in a live performance with supertitles. Barring that, your next best option is probably to watch it on video. This Met Opera performance from 2000 with Bryn Terfel is probably a solid bet (and it is the source of the second clip, above.) You could rent it on netflix. Perhaps after viewing a fairly straightforward production, Peter Sellers’ wacked-out version might be a stimulating contrast. (Do NOT choose this one first, though. It would be confusing.)

For a recording, I have a 1961 recording led by Carlo Maria Giulini that is considered classic. While lacking the opulent digital clarity of a more contemporary recording, it still sounds excellent, and it is quite educational to hear the stars of a different generation perform this with verve.

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(Important note: These links all lead to the 1987 remastering. Amazon reviewers complain bitterly about later editions that allegedly ruined the sound quality of this recording.)

There are, of course, many other recorded versions out there and I’m sure some are great. The Wikipedia page has a good synopsis of the action, so you could follow along even without the libretto.

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Week 11: Perotin, Viderunt omnes

Let us now go back towards the beginnings of Western music history. Here’s a quick thumbnail sketch — the music of Ancient Greece and Rome was much written about (Plato famously had some very specific opinions about it) but was generally not recorded with any kind of notation system. Thus, it is pretty much impossible to reconstruct what it sounded like.

Gregorian chant emerged around the 4th century AD as the first notated music. The Church was very interested in standardizing a cycle of daily rituals which included both recited texts and music. Writing melodies down allowed them to achieve this goal and facilitated coordinated group performance. It was, of course, stuff that sounded (and looked) like this:

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In chant, single lines of melody flow in a somewhat relaxed, loose rhythm.

The “Notre Dame School” was a community of musicians in and around the Cathedral of Paris, Notre Dame, who began to create music in which one or more parts is added to a chant melody. In general, the chant melody tends to slow down to a crawl, and the added parts swirl around it in a more active rhythm. (This is the first polyphonic music in the Western tradition.)

Pérotin (ca. 1170-1236) was one of these composers.

What’s interesting about these very early works is that musicians did not yet have the same concept of consonance, (i.e. rules about what sounds went well with each other) that would govern music for centuries. Thus, they make sonorities that sound very Modern to our ears.

(Direct Link)

The Hilliard Ensemble’s recording is featured in the above youtube, and I think it is your best opportunity to hear this music in an impeccably crisp and clear rendition. Ariama Archivmusik Amazon MP3 Amazon CD eMusic

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