ALBUM REVIEW: Stuart McLeod’s ‘Tetraktys – All Is Number’

by Michael Schell

Back in 1996 Seattle composer/percussionist Stuart McLeod initiated a project called Tetraktys (pronounced “teh-TRAK-tis”) and named after a Pythagorean shape with ten points arranged in a pyramid. Considered by some to hold mystic significance, this shape is also a font of mathematical relationships, which in McLeod’s hands evoke musical structures that are varied but unified. Logic dictates having ten Tetraktys pieces in all, one for each point, and having produced a recording of four of them in 2015, McLeod chose this past December 19 (his 53rd birthday) to release the remaining six.

What makes this new album successful isn’t so much the individual tracks as the unexpected relations created through their juxtaposition and summation. Tetraktys 1 (“the origin of the universe”) uses layers of single-note electric guitar chimes, while Tetraktys 2 is appropriately obsessed with major seconds. Much of McLeod’s music is influenced by minimalism—in particular the kind of process-oriented 1960s minimalism epitomized by Terry Riley’s In C, in which multiple musicians gradually play their way through 53 repeating beat-driven patterns. Tetraktys 2, with its emphasis on vibes and single-reed woodwinds, seems to hearken back to the sound world of In C’s first recording.

Tetraktys 3 is fixated on augmented triads: two stacked major thirds that comprise a symmetrical, tonally ambiguous chord any of whose three pitches can function as the root. McLeod amplifies the vagueness by using a detuned piano and adding a generous dose of reverb and simulated tape hiss that suggests the sound of a 1960s era field recording.

Later pieces are less direct in their numerical correspondences. The gamelan-like Tetraktys 8 isn’t a study in octaves as you might expect, but more of a monophonic version of In C where the melodic snippets subtly transform themselves sequentially rather than overlapping by chance. Tetraktys 9 features synthesized clangs and “MIDI orchestra” sounds that remind me of the late Hardy Fox’s “contraptions” released under his Residents nom de plume Charles Bobuck.

For McLeod, whose other musical interests include brainwaves and loud, aleatoric rock, Tetraktys now stands whole, the fulfillment of countless explorations concluded then reopened, “writing and rewriting these 10 pieces over a period of 22 years.” The drawn-out, revolving birthing process has its analog in the final piece, Tetraktys 10, which is designed as a summary of the previous nine followed by a coda that’s a summary of the summary. This is music that, like its gestation, seems to perpetuate itself in cycles.

Second Inversion’s Top 10 Albums of 2018

Cheers to another year of new and experimental music on Second Inversion! Our hosts celebrate with a list of our Top 10 Favorite Albums of the Year. From a quiet ocean of percussion to the shimmering orchestras of Iceland and the bold harmonies of Beijing, our list celebrates musical innovation within and far beyond the classical genre.

Michael Gordon: The Unchanging Sea
Released Aug. 2018 on Cantaloupe Music

It’s easy to get lost in the haunting majesty of Michael Gordon’s The Unchanging Sea, the sheer force of its rolling waves echoing across the piano in the hands of Tomoko Mukaiyama with the Seattle Symphony. Gordon’s ocean of sound swells to overwhelming proportions, each wave cresting higher and higher, surging and submerging you in its growling depths. Though originally conceived with an accompanying film by Bill Morrison—a gritty collage assembled from deteriorating film reels and historic footage of Puget Sound—the piece’s sonic imagery is equally vivid on its own.

It’s paired on this album with Gordon’s shimmering Beijing Harmony, a work inspired by Echo Wall at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, where sounds reverberate from one side of the structure to the other. In performance, the wind and brass players are spread out across the stage—and when you listen with headphones, the music echoes from left to right and back again, all around and through you. – Maggie Molloy


Ken Thomson: Sextet
Released Sept. 2018 on New Focus

Clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer Ken Thomson is known primarily for his work with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But as it turns out, he’s been living a sort of musical double life as a jazz musician for, basically, ever, much like Ron Swanson as Duke Silver. Unlike Swanson, Thomson has decided to let his alter ego run free. I hear strains of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in Thomson’s Phantom Vibration Syndrome, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out in the time signatures, maybe even a little Charlie Parker when the improvisation builds to a frenzy. Thomson brings the complex compositional structures—the details of which I will not pretend to understand—of new music and improvisation together on this album in a way that can only be described as fun. – Dacia Clay


Nils Frahm: All Melody
Released Jan. 2018 on Erased Tapes

Nils Frahms’ latest solo album is striking in its simplicity—the compositions distilled down to their most potent melodies. The album features the composer himself on his usual keyboard collection of pianos, synthesizers, and pipe organs—but here expanded to feature an ethereal choir of vocalists along with subtle strings and percussion. The resulting tracks are an ambient mix of minimalism, mid-tempo dance grooves, and broad, synth-laden washes of sound. Though each song is expertly crafted in iridescent detail, the individual pieces also fit together into a larger whole, the album unified in its wistful harmonies and muted colors. Understated but immersive, it reminds us of the simple pleasure and the intimate perfection of a good melody. – Maggie Molloy


The Hands Free: Self-Titled Debut
Released May 2018 on New Amsterdam

Over the course of the past decade, the four composer-performers who make up the Hands Free have performed together in a variety of contexts. They found that what they loved doing the most was holding informal late-night jam sessions—which is what led to the quartet’s inception. Comprised of violin, accordion, bass, and guitar (plus the occasional banjo), the ensemble likes to perform unamplified, sit in a circle, and integrate a mix of genres ranging from folk music to jazz and improvisation. Their resulting debut album features a beautifully eclectic mix of sounds that depict an immense variety of places and emotions—all while maintaining the warmth and spontaneity of an impromptu jam session.  Gabriela Tedeschi


Anna Thorvaldsdottir: AEQUA
Released Nov. 2018 on Sono Luminus

Anna Thorvaldsdottir finds inspiration in nature—her music is its own ecosystem, the nuanced textures shared, traded, and transformed among individual instruments over the course of her works. The delicate balance of nature is at the heart of AEQUA, a collection of chamber works (plus one solo piano piece) performed by musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble. Like the stunning natural landscapes of her native Iceland, Thorvaldsdottir’s compositions echo with the full subtleties of timbre, the music expanding and contracting, breathing and humming and vibrating like the earth. – Maggie Molloy


Éliane Radigue: Œuvres Électroniques
Released Dec. 2018 on INA GRM

This beautifully-produced 14-CD set documents Radigue’s career as the mother of dark ambient music. Laboring humbly and hermetically with an ARP 2500 synthesizer and some tape recorders, Radigue spent the 70s, 80s, and 90s perfecting her brand of dense, slow-changing drone music. The works from that time are often inspired by descriptions of states of consciousness in Tibetan Buddhism, bearing such titles as Death Trilogy or Elimination of Desires. They’re best confronted in darkness, without distractions, allowing the mind and ear to absorb their long timeframe (from 17 minutes to well over an hour) and complex sonorities. – Michael Schell


Third Coast Percussion: Paddle to the Sea
Released Feb. 2018 on Cedille Records

Paddle to the Sea was a book that was made into a movie that was made into a live show and album by Third Coast Percussion. In Holling C. Holling’s original 1941 children’s book, a First Nation boy in Ontario carves a wooden canoe and on its side, he writes “Please put me back in the water. I am Paddle-to-the-Sea.” He puts the boat into the Great Lakes where it begins its adventure, and the book follows it on its journey. (Spoiler alert: years later, the boat winds up in a newspaper story that ends up in the hands of the boat’s original creator, who is by then a grown man.) The film, which was released in 1969, added a focus on water pollution to the original story.

Third Coast Percussion composed a new score to perform live alongside the film, including existing works by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, plus traditional music from Zimbabwe. Third Coast broadens the focus of the story a little more, asking us to think about our relationship to water and waterways on a grander scale. Their addition to the story doesn’t moralize; it instead draws listeners’ attention to the fact that the water is us—we are Paddle to the Sea. – Dacia Clay


Nordic Affect: He(a)r
Released Oct. 2018 on Sono Luminus

“Hér” is the Icelandic word for here. That idea of being present—of listening, of connecting here and now through music is at the heart of Nordic Affect’s newest album. He(a)r is a collection of seven world premiere recordings penned by women composers and performed by women musicians. Wide-ranging sound worlds from Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Mirjam Tally, and Hildur Guðnadóttir comprise the album, each offering a distinct perspective on the ways in which we hear and create sound—our individual voices and the ways in which they interact. – Maggie Molloy


Invisible Anatomy: Dissections
Released March 2018 on New Amsterdam

Drawing inspiration from the experiments of Leonardo da Vinci, facial polygraphs, and more, Invisible Anatomy’s Dissections uses medical metaphors to explore the risks and joys of opening yourself up to others. The avant-rock ensemble combines the theatricality of performance art with the drama of jazz and classical music, creating haunting songs of danger, intimacy, and dissection.

Fay Wang’s vocals layer and weave into intricate composite melodies and eerie disonances, asking powerful questions about the ways humans interact. With its thought-provoking text and complex, dramatic texture, Dissections is an impressive, hauntingly beautiful debut. Gabriela Tedeschi


My Brightest Diamond: A Million and One
Released Nov. 2018 on Rhyme & Reason Records

Few artists inhabit both pop and classical worlds so freely and convincingly as Shara Nova, the operatically-trained singer and composer behind the art rock band My Brightest Diamond. A Million and One tilts further into electronic and pop worlds than her previous albums, her lustrous voice dancing above synth-laden backdrops and pulsing drumbeats. While the drama and dynamic range of the songs hint at her operatic background, the vulnerability of the lyrics and the sheer danceability of the tracks bring a pop music immediacy to her work. The resulting album is visceral, unconventional, and free—emblematic of the modern day dissolution of genre. – Maggie Molloy

Elliott Carter (1908–2012): Legacy of a Centenarian

by Michael Schell

Photo by Philippe Gontier.

Today marks Elliott Carter’s 110th birthday, an anniversary that he came remarkably close to celebrating in person. The most long-lived of any major composer, Carter was also the one American most consistently deemed to exemplify the “monumental” aspirations of post-WW2 musical modernism associated with the likes of Boulez, Nono, Lutosławski, and Carter’s contemporary Messiaen.

In its craft—its dissonant harmonies, its constant probing of new musical horizons, and in the disconnect between the praise it received from professional musicians and the ambivalence it often faced from concert audiences—Carter’s music indeed seemed to epitomize contemporary music in the late 20th century. To be sure, its detractors included some informed voices such as critic John Rockwell and musicologist Richard Taruskin, and even a sympathetic writer like Wilfrid Mellers called it “difficult music for ideal listeners,” acknowledging its perhaps unwarranted reputation for dryness. Contributing to this perception is the kind of analysis that Carter’s highly abstract music tends to attract—either very subjective or very technical, in both cases offering little in the way of a guide to how one might actually listen to it. I’ll attempt to at least lower this last hurdle.

Carter began his career in the 1930s amid a political environment that encouraged composers to write accessible, neoclassical music. His earliest works were in the Americana style invented by Virgil Thomson and perfected by Aaron Copland (Holiday Overture from 1944 is a good example). But Carter never had more than modest success with these rather straightforward and nondescript pieces. So after the War, with political imperatives removed, domestic life secure (he married sculptor Helen Frost-Jones in 1939), family money providing financial independence, and with his stagnating career causing personal dissatisfaction, Carter began to experiment with a different, individualistic style of such complexity that he often doubted whether his new compositions would ever be performed, much less listened to approvingly.

Carter with Stravinsky in New York 1962.

The starting points for Carter’s new style were the chromaticism of Schoenberg and the irregular rhythms of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (whose New York premiere in 1924 had first inspired Carter to become a composer). The atonal counterpoint that had been developed in America by Ives, Ruggles, Crawford, and Copland (in his pre-populist years) demonstrated how these new techniques could be cultivated without relying on European models, suggesting a forward path that was free of neoclassical predictability and serialist dogma.

Carter’s big breakthrough was the formidable String Quartet No. 1 (1951), a massive exploration of rhythmic layering and transformation. At 40 minutes, it retains the grand multi-movement form and broad gestures of Romantic quartets. And being still made up (mostly) of melodies and chords, albeit astringent ones, it has become one of Carter’s most popular works and a manageable entry point for those that find his later music tough going.

That the Quartet reflects a new language and confidence is evident from its opening cello cadenza, which seems intent on dragging the Elgar Cello Concerto into the midst of the 20th century:

The tempo here is ♩=72 in 4/4 time. In bar 12, the second violin enters with steady pizzicato chords—like a metronome—spaced a dotted eighth note apart. The cello responds with a stream of quintuplets which, through some changes in time signature, turn into straight sixteenth notes. Then comes a notated ritardando where the sixteenth notes lengthen into dotted sixteenth notes and then dotted eighth notes:

At bar 22, this latter, slower pace is resignatured as quarter notes in 4/4 time. The second violin reenters, and although its “metronome” is ticking at the same rate as before, the cello’s time signature maneuvers have caused the underlying tempo to increase from ♩=72 to ♩=120, so the pizzicato chords are now separated by five sixteenth notes instead of three. This technique of using a common pulse to shift from one tempo to another is called metric modulation:

Soon the other two instruments enter, each with its own distinct rhythmic profile. The viola plays steady quarter-note triplets, while the first violin is in freer rhythm playing a soaring melody with mostly long notes (it’s this melody that approximates the role of a “first theme” in classical sonata form). Left alone, the three lower instruments’ note cycles would converge every 2½ bars, but at measure 27 the second violin starts to hiccup, while the cello drops out to quote Ives’ First Violin Sonata.

It’s an appropriate homage since Carter’s polymetric scheme here is almost an exact lift from the ending of Ives’ Second String Quartet, wherein the cello, viola and second violin each have the same rhythmic values as in Carter’s passage (aligning every 2½ bars in 4/4 time), with the first violin quoting Westminster Chimes in a freer rhythm.

These two techniques—metric modulation and rhythmic layering—became Carter’s signature traits for the rest of his career.

Besides Ives, two key influences on Carter’s Quartet are Ruth Crawford’s own String Quartet (1931) with its often highly independent lines, and Conlon Nancarrow’s polymetric player piano studies (familiar to Carter through their scores, which at that time was the only way to encounter them without travelling to Nancarrow’s Mexico City studio). Carter was one of the first to grasp the importance of Nancarrow’s work, decades before it become more widely known through recordings.

Much more can be, and has been, said about Carter’s First String Quartet, but not more concisely than the composer himself in his listener’s notes, which are characteristically cogent, articulate, and uninhibited in their use of literary analogies (in college Carter actually majored in literature before switching to music).

Like Schoenberg, Carter sought to organize his new musical language in a more systematic way. And by the time of his String Quartet No. 2 (1959), he had developed a novel technique to differentiate the instruments in an ensemble texture while allowing his counterpoint and rhythms to flow organically without any literal repetition of material.

The opening of the piece demonstrates this “new way.” As in the First Quartet, each instrument has a distinct rhythmic profile, including a reprise of the second violin’s “pizzicato metronome.” But gone are the broad, expressive melodies, replaced by a more fragmentary texture. This music is pure movement, rhythm, and contour, built from contrasts between stasis and activity, or convergence and divergence. It’s a middle ground between traditional melody-and-chord music and the sonorism of Ligeti and Penderecki, where individual parts are completely submerged into a composite texture.

To further establish their individual character, each instrument is assigned its own repertory of intervals. All parts are allowed to use major and minor seconds, and octaves are avoided. But as shown in the score excerpt, the first violin’s material is otherwise dominated by minor thirds, the second violin major thirds, the viola tritones, and the cello perfect fourths. It’s like a play where one character speaks only nouns, another only verbs, and so forth.

Carter found that this approach allowed him to write complex contrapuntal music without the arbitrary requirements of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique or the notoriously foursquare rhythms of much mid-century serial music. It also helped formalize the distinct character of his lines and chords, which tend to give parity to all the intervals inside an octave (in the above example, any interval can be extracted from the basic repertory allotted to the four instruments, using transposition and inversion as required). This interval parity is a big reason why Carter’s atonal music sounds different than that of Berg (who often emphasizes stacks of consonant intervals) or Varèse and Ustvolskaya (who set up collisions between stacks of similar dissonant intervals).

In an extended allegro toward the end of the Quartet, the instruments start to merge their identities, leading to a polyrhythmic climax with rapid simultaneous notes sounding at a ratio of 3:4:5:7. After this, the proceedings disintegrate, the second violin returning to its characteristic steady pizzicatos, which get the last word.

Although the technique of assigned intervals is Carter’s innovation, the broader notion of personifying each instrument as an idealized character goes back to, again, Ives’ Second String Quartet, which Ives imagined as four friends who “converse, discuss, argue [over politics], fight, shake hands, shut up—then [in the final movement] walk up the mountain side to view the firmament.”

Carter went on to compose three more string quartets (1971, 1986, and 1995) spaced out as further landmarks to his compositional career. Together with the first two, they comprise the most important body of work in this medium since Bartók. The String Quartet No. 5, coming as it did from an 86-year-old, seemed valedictory upon its unveiling. But Carter then proceeded to write his only opera, What Next?, at age 90, and continued with an astonishing stream of productivity throughout his 90s and into his 100s.

Some of Carter’s most frequently-performed works come from this period: miniatures like Shard, so named because it is “broken off” from the guitar part of a longer piece, Caténaires, a moto perpetuo that channels Chopin by way of Crawford, and Tintinnabulation, where Carter, aged 99, writes for the first time for percussion ensemble. But while other composers that remained productive into their old age (e.g., Stravinsky) wrote music that was more compressed and severe than before (perhaps driven by declines in stamina, hearing, eyesight, or even pencil-grasping capabilities), Carter’s last compositions actually got lighter and more florid, but no less ambitious.

We know this in part thanks to a marvelous album from Ondine, Carter: Late Works, which was released last year and features pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Incredibly, one of the first impressions it makes is how youthful the music sounds. Dialogues II, a brief piece for piano and orchestra, seems the work of a composer aged 31, not 101. As a demonstration of geriatric dash and verve, it’s rivalled only by Verdi’s Falstaff, or perhaps by Eubie Blake.

The single-movement piano concerto Interventions dates from 2007. The multiple simultaneous tempos deployed over its final 1½ minutes (strings, winds and piano all distinct) demonstrate Carter’s retained fluency, and the work also shows how much his orchestration had improved over the years—compare its colorful clarity to the 1969 Concerto for Orchestra, which is beset by balance issues and congested, heterostatic textures.

Instances for chamber orchestra was premiered in Seattle in February 2013 (just three months after Carter’s death) by its co-commissioner Seattle Symphony under its dedicatee Ludovic Morlot. Both Morlot’s Seattle recording and the Ondine recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the late Oliver Knussen reveal why Carter’s music benefits from modern multi-tracked digital recordings that eliminate extraneous noises, and separate and clarify the complex polyphony.

Soundings, written in 2005 for Daniel Barenboim to conduct from the piano, is another beneficiary of modern recording technology. It begins with a piano cadenza followed by several concertino sections culminating in a brittle passage for high strings and piccolos, a string chorale reminiscent of Ives’ Central Park in the Dark, and a long tuba solo (a rarity in Carter). The ensuing orchestral tutti is interrupted by a final piano cadenza centered on the notes B♭ and D (which spell out Barenboim’s initials in German). Two Controversies and a Conversation (2011) is yet another late work for piano and orchestra. Its prominent marimba tremolos almost make it sound, dare I say, postminimalist.

The album concludes with Epigrams, twelve pithy bagatelles for piano trio that date from Carter’s final year. As a composition teacher, he was known to advise students to write the loudest part of a piece first (“then you’ll know where you’re going”), and appropriately enough, the first of these Epigrams was composed after all the others, making it Carter’s absolute last completed work. Also fittingly, though the common definition of epigram is simply “a short satirical statement,” the word has its origins in the snarky epitaphs often inscribed on ancient Greek tombstones, something that the venerable composer—and bearer of a B.A. in Literature—would have undoubtedly known.

Carter with Cage, Frank Scheffers, and Jan Wolff in Amsterdam, 1988. Photo via Co Broerse.

Carter doesn’t particularly fit the American Maverick stereotype. He had a conventional music education, studying at Harvard with Walter Piston, then in Paris with Nadia Boulanger (whose other American pupils ranged from Copland to Philip Glass). He ended up as the superstar of the so-called Uptown composers (though he lived in Greenwich Village), and at various times held teaching positions at Columbia, Yale, and Juilliard. He wrote fully notated music for conventional acoustic instruments with no forays into microtonal, electronic, improvised, or aleatoric music. His mature compositions have nothing in them of Partch’s homemade instruments, Sun Ra’s pseudomythology, Ives’ quotations of “people’s music,” or Cage’s I Ching coins.

But if Carter wasn’t an American maverick, he was still an American original. Like Ives and Nancarrow, he developed a unique and highly influential musical language without relying on an existing system. And by focusing his innovations in the sphere of rhythm, he upheld that parameter’s tendency to be the 20th century’s most reliable indicator of musical Americanness. Though Carter studied some West African music traditions, he exhibited little direct interest in the American vernacular musics that evolved from them.

Nevertheless, it’s not a stretch to hear this lively passage in Carter’s transitional Piano Sonata (1945–6) and imagine a Bud Powell ballad solo shorn of its accompanying steady beat. It’s this way of thinking about microrhythm—internalizing the African-American inventions that informed both the flexible swing beat and rubato of jazz and the syncopations of ragtime and related dance musics—that distinguishes much American composed music from its European counterparts (even those influenced by the rhythmic complexity of Eastern European folk music).

Carter with his student Frederic Rzewski in Berlin, 1965.

The stereotype of Carter’s music is that it matched his personality: technically fluent but emotionally guarded. And by most accounts, Carter was consistently lucid and forthcoming on musical (and literary) matters, but notoriously reticent on most other topics. One would-be biographer abandoned a book project when Carter, during interviews about his personal life, displayed all the misdirection of an old magician protecting his secrets. Even his authorized biographer, David Schiff, conceded that “Carter usually gave the impression of existing only from the neck up.”

Those that met Carter as an older man—an established composer confident and articulate in his public engagements, usually with Helen (long his de facto manager) nearby—are often surprised to learn that he had been a chain-smoking stutterer well into his 40s. Neither Piston nor Boulanger seemed to regard this son of an affluent lace importer as any kind of star student, and as noted previously his early music was less popular with the public and less admired by colleagues than that of friends like Aaron Copland. Throughout this time, Carter left little indication of strong political, religious or ethical convictions. One is tempted to contemplate the apparent years of self-doubt, the coupling of trust fund privilege with career and personal insecurities, as a backdrop to his decision to forgo writing intentionally communicative music in favor of music that held personal meaning but little apparent audience appeal.

Carter with Copland and Bernstein.

Then came the surprising results of this inward turn—the gradual but sharp rise in prestige, performances, recordings, and commissions from the 1950s onward. After years of trying to fit in personally and professionally, Carter ultimately attained approbation and self-fulfillment through his most challenging and honest works. It’s in this light that his commitment to absolute artistic integrity—to writing “difficult music for ideal listeners”—ought to be judged.

Paul Griffiths, who wrote the libretto to What Next?, compares Carter’s historical position to Bach’s, the culmination and apogee of a period of craft and complexity. Taruskin, more cynically, positions him atop a prestige machine driven by academics, patrons and professional musicians, a model of artistic autonomy whose death throes are already upon us. Both metaphors imply the supplanting of the old paradigm by a younger and more popular simplicity (that of Haydn and Mozart in Bach’s case, that of postminimalism and various hybrids of art and commercial music in Carter’s).

But the judgment of “technically fluent but emotionally guarded” music was also levelled at Bach shortly after his death, only to be overruled by the improved familiarity and understanding of passing time and repeated hearings. And whether Carter turns out to be the end of a particular line of compositional high-mindedness or a waypoint in a still-thriving artistic tradition will not change his music’s essential truthfulness, or its ability to communicate deeply with those listeners patient enough to master it.

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:

<

p style=”padding-left: 60px;”>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.