A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
I finally had the opportunity to sit down with new CDs from two of my favorite composers, Noah Creshevsky and Alex Shapiro. Both have created collections as different from one another as can be imagined. Noah's CD, To Know and Not to Know (Tzadik TZ 8036), is all about economy of means with an electronic palette; Alex's recording, Notes from the Kelp (innova 683), is acoustic and uses a wide acoustic palette. And I like their work especially because neither is afflicted with the Masterpiece Syndrome, making points and expounding theories and showing evidence of every micro-moment of struggle. No, that doesn't mean the work is shallow, but rather that it has extricated itself from the romantic notion of composer and composition that swept all the way through the end of the Twentieth Century.
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Alex first. Slipping is for violin, harpsichord and "very mixed percussion" -- and is just as mixed in style as it slips from one to the next. Using various harpsichord stops and techniques, Alex creates nine minutes of, well, fun. There's serious writing (and enormous technique and a great ear) involved, but more than anything, it's an entertainment.
Perhaps my favorite piece for listening is Bioplasm, which I first heard on Kalvos & Damian several years ago. This piece explores flute techniques (including noises, voices and multiphonics) in a tightly wrought architecture that feels leisurely and attractive on its surface. That's what I like about Bioplasm, for quartet of flutes (bass, alto, soprano and piccolo): It doesn't make experimentation into hard work. Of course it's instantly reminiscent of Anne La Berge's 1996 fixiation for alto flute and recorded flutes -- but there the similarity ends. Where fixiation has a clear avant-garde backstory, Bioplasm approaches the music with (dare I say it) a film composer's ear. In other words, I am not conscious of the music so much as the sensation; in Anne's piece, I hear it as a listening demand. Both pieces belong in the repertoire of any flute ensemble.
The string quintet Current Events is where Alex's architectural mastery comes into play. Last year I asked Alex to critique my string quartet L'Estampie du Chevalier, and her careful prose pointed up one thing strongly: that it was sometimes wasteful of notes (I paraphrase). Though I didn't change it (we couldn't be more different as composers, save for our commitment to our art), I understand what she means after hearing her string composition. In Current Events, she does not waste notes. All are purposeful and directed. It's an interesting anomaly, because where she repeats phrases or shapes, the weight of that repetition is felt in the substance of the composition. About this she writes poetically, that the music "ponders the ocean's tides as well as waves of a more internal, emotional nature." I agree; the thematic material is highly expressive (the end of the second movement is a model of expressive composition, and should be studied by any composer to discover how to achieve effect without pretense) and she has the string quartet in hand in the way George Rochberg used to -- large, lush harmonies paired with driving rhythms and contrapuntal clarity. No Ars Nova counterpoint here -- it's fragmentation and a driven response, unfettered by some imaginary audience awaiting the pabulum of the accessible. This piece has guts through and through.
Alex has also created a marvelous program. After the emotionally relentless Current Events, she follows up with the deceptively simple For My Father. It's an expansive tone poem, with plenty of open space, quite the opposite of the string quintet. It's also pianistic, which is why Alex's work is notable. She handles each instrument as if it were her instrument. She's a flutist, right? No, a string player. No, a pianist? Which? I actually don't know, but my guess is none of the above.
And then comes Bartók mode. At the Abyss (piano, marimba, vibraphone and percussion) is another work broken into short, complete, and economical movements. The first movement tumbles, and the second is, yes, Bartókian "Night Music". Perhaps it was Alex's sub-surface understanding of world events, as this was written when there were "many sad, threatening and violent events throughout the world" -- as with Bartók. And the effect of bowed metallophone (not sure whether it's vibe or marimba) is not to be missed. And for the non-Bartók part, listen to the last movement's riffs and jazz harmonies. Nice.
Alex only teeters on the dangerous edge with Phos Hilaron, part of a larger suite. Out of context, it's hard to tell whether this movement succeeds. I shouldn't talk; it sounds a little like my work. But what I mean is that the work is so subdued in full-frontal music-ness. Oh yes, it's expressed beautifully. Just incompletely.
Music for Two Big Instruments -- tuba and piano -- is brilliantly crafted. I love the tuba, and have written several pieces for it (a sonata, a quintet, a half-hour excursion with dance and electronics, and the WAAM piece for youth ensemble featuring tuba), recognizing that, despite its ungainly reputation, it is flexible and lustrous. It takes commitment to be other than clever, and Alex has it. She treats the tuba exactly like a French horn with an extended lower range, but takes advantage of its power without losing lyricism.
Finally comes Deep. And it feels exactly like the crucial moment of a film when the hero escapes disaster and, out of the corner of the eyes, sees the villain, injured but alive, slip into an escaping vehicle. You know there's a sequel -- and in the case of Notes from the Kelp, I hope there is. Deep, for contrabassoon and electronics, uses the wide soundscape sensibility and orchestral panorama with a tonal orientation. This is no acousmatics, but it's also no "Hearts of Space" twaddle. Out of a haze in a reverberant field comes the contrabassoon and long, slow pitches rising from and fading into the haze. The pitches slowly stitch themselves into a melody, and recurring percussive sensations in the distance resolve into open intervals and even chords. I'm just reading Luigi Agostini's Creare Paesaggi Sonori, and realize that in all his talk of technique, he rarely touches on the depth of imagination required for a compelling experience.
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Noah Creshevsky has been one of my friends and also one of my topics. Rather than cover any Creshevsky groundwork, read A Language We Already Understand: Noah Creshevsky's Hyperrealism, which appeared in New Music Box a few month ago.
Noah is not a repetition guy, at least not on the large scale. On the micro level, though, he's all about repetition -- as in Red Carpet. A few small figures, acoustic samples, are used to build a tapestry of sound, from a hard-edged violin through brass chords. You laugh first, then begin to get it -- as the perfect introduction to Psalmus XXIII.
The Psalmus is one of my great pleasures. Its lovely sung line (Zach Kurth-Nelson) along with the hyper-erotic sighs and cries and whimpers and groans and whispers and fragments of vocalise, all carefully pitched (Beth Griffith), are wrapped in a faux-Renaissance tonal shape. The climax at about five minutes is truly that -- orgiastic. Noah's music is effectively without context. Sure, it has the Josquin-like references in the tonality and curve, but what makes it work isn't the references, but rather the integration of what would ordinarily be alien elements. There's an analogy in tuning systems. Years ago, when my three-movement violin solo Thièle was premiered, the reviewer praised the work's Bach-like character and its rich chromaticism. But what had eluded the reviewer -- a musician himself and a violinist at that -- was that it was a quarter-tone composition he had just heard. He fell into its conceit of temperament without a whimper from his intellect. And so it seems with Noah, where the alien elements at first seem funny and incongruous, but after a short time (in this case, the length of the piece) become the coloristic nature of it and its underlying coherency, drawing us into its orgy.
Title track To Know and Not to Know uses apparently unrelated samples and a fragmented architecture that makes it, after just a few listenings, impenetrable. Tonal excursions and rhythmic events are sprinkled on an invisible earth. The sections' color comes from the choice and placement of samples (such as the Asian sound at about six minutes), and overall it has a songlike character. But it hasn't settled yet. This very complex piece cracks open the door, but I can't see inside yet.
Once is an art song and a hymn. The text is "Laudate", the tune a pretty good take on "Come thou fount of every blessing..." But you can't trust Noah. It goes all squirrely, and works its way up and down the register in the crystal-clear voice of Martha Cluver. Do you remember Wuorinen's Bearbeitungen über das Glogauer Liederbuch? Once is like that, an arrangement that skitters from instrument to instrument -- from sample to sample -- in a chamber orchestration not likely to gather together in a reality of performers, only in his hyperreality. (I keep wondering about Noah's fascination with Latin texts. His Psalmus doesn't reach for the Hebrew or English but takes the Latin instead.)
The Chamber Concerto glues samples together as acoustic compositions glue notes. Okay, that's a little flippant, but what I mean is that much traditional composition is about micro structures -- motifs and phrases that are repeated in different guises. Noah skips the temptation to mutate the motifs and uses them in their entirety, transposed but otherwise untouched. It's as if Beethoven, rather than write out all those Moonlight triplets, was able to paste down the rising motifs and use them over and over. Or like writing in syllabic languages, where chunks, not letters, dominate. Or even digital mosaics made up of, say, thousands of photographs rather than ceramic tiles. The energy of each motific sample is multiplied by placement and overlay, and abstracts into two compositions: one is what you hear, the other is the quasi-Schenkerized reduction that is the sample timeline itself. (I've never seen one of Noah's multitrack timelines, but there is a self-analysis for musicologists. Don't erase them, Noah!). Chamber Concerto has a wonderful moment toward the end when it almost sounds like Conlon Nancarrow had dropped in for a visit.
The highlight for me of this recording is a piece I've known almost since it was new: Jubilate. In the first seconds, Noah sets us up with Beth Griffith's heartbreakingly pure incipit scratched out by Thomas Buckner's vocal noises. It then becomes a duet of samples punctuated by coos and snarks and lumps & drools of sound, all gathered together under Beth's hyper-clear melody. Description won't do -- this piece must be lived with as it slowly rises from accompanied tune to joyful exclamation. No hesitancy here, Jubilate is stunning.
With Sequenza (for Trombone), Noah takes a title from the fearsome Luciano Berio, but little else. Here the trombone participates in an exchange of sounds through contribution of samples. Other instrumental samples (clarinet and sax and percussion among them, along with what sounds like a characteristic Griffith vocal growl-purr) create a filigree or lattice around elongated trombone pitches. Eventually room is made for the trombones alone (the samples from Monique Buzzarté) in a multi-voice cadenza ŕ la Gabrieli. The tonality is crushed by the return of other samples; is there a Creshevsky statement there?
The rising glissandi of Independence Day are inscrutable to me. This short suite is one of the few to so deliberately distort the samples from reality that they create a different sort of acoustic environment -- disturbed, energetic, almost pathological. Noah's familiar tonality slips out from underneath, leaving a tangle of pitches and racing noises. Know the endless effect of James Tenney's For Ann, Rising? That's here, except from a filled-up, distended acoustic viewpoint. Instead of being carried up in meditative simplicity, the sound races ahead and only grabs onto its tonal carpet in the last seconds.
Wrapping up the collection is Free Speech, instantly recognizable with the voice of Chris Mann. It's music that almost writes itself out of his expressive voice. A minute's worth of Chris's sound poetry was distributed online in the very early days by Larry Polansky and the resulting minute-long compositions were collected into a double CD, The Frog Peak Collaborations Project. That a single minute can be so transformed explains the richness of Chris's voice, and Noah's final (and sample-accompanied) creation -- syllables without meaning engaging in discussion with acoustic instruments (Monique Buzzarté again, along with Al Margolis on clarinet) and a bundle of samples.
My fondness for Noah's music is without exception because, whether or not it has flaws, it always opens doors. Just when I think, "Oh, this is the same thing" or "I don't get that at all" or "Please, do something different!" it becomes clear that each creation has a unique perspective and that the use of his hyper-performers is not just a style but a means of composing musical expression that is absolutely new. There are no clear reference points, and as he hears himself making them, he kicks them out from under the music. The trouble with Noah's music is the same for the listener: a lack of sufficient reference points means one has to commit to listening. It refuses to open up to casual attention.
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I promised the journal from our residency in Nodar. Here is the seventh installment. Please write to me if you want a copy of the full journal in PDF format with photos.
Friday, April 20
The past day has been full. Although the interview with Piedade (Maria de Piedade Marines da Costa Tavares) didn't happen again yesterday--she is reluctant to invite us in--Donzília and her mother were more than ready. But before that, Luis couldn't find Piedade so we dropped in on Nazaré (Piedade's daughter) and Fernando, who was just arriving with fresh fish in the net. The pair of them had taken over the bar, which accounts for the home-made liquor, but unlike her father, weren't prepared to be there every hour of day and night for a few customers. They had to find other work, and the bar closed.
Nazaré was delighted to visit with us, and since the fish were spawning, she squeezed each one of them in the bucket to determine males from females. Gales of laughter exploded from her every time. "Eh, this one piss, this one have eggs. Male, female. Oh, more piss!" as she barely missed my right arm with the spray. The sight did not charm Stevie, who later hoped that the invitation to join them for dinner tonight didn't mean eating whole fish, head to tail, contents included.
Fish has indeed made its appearance. Thursday's lunch was in fact squid, plus salad (which is usually salted, a bit odd to my taste), bread and wine--followed by Manuela walking around the house as a ghost in a blue and white sheet. I'm not quite sure the how or why of that. Tia took us up for potatoes for our turn at cooking dinner tonight, and also gathered walnuts into her dress from a huge store of them in the barn. Walnuts grow wild in the area. Later back outside, the old woman Laurinda was washing clothes at the main basin, and others were gathered for conversation after we drew Nazaré out of her house to ask where her mother might be. It was another excuse for everyone nearby to stop and talk, which is a delightful feature of a town this small. Eventually we found Piedade, who was still reluctant to be interviewed or sing for us. She told us a little of her history and her visits to children in Toronto, and then we left her to her ailing husband. On the other hand, Donzília and her mother sat right down to sing--one after another, some twenty or more songs. Her mother's voice was crackly when she spoke, but absolutely clear and smooth when she started to sing. Despite Donzília's superior musicianship, it was her mother who was clearly in charge of the singing.
By the time we arrived home to make dinner--we were relieving Manuela for the night--it was nearly ten o'clock. Stevie had made bread early in the morning, so we spun around cooking potato leek soup from scratch, and grilled cheese on Stevie's dinner bread with two local cheeses, along with prosciutto, tomato and onion (separately in consideration of Aaron). Cristina had already made Spanish omelet with thin potato slices, there were roasted peppers (sweet and hot), and there was, of course, the wine, which Aaron and Cristina ventured to get. No music was playing during dinner, but previously there had been a variety of jazz, and afterwards, of all things, Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, which Aaron said was worth hearing once, but he was glad he didn't have to hear it again. He is of that certain age, the age of students composer John McGuire had complained about during his Columbia teaching tenure. I had been listening to Manuela's extended voice pieces, so put on The Moon and part of Spammung, both of which she found intriguing; perhaps we'll get to do some extended voice improvisation in the next few days.
The night settled in quickly, and we all seemed to head for bed about the same time, just after midnight.
This morning was my first hike since the river fall, and the ribs and muscles and back were still aching but no longer feeling injured in that yer-gonna-break-it-again sense. After passing grape vines on Rua do Arco--which had gone from sticks to lush vines in just the past ten days--we walked up the cobbled street past the water supply and then across the upper grassy path above the goat barn, and westward on the stony trail along the wide sweep of the hills.
Flora in the area is remarkable--yellow daisy-like flowers, ground violets, ajuga, columbine, even a jack-in-the-pulpit by the riverside. There are hanging violets, abundant gorse, and in the high hills expanses of lavender heather. Curious white flowers with yellow centers abounded, and grass clumps and cactus dotted the dry hillsides where fire-dead pines still stood. The eucalyptus had grown blue in the recent sun and rain, and was very aromatic, releasing its scent when we climbed over the trunks. As we walked we could see Nodar and its bridge recede and the peninsula outlined by the river take shape. The going was fairly gentle, except for one vertical rise a few hundred feet at forty-five degrees straight up along the spine of one hill--probably just a good goat path as it had been the other day, and certainly not thrilling for a first-time post-injury hiker. We made it to the top as the complete terraced view of Parada de Ester became visible, and then to the paved road that led from Nodar up to Sequeiros on the east and Ameixosa on the west, where we walked a mile to the path down to the quartz outcropping, listening to the calls of cuckoos mixed with the approximate hourly church bells along the way.
It was beautiful, and there were quartz crystals to be found strewn among the naturally fractured boulders. We collected some crystals (the more brilliant ones still buried under the soil), sat down on the gleaming rocks to rest for a while in the hot sun, then heading down the steep, water-carved cleft to the river. In about a half-hour's worth of switchbacks, deep ruts and scree, we arrived at the riverbank, and followed the trail Stevie had located the other day until it rose over some rock shelves where we found the familiar path back to the 'goat fork' and the Nodar house.
Lunch was almost ready--spaghetti, meat patties and cheese, Stevie's bread, and wine. Tia visited, but (as we learned later) would not sit to join us, although in a moment that surprised everyone, she did accept a package of Stevie's two breads. After we had eaten, Luis and Cristina returned from postering in Parada de Ester (announcing the final presentation of this session of Binaural Media) and Aaron also returned from his daily soundwalk. Luis announced that during their time walking around Parada, he had met some women who would organize the singing of songs for us--including birth songs, for the first time--in town tomorrow night. The women of Sequeiros occasionally met to sing the songs, and this was a rare opportunity for them to share the songs with others.
Miecha the cat has been sick for a few days. There are lots of dogs and cats in the area, most of the former owned by the goatherd, and they are well trained. Yesterday, when two files of goats were returning, two dogs stood guard on the upper path for nearly a half hour until they were told all was safe. The strays are all thin; there is not much to eat, and little hunting for the cats. A thin grey comes by occasionally and Manuela offers him some scraps, but a thief cat--Ladrone, she calls him--often slips into the house to steal food. Miecha got into a fight with him, hurt her legs, and has been hunkered in our bedroom for the past few days. The vet is coming tomorrow.
A storm swept in, and the power is now flickering in the house. It has just gone out. Now it's out again.
Back. Out. Pausa.
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