The Best of Thelonious Monk: The Blue Note Years

by Michael Schell

This month seems like an opportune time for a salute in Thelonious Monk’s direction, honoring both his 100th birthday and the 70th anniversary of the first of the Blue Note recording sessions that Monk aficionados generally consider his most important work. Highlights from these 1947–52 sessions have been gathered into a handy single-CD reissue that showcases the things that make Monk’s music so compelling: his catchy and highly chromatic jazz compositions, and his unique and piquant improv style that combines bebop and stride piano techniques with harmonic innovations from modern composed music.

Included are the first recordings of such Monk standards as Epistrophy, Straight No Chaser, Well You Needn’t, and ‘Round Midnight (the bane of many a piano student overwhelmed by its complicated chord changes). And then there’s Misterioso, a mini-compendium of Monkish eccentricities. It’s ostensibly a 12-bar blues in B♭, but its melody consists of non-swinging broken sixths that sound more like Scarlatti than bebop.

After Monk and vibraphonist Milt Jackson play through the tune, Jackson offers a fairly conventional solo lasting one chorus. Then Monk begins his solo, and things start getting weird. He spends one chorus toying around with the dissonant clash between D♭ and D♮, and a second chorus combining blues licks with whole-tone scales and long rests. When Jackson starts reprising the theme, Monk spends several bars plunking out harsh isolated notes in counterpoint before finally joining Jackson on the melody. The track ends with one last whole-tone flurry from Monk. Throw in the crude 78 Era sound quality, and the whole thing has a kind of primitive mystique to it, teetering more and more on the edge of crazy as it goes on—kind of a metaphor for Monk’s own life and mental health struggles. Have a listen, and (re)acquaint yourself with this unorthodox American musical genius.

Mutable Depths: Remembering Matt Shoemaker

by Michael Schell

Second Inversion bids a reluctant farewell to Matt Shoemaker (1974–2017), an admired member of Seattle’s vibrant electronic music scene. A native of the Pacific Northwest whose sensibilities were also formed by extended stays in the Bay Area and Indonesia, Shoemaker plied his craft here for many years, performing with Gamelan Pacifica, presenting “electroacoustic soundscapes” using a laptop and amplified objects, and releasing several solo albums in various formats. His most characteristic music falls under the dark ambient genre: extended pieces built from natural and synthetic sounds woven into a complex and slowly-changing timbral environment.

 

Mutable Depths, available from Bandcamp or as an EP from Ferns Recordings, is my favorite Shoemaker concoction. It begins with the sounds of water and wind, joined by a diverse poltergeist of thumps and creaks. There’s an odd premonition to this combination, as though we’re watching the opening scene of a horror movie. At 3:45 the texture (plot?) thickens to include a continuous crackle that’s soon joined by a squeaky “melody” that seems to be narrating a saga in some sort of extraterrestrial pseudo-avian language. (Shoemaker, like Messiaen, liked to use musical lines that imitate bird calls, and he once spent several weeks in the Amazon recording the songs of tropical birds.)

At 6:00 we start to hear an irregular pounding sound, but it and the squeaky obbligato soon give way to a rich composite texture that’s so typical of dark ambient: static overall, but constantly changing and evolving at the micro level. Whatever strange world has been dialed up is now fully upon us. Feedback sounds begin to come in from various directions, and the crackling sound returns more animated than before. But what might have seemed ominous at first passes over us peacefully. After a while, the feedback drifts away, and by 19:00 most of the bottom has dropped out of the soundscape, leaving the crackle to dissipate alone into the distance.

I enjoy listening to this music at bedtime—beautiful, relaxing, with no distracting drumbeat or isolated loud sounds, it’s a thinking person’s modern lullaby. What sets it apart from most ambient and drone music is the skill and complexity of the sonic layering, and the sense that a narrative is unfolding that’s open-ended enough to accommodate the projections of our own imagination.

You can read more about Shoemaker in memoirs published by The Stranger and Tiny Mix Tapes. And in the deal of the century, one of his record labels, Helen Scarsdale Agency, is offering two of his CDs (Spots in the Sun and Erosion of the Analogous Eye) for only the cost of shipping. Take advantage of this while their stock lasts, and listen to his music with both regret for a career prematurely silenced and gratitude for its highlights that remain available for us to enjoy.

Women in (New) Music: Remembering Ana-Maria Avram (1961–2017)

by Michael Schell

The new music community was stunned to hear of Ana-Maria Avram’s sudden passing on August 1. Born in Bucharest in 1961, she studied in both Romania and France, acquiring from the latter an admiration for spectralism, a way of composing that focuses on tone color as a primary musical parameter and places an emphasis on forms built from continuous processes rather than delineated sections. Throughout a prolific career she remained aligned with this philosophy, becoming one of her country’s best known living composers and a leader in what has become known as Romanian spectralism.

Together with her husband and collaborator Iancu Dumitrescu, Avram co-directed the Hyperion Ensemble, performing extensively in Romania, France, and the UK, and releasing dozens of recordings on the Edition Modern label. In the above video, you can see her conducting Hyperion in her piece Orbit of Eternal Grace (II). Scored for chamber orchestra, computer sounds and two “dueling” clarinet soloists (one on bass clarinet the other on basset horn), it shows the influence not only of spectralists like the Frenchman Grisey and Avram’s compatriot Rădulescu, but also sonorist composers like Xenakis, Ligeti and Penderecki.

Also evident is the influence of American free jazz, and indeed Avram’s most recognizable trait may be the way she dances along the border between formal, composed music and free improv. Her frequent collaborators included the veteran English improvisers Chris Cutler and Ian Hodgkinson (both alumni of the avant-rock band Henry Cow), and in the video Hodgkinson is the soloist to Avram’s right. Orbit of Eternal Grace reminds me of some of the ensemble works of Anthony Braxton, himself a musician readily at home in both improvised and composed music worlds.

Avram grew up under the Ceaușescu dictatorship, where embracing the musical avant-garde was itself a kind of tacet challenge to the prevailing authoritarianism. Her music always seems to convey a certain transgressive thrill—as though reveling in the liberty to work directly with the raw materials of sound, to play instruments the “wrong” way, to build a personal musical language without any hummable melodies or government-approved chord progressions.

But not all of her music is as aggressive as Orbit of Eternal Grace. Her Zodiaque (III) is slow and soothing, built from a synthesized drone on low E-flat and its natural harmonics. Peeking through the texture are various sharp gestures on two prepared pianos, often played directly on the strings. It sounds like Éliane Radigue jamming with George Crumb. In the video (which misidentifies the title) she is heard performing the piece with Dumitrescu.

Zodiaque reveals Avram as an accomplished electronic musician, and she could often be seen in performance conducting an ensemble while coaxing computer-generated sounds from her laptop. That’s on display in her Four Orphic Sketches for female voice, ensemble and live electronics. Its sound world, including the eschewal of a text in favor of nonsense syllables, is close to that of Ligeti’s Aventures. The video below includes some shots of the score, which uses graphic notation, reflecting Avram’s view of a musical text as “a base from which to fly away.”

All told, Avram wrote over 100 compositions, ranging from fixed media works and solo instrumental pieces to works for full orchestra. She also co-organized music festivals in Romania, and volunteered for several new music advocacy organizations. As if that weren’t enough, she was also a capable pianist, as evinced in her performance of some arrangements of Romanian folksongs collected by Bartók. There’s much more from her available on YouTube and SoundCloud.

It’s tough to lose someone as talented as Avram, especially at the premature age of 55. But we can at least be grateful that she left as much behind as she did—a testament to her passion for sound and her devotion to musical freedom.

ALBUM REVIEW: John Cage’s Music for Speaking Percussionist by Bonnie Whiting

by Michael Schell

One of the more esoteric musical subgenres that emerged in the 1970s is the “talking instrumentalist” piece. Frederic Rzewski composed and performed many piano works where the performer recites a text while playing, and thanks to the contrabass virtuoso Bertram Turetzky, we now have a number of talking double bass pieces in the repertory. Even wind players have gotten into the act, including Seattle’s own Stuart Dempster, who in Robert Erickson’s General Speech recites General Douglas MacArthur’s retirement speech through a trombone.

Now we can add Bonnie Whiting to this distinguished list. Head of Percussion Studies at the University of Washington, she has made a specialty out of commissioning and performing speaking percussionist pieces. In her debut album from Mode Records, she turns her attention to John Cage (1912–1992), famous both for his witty creative writings and for his groundbreaking percussion compositions.

The centerpiece of the album is a 51-minute track titled—appropriately enough—51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist. It’s a personal showcase for Whiting, who has been performing it since 2010, including at Seattle’s 2016 John Cage Musicircus. Since Cage did not write any compositions that explicitly call for a talking percussionist, Whiting combines two chance-determined “time length” pieces from the 1950s that Cage suggested could be performed simultaneously.

Whiting performing 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist at the John Cage Musicircus, Town Hall, Seattle, November 2016. Photo by Lee Goldman.

The first, 45’ for a Speaker, was built by Cage out of randomly selected excerpts from several of his contemporaneous lectures. These mostly come across as juxtaposed humorous vignettes, rather like his later Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), which Second Inversion profiles here. The pacing of the words varies, so Whiting’s vocal delivery is sometimes rapid, sometimes sparse, and there are many long silences. Cage supplied a fixed script, which is published in his collection Silence.

By contrast, the score of the accompanying piece, 27’10.554” for a Percussionist, is open-ended, specifying only the timing of notes, their relative loudness, and whether their sound source should be wood, metal, drumhead, or “anything else.” It’s up to Whiting to assemble a suitable battery for the task, something that she does with aplomb, using both conventional and “junk” instruments. As with 45’ for a Speaker, the timing of the percussion music ranges from very active to very sparse, but since it’s always in free rhythm it’s mainly up to the text to convey a sense of tempo and beat.

Although Whiting’s playing occasionally drowns out her voice (this is by design!), her diction is clear, and the text is usually intelligible—even if owing to its chance selection it doesn’t always make normal sense. Whiting’s light and agile speaking voice offers a refreshing contrast to all the male voices that have traditionally dominated recordings of this kind of piece, and the feat of covering both vocal and instrumental roles at the same time is an impressive tour de force. Listening to it is like imagining Gertrude Stein deliver a lecture on modern music in a room occupied by a crazy robotic drum corps.

Excerpt from Whiting’s annotated score to 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist.

The following track, Music for Two (By One), lasts a more modest 13 minutes and was similarly fashioned by Whiting from two different Cage pieces, one for voice and one for percussion. Both were written with indeterminate notation, and both come from his late collection Music for _____ (completed in 1987). Here the texts are bare letters and isolated syllables, so the emphasis is on tone color rather than meaning. Though the texture is relatively thin, as in 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist, the result is more compact and integrated. In Whiting’s hands, it makes a nice entry point to this style of Cage piece.

A different side of Cage is revealed in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, a tiny classic for voice and piano from 1942. It was this work that launched Cage’s lengthy artistic engagement with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Clearly astonished by that unique monument of 20th century literature, Cage seems to have endeavored to stand back and let the text speak for itself as much as possible. After selecting a passage depicting a child’s lullaby, Cage wrote the voice part using just three pitches. For the piano part, Cage doesn’t even open the instrument, instead simply directing the performer to tap and rap on the closed cover and lid. He could hardly have intervened any less while still having set Joyce’s words to music!

Although The Wonderful Widow is fully written out in standard notation, Cage’s humble approach to his source material anticipates the even more ego-effacing attitude evinced in his later, chance-determined works. Whiting tackles the piece as another solo effort, doing both the singing and the piano tapping. The softness and simplicity of her interpretation gives it an unmistakably nurturing tone—a kind of release after the complex tracks preceding it.

Excerpts from Cage’s autograph of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Two more tracks wrap up the album: Cage’s A Flower (which is a kind of companion work to The Wonderful Widow) and a performance by Whiting’s frequent collaborator Allen Otte, where he plays Cage’s prepared piano piece Music for Marcel Duchamp while reciting a text and adding frame drum embellishments.

For an album with such a focused concept, John Cage: Music for Speaking Percussion offers an admirable range of musical experiences. Mode Records is making it available both in conventional audio formats and as a Blu-ray Disc, with the latter featuring a video interview with Whiting and Otte and HD footage of all the works in performance, thus conveying the theatricality that’s so impressive when you see them live. The release is Volume 52 (!) in Mode’s longstanding project to record Cage’s complete compositions, and it’s essential listening for enthusiasts of Cage or percussion music. Here’s hoping that there’s much more yet to come from both Bonnie Whiting and Mode Records.

 

György Ligeti’s Musical Odyssey

by Michael Schell

When Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters in 1968, it caused quite a stir. Here was a major Hollywood feature film that had no famous actors and very little dialog (indeed none at all during its first and last 25 minutes), a soundtrack built mainly from classical music matched to the imagery with extraordinary symbiosis, and an ambiguous ending that owed more to the aesthetics of experimental cinema than to conventional narrative filmmaking. Although the space age had inspired plenty of science fiction movies, Kubrick’s Odyssey was unique, and it remains so today even on the cusp of its 50th anniversary.

In popular culture, the most iconic music from 2001 seems to be Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (the first 21 bars anyway), followed by the Blue Danube Waltz and the most degenerate rendition ever of Bicycle Built for Two. But connoisseurs of modern music are drawn to the evocative compositions of György Ligeti (1923–2006) that anchor the film’s monolith and stargate sequences.

With digital projection technology making it easier for traditional concert venues to screen big Hollywood movies, orchestras have begun presenting Kubrick’s classic with live musicians instead of a canned soundtrack—and on June 30 and July 1, Seattle Symphony will do just that, joined by the Seattle Symphony Chorale, Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta, and the vaunted technical crew at Benaroya Hall. Leading up to this will be three concerts June 22-24 featuring the first complete Seattle performances of one of the Ligeti works excerpted in the soundtrack, the Requiem.

After 2001’s release, Ligeti fans quickly embraced it as a landmark for evangelizing his work (“You remember the music in 2001 when the astronaut goes through the stargate? That was Ligeti.”). But it turned out Kubrick had never even contacted Ligeti about the film—and when the composer first saw it, he was furious at the unauthorized use of his compositions. Lawyers eventually worked out the licensing, tempers cooled down, and Kubrick went on to use Ligeti’s music again (this time with the composer’s blessing) in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Meanwhile, 2001 exposed Ligeti’s music to a wide audience, though for better or worse it was now associated with “space music.” But who was this Ligeti fellow anyway, and what was this strange music all about if it wasn’t written specifically for sci-fi flicks?

Early Years

Ligeti was born in Transylvania, a Hungarian-speaking border region that changed nationality twice during his youth (it’s now part of Romania). The family name is Hungarian, accented on the first syllable, and György is pronounced like “George.” A secular Jew of military age during World War II, he defied the odds by avoiding both conscription to the Eastern Front (where hundreds of thousands of Hungarian soldiers died) and deportation to the Nazi death camps (where most of his family perished).

Ligeti came of age musically in the heavily-censored environment of post-War communist Hungary, where contact with contemporary classical music was suppressed, and even a national hero like Bartók was considered dangerously subversive. Most of Ligeti’s music from this time is folkloristic, but his best early composition, the First String Quartet (subtitled Métamorphoses Nocturnes), shows the clear influence of Bartókian modernism, even surreptitiously incorporating a four-note lick from the master’s “decadent” Fourth String Quartet as a recurring ritornello.

In 1956 Soviet tanks brutally suppressed a popular uprising in Hungary, and Ligeti escaped to Vienna, eventually becoming an Austrian citizen. He took advantage of his new freedom to immerse himself in the post-War avant-garde, attending the famous Darmstadt Courses, and getting to know leading European composers like Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Penderecki, as well as American figures like John Cage and David Tudor.

Middle Years and Atmospheres

After some experiments with tape music, Ligeti decided that when it came to creating new sounds, conventional instruments playing in unconventional ways could outclass the simple electronic music instruments available at the time. So he created a remarkable series of scores whose exploration of sheer instrumental timbre was unprecedented in Western music.

Atmospheres (from 1961) is perhaps the purest expression of Ligeti’s new aesthetic, in which tone color is elevated to a role equal to or greater in importance than pitch and rhythm. Atmospheres has no recognizable tunes or distinctive rhythms, making it the ideal accompaniment for the entry of 2001 astronaut Dave Bowman into the stargate (a sequence that’s devoid of representational imagery).

Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners whose first exposure to Atmospheres is over the radio or through the soundtrack to 2001 assume that the piece is electronic—but it’s actually written for large orchestra. Ligeti discovered that sustained tone clusters—where all the available chromatic pitches within a specific range are sounded together—diminish one’s sense of definite pitch, leaving behind an impression of pure timbre and register. The piece starts off this way, pianissimo, with the full string section, joined by some horns and woodwinds, holding a chromatic cluster of notes distributed across four and a half octaves. At 4:21 in the above video, the double basses grind out a low cluster that ranges down to the orchestra’s bottommost C.

Rather than coalescing into a chord, this cluster sounds more like a dark pool of color. It soon dissolves into a new sonority, made up of the remaining bowed strings individually sliding stepwise along a narrow range, a technique that Ligeti called micropolyphony. It looks incredibly complicated in the score excerpt—each player’s part is separately notated in 2/2 time with extreme rhythmic precision. But Ligeti’s notation is designed to synchronize the musicians and control the density of the texture without conveying any kind of beat. The effect is that of a slowly moving cloud, like a swarm of insects, with little sense of individually distinguishable line.

Any composer can write a piece like this today, but it was Ligeti who demonstrated how these astonishing sounds could be coaxed out of an ensemble and organized into a new musical language that we now call sonorism.

Aventures

Not all of Ligeti’s music from the 1960s was of the sonorist variety. Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures are closer to the pointillist style common in Europe after World War II, though their craft and invention places them above the pack. Scored for three singers and chamber ensemble, they use no conventional text, only nonsense syllables together with a host of extended vocal techniques, such as the audible breathing at the start of Aventures that’s depicted in the score using triangular note heads:

Poème Symphonique at Benaroya Hall, October 2012 with Ludovic Morlot in the background.

There’s also no explicit libretto, though the singers do seem to be acting out some sort of unspecified comedic drama. Ligeti, like Cage, could deploy humor when he needed to, and that often gave him an edge over his more chronically serious European colleagues. A two-minute electronically filtered excerpt from Aventures accompanies Dave Bowman’s breathing as he walks through his extraterrestrial chambers in the final scene of 2001.

Ligeti’s sense of humor also comes out in a few unabashed “joke” pieces, like the Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes. Ligeti unveiled it in 1962 as a bit of Fluxus levity, but the gradually decaying clatter of the mechanical devices had its serious side which found expression later in several rhythmically driven “metronome” pieces, such as the third movement of the Second String Quartet, a landmark of the 20th century quartet repertory that applies sonorism to the intimate sphere of chamber music.

Requiem and Lux Aeterna

Ligeti’s Requiem (completed in 1965) combines his sonorist and pointillist styles into a single epic work for large choir and orchestra and two solo female voices. It’s arguably one of the three greatest 20th century Requiem settings, along with Britten’s War Requiem and Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles (all written in the 1960s by non-Catholics). The fact that it has taken half a century to mount a performance of it in Seattle is testament to its difficulty.

The opening introit, Requiem æternam dona eis Domine, is in the style of Atmospheres. The dynamic range is from soft (p) to extraordinarily soft (pppp), and except for the line exaudi orationem meam (“hear my prayer”) growled by the basses midway through, the movement progresses gradually upward from bass to treble clusters—an obvious metaphor for ascension. At about five minutes in comes the last line, et lux perpetua luceat eis (“and may everlasting light shine upon them”), where Ligeti brings in a bright cluster featuring flutes and string harmonics. It’s like a gentle beam of white light illuminating the afterlife.

The Kyrie appears in 2001’s monolith and stargate sequences. It’s a classic example of micropolyphony that took the composer nine months to write. Ligeti gives groups of choristers distinct entries where they start out in unison (supported by sustained orchestral notes), then fan out in disparate lines whose movement accelerates as their range expands—like a creek that divides into multiple channels as it descends a cascade (click here to see the score). Except for some initial consonants, you can’t really make out any words. Incredibly, the form is very similar to the great choral fugues of Handel and Haydn, but in place of the latter’s triumphalism the effect here is more like a subdued mob of humanity desperately pleading for mercy.

The Dies Irae shifts to the pointillist style of Aventures, but without the latter’s humor (divine justice is serious business!). The crazy leaps in the soloists’ parts have been likened to “the Queen of the Night on acid,” and the accompanying tumult, inspired by Renaissance depictions of the Last Judgment by Memling, Bruegel, Bosch, and Dürer, was aptly described by the composer as “hysterical, hyperdramatic, and unrestrained.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Last Judgment.

After this ordeal, the closing Lacrimosa prayer functions as something of a release. It begins with a pedal on the orchestra’s lowest C, and progresses through a sound world similar to the introit, but it’s more transparent, with several textures featuring extreme lows and highs with little in the middle. The ending is ambiguous: a high cluster seems to offer illuminating hope, but the last word goes to the bass instruments, as if to reflect a fundamental ambivalence.

Ligeti’s Requiem only sets a portion of the traditional text of the Catholic Mass for the Dead. A few years later, he wrote a separate setting of the closing Lux Aeterna communion for 16 a cappella voices. It’s the last Ligeti piece excerpted in 2001, where it accompanies the moon shuttle sequence, and it resembles the vocal writing in the Requiem’s Kyrie movement, though the lines move more slowly and the texture is more transparent. An interesting detail is that the first half of Lux emphasizes female voices while the latter half emphasizes men’s. Today the work is recognized as one of the classics of postmodern choral music.

Later Years

Ligeti’s sonorist period culminated in 1977 with Le Grand Macabre, his only full length opera. The success of its farcical, surrealist libretto, adapted from a play by Michel de Ghelderode, is still debated. But there’s little debate about the caliber of the music, which is colorful, varied, and unashamed of its voluptuous sound surface.

After Le Grand Macabre Ligeti, like Beethoven, was quiet for a few years before reinventing himself in a third style period that combined avant-garde techniques with more traditional forms. What his middle period music did for timbre, his late music does for rhythm, and one often hears the distilled influence of African indigenous music, American minimalism, and the polymetric player piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow.

Many of Ligeti’s most frequently performed works come from this period, including the Piano Etudes and the Violin Concerto which Augustin Hadelich will perform with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in January 2018.

Ligeti’s last major work was the 2002 Hamburg Concerto for one solo horn, four “natural” (valveless) horns, and orchestra. He contemplated writing a second opera based on Alice in Wonderland, but old age and ill health curtailed his compositional activity. He died in 2006, leaving behind his wife Vera and his son Lukas, himself a noted composer and drummer based in the U.S.

But this hardly scratches the surface of one of 20th century music most resourceful and multi-faceted characters: a cosmopolitan intellectual who taught composition in the local language at universities in Hungary, Germany, Sweden, and the U.S., and who could additionally speak French and Romanian; an atheist Jew who wrote one of the most important Requiems of all time; a gregarious and generous man who spent countless years haunted by the specter of death and evil; and an artist as demanding in his craft as he was daring in his aesthetics, notorious for insisting on precise execution of his meticulous performance directions. He had that in common with Kubrick, who was likewise infamous for his obsessive preparation and endless takes. By the end of their careers, both men were considered by many to be the best in the world at their profession. Perhaps their ultimate affinity was that of a lifetime devoted to perfecting new horizons.

“Dave, I can’t put my finger on it, but I sense something strange about him. He keeps listening to this weird modern music.”


The Seattle Symphony performs Ligeti’s Requiem on June 22-24 and 2001: A Space Odyssey on June 30 and July 1. Click here for tickets and additional information.

Click here for a list of recommended recordings of Ligeti’s music.

Harry Partch: Celebrating a Musical Maverick

by Michael Schell

No composer better fits the “American maverick” moniker than Harry Partch (1901–1974). A genuine U.S. hobo during the Depression era, he invented his own tuning system, built his own instruments, and during the second half of his life managed to scrounge up enough support to leave behind a body of music whose uniqueness and individuality is virtually unprecedented.

Partch riding the rails atop a boxcar. Photo by Levy-Jossman.

Since his music requires specialized instruments and specially-trained musicians, live performances are very special occasions. So we’re particularly fortunate here in the Pacific Northwest to have his original instruments in residence at the University of Washington (see Second Inversion’s virtual tour of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium). And fresh on the heels of Partch’s Oedipus comes another great opportunity to see and hear the instruments: the Harry Partch Celebration at Meany Studio Theater May 31 through June 2, which will feature three concerts of music by the crusty master himself, along with several works by other composers written or arranged for the Partch instruments.

With dozens of pieces and arrangements on the docket (including several premieres), there’s too much music to do justice to in just one article, so what follows is a closer look at a couple works on the program that summarize the vast range of Partch’s music:

Li Po Lyrics and the Adapted Viola

On May 31, Luke Fitzpatrick starts off the Celebration the way Partch started off his career, with a program of music for intoning voice and Adapted Viola. Partch always hated the highly-affected “classical” style of singing, finding it unnatural, and feeling that its emphasis on volume and vibrato came at the expense of diction and nuance.

Searching for a vocal style that was expressive while preserving the comprehensibility of the text, Partch hit on the idea of using microtones (intervals narrower than the half-steps between adjacent piano keys) to simulate the subtle contours of natural speech. He applied his discovery to some texts by Li Po (nowadays spelled Li Bai), an 8th century Chinese lyric poet—one of the greatest ever—who, like Partch, was a wanderer with a noted penchant for alcohol. These ancient texts, so innocent in their emotional directness, and little-known in North America back then, must have struck Partch as an ideal vehicle for his new style.

The grass of Yen is growing green and long
While in Chin the leafy mulberry branches hang low.
Even now while my longing heart is breaking,
Are you thinking, my dear, of coming back to me?
—O wind of spring, you are a stranger.
Why do you enter through the silken curtains of my bower?

The Intruder by Li Po

Listen to Partch performing his setting of this poem in 1949 (above). Notice the ease, the fluency with which the imagery comes through, and the diction is absolutely clear despite the crude acetate recording technology. It doesn’t have all the colors of his later percussion-centric music, but the seeds are clearly there, like comparing an early Beethoven piano sonata to one of his great symphonies.

Partch playing the Adapted Viola, 1933.

The instrument that Partch is playing in the video is his Adapted Viola, built in 1930 to give him a suitable accompanying instrument that was also portable (this being during Partch’s itinerant homeless years). It’s Partch’s earliest surviving original instrument, basically a standard viola with an elongated neck and a flattened bridge. It’s held between the knees to facilitate microtonal slides, and the modified bridge facilitates sustained double and even triple stops. In the recording, when the voice sings “O wind of spring”, the Adapted Viola indeed seems to wail like a mournful wind, perhaps representing the disembodied voice of an unrequited soul.

Adapted Viola fingerboard. Drawing by Irvin Wilson.

To help the player find all those strange microtonal pitches, Partch hammered brads into the fingerboard, giving the instrument a pretty intimidating appearance. The fractions you see in the fingerboard diagram are actually frequency ratios, which Partch used to denote his intervals with a precision not available in conventional notation.

In this score excerpt you can see that he dispenses with the normal five-line staff and just writes the ratios. Those last six ratios in the viola part, for example, are incredibly fine gradations of pitch between concert F♮ and G♮. It takes a lot of practice to read this notation and play those pitches in tune—remember what I said about needing “specially-trained musicians”? Curiously, despite being so precise about pitch, Partch doesn’t bother with rhythmic notation at all, but simply directs performers to follow the natural rhythms of the poem.

Satisfied with his new approach, Partch famously destroyed his earlier, more conventional compositions with a ritual immolation in a pot-bellied stove. He went on to write 17 Li Po Lyrics, all of which will be performed on May 31 using Partch’s original Adapted Viola, recently restored by Charles Corey (Director of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium) and Luke Fitzpatrick after sitting unused in its case for many years. How inspiring it must be to glide ones fingers along the same surface where Partch’s fingers slid 80 years ago!

Over the next four decades, Partch built up his Instrumentarium with the percussion and plucked string instruments that he’s most famous for, but he kept using his Adapted Viola, even including it in his final composition, The Dreamer that Remains (from 1972). This unpretentious instrument, newly reclaimed from the dark, bears witness to a lifetime of discovery and gives eloquent voice to its legacy.

Partch Gets Popular, plus Castor and Pollux

Although Partch wrote most of his music between 1930 and 1966, it wasn’t until later that he really became a cult hero, beloved by listeners that weren’t themselves musicians. The turning point was the 1969 Columbia LP The World of Harry Partch, which was the first modern recording of Partch’s music and its first release on a major record label. The cover photo showing Partch as an old man—that cantankerous-looking bearded iconoclast—with his instruments in the background resonated with the rebellious spirit of the times.

And the Columbia brand got Partch’s music into mainstream record stores and FM airwaves. The LP featured definitive performances of three great percussion-centric Partch compositions, including Daphne of the Dunes and the notorious Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California, whose irreverent and downright naughty texts by a few frustrated Depression-era drifters attracted the attention of novelty DJs like Dr. Demento, thus exposing Partch’s music to millions of young listeners outside the usual classical music crowd.

But it’s the last track on this LP, Castor and Pollux, that eventually became my favorite Partch piece. Conceived for dance, it’s slated for the June 2 concert and will be performed with choreography by Stephanie Liapis—a very rare opportunity to see the piece staged as Partch intended!

As befits its subject (the celestial twins of Greek mythology), the work is in two halves. Each half consists of three instrumental duets, followed by a sextet where all three duets are played simultaneously. In contrast to the speech-driven rhythms of the 17 Li Po Lyrics and their simple voice and viola texture, Castor and Pollux is a lively, beat-driven piece showcasing a battery of Partch’s most characteristic percussion and plucked string instruments.

Excerpt from Partch’s Castor.

Each of the duets last 234 beats. In the first half (Castor) the music alternates between 4 and 5 beats to a bar, and there’s usually a rest on the eighth of the nine beats. In the second half (Pollux) the rhythm’s a bit more complicated, with six bars of 7 beats alternating with six bars of 9 beats until 234 beats are reached. Of course, Partch had to compose the duets so that they’d sound good both separately and together.

Like many of Partch’s works, Castor and Pollux was conceived as a complete aesthetic experience: musical and visual—what Partch called “corporeality.” And seeing the piece performed live helps to follow its unique structure.

Partch’s was an art with no phoniness to it—among the most authentic ever conceived by one person. It belongs alongside that of Ives, Varèse, Cage and Sun Ra in the pantheon of great American composers who created a unique musical identity from a deeply personal world view. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you owe it to yourself to experience the sight and sound of the Partch instruments up close and live while you can!


The Harry Partch Celebration is May 31 through June 2 at Meany Studio Theater at the University of Washington. For tickets and additional information, click here.

Women in (New) Music: Remembering Pauline Oliveros

Tribute event added: Deep Listening: Stuart Dempster on Sunday, December 11 at Henry Art Gallery, 12:30pm-1:3pm

Introduction by Maggie Molloy with subsequent contributions from staff and community members

“Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening,” Pauline Oliveros said in her 1998 keynote address at the ArtSci98 symposium.

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Nearly 20 years later, those words have come to encapsulate the astonishing legacy left behind by the late composer, who died on November 24 at the age of 84. An artist, accordionist, and pioneer of experimental and electronic art music, Oliveros is remembered for her revolutionary tape experiments, her poetic and aleatoric musical scores, her groundbreaking musical philosophies, and above all, her unwavering devotion to the exploration of sound.

Oliveros investigated new ways of listening to music, most notably through her philosophies of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness,” ideas which explored the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature of listening.

Throughout her career, her music and her teachings promoted experimentation, improvisation, collaboration, and discovery—and her work inspired not only musicians, but also artists, scientists, philosophers, and everyday people to think critically about the way we listen.

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To celebrate her lasting legacy, we asked Second Inversion staff and community members to share some of their favorite memories and musical works by the extraordinary Oliveros.


I first met Pauline through my teacher, mentor, and friend: Stuart Dempster. She was visiting Seattle when I was in graduate school at UW, and I had the honor of talking with her about music. That led me down a decades-long rabbit-hole of deep listening and sound awareness.

I think that much of the experimental music in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest is deeply influenced by her work and teachings. So many of the artists I work with and play with in Seattle have a connection to her musical thinking. I know that her influence and reach is national and global. But there is something about the work in this part of the country that owes a great debt to her long and dedicated explorations. She will be missed, and we are all fortunate for her body of work. Listen.

Tom Baker, Professor of Composition at Cornish College of the Arts


I never formally studied with Pauline, but I learned a lot from her and consider her a mentor as well as a colleague and friend. She was always supportive and encouraging, always so present. Her generosity and boundless curiosity were inspiring, she never stopped being open to and learning new things.

I love that her main instrument was the accordion, which some consider an anachronism, yet she was consistently on the cutting edge of new technological developments. I would be a very different composer (perhaps not one at all) and possibly even a very different person without her influence and example.

Steve Peters, Seattle-based composer, sound artist, producer, curator, and writer


Dear Pauline

thank you for your guidance
as we struggle
to hear beyond
what we see
and even what we think
as we try to
silence our busy
minds
and find instead
that silence is not
stillness
but sound moving
us and each other

between us
and within us
we are
busy seeking order
and you taught us
that sound moving from one
to the other
is merely truth
and all else flows
just from that
sound
that moves

Heather Bentley, violist and co-founder of North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO)


My first exposure to Pauline’s music was with the tape pieces she made in the 1960s. These often originated as improvisations using simple oscillators processed through filters and elaborate tape delay systems that she designed herself. Pauline was intrigued by the sustained sounds of modern life, things like motors, ventilation systems and electric hum. So rather than simply tune oscillators to static pitches, she created complex electronic drones that simulated the “myriad shifting of a constant tone or noise” in real-life drones.

I love the quivering, trembling sonorities in “Once again / Buchla piece” and the intense crackling sounds in “Big Mother Is Watching You,” which dates from 1966 but resembles a lot of today’s dark ambient music. Pauline was one of the true godparents of ambient, and was also an enormous trailblazer for women in electronic music.

I first met Pauline at a 1984 conference in Ohio where the evening concert billed her, Jerry Hunt, Urban 15 and myself (all Texas natives!). Frank Zappa had just delivered a funny but acerbic keynote speech railing against both the music industry and university composers. Since the latter comprised the bulk of the audience, there was a bit of tension in the hall, but it soon dissipated when Pauline opened with one of her soothing solo accordion and electronics sets. Nevertheless, my heart still belongs to those gritty early tape pieces!

Michael Schell, Seattle-based composer and intermedia artist


I’ve just recently come to Seattle. I remember the feeling that came over me the moment the plane’s wheels left the ground the second time I traveled to this city: I’m going home. When I realized the place where John Cage’s prepared piano was born was a few minutes away by public transit, it was startling and wondrous. Now, when I discover that the immensely echoic cistern that gave name to Pauline Oliveros’s “Deep Listening” is just on the other side of the Sound at Fort Warden in Port Townsend, I am unsurprised.

This place calls for it. It calls for transformative listening, for progressing the world by observing it, getting it. Maybe it’s something in the air that wanted to be filled with 45-second reverberations.

 

Maybe it’s something in the water. Maybe it’s what we call the water:

 

Sound.

 

Jacob Mashak, Seattle-based composer, conductor and variable instrumentalist


In the most basic sense, the heart of every great composer’s talent is a heightened ability to communicate. The psychology of Pauline Oliveros’ creations is one of communication and the bringing-together of souls, and many of her works use a Cage-like aleatoric element to achieve this in a way that is very physical and immediate. I am particularly awed by the power of To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, which harnesses collective improvisation to reconcile the community and the individual, and to present a sonic memorial to the experiences of Solanas and Monroe. Bringing together a sex symbol and a feminist thinker as the work’s subject matter helps highlight the similarities in their vastly different lives. Solanas wrote SCUM Manifesto, which has been translated into over a dozen languages and is excerpted in several feminist anthologies, and was first read by Oliveros in 1968. Both women suffered at the hands of men, and both lives were marked by violence, as Monroe killed herself and Solanas attempted to kill Andy Warhol. As Oliveros said, “Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality.” Her composition asks the performers to choose five pitches each and to play very long tones, modulated or unmodulated. In the middle section of the piece the performers are invited to imitate each other‘s pitches and modulations. If any one player becomes dominant, the rest of the group should rise up and absorb that dominance back into the texture, “expressing at the deep structure what the SCUM Manifesto meant.” It’s a fascinating work in its conception, powerful in its execution.

Geoffrey Larson, KING FM and Second Inversion host/contributor and Music Director of Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra


Pauline Oliveros does not allow listeners to cut corners; whenever you sit down for one of her pieces, you’re in for the long haul temporally, intellectually, and emotionally. Although she was not a “minimalist,” her music does have a similar effect (at least on me). By wrenching listeners out of their normal experience of time, she creates experiences that are nearly automatically profound. Sound Geometries for chamber orchestra, expanded instrument system (EIS), and 5.1 surround sound is an excellent way to experience her special use of time. This piece puts familiar instruments through a compositional filter that yields a soundscape only reminiscent of the idiomatic uses of those instruments in the faintest of ways; these sounds do not represent those of a traditionally-structured ensemble. That is one of the reasons why Pauline Oliveros’s music is good for us; it stretches us in a way that we desperately need and reminds us to seek the expressive limits of the tools we already have.

Seth Tompkins, Second Inversion host/contributor


I first encountered the work of Pauline Oliveros through her witty feminist deconstruction of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Her 1965 piece, titled “Bye Bye Butterfly,” is a real-time tape-delay collage work which utilizes a recording of Puccini’s opera—along with two oscillators, two amplifiers in cascade, one turntable with record, and two recorders in a delay setup.

But the cool thing is, you don’t have to be a 1960s electronic music gearhead to understand and appreciate it. Amplified sounds oscillate through sky-high frequencies amidst haunting excerpts of the Puccini classic, transforming the operatic arias into an eerie, intergalactic sound experiment.

Composed at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (which Oliveros co-founded in 1962 along with a number of other musical giants of the avant-garde), the significance of “Bye Bye Butterfly” is twofold: not only was it a bold departure from the classical traditions of the past, but it was also a pointed commentary on centuries of socially-prescribed gender roles.

Ultimately, Oliveros’ Puccini deconstruction was a critique of Butterfly’s tragic fate—her life defined and ultimately destroyed by a society that insists on male dominance. The piece ushered in a new generation of classical music, bidding farewell, as Oliveros wrote, “not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.”

Maggie Molloy, Second Inversion host/contributor


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Photo courtesy Steve Peters