Theory of Mashup: Remembering The Residents’ Hardy Fox (1945–2018)

by Michael Schell

The Residents in 1979.

Aim the searchlight of American Maverickism at the regions where prog rock, synthesizer music and multimedia intersect, and you’ll soon discover The Residents, the quirky San Francisco band known for eyeball masks, offbeat albums like Eskimo and The Third Reich ‘n Roll, and audio-visual projects such as the touring Mole Show and the interactive CD-ROM Freak Show. Active since 1971, the group labors anonymously, shrouding its members’ identities in layers of obfuscation and misdirection erected as a safeguard against vanity and commercialism—a concept they call theory of obscurity.

Hardy Fox in 2015 film Theory of Obscurity.

Anonymity can be hard to maintain in an era of Internet searches, fan forums and digital voice/image analysis. And for several years the suspicions of Residents fans have been focused on two former Louisiana Tech roommates listed as employees of the band’s management company. One is Homer Flynn, ostensibly the group’s art director, but despite repeated repudiations widely considered to also be its vocalist and lyricist. The other is Hardy Fox, who died of brain cancer on October 30, not long after admitting that despite his own decades of denial, he was indeed The Residents’ longtime keyboard player and principal composer.

Tributes to Fox have been flowing in print publications, social media and the web, most of them concentrating on The Residents’ most popular works—impious songs such as “Santa Dog” and “Hello Skinny”, or the more poignant recessional from the Mole Show. But in deference to the spirit behind theory of obscurity, now seems a good time to single out a lesser-known item lurking in the periphery of The Residents’ canon that might better represent pure, undiluted Fox.

The Thumb of Christ

Pollex Christi, supposedly written by a German composer named N. Senada (one of The Residents’ many sarcastic pseudonyms, this one punning a city in Baja California), appeared in 1997 on a limited edition CD. It’s a 20-minute synthesizer piece with occasional bits of drums and other conventional instruments mixed in—essentially a solo studio composition by Fox. It’s uncharacteristic of most Residents projects in being entirely instrumental and untexted, but it is characteristic in a different respect: it’s made up entirely of quoted material, mostly works by famous dead Germans.

The piece begins with the iconic four-note motto that launches Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Ives used the same motif throughout his Concord Sonata, calling it “an oracle—the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries.” But Fox’s hipster oracle would rather hit the weed than a hymnal, and Ives’ prudish transcendentalism has been exchanged for a more materialist kind of channel surfing. We quickly slide into a paraphrase of the opening of Orff’s Carmina Burana, followed by a short Valkyrie ride on synth and baritone sax. After a whiff of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, we return to Carmina Burana, which goes on to contribute several extended passages to the proceedings.

Since this is The Residents, and not Switched-On Bach, high German is obliged to share the stage with low American. Three times the masters’ descended wisdom pauses to allow the theme songs from Peter Gunn, Star Trek and Popeye the Sailor to pass. Wagner returns in the form of a passage from the Tristan prelude that’s presented basically intact, but his overture to Tannhäuser is bowdlerized into a four-beat disco groove. When Orff has the floor, the music is often shifted to the minor mode, giving it an oddly dark tone (the normally celebratory Meadow Dance, for example, assumes a particularly sinister character in Pollex Christi). And throughout the piece, the selection of intentionally cheesy synthesizer patches, often with exaggerated vibrato, keeps the tribute an impertinent one. Fox said “I love all the music I mess up. It is my amusement park.”

The Residents on Night Music (NBC, 1989).

Onward and Outward

Fox’s style of synth mashup reached its apogee in an even more obscure album called Codgers on the Moon (2012), where, using a new alias (“Charles Bobuck”), he appropriates Stravinsky as source material in an especially arcane way that owes something to Igor’s own appropriation of Tchaikovsky in The Fairy’s Kiss. Along with Pollex Christi, Codgers offers an insight back into the more familiar world of the Residents’ famous American Composers Series albums of the mid-1980s, which featured covers of Gershwin, Sousa, James Brown and Hank Williams. The latter’s “Kaw-Liga”, reinterpreted with a pop beat and a bass line cribbed from Michael Jacksons’s “Billie Jean”, is a particular favorite of Residents cognoscenti. The band’s newest release, I Am a Resident! (2018), may be the ultimate mashup, wherein the band remixes covers of its songs submitted by its own fans.

Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox at Johansson Projects, Oakland, in 2011. Behind them is Flynn’s artwork for The Third Reich ‘n Roll.

With Fox’s passing, The Ghost of Hope (2017) now enters the books as his final Residents album. It’s a collection of songs about train wrecks whose closing number, “Killed at a Crossing”, describes the death of a woman who had worked as an able typist, realtor and detective while living under several false identities. Committing suicide on the tracks, her body and effects are scattered by the impact of a locomotive, dispersing the artifacts of a life marked by an odd mix of integrity and duplicity:

Leaving random relics
Like leaves after the wind
She called herself Mrs. Orwell
And Mrs. Burton Bain
And Arabella Campbell
And Mrs. Arthur Payne

It seems an apt epitaph for Fox and the band he co-founded half a century ago, whose diffuse influence can be found among ambient musicians like Brian Eno, New Wave groups like Devo and Talking Heads, video artists like John Sanborn, and even celebrity acts like Penn & Teller. The surviving members of The Residents continue to record and perform, attuned like Fox to the fulfillment of their own expectancies. It’s a loop that never quite closes, unsure whether it is on familiar ground or venturing somewhere quite new.

Eye Music Revives a Memento of 1960s Openness

by Michael Schell

Sapporo, excerpt from score page 1.

Seattle’s Eye Music ensemble is a collection of ten-odd musicians specializing in the performance of graphic scores. Their new album on Edition Wandelweiser is a 50-minute traversal of Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo, a 1963 composition that hails from a unique crossroads in music history where East Asian aesthetics were being combined with Western avant-gardism by artists from both traditions eager for a fresh start.

Excerpt from Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo, performed by Eye Music.

Ichiyanagi, born in Kobe in 1933, belongs to the breakout generation of Japanese composers that includes Tōru Takemitsu, Toshiro Mayuzumi and many others. Like his peers, Ichiyanagi saw parallels between the music of Webern (whose emphasis on sparse, isolated sound events was the springboard for the post-WW2 European avant-garde) and traditional Japanese music and painting (which likewise emphasized empty space and time). Eager to exploit this insight, Ichiyanagi came to New York in 1952, studying at Juilliard and later attending John Cage’s lectures at The New School in the company of his bohemian wife, a budding vocalist and conceptual artist named Yoko Ono. The couple returned to Japan in 1961, brought Cage over for his first Japanese tour, then divorced. Shortly thereafter, Ichiyanagi, deeply influenced by the graphic scores of Cage and his associate Earle Brown, composed Sapporo for “any number of performers up to fifteen.”

Ichiyanagi (left) with Mayuzumi and Ono in 1961.

Sapporo’s score consists of several loose-leaf sheets, assigned one per performer. Each sheet contains symbols denoting sustained sounds (horizontal lines), glissandos (angled lines) and short, accented sounds (dots), to be played over the course of the performance, whose duration and instrumentation (conventional or otherwise) are left to the discretion of the interpreters. Additional symbols mandate occasional points of interaction between the performers, but the majority of their actions are uncoordinated, lining up by chance.

The score excerpt above shows how the aesthetic of sparseness is implicit in the notation itself, guaranteeing that regardless of the musicians’ specific choices, the end result will be a slow-moving landscape marked by long tones (often sliding up or down) sprinkled with short sounds. Since the number of symbols on each page is fixed, the density and pacing of the music depends on the chosen length and ensemble size. A brief performance, such as the 14-minute 1972 recording by Ensemble Musica Negativa, will be dense and compact. A more discursive one, like Eye Music’s 50-minute rendering, will be drony and marked by numerous silences. The prevalence of glissandi is part of the work’s distinct sound environment, affirming a characteristic of the most enduring open-form works: that their core identity comes through in any good performance.

An illustrative passage begins at 2:15 of the Eye Music recording (see the linked audio sample above). A long silence is broken by a multiphonic from trombonist Stuart Dempster who plays a D♭ while singing the A♭ below it. This leads into a complex of sustained bowed string and percussion tones accompanied by a deep synth glissando and anchored by a low F♮ from Jay Hamilton’s cello. Dempster reenters with another multiphonic, this one sliding downward. When it concludes, it leaves behind a strange tremulous electric drone on A♮. More long tones from Dempster and flutist Esther Sugai appear before they’re cut off by a sharp pluck on a prepared electric guitar followed by a soft drum stroke. Another silence ensues before the next complex begins at 4:00.

The juxtaposition of silent sections with passages built on continuously-sounding drones and tremolos helps to avoid the sense of rhythmic regularity that often plagues performances of chance music. It also helps to fulfill the essential timelessness implicit in Ichiyanagi’s instructions. A proper performance of Sapporo has no real beginning or ending—it just starts and stops, emerging gently from its surroundings like a Japanese garden.

Eye Music (photo: Rachael Lanzillotta).

As the 1960s faded out, interest in open-form composition began to wane. Most musicians, it turned out, either wanted to be told exactly what to play, or else felt that through improvisation they could produce comparable results without having to share control or credit with a composer. Ichiyanagi returned to writing conventionally notated works, eventually packing an impressive work list with symphonies, operas and concertos for both Western and Japanese instruments. Among the highlights of his later career are Time Sequence (an unusual marriage of minimalist rhythm and atonal harmony reminiscent of Ligeti’s Continuum) and Paganini Personal (one of the more offbeat entries in the seemingly endless line of variations on Paganini’s last violin caprice). Today at 85, this old avant-gardist is regarded as the senior statesman of his craft in Japan.

Ichiyanagi in 2015 (photo: Koh Okabe via Japan Times).

Nevertheless, Sapporo continues to stand as one of the few classics of its genre. And Eye Music’s recording demonstrates why this Pacific Rim-based ensemble is particularly well-suited to its advocacy. With a diverse group of musicians drawn from the local drone, improv and electronic music communities, performing on a combination of conventional and homemade instruments of both acoustic and amplified means, Eye Music delivers an optimal mix of rigor and abandon to Ichiyanagi’s aleatory landmark. In this recording, their first for a major contemporary music label, they offer a snapshot of a zeitgeist best defined by its eager exploration of new freedoms: social, sexual, economic, political…and artistic.

Phill Niblock at 85: Austere, Unpopular, Astounding Minimalism

by Michael Schell

Phill Niblock via Festival Mixtur Barcelona.

As a throng of third generation minimalist composers rides the movement’s most fashionable waves, an intrepid handful of the genre’s pioneers continue to sustain it in its original, unalloyed and uncompromising form. Phill Niblock, who turns 85 today, is one of those pioneers. His austere music and sense-saturating intermedia performances are as powerful today as they were at their inception half a century ago.

Niblock’s path to new music was an unusual one. He studied economics at Indiana University, then worked as a photographer and cinematographer for dancers and jazz musicians. His 1966 film of Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra is a classic of its kind. As Niblock became more involved in the New York arts scene, he outfitted his loft in downtown Manhattan as a studio and performance space that soon became one of North America’s most important venues for avant-garde music and intermedia—a distinction it still holds today, over 1000 events later.

Niblock contemplating his creation myth (photo JJ Murphy).

While this was going on, Niblock, following a path established by La Monte Young (the father of drone music and godfather of the more rhythmically active minimalism practiced by Reich and Glass), began to develop his own variety of drone minimalism. A formative experience came while riding a motorcycle up a Carolina grade behind a slow-moving diesel truck:

Both of our throttles were very open…Soon, the revolutions of our respective engines came to a nearly harmonic coincidence. But not quite. The strong physical presence of the beats resulting from the two engines running at slightly different frequencies put me in such a trance that I nearly rode off the side of the mountain.

In 1968 Niblock unveiled the result of this epiphany, a style of music built from overlapping layers of sustained instrumental tones, usually multitracked recordings of the same instrument playing closely spaced pitches. There’s no melody, no change of dynamics and no pulse—the close, microtonal intervals create their own beats. What distinguishes his music from that of Young, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros and all the other minimalist composers of his generation, is his consistent emphasis on tight, dissonant harmonies.

Early Winter, from 1993, is a typical specimen. Its 44 minutes feature the Soldier String Quartet, two flutists and 38 channels of recorded sound. It starts on an E♮ drone in octaves, with microtonal neighbor tones entering on either side. These intervals increase to minor and major seconds, and gradually the central drone shifts down to D♮ by the end of the piece. The bright instrumental timbres coupled with the dense texture create clashing high-frequency overtones, and this music is best heard with large loudspeakers powerful enough to fill the listening space.

Even the album covers are minimalist.

The arc of Niblock’s career has been as relentless as this one piece. He has continued to make new work, along the way transitioning from analog tape to digital recording to laptop-based tools. But each new composition is an additional data point along an unbroken line. His oeuvre shows no discontinuities, no sudden breakthroughs, no abrupt shifts in style or aesthetics. Individual pieces differ in their details and their range of timbres, but they all inhabit a shared space that allows them to be chained or even superimposed.

Thus, choosing a favorite Niblock composition often comes down to instrumentation. For sleep time I enjoy the clear tones and natural breath sounds of Winterbloom Toos multitracked bass flutes: an enveloping aural blanket without sudden sounds or other distractions. For more intensity, there’s the strident soundscape of Niblock’s Hurdy Gurdy piece. In between is Sweet Potato with Carol Robinson playing a variety of clarinets. Sethwork features an acoustic guitar played with an EBow (a handheld gadget that magnetically stimulates metal-wound strings—it’s normally used with electric guitars). This creates auxiliary buzzes, a cloud of insectoid artifacts that in a Niblockian context seems practically melodic. For hard core listeners, there’s the mammoth Pan Fried 70 (the number is the length in minutes), whose sole sound source is the rubbing of nylon threads attached to piano strings.

The full Niblock effect, though, comes only to those lucky enough to attend a live performance. Most legendary are the annual six-hour winter solstice concerts at his loft that were long a Mecca for the Downtown new music cadre (they still take place, but at Roulette). At their core is an uninterrupted stream of music delivered in loud quadraphonic sound, often enhanced by an ambulatory musician who wanders through the space, doubling pitches from the prerecorded tracks while standing alongside individual audience members.

Accompanying this are several channels of silent video and projected film usually featuring long takes of repetitive human manual labor gathered by Niblock during his travels to dozens of countries all over the world. The movies are minimalistic in their own way, focusing on atomized movement—hands reaching into the frame, the camera moving only to follow the subject—and lacking such traditional cinematic devices as cutaways and reaction shots. In effect, they’re as devoid of gesture as the music is. And just as the music’s rhythm is mainly limited to the natural acoustic interactions of the multitracked sounds, the cinematic rhythms are likewise limited to the intrinsic motion in the shots themselves. You can see an excerpt from Niblock’s film China combined with Early Winter above, and a glimpse of a typical live Niblock intermedia presentation can be seen in this performance preview from the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

With Joan La Barbara in 1975.

As a concert producer, Niblock has had a personal impact on literally hundreds of musicians. As a composer, his influence is prominent in the music of his contemporary Éliane Radigue, several members of the next generation (including Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and Lois V. Vierk), and a multitude of still younger musicians raised on newer digital tools that facilitate the creation of static, multilayered music. Recent examples of the latter include Lea Bertucci’s Sustain and Dissolve (with its multitracked detuned saxophone drones) and Jordan Nobles’ Deep Breath (for multitracked, slowed down flutes).

Today’s conference centers and dance clubs love to tout their “immersive” facilities, equipped with splashy video walls aiming high-tech wallpaper at the attending retinas to the 360° accompaniment of beat-driven consonance. The intent of this encirclement is, ironically, to drive everyone’s attention in the same direction. Meanwhile, in a far less pretentious building on New York’s Centre Street, there remains at least one steadfast practitioner of an art that is likewise immersive but sincere, fueled by an admiration for the complexity of raw sound and a respect for the cycles of shared human experience. Niblock’s art manages to be of our time, but not of our clichés. It invites each of us to foster a personal relationship with its materials, whether abstract or mundane. It proves that you don’t have to be dazzling to be astounding.

Niblock at his loft with Shelley Hirsch (seated) and Katherine Liberovskaya (photo from the Wall Street Journal).

Jerry Hunt (1943–1993): From “Ground” to Legacy

by Michael Schell

Other Minds has just released an attractive little album devoted to composer Jerry Hunt—and this one is personal. Jerry, you see, was a collaborator, friend, and key influence of mine, as well as being one of the most eccentric musical minds that America has produced.

from “Ground” by Jerry Hunt

A lifelong Texan who lived with his partner on a ranch outside Dallas, Jerry is best known for a his solo performances which combined intense electronic music (emanating from homemade interactive instruments) with physical movements, gestures, and vocalizations suggestive of shamanism. That this spectacle was being delivered by one of the most mundane-looking individuals in American music history—bald, slender, fidgety, usually bedecked in an unironed dress shirt and tie, the sort of fellow you’d imagine doing crowd control at some dusty county fair—only added to the mystique. It was like peeping in on the secret ritual of a cryptoelectric Skoal-chewers sect.

Jerry Hunt performing at Roulette, New York, 1983.

Seeing Jerry in action was something that you never forgot, but the music was remarkable in its own right, as evinced by from “Ground” and its single half-hour track. It’s taken from a 1980 studio recital at Berkeley’s KPFA-FM where Jerry used tape playback (inexpensive samplers being still a year away), an assortment of small rattles and bells, and his trademark vocal sounds.

The performance divides into three equal sections. The first features distorted high-pitched sounds that seem to originate from a guitar with a fuzz box and a cheap amp. These eventually transform into a haze of trills, accompanied by rattling and obsessive stuttering on words like “mortgage” and “occasionally” (taken, according to liner notes contributor David Menestres, from George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss). Ten minutes in, all this subsides, to be replaced by a new soundscape based on softer sustained sounds, mostly filtered loops of string orchestra playing. As before, there’s plenty of ritualistic rattling and high frequency chirping, but now the vocalizations are non-verbal. At 21 minutes, the sustained sounds fade out, setting up the final section, which features hand clapping and irregular, percussive synth bounces. Jerry’s vocalizations here are mostly whispers, eventually returning to Fluxus-style stammering on George Eliot texts as we heard in the opening.

I wrote about Jerry in the years just after his early death, comparing him to Harry Partch (both were gay, fascinated by ritual, built custom instruments, and remained tied to their native milieus far from America’s cultural mainstream) and inventorying his direct influence on musicians like Shelley Hirsch who emphasize sound layering and theatricalized performance.

Now, two decades hence, listening to this first new album of Hunt material since 2004, I see that he has also become an important link between the earliest pioneers of live electronic music (Stockhausen, Cage, the Sonic Arts Union, etc.) and today’s denizens of noise music (everything from Merzbow to Paul Lytton to Seattle’s own Driftwood Orchestra). Without video footage to convey his unique performance style, an audio recording such as from “Ground” will always be an incomplete document—somewhat like looking at a black and white photo of a Chagall or a Matisse. But an imperfect record is better than none at all, and it’s great to see that the work of one of America’s most heterodox musical mavericks is still remembered and relevant today.

Oliver Knussen (1952–2018): Music of New Epiphanies

by Michael Schell

Oliver Knussen’s recent passing occasioned an outpouring of tributes to this much-loved British conductor and composer. His most iconic compositions are two one-act operas based on the Maurice Sendak children’s books Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!. With their Sendak-derived décor and full-body costumes they must be seen to be fully appreciated, and there’s an attractive DVD that offers both. Easier to sample online are his orchestral works, which combine the colorful sound world of early 20th century music with a contemporary approach to time and melody.

Knussen’s Horn Concerto from 1994 is a good example. Written for the great Barry Tuckwell, it begins with some woodwind chirps and string harmonics that sound right out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. After some flute flurries reminiscent of early Stravinsky, the soloist enters with the most fragmentary of melodic ideas: a three-note trill that gets longer and more discursive—but hardly more substantial—as it recurs throughout the piece. Though the horn plays almost continuously, its lines are rhetorical and assertive, often beginning with repetitions of that little three-note cell in various guises. It’s an obsessive, postmodern approach to melodic line, quite unlike the neat rounded curves you get in a Mozart or Strauss horn concerto. Knussen’s emphasis is on the soundscape itself, almost like a French impressionist ballet that’s had its melodies removed, causing what was previously introductory or accompanimental to be elevated to the foreground.

Knussen’s chromatic chords and luscious orchestrations often suggest Ravel. One example is a passage toward the end of the Concerto that’s reminiscent of the “Pantomime” from Daphnis et Chloé (with a horn swapped for Ravel’s flute). Knussen is one of the most French-sounding of all British composers, and he was an important influence on younger compatriots like Thomas Adès and Charlotte Bray who favor conventional ensembles, enjoy mixing tonal and atonal harmonies, and embrace the French tradition of sensuous, colorful orchestral writing. His US-based counterparts include many of the New Romantics, such as John Harbison and John Corigliano, but also musicians like Chen Yi, whose octet Sparkle resembles Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks.

If listening to a 19th century concerto is like taking a walk in a familiar neighborhood, then hearing Knussen’s Horn Concerto is like being dropped in a foreign city whose unknown language makes its sights and sounds seem abstract. Sometimes this makes it easier to see the art in previously overlooked details. Knussen’s music is all about the joy in doing just that.

Scott Johnson: Mind Out of Matter, Music Out of Speech

by Michael Schell

Musicians of every stripe have spent centuries exploring the range of vocal expression from straight speaking to pure singing. The development of recording technology has added a few new possibilities to the mix, and one of them, called speech melody, has become closely associated with the American composer Scott Johnson.

Born in 1952, Johnson grew up and studied in Wisconsin. Like Joni Mitchell, he played guitar, moved to New York in his 20s, and for a time fancied himself more of a visual artist than a musician. Johnson quickly integrated into the Downtown New York music scene, performing with Rhys Chatham and Laurie Anderson (before her pop star days), and exploring the regions where minimalism, jazz, rock, and electronic music all came together.

His breakthrough came in 1982 with the album John Somebody, which inaugurated his speech melody technique. Its workings can be easily discerned from the title track (above). Johnson starts with a snippet of recorded speech, then makes it into a tape loop as Steve Reich had done in his piece Come Out:

Johnson then fashions a guitar melody that aligns with the contour and rhythm of the speech, and plays this melody in sync with the loop. Accompanying chords, extra tracks of looped speech and guitar obbligatos, and an increasingly dense texture soon follow by way of musical development.

Photo by Patricia Nolan.

Johnson compares his speech transcription style to Messiaen’s practice of transcribing bird songs for use in compositions. He also cites the call-and-response patterns common in blues (as in this exchange between Bessie Smith and trombonist Charlie Smith) as an influence alongside Reich and Messiaen (“those three things kind of collided one afternoon”). Other musicians have experimented with speech melody in the years since John Somebody, including Florent Ghys in Petits Artéfacts (2015) and Reich himself, borrowing back from Johnson in Different Trains (1988).

Now Johnson is out with a new piece conceived for Alarm Will Sound. In place of the humorous tape loops of John Somebody, this work features the digitally sampled and recombined musings of Daniel Dennett, one of America’s leading philosophers and cognitive scientists, and a noted freethinker whose writings and speeches about the evolution of human consciousness are aptly reflected in the work’s title: Mind Out of Matter.

A good demonstration of Johnson’s updated approach for this composition comes at the start of “Winners,” the third of its eight movements. From the following spoken phrase…

“you can’t get ‘em out of your head”

…Johnson constructs a stuttering four-bar phrase using progressively longer excerpts:

Next, drums and percussion come in to reinforce the rhythm with a hint of mambo groove. Then, four bars later, the piano starts to melodicize the sampled speech…

…whereupon chords and other instruments are added to complete the texture:

You can hear this passage starting at 2:37 of the following rehearsal video:

With a length of 74 minutes, a gestation period of six years, and a broad timbral pallet befitting the instrumentation and virtuosity of Alarm Will Sound (a 21st century chamber orchestra equipped with wind, string, percussion and electric instruments), Mind Out of Matter is Johnson’s most elaborate composition to date. It has been called an “atheist oratorio,” not altogether ironically, since like Handel’s Messiah, it’s an epic, multi-movement voice and instrumental setting of texts about religion (and there’s even a “choral” movement where several of the musicians sing). In its structure, theme, and dimensions it also strikes me as a rationalist counterpart to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Johnson says he “tried to imbue this music with the sense of awe and wonder that lie at the heart of Dennett’s scientifically informed philosophy, while still emulating his gift for crafting a disarmingly playful presentation.” Mind Out of Matter succeeds by ritualizing the rational, creating a kind of secular age surrogate for religious music that acknowledges our persistent human attraction to sacralized culture.

Dieter Schnebel (1930–2018): Radical Reverential Music

by Michael Schell

Photo by Peter Andersen.

With the passing of Dieter Schnebel on May 20, Germany lost one of its last links to the post-WW2 generation of composers who built a new paradigm of music after the old ideas had been pulverized beneath the wreckage of war, fascism, and genocide. As a student of the famous Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music, Schnebel eagerly soaked up the influence of his fellow students Nono, Kagel, and Stockhausen, as well as their spiritual predecessors Ives, Webern, and Varèse. Like many of his contemporaries, he was also deeply influenced by John Cage, and went on to experiment with indeterminate and graphic notation, distribution of sound sources in space, extended vocal and instrumental techniques, and theatrics of the sort that North Americans often associate with happenings and performance art.

But Schnebel didn’t always follow the script of the stereotypical European avant-gardist. For one thing, he earned degrees in both music and theology, eventually teaching both subjects and becoming an ordained Lutheran minister. And in contrast with the reputation of some composers as vain and temperamental, Schnebel exuded a gentle, collaborative personality that displayed little trace of Stockhausen-sized ego or Partch-sized shoulder chips.

These traits seem to define Schnebel’s oeuvre from its very beginnings. The short piece dt 316 (completed in 1958) is a humble attempt to articulate a modern religious sensibility using the methods of modern music. Written for 15 voices dispersed throughout the performance space, its title refers to Deuteronomy 31:6 (“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because the Lord goes with you, and will never leave nor forsake you.”). Fragments of that verse are sung, spoken, and whispered both in ancient Hebrew and in various translations. Don’t worry if you can’t make out the words though—Schnebel treats the text almost as a found object, preferring to highlight the transcendent, mystical side of scripture. As he puts it “in the course of the piece, language becomes music and music becomes language.”

dt 316 is the first piece in a trilogy of a cappella sacred works. The second piece is entitled amn (the vowelless Hebrew rendering of “amen”). This work is longer, about 15 minutes in the linked performance (it starts at 33:24 in the video). This time the text comes from the Lord’s Prayer, once again rendered in multiple languages and sometimes paraphrased. Apart from a few coordinated outbursts (like the one in this score excerpt that corresponds to 42:43 in the video), the 16 solo voices proceed independently in a way that suggests the private nature of personal prayer. Indeed the variety of idioms and vocal techniques heard in the piece suggests an assembly of people from diverse cultures and nations, consistent with the universalist ideals of the Lutheran faith.

Such devotion to exploring the full range of human vocal expression can easily lead a composer toward theater, and Schnebel indeed went on to pioneer a hybrid of new music and theatrics that is still influential today. The video linked above is a good sampling. In its use of nonsense syllables, moving sound sources, and strange hand gestures and choreography, it shows the influence of Schnebel’s friend Mauricio Kagel, but also connects with the work of like-minded American contemporaries such as Kenneth Gaburo. Efforts like this helped pave the way for such postmodern classics as Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, the new music theater of Meredith Monk and pieces like Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia.

Schnebel’s theatrics also had an occasional whimsical side. Do you participate in a sport where the players wear special headgear? So do these singers. Do you wish that a cello could play sustained chords? Try a special curved bow. Do you prefer riding your Harley-Davidson to attending prim and proper concerts? So do these people:

In the 1970s Schnebel developed an interest in collage-quotation music, one of the quintessential styles of musical postmodernism. His collection Re-Visionen takes a fresh look at several Central European warhorses from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the Re-Visionen (such as his setting of Contrapunctus I from Bach’s Musical Offering) are straightforward arrangements of the original. Others might remind you of the Swingle Singers in their heyday. The most admired movement is the Schubert-Phantasie, which sounds like an orchestral acid trip with Schubert’s late and poignant G major Piano Sonata playing on a nearby stereo. It was written for the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death in 1978:

These days a piece like Schubert-Phantasie might be called a “remix.” Either way, it’s a clear precedent for two much newer Schubert homages that have been featured at Second Inversion: Eric Wubbels’ Gretchen am Spinnrade and Vladimir Martynov’s Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished).

Schnebel’s music took a more contemplative turn in his old age, as evidenced by a pair of string quartets that were recorded by Quatuor Diotima. The beautiful String Quartet “Im Raum” (“in space”) from 2006 sounds like the satisfied musings of a man nearing the end of a fulfilled life. The texture is slow and sparse, punctuated by several musical quotes, most notably the plaintive beginning of Stravinsky’s Orpheus and the similar-sounding opening of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. In a live performance there are elaborate instructions for how the performers should move on stage, which explains both the title and the footsteps you hear in the last movement.

In the Second String Quartet (2000–07) two actors join the ensemble, reciting numbers and occasional snippets of text in German and English. It reminds me of Crumb’s Black Angels (without the amplification) and Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet (without the helicopters), but it also belies the notion that intellectual Germans can’t write sensual and playful music. Unusually for Schnebel, the music is often beat-driven, with melodic fragments and little repeating riffs emerging from the instruments. But more characteristically, it explores the full range of associations from abstraction to meaning, and even incorporates musical quotations too, including the familiar Tristan chord, which rears its head in the second movement.

Even as he entered his 80s, Schnebel stayed active, still exploring, still fascinated by the voice and the sacramental connotations of theatricalized performance. One of his last works is a ritualistic setting of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses. It seems fitting that the coda of Schnebel’s career should come from the coda of the 20th century’s most exemplary literary work.

Schnebel with John Cage ca. 1979 (via Croatian Society of Composers).

Though Schnebel’s aesthetic and philosophical interests remained fairly consistent throughout his career, any survey of his work reveals that the music itself varies greatly from one composition to another. This is partly the result of his penchant for graphic and text-based scores, but he also seemed eager to avoid repeating himself. “You ask whether I have a style? I hope I don’t. I would like my pieces to have been born each in its own manner—for each to have a style of its own.”

Can one reconcile this eclecticism with the constancy expected of a Christian clergyman? According to his colleague Godfried-Willem Raes, Schnebel “was not very church minded, and I think his idea of god was rather abstract, certainly not prescriptive. However, he believed in the meaning of rituals.” Perhaps the variety that Schnebel sought in his own music expresses a concept of God as embodying the multiplicity of the world and the cosmos. And perhaps Schnebel’s lifelong interest in ritualized performance expresses a human awe and reverence for that same multiplicity.