Sunday, April 27, 2008


I suppose it was inevitable. After less than two years of living in Tucson, I have started reading historical and cultural books about the Southwest. My mother tried to interest me in westerns when she moved to Phoenix in the late 1970s, but they seemed irrelevant when I lived in Ohio. Perhaps it's the wide open spaces that we see as soon as we drive out of town. Perhaps it's the amazing but true fact that Tucson closes the public schools for the annual rodeo parade. No doubt there's a big chunk of mythology planted in me by years of watching Hollywood westerns. But it's one of the behavioral trends that I see in myself and have to stand back, scratch my head, and wonder why.

Two recent books from the vacation reading have prompted these reflections. In one of them, Cities of Gold by Douglas Preston, two greenhorn cowboys recreate Coronado's initial exploration into the southwest, riding over a thousand miles on horseback from the Mexican border south of Tucson to the Pecos Pueblo near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The book is equal parts riding story and history lesson, covering not only Coronado's initial contacts but whatever we know about pre-Coronado native civilizations and their subsequent demise in the wake of the American conquest in the nineteenth century.

The second book is by Richard Grant, a British ex-pat who was living in Tucson when he wrote American Nomads. This book has more general interest than Preston's, not being limited to residents of the southwest (although cowboys, historical and contemporary, participate in his tale). Nomads, people of no fixed abode, live way off the grid, and include an amazingly wide spectrum of contemporary American society, albeit mostly unknown and undocumented. In addition to rodeo cowboys, Grant also visits the annual Rainbow Family gatherings, the annual gathering of retirees in RVs at Quartzsite, Arizona, the tribal headquarters of the largest group of nomadic Indians (the Comanches), and even the Freight Train Riders of America, formerly known as hoboes. It's a fascinating array of tales of wanderers past and present, with occasional references to nomadic philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, whose seminal work A Thousand Plateaux spun the image of a eternally outside nomad war machine across a dozen different knowledge domains.

The most well-known musical nomad was Harry Partch, who spent formative years riding the rails as a hobo, participating in the loose and unstructured society that flourished for a brief period during more sympathetic, less dangerous times. Partch's unique musical system based on a 43-note scale (rather than the usual twelve) lies fairly far outside any mainstream, although his maverick status finds him at the headwaters of some kind of tributary that continues to contemporary microtonal composers like Kyle Gann and Ben Johnston.

Drone composers have a nomad representative in Michael Northam, whose resume reads like a fifteen-year travelogue. His very occasional blog posts are separated by several weeks and thousands of miles. While it's easier to make a case for an audible nomadism in Partch's music than it is for Northam's, I hear a powerful yearning for stability in the way Northam combines dozens of layers of source material, a constant that permeates the delicate and timeless texture that he constructs. But this is an aspect that I bring as a listener — Northam's concerns as expressed in interviews and his own writings tend more to complex systems, meterological phenomena, and the complex layering in tiny molecules. But for all the imaginative stimuli that come from a contemplation of nomadism, I would be hard pressed to identify a nomadic aspect in Northam's work that wasn't present in other drone artists. But southwestern landscapes, rootless nomadic wandering and slowly moving journeys like Preston's are growing in my personal symbolisms, which inevitably colors the way I listen to and perform music.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tax day canyon blogging

Blogging will be light for the remainder of April, as we're on the road, and I'm not thinking about music very much, and not even very much about anything in the wide world (such as the tax deadline, which is today in the US).  But, like back home, we're still finding canyons.  Here's a shot of the Santa Elena canyon in Big Bend National Park, southern Texas.  The river is the Rio Grande, and the shadowy side of the canyon is Mexico.  Still desert, but the Chihuahuan desert is very different from the Sonoran desert.  

Friday, April 11, 2008

Sustaining Voices

A few months ago, a comment on one of Kyle Gann's posts about online scores led me to the web site of composer Mary Jane Leach, whose interests seemed to overlap considerably with my own. In addition to her description of her music as using difference, combination and interference tones (all of which are important aspects of drone music), one of her long-term projects involves compositions written for multiples: "four or more of one instrument and/or families of like instruments treated as one instrument" (another common characteristic of drone music). So, after browsing her site for a while, I picked up her album Celestial Fires for an introduction to her work.

What a revelation! The album contains six pieces, four for a eight-voice female choir, interspersed with a piece for seven bassoons and a piece for live and taped alto flute and voice. The opening piece, Bruckstück, is one of the most gorgeous pieces of music I've heard in a long time. It's based on a fragment of the Adagio of Anton Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, which is one of my desert island symphonies — hearing this symphony live back in Dayton reawakened a long-dormant interest in orchestras in general, and the nineteenth century symphony in particular. Bruckner's penchant for long, slow symphonies is a precursor for similar qualities in contemporary music, and he remains one of my favorite orchestral composers. Leach's piece takes a ten-measure section and stretches it out to twelve minutes, with melodic fragments passed between voices and harmonies sustained seemingly forever. The opening and closing moments have all voices sustaining a very subtly shifting harmony, with the lowest voices providing a slow pulse and all voices close to each other, all within an octave, all singing the same vowel sound (which remains fairly constant throughout the piece). The central section widens the span and adds slow arpeggios and hemiolas, using one of Bruckner's favorite devices, and reminiscent of Steve Reich as well.

Where Bruckstück takes its inspiration from Bruckner's romantic harmonies, two of the other vocal pieces look further back, to Claudio Monteverdi, the late-16th century Italian madrigal composer. Green Mountain Madrigal uses a lyric from a fragment of one of Monteverdi's operas, with the singers staying in fairly close proximity to each other throughout, passing the melody from one singer to the next. The harmony concentrates more on the dissonances and suspensions rather than open chords, which gives the piece a denser texture than Bruckstück. Mountain Echoes, also based on a Monteverdi madrigal, and Ariel's Song, which uses open vowels like Bruckstück, both use antiphonal effects that are difficult to hear on the stereo recording. They both remind me a little bit of Meredith Monk's music, although without the radical timbre changes that Monk uses. There is less use of sustaining tones and more quickly moving phrases in these two pieces. Leach has an old church in upstate New York which she uses as a performance space; it would be wonderful to hear these pieces with the singers distributed properly.

The first instrumental piece, Feu de Joie, is for seven bassoons, one live and six on tape. It starts with the taped bassoons playing the same note in three different octaves, which sets up a delicious drone for the soloist to hover around. The taped instruments retain their sustaining role, one of the bassoons playing the same low G for the entire duration of the piece, but a few of them eventually add some rhythmic figures to give the piece its shimmering pulse. The overtones combine to create a rich sound throughout, while the soloist plays a melody that covers the entire range of the bassoon. The other one, Trio for Duo, is for two alto flutes and two voices (one each live and on tape), where the voice sounds very similar to the flute. The piece consists of each part playing first in unison, then slowly moving to nearby pitches in glissandi, so that the combination and difference tones become audible. In an ideal concert performance, the two instrumentalists should be amplified and each part's speaker should be in a corner of the auditorium, so that the subtle shifts in pitch are audible in space as well, but the recording is limited to stereo panning between the two channels.

Celestial Fires was Leach's first solo album, and was released in 1993, but music like this is ageless. The CD is still in print, and the album is also available via digital distribution via emusic, Amazon, and iTunes. For an added bonus, Leach's web site has the scores for all six pieces (although Bruckstück was revised a few years ago for six voices instead of eight). Her web site also has a long list of compositions for multiples, which will be a resource for exploration in times to come.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Takemitsu on the piano

For most of my time playing piano as an adult, I've included something by Toru Takemitsu in my repertoire. Takemitsu composed for solo piano periodically throughout his life, and all of the published pieces can comfortably fit on a single CD. For a long time, I played his opus one, Uninterrupted Rests, a suite of three short pieces composed in the early 1950s. More recently, I've added Rain Tree Sketch II, which is, as it turns out, his last published piano piece, from 1992. Although forty years separated the composition of the two pieces, I have found similarities between them, with their vague and peaceful, floating harmonies, and plenty of space for resonance between the sonic gestures. They both are fine examples of his aural calligraphy that I mentioned in an earlier post, where Takemitsu uses the sounds to delimit silence, similar to boulders in a Japanese garden.

The three pieces in Uninterrupted Rests show three different mechanisms to specify the floating qualities. The first piece is unmeasured, but Takemitsu puts dotted measure lines to demarcate phrases or other breathing points. He uses the same device in Rain Tree Sketch II and For Away (composed in 1973), although in the later pieces he intermingles solid and dotted measure lines. No meter is specified, so the pianist must find a flexible, internal rhythm for the gestures. The second piece uses a more proportional notation, with short solid lines in each clef and the instruction that the lines delimit three seconds of time. This notation, which is also used in the 1961 piece Piano Distance, produces a series of discrete events that are related to each other only through their coexistence. Although Piano Distance is considerably more virtuosic than its counterpart in Uninterrupted Rests, the common approach between the two pieces produces an audibly similar rhythmic language. Finally, the third piece in the suite uses standard measures and meters, Takemitsu's only mature piano work to do so. In most recordings, one can actually hear a downbeat at the beginning of the measures, and the regular (albeit slow — there is a metronome mark of 38 for a half-note, slower than most metronomes will accommodate) pace contributes to the tranquil feeling of the piece. Takemitsu played piano, and it is likely that he composed Uninterrupted Rests to play himself (the same way that Cage composed certain pieces for himself, and certain pieces for David Tudor). He must have been fairly good — he played Bach's St. Matthew Passion on piano as a preparation ritual for composing.

Until I read Peter Burt's book on Takemitsu, I didn't realize the trajectory of his compositions, or that he returned to an earlier style later in his life. My initial exposure was through Roger Woodward's 1974 recording of Takemitsu's piano works, which included all of the solo piano works which had been composed up to that time. Piano Distance was written for composer and Xenakis pupil Yuji Takahashi, and the writing is considerably more virtuosic, more hard-edged, than the earlier work, while still retaining the pattern of gestures separated by silence. For Away, dedicated to Woodward, has detailed markings for all three pedals, although the delicacies of the middle pedal are lost in most recordings. The fast grace note passages and occasional drones remind me of Stockhausen's piano work Klavierstücke IX (Takemitsu and Stockhausen spent a week together at a symposium in 1971), although the harmonic languages are completely different between the two composers.

Takemitsu produced a significant piano piece every few years through the 1970s and 1980s, along with the publication of some juvenalia and children's pieces. His last major piano work was Rain Tree Sketch II, a memorial for one of Takemitsu's great influences, the French composer Olivier Messaien. A couple of observations about Rain Tree Sketch II:

• Takemitsu had returned to a "sea of tonality" (his phrase) in the 1980s, and Rain Tree Sketch II centers on a D minor chord (but without any of the directional aspects of nineteenth-century tonality, as far as I can tell anyway). Interestingly, at important moments the D minor chord is arpeggiated and accompanied with high overtones, which sound to me like a gamelan. Burt suggests that For Away is one of Takemitsu's few pieces overtly influenced by gamelan music. While this may be true from a compositional perspective, it certainly doesn't sound like any gamelan music I've ever heard.

• Takemitsu notes in the forward that the piece takes five minutes, but when I add up all of the durations based on the metronome marks, it barely takes three. Unreliable metronome marks are only supposed to occur for the nineteenth century, but this variance certainly raises some interpretive questions. The two recordings I have of the piece take the opposite choices: Izumi Tateno plays the piece much more slowly than the metronome marks, taking 5:28, while Megumi Fujita (of the Fujita Piano Trio) follows the metronome markings more closely and takes 3:43.

• Like the first piece in Uninterrupted rests, Rain Tree Sketch II has a A-B-A form (actually, more like A-B-C-A). This was one of the first aspects that unified this piece and Uninterrupted Rests, and is fairly unusual in Takemitsu's compositions.

• It was the last in a series of memorial pieces, a set which included orchestral works for composer Morton Feldman and film director Andrei Tarkovsky and solo pieces for composer Witold Lutoslawski and sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Burt suggests that the first in the series was the Requiem that he wrote in 1957 for Japanese film composer Fumio Hayasaka, who was Takemitsu's mentor in the world of film.

Burt's book makes it easier to follow the various threads through Takemitsu's compositions, and I have for some time immersed myself in his music. Unfortunately, much of his output outside of the concert music realm hasn't been released on CD outside of Japan, which makes it difficult for westerners to appreciate the breadth of his musical interests. I am grateful for his jewels that he wrote for piano, and at least these are well represented on recordings. There are myriad recital recordings that include one or more pieces by Takemitsu.  Many of Takemitsu's piano champions have released all-Takemitsu recitals, including Peter Serkin and Paul Crossley (both, unfortunately, out of print).  In addition to the 1974 recordings, Woodward released a live set from 1990; both are currently available.    And younger pianists such as Noriko Ogawa have taken him up as well. Even retirees…

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sound art in padded rooms

For the past few weeks I've been entirely occupied with putting together an audition CD for a piano camp this summer. What a grueling, miserable task, enough to drive anyone to a padded cell! I chose Ravel's Valley of the Bells, Rain Tree Sketch II by Toru Takemitsu, and Cançion y danza no. 5 by Federico Mompou, which I played in a master class last fall. If playing the three pieces to death wasn't enough, then there's sifting through multiple recordings looking for the best one. I have boundless admiration for recording artists (although maybe they don't need as many takes as I did, and maybe they have producers to do the sifting).

So my consideration of other music has been minimized, except for a review of Steve Peters' CD of sound art, Three Rooms, which was recently published at I should get back to other, more interesting topics, real soon now.