“I have observed that there are people who are interested in what’s new and what’s adventurous, and there are people who are more interested in deeply delving into what’s familiar,” says Susan Hartzell, a long-time member of the SFCMP board of directors. Susan attends San Francisco Contemporary Music Players’ concerts with her husband, Harry, and with friends whom they have introduced to the group over the years. “We can’t force people to like new music,” she observes, “but we can expose people to new things, and let them decide for themselves. Even if it’s not for you, it’s important for the community, it’s important for the culture, to keep new music going, to encourage composers who are creating new art.”
Susan was introduced to music the way many have been, by starting piano lessons as a little girl. In 4th grade, thanks to an inspiring school music teacher, she fell in love with the violin. A family friend gave her his instrument, and she convinced her parents to let her have violin lessons, too. Singing in church and school choirs rounded out her musical experiences through her school years, and she is still a member of a choral society.
Evolution of “Evenings on the Roof”
While Susan’s family was living in Southern California during the Second World War, her parents had musician friends who introduced them to the flourishing new music scene in the Los Angeles area. One series they regularly attended, “Evenings on the Roof,” featured many of the culturally significant musicians of the émigré community. Susan would go to concerts with her parents when a friend of theirs was performing as a soloist, and she credits those experiences with whetting her appetite for new music. When Susan was 12 years old, her family moved to the New York City area, where art played a big role in their outings, especially trips to the MOMA. Susan’s mother was always curious about new art and music, and she communicated her excitement to her daughter. Susan grew up with a sense that new art and music were important and rewarding.
When Susan met her husband Harry, who also came from a family with a passion for music, they enjoyed listening to the opera on the radio and attending concerts together, and Harry became a new-music fan, too.
During a college summer working at the Aspen Institute, Susan had met the soprano Phyllis Curtin. Later, in Boston, she and Harry attended an afternoon new-music recital that Ms Curtin gave in a small hall at MIT, followed by an evening performance by the Metropolitan Opera star Renata Tebaldi at Symphony Hall. Susan remembers the telling contrast between the two audiences. Ms Curtin received enthusiastic applause; Tebaldi was showered with ovations and bouquets by adoring fans.
1985 poster by Walter Chardak Bercu Design
After Susan and Harry moved to the Bay Area, they pursued their interest in modern art by becoming members of SFMOMA. A brochure from the museum invited them to “Listen to Modern Art” by attending SF Contemporary Music Players’ concerts on Monday evenings in the Green Room at the War Memorial Veteran’s Building. They loved the idea of getting a babysitter for their kids and enjoying a “twofer:” attending a concert in the Green Room and seeing art during the extended intermission.
SFCMP c. 1988
Susan got hooked on the experience of hearing contemporary music in the intimate setting that the Green Room provided. She recalls many memorable moments with the organization. When she first heard a Morton Feldman piece, she admits, ““At first, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it!” Now Feldman’s work has become a favorite. SFCMP provided her first experiences of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and other seminal works, some of which were “totally puzzling” and others easily accessible.
Rehearsal with John Cage
Susan especially remembers a performance of John Cage’s “Music for Flowerpot,” in which Willie Winant was required to drop the flower pot right on the beat. “When it shattered,” she says, “I realized how much fun there was to be had, as well as how much stimulation!” One of the joys of subscribing to SFCMP was sharing the concerts with Susan’s parents, who had moved to the Bay Area. It brought their common interest in contemporary music full circle. When her mother passed away, Susan decided to honor her by sponsoring a piece in her memory. They had both especially loved the work of Lou Harrison, so Susan underwrote a performance of his Symfoni #13. It seemed a fitting tribute to the woman who had introduced her to the joys of new music.
For Susan and Harry, one of the rewarding aspects of supporting the SF Contemporary Music Players is the connection they feel to a community that shares their interest in contemporary music—both their fellow audience members and also the Players, with whom they have become familiar over the years. During the ten years that Susan has served on the board, different artistic and executive directors have brought different styles to the organization. She is glad to see, however, that the organization has stayed true to its mission, and that the players of the ensemble have remained loyal, continuing to present challenging concerts at the highest level. Now, with Steven Schick at the helm, she is excited to see what the future will bring for this venerable but ever-new Bay Area treasure.
Grounded in our belief that contemporary music has the potential to engage even community members who have no closeness to classical music per se, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) deploys an inclusive overall strategy to engage collaborative projects that are engaging, welcoming, valued, and above all, authentic. A recent example of this was our very-successful October 2012 John Cage Musicircus, realized in partnership with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. We welcomed over 900 people to the event, and began a deeper engagement with our community. In October, 2013, we served as the lead professional ensemble for the massive Crissy Broadcast, which attracted thousands of individuals for a world premiere of a site-specific work by composer Lisa Bielawa.
The success of these large-scale outreach events informs our plan forward for Project Anton.
As part of our March, 2014 concert, Project Anton uses the past as a touchpoint for defining the present. It centers around a new multimedia work by Bay Area composer Jaroslaw Kapuscinski: Pointing Twice. This new piece, for gramophone soloist, nine musicians, video/computer operator and conductor is itself being commissioned as a response to Anton Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24, also on the concert.
The line of inquiry that interests us in working with young artists mimics the inquiry of the composer. Jarek wants to listen to Webern’s iconic work and interpret a response to it at the compositional level. We seek to construct a parallel creative process with Bay Area youth groups to consider and co-create their own responses to the Webern work. We welcome the “clash of cultures” that can emerge when “non-initiates” to twelve-tone music are invited to respond to it. To put it bluntly, we will begin from a frame of “what does this dead, white, male, European composer possibly have to say to interest me, 21st century urban kid?”
It is our hope that through a process of introduction, immersion, and co-creation, new stylistic dialogue can exist that goes beyond anything Anton Webern could have possibly imagined — but that also brings benefit, enjoyment, and esthetic questioning (and answering) to our young artist collaborators.
Why is SFCMP Interested in this process?
One of our core beliefs at SFCMP is that contemporary music has the potential to engage many members of our community, even if they don’t have a stated affinity for classical music. It is to our advantage that the public at-large has many emotive and indirect aesthetic/”crossover” connections to new music (through jazz, pop, world, and other music forms, as well as interdisciplinary and visual arts), even if they do not necessarily have experiential ones. It’s our aim to leverage this “esthetic upside” and forge a place at the community table for new music.
We also consider it to our advantage that new music has more “crossover appeal” in many instances – thanks to electronic music, tribal/ethnic polyrhythms, trance music, tape loops and other techniques that pop and underground culture have adopted from 20th century maverick composers. Some audiences will never feel comfortable in a strict concert hall experience, and they shouldn’t be made to feel they have to. Our interest is in meeting audiences “where they live” through our field of new music, and seeing what interesting results these encounters can lead to. That’s the beauty and power of art in our landscape today.
In working with our wonderful and experienced partners at ArtSeed, we seek to engage youth who have no a priori connection to Webern’s classical tradition (twelve-tone/atonal music). Often considered a “difficult” genre within 20th century classical music forms, dodecaphonic music (to use the precise term) actually holds interesting promise and relevance in our age, where dissonance, ”noise rock,” rap, electronica, and other popular styles make up an important part of the youth landscape.
Here’s how our Artistic Director Steven Schick frames the line of inquiry:
Anton Webern lived in an impossibly complicated world. His country in Europe had been in the middle of not just one, but two world wars. Towards the end of life, everywhere he looked there was rubble, destruction, enormous poverty, and chaos. How does an artist deal with a world that is spinning out of control? How do you raise your voice above the noise? Do those sound like questions we could ask ourselves today? yes, perhaps there are more than a few similarities to early 21st America — the chaos, the competition for space, wars and other social problems. How would you make yourself be heard?
Webern did two things as a composer to make himself be heard: the first is that he didn’t try to drown out the noise by making music that was extremely loud or aggressive. Instead he responded by creating quite soft and gentle music, usually in very short pieces for pretty sweet sounding instruments. Maybe he was saying that when you can’t scream louder than everyone else, you can make yourself heard by whispering.
The second is that he created hyper-organized music. He used several systems organize and structure his music but the most famous one was called “12 tone music.” It’s really pretty simple. You write a sequence of twelve different notes — all the notes of the chromatic scale — and number them 1 through 12. Then you use them in order. You can also reverse the order or play other mathematical games with the ordering of the notes. And it does really seem like a game. At the end though everything in a piece is related to the original order of the notes. That mean that there is a sense of belonging among the notes — a sure knowledge of what should go where.
Does that sound overly calculating? Maybe it does. But imagine living in a world where nothing made sense, where random violence and chaos waited around every corner. Webern made music — and saved his sanity — by making extremely orderly music. However loud and crazy it was in the world, he could find peace an a beautifully and elegantly ordered inner world.
Did the kids ever enjoy making up their own games with Steven Schick and our Program Director Mason Dille!! One of those went something like this: “Imagine having a conversation using only three words at a time.” Such is the spirit of Webern’s compositions, put into a context that young people can not only understand, but enjoy — and perhaps even teach others about?!
In the workshops, the students are guided by the two organizations’ collaborative creative team through an inquiry-based creative process that will be fueled by their exposure to: 1) the original Webern Concerto, 2) detailed visual arts-based workshops with ArtSeed and SFCMP staff, 3) exposure to the performing artists’ creative process (“building a concert” via rehearsals), 4) ongoing contact with SFCMP staff in a teaching role; and importantly 5) the students’ own artistic inquiry and reaction.
ArtSeed is developing and delivering a series of 10 school-based workshops at the SF Public Montessori School in fall, 2013 around the life and work of composer Anton Webern. Students will be led through an introduction to Webern’s work and aesthetic, and will be led by ArtSeed instructors in creating visual art works in “response” to the work and musical movement.
Our project will culminate in two public performances of Pointing Twice on March 24, 2013, with the World Premiere at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum in San Francisco preceded by a “Contemporary Insights” educational performance for the public the day before. The artwork by the young artists will be scanned by ArtSeed staff and integrated into the evening through projection. Physical exhibitions of the children’s artwork are being explored. Participating students and their parents will be invited to dress rehearsals and the concert evening.
Evaluative measurements exist across three outcome areas: 1) artistic quality and impact; 2) audience experience and institutional value; and 3) broad community awareness, appreciation, and learning in the arts (i.e. “new audiences” and educational outreach).
Over the past 25 years, Michael Gordon has produced a strikingly diverse body of work, ranging from large-scale pieces for high-energy ensembles to major orchestral commissions to works conceived specifically for the recording studio. Transcending categorization, this music represents the collision of mysterious introspection and brutal directness.
Gordon’s music merges subtle rhythmic invention with incredible power embodying, in the words of The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, “the fury of punk rock, the nervous brilliance of free jazz and the intransigence of classical modernism.” Deeply passionate about the sonic potential of the traditional orchestra, Gordon’s orchestral works include Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a radical reworking of the original, commissioned by the 2006 Beethoven Festival in Bonn and premiered by Jonathon Nott and the Bamberger Symphony; and Sunshine of your Love, written for over 100 instruments divided into four microtonally tuned groups. Under the baton of composer/conductor John Adams, The Ensemble Modern Orchestra toured Sunshine of your Love to seven European capitals in 1999. Gordon’s string orchestra piece Weather was commissioned by the Siemens Foundation Kultur Program, and after its tour was recorded and released on Nonesuch to great critical and popular success. His interest in exploring various sound textures has led him to create chamber works that distort traditional classical instruments with electronic effects and guitar pedals, including Potassium for the Kronos Quartet and Industryfor cellist Maya Beiser. Also for Kronos, The Sad Park, written in 2006, uses the voices of child witnesses to September 11th as its subject. Gordon’s monumental, 52-minute Trance, originally written for the UK-based group Icebreaker, was debuted in 1997 and recently performed twice in New York City by the ensemble Signal.
Forged in Moscow and refined in London, composer Elena Langer’s music intermingles a contemporary practice with a rich tradition drawn from her Russian upbringing. The product of an imaginative and fearless exploration of thoughtfully conceived sonic landscape, Langer’s work traverses between tumult and the sublime. Her facility with figuration animates the texture of her music with the characteristic rhythms of her Russian homeland, complemented by a musical grammar drawing on the color and bombast inherited from the experimentations of the post-modern era. At times, her music is patient, playing in a sonic-space between well defined and complimentary emotive poles, and at other times, it represents an unabashed, raw emotional energy. Langer’s work evokes an exquisite, sacred stillness struggling to predominate against a discordant and cacophonous present. One could say Langer’s music is a study and reflection of our modern world.
Elena Langer was born in Moscow, coming of age during the decline of the Soviet era. Enrolling at Gnessin Music College, she studied musicology and piano before entering the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory where she pursued composition with Yuri Vorontsov. In 1999 she moved to London, entering graduate studies at the Royal College of Music under the tutelage of composer Julian Anderson. She followed these studies with a doctorate prepared at the Royal Academy of Music under composer Simon Bainbridge. In 2002-03 Langer became the first Jerwood composer-in-residence at Almeida Theatre, London, during which time she composed two short operas, Ariadne (2002) and Girl of Sand (2003), both based on librettos by the poet Glyn Maxwell. Ariadne went on to further performances at Tanglewood Music Center as well as the Britten and Strauss Festival in Aldeburgh, where the opera won the Priaulx Rainier Prize in 2003.
1) What the benefits of purchasing a SFCMP Season Subscription?
– Deeply discounted ticket prices
– Preferred seating (subscribers’ seating area)
– First news about special events and offers
– Peace of mind & lack of hassle
2) I don’t want to purchase online. Can I just order by mail?
If you prefer to purchase tickets by mail, please send a check for $250 for each Nine-Pack or $170 for each Six-Pack to: SFCMP, 55 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA 94102. Mail orders include a nominal surcharge to cover handling fees.
3) I only want to purchase a Six-Pack. How can I indicate which concerts I want to attend?
– We will contact you directly after your online purchase to confirm which concerts you wish to attend.
4) I am not happy with paperless ticketing. Can’t you just mail me my tickets?
– Yes we can mail printed tickets to any subscriber who prefers this option. Select “will call” during the checkout process, and we’ll contact you after your purchase to inquire if you would like printed tickets.
5) When will my printed tickets arrive?
We will mail tickets within four business days of receiving your order. Subscriptions purchased less than a week before the concert will be held at the door.
6) When do single tickets go on sale?
They are on sale now! You can choose to have your tickets sent to you or paperless ticketing. Do note that if you purchase a single ticket less than a week before the concert, Brown Paper Tickets will not be able to ensure your mailed ticket will be received in time, so opt for paperless ticketing in that case.
7) What about the Steven Schick “Origins” concert? Why can’t I buy that online as part of my subscription?
– This is a special concert event and not part of our “subscription series.” All ticketing for that event is through JCCSF: www.jccsf.org/tickets. Tickets are $30, $40 and VIP reception tickets are $100.
8) I want to add a contribution to SFCMP when I place my order. How can I do that?
– Thank you! There’s a box right on the order page where you can add a charitable donation.
Featuring the London-based Russian composer Elena Langer’s Two Cat Songs (2010), for voice, piano, and cello sung by local soprano Amy Foote, and Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon’s 2010 work Timber – a percussive tour de force for six musicians playing amplified lengths of lumber. Based on the simantras used by Eastern Orthodox monks, these instruments will be custom-built for this performance.
“Beyond the ever-shifting rhythmic crosscurrents that give the music its vigor and hypnotic intensity, Timber also plays on tones unique to each plank…overtones hover and fuse, conjuring eerie moans and radiant coronas.” (Steve Smith, New York Times)
As SFCMP prepares for a performance of Hive, we asked composer Evan Ziporyn about the concert’s namesake piece:
On the list of works on your website, the first section is labeled as “Works for Clarinet/Bass Clarinet,” but many of the pieces, includingHive, appear in other sections as well. Of course, since you play Clarinet yourself this isn’t all that surprising, but could you talk a bit about how you think about these works as somehow distinct from the other pieces with which they share “secondary” categories?
Mainly this is navigational – my default job description is ‘composer/clarinetist,’ many of my works are for clarinet, so a significant number of visitors to the site are clarinetists – putting that section first is the equivalent of displaying something in the front of a store – if this is what you’re here for, you need look no further! Of course it also reflects something about my music, the depth of my relationship to the instrument, technically and personally.
While writing for only wind instruments is maybe not all that unusual, it’s also not an ensemble type that many people are particularly familiar with, and in fact Hive is the only piece of its kind (in terms of instrumentation) that we’ll be featuring in our programming for this season. Could you talk about how you approach the wind ensemble and perhaps what you find particularly interesting and unique about these instruments?
This is really a continuation of the last answer. For years I thought of the solo clarinet pieces as self-portraits; it at first took me by surprise the other musicians would want to play them. (Coincidentally one of the first players who approached me years ago was Jeff Anderle, he’s played several of my pieces brilliantly, so it’s great to have him be part of this performance). I had to find a way to codify my idiosyncratic techniques, find notations and alternate fingers, set aspects that in my own performance could be more open, etc. Hivewas a commission from another ‘legit’ player who has performed my music extremely well, Ted Schoen of Minnesota. The other members of the original group were two extremely fine orchestral players, principals in St. Paul and Atlanta. Classical clarinet, wind ensembles, and clarinet choirs were a large part of my youth, but over the years I had come to feel like an outsider in that world. So the fact that they wanted to do this was very important to me – an opportunity to reconnect to that community and to that style of playing, to find a way to meaningfully merge our sensibilities. I felt like I was returning to my hive after a very long day out, bringing back nectar and pollen from the outside world.
Continuing somewhat with this thread of interest in unique sound-worlds, could you talk a little bit about how your experience with Gamelan music shapes your compositional style?
I began studying Balinese gamelan over 30 years ago; and I’ve led my own ensemble and composed for it for over 20 years – so at this point it feels like part of the DNA – hard to know where to even begin! Direct evocations and quotes aside (though these almost always seep in), I suppose it’s a cyclical orientation, a love of syncopation, an emphasis on ensemble interaction, and an awareness of the visceral and the beautiful. That would be the musical side of it. There are also community aspects of gamelan – both how the ensemble works and how it fits into Balinese society – that I find continually instructive and inspiring. These have been equally important to me in shaping my musical activities over the years.
Finally, in the notes for Hive you mention that the piece is in part derived from your experiences as an amateur bee-keeper. Could you talk about your decision to use bees as the jumping off point for this piece? Did you decide to start keeping bees knowing that it would inform your music?
My wife and I had begun keeping bees in 2007, right around the time this piece was commissioned. Like many non-musical avocations – chess or child-rearing, to name too – it opens up entirely new ways of thinking about the world – sometimes small observations, sometimes life-changing epiphanies. In this case it was somewhere in between – there is something so ‘other’ about bee society, it is one thing to know this in the abstract, quite another to experience it in an ongoing and interactive way, dealing with this bizarre alien culture (which incidentally has the ability to kill you) in a box in your back yard. That said, the meaning of bee life is structural and formal – the life cycle, the rhythm of their interaction, the way they work together. All fueled by a daily hunt for the sensuous. You will notice how well that corresponds to the list in the previous answer…so how could I resist
In preparation for the World Premiere of his SFCMP commissioned Rabbit Hole, Mark Applebaum provides some insight towards the bizarre world of the piece:
There seem to be two kinds of musicians. The first type says, “This is what I do; write me something like that.” The second type says, “This is what I do; please (please!) challenge me to do something different.” To my mind, Steve Schick, is decidedly in the second category.
So when Steve asked me to compose for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players I felt at liberty to pursue an astonishingly ridiculous idea I had been mulling for almost two decades: to write a piece of music based on page turns. Until Rabbit Hole the “page turn piece” was only an absurd mental musing provoked by a logistical dilemma: annoyed by the challenges of finding reasonable moments for players to turn the pages of their parts (due to my habit of composing dense, overly prolix music that keeps the arms constantly engaged) I vowed to one day compose the page turns first—the page turn as principal musical material. I would then compose the mute changes for brass instruments and the mallet changes for percussionists. Precise rhythmic moments would be identified for trading the alto flute and piccolo, for adjusting the violin bow’s tension, for oiling a trumpet valve, for picking up claves and putting them down, and so on. There would even be composed states of attentiveness: high for body language suggesting imminent sonic production; medium for tracking musical flow in a slightly relaxed state; and low to describe what the body might do during a full movement of rest. The very last thing to be determined, and only grudgingly, would be pitches and rhythms.
What was once an asinine concept has been realized as the serious—or at least fastidious—musical enterprise that is this piece. (It may still be asinine.) I recognize the seeming irrationality of a project that eschews the utility of conventional musical materials and replaces them with structures based on musical marginalia. The result may make you smile cheerfully or shake your head in exasperated disbelief, or both. But it’s not supposed to be comedic. It aspires to the absurd side of the ludic.
Exploring this particular rabbit hole appealed to me for four main reasons:
First, the piece makes virtually no sound. Increasingly I’ve become annoyed that music, for most people, seems to demand sound. Must it? Some of my recent pieces have veered away from that supposition, whether through the addition of increasingly predominant visual elements (e.g. Concerto for Florist and Orchestra, Aphasia for hand gestures synchronized to sound, Echolalia consisting of 22 Dadaist rituals, the Mouseketier sound-sculpture which functions as both an instrument and as visual art), or through the active suppression of prescribed sound in the compositional phase in order to invoke real or imagined sound in performance (e.g. Tlön for three conductors and no players, The Metaphysics of Notation—a 72-foot graphic score without instruction).
Second, the Eurocentric preoccupation with pitch as the (tediously) foremost parameter is subverted, simply sidestepped. (The players do get to play exciting, conventionally virtuosic, and highly mercurial contrapuntal passages made up of idiomatic and extended techniques with precise—and lovingly chosen—pitches. But, perversely, the players are asked to play at the impossible dynamic ppppp—a gorgeous sound, if paradoxically compressed, concentrated, and squashed.)
Third, the focus becomes a theater made up of ancillary musical praxis, the ritualistic margins of performance culture, a way to floodlight neglected edges of what Christopher Small inclusively calls musicking. (By the way, I’d hate for actors to perform this piece. This is a kind of music, however weird, for musicians—special, intrepid ones who are not insulted by an invocation to care about things that are not central to their conservatory training.)
Finally, the logistics should be eminently practical. In theory, this should be a piece that works easily. After all, the germinal impulse was to obviate difficult page turns and patronize the incidence of “extra-musical” actions.
Regrettably this is not a practical piece after all. There are 90 page turns (everyone reads from full 180-page scores in which each page has a five-second duration—but with no two pages made up of the same meter and tempo arrangements, thereby creating a deliberate choreography of conduction). Furthermore, it is preposterously swollen with events—picking up mallets, changing mutes, etc.—each at a precisely specified time. Moreover, additional categories of material crept in, ones that seem ancillary but are in fact fundamental: fussy hand gestures; frequent physical relocation; and the migration of the printed score to the forearm as players read from custom-made wristwatches (responding to various glyphs as the second hand passes over them).
There is indeed something perplexing about a piece whose counterpoint demands that the audience ask, at a given moment, “Should I pay attention to the cello’s nearly inaudible melody, or to the percussionist’s lifting of an instrument (which will not be played, by the way), or to the flutist who just started walking to another position on stage?”
And some will be inclined to ask “Is it even music?” I’m convinced that this it not the right question. The question should be: “Is it interesting?”
Increasingly I’ve pursued the things that seem intriguing to me, even when, as artistic formulations, their likeness to familiar models—those traditionally defined pieces that one is supposed to make as a composer (beyond which a judgment of dilettantism or lunacy is invited)—is tenuous. Becoming unhinged from a paradigm can be pretty interesting. Or, at the very least, it encourages a trip down a rabbit hole which, however terrifying (it may never end…there may be no return…), is rarely boring.
* * *
Rabbit Hole, scored for octet of flute, trumpet, three percussion, violin, viola, and cello, is affectionately dedicated, with gratitude, to Steven Schick, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players director and intrepid collaborator. It was commissioned through Meet the Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA program, which is made possible by generous support from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund.
Rabbit Hole will be featured in our Third Subscription Series Concert of the same name. Find more information here
As SFCMP prepares to perform I’m Worried Now But I Won’t Be Worried Long, we asked composer Eve Beglarian about the piece:
It’s hard not to fall in love with the title of the piece we’ll be hearing tonight, and it seems that it’s part of a current running throughout a number of your compositions in which the titles deal with anticipation or acknowledging a distance of time or space in these strangely specific and personal yet ultimately ambiguous ways – How I Like That Time, I Am Writing To You From a Far-Off Country, I Will Not Be Sad in This World are some that seem to share in the game of I’m Worried Now, But I Wont Be Worried Long. Could you talk about the connections (if there are any) between these pieces and perhaps offer some insight towards how this current flows in your very large body of works?
It happens that in the last two pieces you mention, along with Worried Now, I’m using source material from traditional Armenian music, though in very different ways in each piece. The titles themselves come from a range of different places: How I Like That Time is a line from an interview about sex, I am writing to you from a far-off country is the title of the Belgian surrealist Henri Michaux’s poem that I set in the piece, I will not be sad in this world is the title of the Armenian song I am working with in that flute piece, and I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long comes from Charley Patton’s Down the Dirt Road Blues. I think it might be meaningful that all the titles are quotations from other people, not my own invention. While I always aim to make my work emotionally available to the listener — that’s why I’m writing it, after all — I am not exactly a confessional artist. It’s not really about me.
One of the most interesting things about pieces for a solo instrument and electronics is that it often becomes very easy to tell which “player” the sound is coming from, and in tonight’s piece one of the roles of the electronics seems to be that of an entirely distinct accompinamental ensemble. What is the relationship between the violin and the electronics in I’m Worried Now But I Wont Be Worried Long?
The original recording of leaky pipes in a bathroom at the Beijing Conservatory is the basis of the whole piece. The rhythm and sonorities grew from that material. Along with transformations of that bathroom recording, there are counter-melodies in the pre-recorded track that flesh out a sort of hazy quartet that accompanies the live violinist. Sometimes some of those parts are performed live. The delay on the live violin lines up with the delay on some of the pre-recorded tracks as well, so perhaps the relation of live vs. recorded in this piece is malleable.
Approaching your music from a fairly broader angle, you’ve been identified a number of times as a post-minimalist composer, and it’s not difficult to hear qualities associated with the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass in I’m Worried Now But I’m Not Worried Long. How do you place yourself in terms of the legacy that this title implies? How do you approach the minimalist language when writing music?
Lately, I’ve been mulling over Robert Alter’s analysis of the structure of repetition in the Psalms. Repetition isn’t just simple parallelism, but a growth and transformation, a deepening of the idea that’s nominally repeated. There’s a through line in Worried Now that for me is quite different from the purity and clarity of classic minimalism. But that’s true of the later music of Reich and Glass as well, of course. Purity and clarity only take you so far, then everything gets messy again.
I’m Worried Now But I Won’t Be Worried Long will be performed on Monday, February 25th at 8pm (more information).
Please enjoy a sneak-peek into our Artistic Director Steven Schick’s notes for our February 22, Rabbit Hole program.
It’s springtime. Or at least it is in Southern California, where I am writing these words. With desert flowers in the offing and blooming jacaranda not far behind, our attention turns to things that grow.
Or, in the case of this concert, to things that change.
On the surface tonight’s concert looks like a crazy quilt of divergences, but dig a little deeper and you’ll note that everything grows from a common ground. All of these pieces started from a remarkably similar impulse, but each has grown in its own way. To torture the metaphor a bit more, from the same soil will grow fantastically varied flowers.
Tonight we present five composers. Each is rooted in a particular branch of the American experimentalist tradition. Each was an accomplished performer before becoming a composer. And for each, the elaboration of a known tradition has been guided by forces external to that tradition. Those external forces are what Robertson Davies has referred to as the “Fifth Business:” they are catalysts designed to destabilize an otherwise balanced system. Without such a force nothing can change; with it everything does.
Take Paul Dresher for example. Paul has been a central figure in the Bay Area music scene since he relocated here after his studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he worked with Robert Erickson. The Erickson philosophy, with no small influence from Harry Partch, Lou Harrison and musical visionaries from African and Asian traditions, led Dresher along a path of musical invention and instrument fabrication that has made him an iconic and profoundly influential West Coast composer. The instrument you’ll hear tonight, the “quadrachord,” is just one of his many inventions. But Paul has also worked as much in the theater as he has in the concert hall. And his theatrical disposition has led him to understand not just how music sounds but also how it acts. The result is a lively, virtuosic, and fully embodied variation on the California experimentalists.
Iconoclast, intellectual, and sensualist, Eve Beglarian, is represented by I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long, a brief but alluring work for solo violinist and a pre-recorded tape of the processed sounds of leaky pipes. If the standard trope of American Experimentalists has been, “it’s all about the sound,” Beglarian’s take on it may well have be, “it’s all about the experience of the sound.” For Eve, music is about what happens to you when you listen. Her most effective pieces are always the most affecting ones. This is a small-ish sample, but imagine what can happen when she uses a big canvas. For more see her evening-length piece for the cellist Maya Beiser or her continuing musical essays on a one-woman, human-powered trip she made down the length of the Mississippi River in 2009.
Stuart Smith’s version of the American impulse comes from the other side of the country. His work has drawn self-consciously on the tradition of American Transcendentalism. Indeed much of his work has been informed by a world-view that places humans and nature in correlative resonance. Beyond that a long series of pieces written for remarkably similar instrumentation alludes to Emerson and Thoreau. Note his set of eleven “Links” for vibraphone solo spanning more than twenty years. Smith calls these works “essays,” and they vary so little from one another in terms of color, texture and musical language that they function more as journal entries than as pieces of music. With Smith’s music the outlying force is his love of jazz and his willingness to quote it overtly, both as material and inspiration. Pinetop for piano solo refers to Pinetop Perkins, who lived nearly a hundred years and influenced practically everyone who has played any kind of blues or rock music.
No simple categorization of George Lewis is possible. But if you trace his roots back far enough they will lead you to the trombone and to the communal musical-making of the African American tradition. But that’s just the beginning. On a recent trip abroad I had to fill out a visa form. When I got to the line where I listed my occupation, I suddenly smiled and thought of George. What would he do here? There was not a box for: scholar, designer of nearly the first real-time interface between performers and computers, teacher, advocate of musical communities of extraordinary diversity, performer, and more recently and very fruitfully, composer. George is all of the above and has touched nearly every area of music and nearly every musician I know. We are very pleased to give the first performance of his latest work, Hexis.
My first act as Artistic Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players was to ask Mark Applebaum to write a piece for us. I told the board to consider the commission “truth in advertising.” I wanted to SFCMP to retain the identity of its distinguished past while aggressively re-evaluating the impact of that past on the future. I knew that Mark would write our anthem. Rabbit Hole did not disappoint. It is a work firmly rooted in the most rigorous practices of contemporary music, but one that produces a singularly ludic and seemingly undirected flow of events. It could have been written by one of the Marx brothers if he had studied with Webern and Derrida. It is a piece full of detail: from sounds that are almost but not quite played, to highly virtuosic instrumental passages, detailed stage movements, dada-esque hand signals, and special wristwatches (I am not kidding.) You will soon experience it, so there is no reason to describe it further. Suffice to say that it is extremely aptly named.
Yes, thoughts have turned to spring: to the way we start as one thing and become something else. It’s the becoming that’s so sweet, the way that things, even when you think you know them well, can become something unexpected. One of the fondest memories I have of my father was watching him walk out onto the black plowed earth of our Iowa farm and sniff the warming spring air. “We’ll plant now,” he announced, and with that everything began to change.
We send our warm thanks and vernal greetings to the four wonderful composers on tonight’s program and to you, our intrepid listeners.
Our Oberlin Winter Intern, Duncan Reilly, has been with us since the beginning of the new year. For this, his final week of the internship, Duncan will share some observations about the countdown to concert day.
When I first came to work for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, I, not being a classical musician, was under the impression that classical music concerts just sort of happened. Most groups playing classical music will go out of their way to entice my age group to their concerts through cheap tickets, targeted advertising, and interesting programming. If I were fulfilling my internly duties elsewhere in San Francisco, I would have jumped at the prospect of a ten dollar ticket to see a world-class ensemble performing the work of Steve Reich. I would likely have bought a ticket, seen the show, and paid the effort that goes into performing the music little mind. Fortunately, I have been working with the SFCMP for the past three weeks, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing (and contributing to) the preparations for January 28th’s Confirmation concert, as well as a few others. What follows is a production diary, with my thoughts and observations on how a SFCMP concert comes together.
January 21st (7 days until the concert) – Setting the Stage
I learned today that finding a venue isn’t something you do once for each concert and forget about. It’s a constant process to keep updated on all the available venues around the city, and to find out which ones are suitable for the concert in question. Every little thing has to be taken into account, from which ticketing service we’re allowed/required to use, to the possibility to host a reception after the concert, to whether we’ll even have a piano at the space. With a smaller ensemble, with no dedicated space, there’s no way to guarantee that we’ll have a place to play other than by scheduling way in advance and keeping a careful eye on cost. I was researching for a concert in November, but we’re already narrowing down a list of about twenty venues.
Finding the space isn’t everything, though. Even when you’ve already decided on a venue, everything that a concertgoer will take for granted on the night of the show needs to be locked down and figured out. Last week, I went to visit the venue for Confirmation, the beautifully decorated concert hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It’s the perfect venue for Music for 18 Musicians – there’s just enough baroque ornamentation to remind the audience of the piece’s classical roots, and just enough polished wood and acoustic paneling to reassure them that they aren’t in for stodgy traditionalism. To make the piece and the room work together takes coordination, though. Every movement of the set has to be coordinated, down to the last music stand. Perhaps a symphony orchestra would have this down to a science, but with a group like the San Francisco Contemporary Music players, who use unorthodox arrangements, experiment with staging, and never play the same concert twice in a row, there’s no room to get comfortable.
Music for 18 Musicians is perhaps one of the more complex pieces to stage that we could have chosen. The name is a bit of a misnomer — there will be more than twenty people on stage, all told. The instruments will range from percussion to voice, and incorporate a whopping four pianos. The effect can be hypnotic if done properly, but it relies on the ensemble’s ability to sound like one otherworldly instrument, and that in turn relies on the room being set up just right. With some planning, and a little bit of acoustic know-how provided by the conservatory staff, I think it’s fair to say that we’ll make it happen.
January 23rd (5 days until the concert) — Scores and Performances
Rehearsals for the concert started last night. It was my first chance to see the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players play contemporary music, a chance for which I was grateful after a day at the office. Sitting in the mostly empty auditorium at the San Francisco Conservatory, I listened to Artistic Director and percussionist Steven Schick lead a group of professional musicians and students through Music for 18 Musicians for their first time.
I was surprised, at first, that I could hear the problems he pointed out. I expected the piece to be a relatively simple undertaking, especially for the talented musicians that make up the SFCMP. No instrumental virtuosity is required to play the piece; there isn’t a melody in Music for 18 Musicians that any reasonably talented musician would have trouble with on their own. Putting it together was the first big challenge. With a piece as textural as this one, every musician has to hit their marks exactly or things will sound off. Though the piece allows the performers some freedom in how to perform it, everything has to be tight rhythmically. It really gave me an appreciation for how much effort goes into producing a concert, especially one of new music with complicated textures and rhythms.
When the rehearsal started out, things were a little ways from tight. As it progressed, though, I heard melodic lines start to interlock, and, as the sound technicians fiddled with the amplification, the performance took on the ethereal quality that Music for 18 Musicians shares with no other piece.
Perhaps part of this was just due to musicians getting more comfortable with the music. Even I, with no experience of classical music as a performer, could tell that playing Steve Reich is entirely different from anything else one might play, but as the musicians delved deeper into the score, something seemed to click. It wasn’t a single moment of “getting it,” but a process that had as much to do with understanding the other musicians as learning the score.
Of course, the other part was the input from Steve Schick. A veteran performer of Steve Reich’s music, Schick has a unique role in the playing of the piece. Music for 18 Musicians does not use a conductor in the traditional sense. Instead, the vibraphonist and the first clarinet share the duty of cuing the other musicians for transitions, and often take the initiative to move the ensemble on to the next section. Schick, only playing sporadically to cue the other musicians, was in a unique position to correct mistakes on the fly. As he moved around the space, correcting the more minor problems, I could hear the music actually improving as it happened. The ensemble had become a living, breathing entity, and it was ready to do big things.
January 24th (4 days until the concert) – Why Hold Concerts?
Though I’ve heard Music for 18 Musicians, Clapping Music,and Electric Counterpoint before, and I have recordings of them that I can listen to whenever I want, I always feel that it’s worth it to go see performances of them. It’s not because I always expect a performance to be better than a recording. In fact, it might be the exact opposite. A recording can, through multiple takes, recording studio sound, and creative editing, come as close to perfect as is possible, nailing every last mark on the score, and containing no mistakes whatsoever. Far from this being criticism, it’s this inscrutable level of detail that makes listening to some records over and over again so rewarding.
Concerts are different. A concert is a higher-risk environment, where musicians are given one chance to play the piece correctly. No matter how talented they are, the possibility remains for little hiccups to distract the audience. Other things will be distracting no matter whether the performers make a mistake or not. Those sitting close enough will hear the noise of the page turns, and everyone will hear the musicians tune before they start. Simply put, it is a process with no possibility for perfection, or even the possibility of nearing it.
If this is true, why don’t audiences give up, retreat back to their homes, and rely on recordings to fulfill their musical needs? Some would suggest that it’s a social reason, but who hasn’t tried to make their friends listen in rapt attention to a recording, and realized that the experience just isn’t the same? Others say that the sound is better, but who hasn’t heard a concert that they’ve enjoyed in spite of the sound quality and not because of it?
In my opinion, it is the imperfection itself that makes a concert worth going to. A concert doesn’t have to stand the test of time, and it doesn’t have to bear close scrutiny because it can only really be heard once. A record promises perfection in return for fetishization, for the possibility of repeated listenings. A concert, in return for the forgiveness of its mistakes, promises a shared experience, and the knowledge that this is music performed by people, for people.
January 28th (Day of the concert) – Making it Work
The day of any concert is always a complex mix of excitement, stress, and sheer terror. The fact that this will be undoubtedly our biggest concert of the Spring only makes this combination a bit more acute. It’s no secret that classical music ensembles are clamoring to get their hands on a younger audience, and there’s no better way to do this than through a composer who has both influenced and been influenced by the popular music of his generation. Now that we’ve sold the tickets, we just need to deliver on the performance.
Sitting in front of me is a 15-step checklist of what needs to happen to make the concert work perfectly. From the time that the SFCMP staff arrive, to loading the uneaten cheese and crackers from the reception into a car, everything is accounted for. Two hours before the music starts, staff arrives to get a sense of the venue. At an hour and forty-five, our volunteers show up and are briefed in turn. The box office opens at 6:30, and at 6:45 we begin seating guests for the pre-concert talk.
At half an hour until showtime, things get tricky. The house is already crowded, and we need to take inventory of which tickets will be used, and which won’t. People with comps will have already showed up to claim them, and so begins the process of finding seats for those with none. More than likely, we’ll have fewer tickets than people that want them, but those with the patience to wait in line will have a chance at seeing the show.
After all the tickets are taken care of, one way or another, there’s nothing left to do but show everyone to their seats, turn out the lights, and hand things over to the musicians. It’s a credit to them that we haven’t once seriously worried about what happens after that. The rehearsals have been productive, to the point where a blindfolded listener could hardly tell the difference between the student guest performers and the SFCMP regulars, and at eight o’clock (by practical standards, that means anywhere from 8:01 to 8:05), they take over. That part of the concert, only marked as “Downbeat” on the schedule, is what the other fourteen steps revolve around. We as the staff, along with every other person in the room, get to sit back, and see what we worked for unfold before us.
Artistic Director Steven Schick writes about our upcoming All-Reich Program on Monday, January 28:
When Steve Reich was asked what he gleaned from a short study trip to West Africa in 1970 he responded with one word: “Confirmation.” The simplicity of that answer – that what was learned in Africa reinforced that which was already there – is refreshing in today’s climate where composers sometimes scour the ends of the earth – or even the nearest junkyard – for inspiration and material before they examine and hone their own musical language. The frailties of artistic tourism are best skewered by Peter Carey who writes derisively in the opening pages of Illywhacker about his character Annette Davidson, an author who lived twenty-eight years in Australia and a few months in Paris, but wrote about Paris.
After his few months in Africa, Steve Reich didn’t “write about Africa.” He didn’t return to the United States with a backpack full of African rhythms or agogo bells, and while others may have tried to package his rhythmic pieces from the 1970s as deriving from his studies in Africa, he never did. In fact, one might claim that he came back with nothing new at all except the sense that he had already embarked on an interesting path, one that he felt resonated with the musical practices of West Africa. Of course for anyone paying attention to the history of popular music in the United States, this resonance will come as no surprise. Listening to African-American music in any of its many forms, from jazz to rock to country to hip-hop, establishes a deep and intimate rapport with West Africa whether a listener knows it or not. Reich has told me that Africa inspired a profound self-awareness in him; it was like a word he already knew but had never heard.
After he returned from Africa, Reich took several critical steps. Realizing that he needed a community of like-minded musicians he expanded “Steve Reich and Musicians” from the trio it had been in the mid-1960s to eighteen musicians by the mid-1970s. And, he began to write music for this ensemble in a way that capitalized on a collective creative mechanism. This is the meaning of “confirmation”: his experiences in Africa, and their application both to his musical language and to the communal working methodology within his ensemble, led to his most fertile creative period. Drumming, his masterpiece for percussion, voices, and piccolos, was written the year after he returned from Africa, and the ne plus ultra of the Reich opus, Music for 18 Musicians, was begun a few years later in 1974.
In tonight’s concert we present three examples of just this kind of confirmation. We’ll start with the interlocking rhythms of his Clapping Music, played here in a doubled instrumentation for four clappers instead of the usual two. The rhythm is Reich’s re-invention of an African bell pattern, however its application to the composition is all-Reich. In what would become a trademark strategy of rhythms phasing against one another, everyone begins with a unison reading of the rhythm. On a cue half the group shifts the pattern “to the left” by leaving out an eighth-note. Hearing the same rhythm played out-of-phase with itself causes fascinating composite rhythmic structures, as you’ll hear. The phasing group leaves out yet another note and a new composite pattern emerges. Another move produces another pattern and so on until all the options are exhausted and the two sides re-unite in unison.
Electric Counterpoint is perhaps the best known of Reich’s “counterpoint” pieces, scored for live soloist and pre-recorded multi-track accompaniment. It will be played tonight in an alternate version for an ensemble of electric guitars led by David Tanenbaum, a long-time Reich collaborator who has released a solo recording of the piece on New Albion Records.
If Clapping Music is a variation on a rhythm, and Electric Counterpoint a study of multiple lines and textures, Music for 18 Musicians is an essay in harmony. One might even think of it as a Reichean chorale built on a cycle of eleven chords, which open and close the piece. The speed and complexity of the shifting harmonies, especially as the piece opens and all of those different chords are crowded together, makes Music for 18 Musicians the most dense and complex of all large-scale Reich instrumental works and creates several dramatic, harmonically driven points of arrival. This is not only unlike anything we had heard to this point in the Reich output, it is also unlike any music we’ve ever heard.
So what is being confirmed in Music for 18 Musicians? Perhaps it is an alternative view of authorship whereby the music is driven not by a single point of authority – a conductor or a completely fixed score – but by a communal process in which basic decisions are of group concern. Shared decision-making controls the precise number of repetitions of each phrase and by extension the formal shape that arises and by extension of that the emotional aura of the entire performance. Perhaps that which is being confirmed in Music for 18 Musicians is a social view in which shared leadership means that at one moment or another every person on stage has the control of the piece in his or her hands. Everyone is indispensable. We could learn something from that. Perhaps there is also the confirmation of something more basic: that playing together is a source of joy, that after nearly an hour of non-stop playing where the reins of the piece have been passed to everyone on stage at least once, where no one has soloed and where everyone has belonged, there is bliss to be found in arriving fresh, alive, and together.
With New Music, I am able to take risks, to present works where the ink is still wet, and to showcase the diversity of talents and artistic styles that are happening now. In addition, I’m able to work with other innovative artists to create location- or personnel-specific pieces, utilizing the specific strengths and features of an ensemble or organization. New Music for me means tapping into the most innovative artistic streams, working collaboratively with composers, and bringing to life the music that future organizations will consider canonical.
My favorite part of preparing new music is the face-to-face with the composers. Often their demeanors are surprisingly different from what I would imagine based on their music. For me, it’s much more meaningful and memorable to connect with them personally.
Collaboration with composers is one the things I enjoy most about being a performer. It is incredibly rewarding to be involved in the first presentation of a piece of art to the public. Working closely with a particular composer allows me obtain insight into a piece directly from the source and makes the performance of the piece that much more meaningful, both for me and for the audience. By playing new music, my technique can be pushed to new limits and that type of engagement only helps me to improve all aspects of my music making. To me, playing new music is, in certain sense, about living in the present – since I’m alive right now, as a musician I feel like I have to be part of the music that is being created right now!
Why New Music? — Why Not New Music! All music was new at one time and this music is new and exciting in our time. I love working with composers and their creative process. What interests me most is encouraging composers of all ages to write for the harp, how best to get their ideas across and how to write most effectively for the instrument. As an instrument the harp did not come into its own until the late 19th and early 20th Century. It has a wealth of sounds and lends itself particularly well to New Music.
I was asked to play new/contemporary music while an undergrad at Oberlin (a very active new-music scene), and found it fascinating, exciting, challenging; so different from the “three B’s,” that participating in it opened part of the spectrum of music that had been invisible to me until then. It’s sometimes engaging and captivating, sometimes abrasive, often extreme, and always interesting.
As SFCMP prepares to perform Sam’s Piano Trio , we spoke with him about the piece:
Q: One of the most interesting aspects of your Piano Trio is the pairing of very sophisticated motivic, rhythmic, and harmonic idioms with an easily discernible structure and fairly transparent development of ideas. Could you speak a little about this?
SA: This piece is very much an experiment in classical formalism. I found it a satisfying gesture to break away from working with unconventional forms, which is what my focus had been prior to writing the trio. The piece has all the elements of a Sonata Allegro form: three large formal sections, a coda, a Da Capo, but it is condensed, kaleidoscopic, and functions using a harmonic language I have been developing for some years. It was a lot of fun and very liberating to work this way.
Q: Continuing along the same path, it’s interesting to see titles and clips from performances of pieces like Woman Bomb and GAIN alongside compositions like the Piano Trio. Do you try to maintain a binding current throughout your oeuvre (you mention in the program note that the trio is a sort of acoustic “consequent” to your “antecedent” electronic works) or do you prefer just to jump in and immerse yourself in whatever you feel potential in?
SA: I have always had an adaptive personality, and I think one of the most gratifying aspects of being a composer (especially a young one) is working in many different contexts. So, I tend to say ‘yes’ to projects that involve unfamiliar territory. Perhaps this is haphazard behavior – just jumping in, so to speak – but it has been rewarding and fascinating thus far. I am not so concerned with carefully maintaining a ‘binding current’ through my catalogue. That seems too Apollonian for my personality.
Q: The Piano Trio combines the wide tessitura of the piano with interesting uses of articulation, rhythm, and bowing in the strings, creating strong convergences and contrasts of timbre. Could you talk about how you, a composer of electronic music, approached this piece in terms of the extremely diverse palette provided by its instrumentation? How do you explore timbre factors in general?
SA: To me, timbre is simply another expressive component of music. When I am trying to express something, I pay attention to timbre the same way I pay attention to harmony, rhythm, what have you. This piece expresses itself in a number of ways, so, naturally, its timbral world is ever-shifting.
Q: Tension Studies is the only piece we’ve found of yours that includes the use of an amplified instrument, in this case, the electric guitar. How do you, as an electro-acoustic musician approach such sonic intermediates as loudspeakers and amplifiers? Are they separate instruments or as much a part of the same body as, say, the strings and the resonant surfaces of a violin?
SA: I think the role of loudspeakers and amplifiers change depending on the piece. With live electro-acoustic works like Tension Studies, the processing and resonating bodies are part of the instrument, as the performer is making decisions about how the electronics function during the performance. For fixed works, like Gain and some other pieces, this is not the case. The music is plastic like a painting – or a sculpture. In these cases, the listening experience is not influenced by the whims of a human being during a performance.
The Piano Trio will be performed on Thursday, October 25, 2012 (more information).
Samuel Carl Adams will be a featured panelist for Young American Composers and the Legacy of John Cage on Friday, October 26, 2012 (more information).
10. The biggest all-Cage music weekend in the Bay Area
9. Friday assembles three composers “speaking with” Cage, across the decades
8. You might learn what an Oxen Bell is
7. You will discover the thread that unites an amplified cactus to a prepared piano
6. Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of only the voices in your head
5. Twenty-five talented girl singers providing the ultimate mashup
4. You can create a field recording and “Dip in the Bay”
3. You can explore the queer truth about Cage and Merce – with shrooms!
2. On Sunday you and all your friends are free to come, go, stop, rest, listen, and experience with your own ears
1. You can be part of celebrating the centenary of a great American composer
Artistic Director Steven Schick writes about our upcoming Cage Centennial Celebration at the end of this month:
John Cage was a great American composer and deserves to be celebrated for his enormous contributions to the music of the 20th century and beyond.
That’s obvious, right?
After all, thousands of concerts all over the world will have been devoted to celebrating this year’s Cage Centennial this year. (He was born on September 5, 1912.) Yet in those thousands of events we have seen relatively little attention played to John Cage, composer. We have seen multiple essays and a new book describing Cage’s relationship to Zen Buddhism. We have seen exhibitions of his paintings, his poetry, his correspondence. We have focused on Cage’s personal relationship with Merce Cunningham and his aesthetic rapport with Rauschenberg and Duchamp. We have fêted his well-known interest in Thoreau, in Joyce and Satie. We have saluted the cross-cultural, and even countercultural impulses behind his devotion to chance procedures and the “I Ching.” A well-known composer, and good friend of mine, claims that Cage was a revolutionary theorist, “but not really a composer,” a view shared by Cage’s most famous teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, who while bemoaning Cage’s utter lack of sensitivity to harmony nevertheless proclaimed him to be, “an inventor of great genius.”
Judging from the welcome outpouring of affection and attention this year’s centennial celebrations have presented, Cage is apparently “all of the above.” But is he a real composer?
Our answer is, resoundingly, YES! He was a great composer, and furthermore his music can stand alone as great music with or without the attractive aspects of his personal philosophy and artistic taste.
The celebration of John Cage by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players may be small by comparison to some – see the ten day festival in Washington last month or week-long celebration in Cologne in May, among many others. But by restricting ourselves to a presentation of his music we can ask a single important question: does the music of John Cage still engage us as “contemporary music,” that is to say music that exerts significant leverage on the welter of today’s aesthetic and cultural concerns, or is his oeuvre now to be filed on the increasingly dusty shelves of music history of the very recent past?
In search of an answer we invite you to two concerts and a panel discussion. The first concert on October 25 presents the three percussion “Constructions” co-mingled with the music of three young American composers, Samuel Carl Adams, Lei Liang, and Missy Mazzoli. The second is a Musicircus consisting of several dozens of Cage pieces presented over the course of the afternoon of October 28.
With “Constructions” our hope is that Cage as the twenty-something composer of the late 1930’s and early ’40’s might speak across the decades to today’s young composers. Is the sense of delight and exploration, so present in the Cage works, a part of their music as well? Are the musical processes and professional travails much different now? Will they understand each other, the young New York transplant by way of California six decades ago and the young New Yorkers and Californians of today? Again, I think the answer will be a resounding, yes, but let’s find out together.
We start with the percussion pieces because they are indeed points of departure, both to Cage’s notoriety as a composer but also to contemporary percussionists as the foundational works of a repertory. Here we see not just the opening of cultural floodgates whereby a Burmese Gong is played next to a Mexican teponaxtl, next to some Chinese tom-toms, next to a set of Oxen Bells (what are Oxen Bells, anyway?) By engaging the multiplicity of percussion sounds Cage took an important first step along his path towards indeterminacy. Think of all the possibilities implied in the simple indication of “medium gong.” This could be a gong from one of many cultures and it could be played with a large variety of sticks. In short a “medium gong” could mean a huge spectrum of sonic possibilities. So in his percussion music Cage could specify an action (hit the gong now) but not necessarily the sound it would produce. Controlling what music might act like rather than what it might sound can be bewildering to listeners. Someone who taps his foot through Third Construction might well wonder if the same composer was also responsible for the metrically directionless Freeman Etudes. Or perhaps a naturalist devotee of music for amplified cactus (believe me, there are such people) will find herself completely at sea in the mechanical world of the prepared piano.
But there is a single coherent mind at work in all of this music. Consistency is a product of what I think of as the “Cage theorem,” a behavioral model whereby strictly emplaced limitations in the realm of musical construction allow for rich unpredictability in sound and style. Nearly every Cage piece operates on this principal. The theorem dictates that the more securely anchored the formal dimension, the greater the amount of chance-based freedom is possible. Take First Construction (In Metal) for example: here we find a rigidly repeating cycle of 16 measure phrases, each subdivided regularly into a strict rhythmic template. The sounds that fill this template, however, are a volcanic admixture of clangorous metallic percussion. According to this formula, Cage did not claim to know what sounds his ensemble of percussionists would make, just when and for how long they would make them. In subsequent years, increasingly rigorous formal mechanisms led to increasingly free sonic results until at the very midpoint of his life we have 4”33”, his famous piece in which a performer(s) does not play at all, leaving to complete chance the sounds that will fill the four minutes and thirty-three seconds of musical time. A long debunked mythology claimed that this was a piece of whimsy, a musical joke. In fact it is the ultimate focus on process over product. It is a crystalline structure, filled with nothing. Indeed to paraphrase Cage himself, he had nothing to say and he was saying it.
So is this music, much of which is more than fifty years old, still contemporary? I can only say for myself that the Cagian universe still feels like home. It still feels like today. Like Cage, I believe that sound constrained by form and informed by occasion bears meaning even if those sounds are ultimately unpredictable. I believe that composers, performers, and listeners enjoin an equally shared listening space in which each has responsibility and no one has a free ride. I concur with Satie’s phrase, often quoted by Cage: “L’artiste n’a pas le droit de disposer inutilement du temps de son auditeur.” I smile when I read Cage’s statement: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas; I’m frightened of the old ones.”
With these sentiments in mind we will start on Thursday with Cage’s early percussion music and continue on Sunday’s Musicircus with a kaleidoscopic array of his later music. On Sunday we will hear Postcard from Heaven in a version for more than a dozen harps. We’ll hear A House Full of Music for the members of the San Francisco Girls’ Chorus singing their favorite songs, and the Music for series for professional musicians playing their favorite sounds. We’ll offer recorded birdsong, water gongs, readings from his influential book Silence, and a massed orchestra of radios. You can take a “musical walk” by picking up a map and taking a Dip in the Lake, or just sit still and hear what you’ll hear in 4’33”. We’ll visit his landmark works: the virtuosic Etudes Boreales I-IV for cello and percussionist playing the inside of a piano, and the ground-breaking Concert for Piano. We’ll also have special guests, including dancers brought to us by Anna Halprin, a long-time Cage collaborator.
In short you’ll hear the music of an American master: John Cage, composer. Happy birthday, Mr. Cage.
As SFCMP prepares to perform Still Life with Avalanche, we asked composer Missy Mazzoli about the piece:
You mentioned in an interview that one of the most important things you were taught was that you must live a life in music instead of simply having a career in music. This seems particularly relevant to a piece like Still Life With Avalanche in which events from your life are actually the basis of some of the musical material. Can you speak about the decision to include an unanticipated event in your life in a piece of music you’d already begun to develop? Is this a standard part of your compositional process?
Actually when I was referring to having a life in music I was thinking of it more in a positive sense, in that I try to make artistic decisions that help me lead the life I want to lead and be the person I want to be, even when I’m not in the act of composing or performing. I think it’s one of the advantages of being an artist – I don’t think of my career or my music as something separate from who I am when I’m truly being myself. That said, the inevitable flip side of that is that the nasty stuff in your life finds its way into your work when you’re distraught or unhappy. When my cousin died I wasn’t thinking about music. I just wanted to bang on things and cry and make noise. When I got tired of that I robotically went back to composing, only to find that I had become a completely different person. It didn’t feel right to continue in the same direction. Yes, I pulled the piece in a dissonant, angry direction, but there’s never that simple life-to-art translation of “I was angry so I made angry music” or “I was sad so I wrote a melody in D Minor”. When composers say things like that it feels a little too facile; I think there’s usually a much more complicated process of translation happening there, and it’s a process that is fascinating and mysterious. So yes, every day the events of my life find their way into my music, but in a way that is complex and often hidden, especially to me.
Perhaps one of the defining features of new music is its use of instruments not typically found in what might be considered the “classical canon”. Could you talk about how you deal with new timbres and perhaps explain what qualities of the harmonica led you to include it in Still Life?
I love harmonicas because they’re always slightly out of tune! I love introducing an unpredictable, vulnerable element into highly structured music. Most people in the audience are familiar with the sound of someone breathing in and out into a harmonica, and I wanted to draw them in with a timbre that was both comfortable and haunting. I love the contrast of the wheezing harmonica, played in a way that any non-musician could play it, with these virtuosic string passages that are only really playable by .0001% of the population.
Inevitably, referring to a composition as a “still life” is going to raise questions given the fact that any kind of change over time is typically perceived as “motion”. Certainly there is a fairly clear line in the piece between its more static and motive elements, but it seems, at least to me, that there is never quite the total stasis implied by a “still life”. Could you talk about how you dealt with and thought about the concept of a still life as it can exist in music, and why an avalanche spoke to you as a particularly appropriate motive element?
Honestly, this title was always like this joke that only I seemed to find funny. The point is not that it’s actually a still life or an avalanche, but that it’s something impossible, something that had within it two elements that were pulling on each other because they can’t co-exist. The music has this conflict too; there is a theme that wants to dig its heels into the dirt and repeat over and over in an almost manic, clown-happy kind of way, and all this harmony piled up that wants to drag it off the cliff and into the ocean.
Still Life with Avalanche will be performed on Thursday, October 25, 2012 (more information).
Missy Mazzoli will be a featured panelist for Young American Composers and the Legacy of John Cage on Friday, October 26, 2012 (more information).
As SFCMP prepares to perform Aural Hypothesis, we asked composer Lei Liang about the piece:
In the performance notes for Aural Hypothesis you mention that “the overwritten ‘cadenzas’ are meant to trigger improvisatory action and accidents,” and that what you prefer from the performer is “not deliberate details…but rather an explosive energy that threatens to destroy the overall balance of the composed work.” Certainly this seems appropriate for the piece given your description of contrasting calligraphy brushstrokes in the program notes as well as of shigaraki ware in the piano note, but is this kind of openness to the unpredictable and technique of “overwriting” despite anticipation of mistakes typical of your work? If so, what are your limits with regards to how much control you’re willing to relinquish or maintain?
Sometimes I write passages that are meant to be so challenging that it forces the musician to wrestle with it in live performance. Their difficulty level is not absurd, but rather attainable – or almost attainable. In fact, every detail should be realizable, and it should be rewarding for practice. It is a special feeling for me to experience the intensity of struggling to gain control. I don’t think of it as relinquishing control – it is not about that. Rather, it is about the challenge of attaining, and gaining control in an intense moment. It is about the willingness to sacrifice the correctness of a few notes in order to channel the explosive energy. I find this struggle – and the mistakes that come with it – to be very human.
On a similar note, it’s very interesting that you would “overwrite” something which you expect not to be played exactly. That is, there’s an interesting tension between the specificity of notation and the acceptance and expectation of deviation from what you’ve written. Of course, with transposing instruments it’s common practice to notate in a way that to an extent directly contradicts what is actually heard, but it seems to me that in this piece you’ve discovered an interesting sort of variant on this idea of “transposition” which allows for deviation from the specific notes written based on a given performer’s own experience of reading the notation and interacting with the sonic results of your score. Since the cadenzas are so specifically notated, could you talk about how you chose exactly what notes to write in terms of the actual sonic results you desired?
I write these rapid passages very slowly, and I test them out with care to make sure that they are playable, and at the same time awkward – “awkward” in the sense that they pose real physical challenges to the pianist. How rapidly and precisely can one play? How far can one’s fingers leap? What is a really “awkward” move that makes the passage challenging yet still musical?
The title of the piece is extremely interesting; the pairing of somewhat scientific terminology with an art form traditionally perceived as exceedingly subjective; the use of the word “hypothesis” suggesting conjecture and questions which anticipate results and thus discovery. There’s so much to think about before even hearing the first note. Could you talk about the title and your conception of the piece as a “hypothesis”?
Chou Wen-chung, the composer to whom this piece is dedicated, once made the remark that “music is calligraphy in sound, calligraphy is music in ink.” I have been intrigued by this remark, and by another one he asked me, “when is a line not a line?” Writing music is a speculative process for me. In this piece, I was trying to discover for myself whether there is a parallel between lines in ink and lines in sound. When is a melody no longer merely a melody? The second half of the work is really an effort to answer this question.
Aural Hypothesis will be performed on Thursday, October 25, 2012 (more information).
Lei Liang will be a featured panelist for Young American Composers and the Legacy of John Cage on Friday, October 26, 2012 (more information).
As part of the 40th Anniversary Season, we’re publishing a series of reminiscences in each concert program from the many people who have been involved with SFCMP over the years. We’ll begin with some of the stories that were first published in our 30th Anniversary Season program book, and reprinted at last month’s opening night concert. (photo: SFCMP in 1989)
Jean-Louis LeRoux, Founding Director:
I can see in my mind, as if it were yesterday, the three of us, Marcella DeCray, Charles Boone and myself, walking along a street of the East Bay after a concert of new works organized by Charles (Bring Your Own Pillow) in which Marcella and I had been participating, and discussing the program. I remember stopping all of a sudden and saying, “There is no other concert of contemporary music except these ones. Milhaud is gone, the Mills Performing Group is no more, and I think we should organize your idea, Charles, in a more professional fashion.”
This is how the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players was born, but for a while we kept the original B.Y.O.P. name. Charles left almost at once to spend long years in Europe, and we were left to our own devices, Marcella and I. In a very short time the non-profit corporation was registered in Sacramento by Marcella, and a series of concerts in the Grapestake Gallery on California was planned. Of course, we needed some money. The San Francisco Foundation listened to our plans and we were on our way. Marcella, with the help of Larry Campbell, kept my wild dreams on a more realistic basis. And we played the music of the timee and we had a small audience and we were full of energy and enthusiasm. We progressed from the Mayers’ Gallery to the Museum of Modern Art. We weathered crisis with the assistance of a wonderful board and we survived and grew…
… We believed then and still believe today in that famous line of one of the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela: ‘No hay camino…’ And we kept on going forward without really knowing where to, with the help of a great board and of an extraordinary group of dedicated musicians, the ‘Players’. I won’t mention any name, the list would be too large, but I am immensely grateful to all. Along the way, we had some incredible landmarks – I am thinking of the Webern-Varèse-Zappa concert and of the mega-productions – three-ring circus in the Museum. We never lost our faith in Music, the greatest invention of mankind…
Jane Roos, first Board Chairman:
Early in 1978, Jean-Louis LeRoux, the Music Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, whom I knew only through his wife, Marta Bracchi-LeRoux, asked me to help in putting together a Board of Directors for the organization. The ensemble had just received a grant from the San Francisco Foundation and a Board of Directors became a requirement for the funding. By May 6, a remarkable group from the musical world of San Francisco was assembled for its first meeting, including Agnes Albert, Charles Boone, Larry Campbell, Susan Wanty and Alexander Fried, in addition to Jean Louis and Marcella DeCray. Two members, Gunther Schuller and Alan Stein were unable to attend, and Frances Varnhagen joined shortly thereafter. That was truly a memorable moment and the beginning of organizational growth.
The prime charge for a board is fiscal responsibility for the organization. Consequently some of my most memorable moments involved depths of despair over financial crises, especially at the beginning, or heights of delight over exciting concerts and rave reviews, but all were associated with a sense of accomplishment and fun.
The event featuring Frank Zappa on Feb. 9, 1983, conducting music of Varèse, his favorite composer, was a special high point, both exciting and scary, as we rented the San Francisco Opera House for a concert to be conducted in part by Zappa and hosted by Grace Slick. The hall had never been so full of rock fans giving Zappa traditional rock concert ovations. When he walked on stage, he responded with great dignity to the shouts from the audience and then hushed the crowd with, “Let’s get serious,” while his enormous body guards on the front row stood up facing the audience. He turned to the musicians, raised his baton, gave the beat audibly, and conducted the first piece – Ionization – with strict marking of time. It was a daring, exciting venture for a small organization – fiscally especially – but in the end was a rewarding experience financially, and gave the Players a lot of exposure.
Another long remembered occasion was the recording of the first record by the Contemporary Music Players, which, to save money, was done at Roos House after a concert, and between midnight and six AM, to minimize street noises. All appliances were turned off, including the furnaces, to eliminate other vibrations and sounds; the recording equipment filled the hall, and all went well until the musicians got numb with cold and the flute was too cold to stay in tune. With the help of hot water and a little heat, the recording was successfully completed.
The concerts at the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with the educational department of the Museum provided the opportunity to stage a lot of remarkable events. One, also to raise funds, assumed a carnival atmosphere with various groups of musicians stationed around the galleries, along with coffee wagons, food stations and beverage carts. The audience sauntered from one performance to another, timed so that one could hear all the mini-concerts.
Another kind of memorable event took place at a point when financial disaster loomed. During a concert intermission in the Green Room, Board Member Claire Harrison Reed gave a stirring spur-of- the- moment plea for help. Several hats were spontaneously produced and passed in the audience with remarkable results.
Finally, there have been many memorable moments musically. From the earliest concerts there was always a focus to the programming and a very intelligent kind of neutrality in the choices, which distinguished the pieces and made them unforgettable experiences. Along with an emphasis on American works, contemporary music from all corners of the globe jostled for the audience’s attention, and some musicians were even brought to perform here, from such disparate places as Canada, South America, and Yugoslavia. Hans Werner Henze’s Voices became the experience for me that was the real turning point in my interest in contemporary music. Very early, Jean-Louis LeRoux dared to play Polish pieces, the music of Henryk Górecki, Genesis I. We were treated to wonderful performances of Morton Feldman’s The Rothko Chapel, Aaron Copland’s Sextet, and the unforgettable partially staged performances of Pierrot lunaire by Schoenberg, which was repeated many times and became for a while a sort of signature piece for the Players. How rewarding it has been!