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.

A lifelong Texan who lived with his partner on a central Texas ranch, 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 crypto-electric 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, 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 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).Learn 

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. 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 them (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 an old man near the end of a fulfilling 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 quartet, 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.

Not Even Harry Partch Can Be An Island

by Michael Schell

Partch and musicians for “The Dreamer That Remains.” (1972, photo by Betty Freeman.)

No one lives up to the American Maverick sobriquet better than Harry Partch (1901–1974), whose hand-built instruments and 43-tone scale will be on display once again at this year’s Harry Partch Festival on May 11–13 at the University of Washington.

But as much as we admire the uniqueness and audacity of Partch’s career (see Harry Partch: Celebrating a Musical Maverick and Meet the Instruments of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium), even a gadfly like Partch has his influences—however disparate and contrarian they might be. Let’s take a look at a few of the raw ingredients that fed the cauldron of one of music history’s most unusual thinkers.

Neighborhood Roots

Partch spent much of his childhood in rural Arizona Territory where his neighbors included the Pasqua Yaqui people, who at that time were refugees from the ethnic cleansing policy of the Díaz regime in Mexico. Though Partch’s contact with the Yaquis must have been limited, as an adult he could remember hearing their music—the origins of a lifelong sympathy and appreciation for Native American culture.

In 1933, Partch landed a short but interesting job at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles transcribing Native American songs recorded on Edison wax cylinders by the Museum’s founder Charles Lummis. Partch must have been struck by the diffuse and inflected pitch of many of the indigenous singers, whose vocal style was often closer to heightened speech than to Western folk or classical singing. Partch’s own intoning voice technique, honed in early works like the 17 Lyrics by Li Po, owes an obvious debt to this style.

Canción de los Muchachos (Isleta Pueblo), reprinted from Enclosure 3: Harry Partch.

One of the transcribed songs from an Isleta Pueblo resident impressed Partch so much that he quoted it years later in his short piece Cloud Chamber Music (which will be performed at the Festival’s closing concert). The tune is first heard on the Adapted Viola starting at 2:18 in Partch’s own recording:

A Mexican Maverick

Partch wasn’t the first modern composer to explore microtones. The 1920s, for instance, had seen a minor heyday of music based on quarter tones: intervals halfway between the adjacent keys of a keyboard tuned in conventional equal temperament. A few manufacturers even designed new instruments for this 24-notes-per-octave system. One of them was a piano that inspired Ives’ Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, one of the few enduring masterpieces of this vogue.

Partch with his Kithara II in 1959. (Photo by Danlee Mitchell.)

One man who leaped wholeheartedly into the interwar microtonal craze was the Mexican composer-conductor Julián Carrillo (1875–1965). Carrillo postulated a system that he called trece sonido (“13th sound”, meaning that it went beyond the usual 12 notes per octave) where the scale was divided not just into quarter tones, but into eighth and even sixteenth tones (creating, at least in theory, a 96-tone scale).

Partch mentions Carrillo’s work in his book Genesis of a Music, which, in addition to describing his own music and instruments also includes a fascinating and opinionated survey of intonation systems from antiquity through the mid-20th century. But being obsessed with acoustically pure intervals, Partch disdained any system based on equal temperament (with its irrational frequency ratios). And history, abetted by the difficulty of procuring instruments adapted to the trece sonido, has largely consigned Carrillo’s output to the novelty bin.

Nevertheless, Carrillo’s best-known piece, Prelude to Christopher Columbus, bears a striking resemblance to some of Partch’s mature compositions. Written in 1922 for soprano, flute, strings, quarter tone guitar and a special sixteenth tone harp, it was known to Partch through a Cuban recording made in the early 1930s, and later through the publication of its score by Henry Cowell in 1944. Listen to the microtonal plucked string tremolos and glissandos at 4:00 of the above video, and compare them to the similar timbres at 5:23 of Partch’s Daphne of the Dunes.

Meanwhile, Back in the Old World…

Partch had European influences too. There was the drama and music of Ancient Greece, as best Partch could grasp it from the scholarship of the day. And there were the very first European operas, developed around 1600 by such now-obscure foot soldiers as Peri and Caccini, eager to build a new and expressive technique for declaiming texts with fidelity to their natural contours and rhythms. To Partch’s way of thinking, things went downhill soon afterwards, derailed by such blasphemies as bel canto singing, equal temperament, and abstract forms like sonatas and symphonies.

Detail from “The Dreamer that Remains” (1972).

Europe finally started emerging from the Dark Age of the Three Bs around the turn of the 20th century. The sprechstimme in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) impressed Partch as a workable middle ground between overwrought operatic singing and accompanied rhythmic recitation (whose “inharmonic relation between instruments and voice” he found objectionable). Partch was also impressed by the simple and austere vocal writing in Satie’s Socrate (1919) which, though sung, closely tracks the natural flow of its French text.

And then there’s Carl Orff. Partch admired the archaic directness of the text settings in his Carmina Burana (1935–36). But it’s Orff’s musical adaptations of Greek dramas—works largely unknown outside the German-speaking world—that display the most tantalizing similarities to Partch.

The first of them, Antigonae, was premiered in Germany in 1949, a couple of years before Partch’s first big theater work, Oedipus. Antigonae was not produced in the US until 1968 though, so the earliest exposure Partch seems likely to have had to it was a 1955 recording on Columbia Records. Nevertheless, the parallels between the two works are remarkable, and the similarities would continue as both composers independently built their catalog of ancient drama settings: Orff with Oedipus the Tyrant (1959) and Prometheus (1968), and Partch with Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1960, an adaptation of The Bacchae) and Delusion of the Fury (1964–66, based on a Noh drama and an Ethiopian folk tale). All of these works emphasize the theatricality of ritual, which for Partch was a key element in corporeality: an integrated and meaningful artistic experience spanning multiple disciplines.

Production still from Partch’s “Oedipus” at Mills College in 1952. (Photo by Carl Mydans, Life Magazine.)

The first act of Orff’s Antigonae is a good showcase of these seemingly Partchian traits: the use of intoning voices and recitative (often on a single pitch), and the percussion-centric orchestra. Orff even calls for some new mallet instruments of his own design (conceived for his music pedagogy approach called Orff Schulwerk) to go alongside six pianos and a chorus of winds and double basses. One can compare Orff’s duet between Kreon and the Messenger with Partch’s duet between Oedipus and Tiresias, or the percussive jigs in Act I of Antigonae and the opening of Partch’s Revelation.

But Orff’s instrumentarium uses conventional 12-tone tunings, inhabiting a sound world established by Stravinsky in Les Noces, whereas Partch’s inventions reflect his legacy in the American tradition of percussion music (to which he was directly linked through his friendship with Lou Harrison), which emphasized an individualistic, build-your-own ethic.

Synthesis

Vaughan Williams said that art, like charity, should begin at home. And it’s when Partch drew from his own scraggly biography that he created his most admired works. The apogee of “hobo Partch” comes in The Wayward, a personal portrait of Depression-era Americana that includes the compositions Barstow, The Letter, San Francisco, and U.S. Highball, and which will comprise the centerpiece of the Harry Partch Festival’s evening concerts.

The Wayward masterfully combines borrowed concepts of the sort we’ve seen above with ideas that only Partch could have come up with: the custom tuning system and instruments obviously, but also the dialogue, themes and sonic evocations of a particular subculture that he had uniquely assimilated.

Partch’s ability to integrate both Classical and vernacular elements—to bridge, so to speak, the highest of the high and the lowest of the low, may be what most deeply defines his legacy. However wide one’s influences may range, it’s often the intimacy of authentic experience that produces the most compelling art.


The Harry Partch Festival is May 11-13 at the University of Washington’s Meany Theater. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Women in (New) Music: Remembering Graciela Agudelo (1945–2018)

by Michael Schell

Composer Graciela Agudelo, who passed away on April 19, was a well-loved figure within the Mexican new music community, but her work is largely unknown in the United States. This is a shame, because surveying her output reveals it to be that of a talented and forward-looking musician whose creativity has seemingly been hidden from us by a line drawn on a map.

Born in Mexico City in 1945, her full name was Graciela Josefina Eugenia Agudelo y Murguía. As a young girl, she displayed proficiency on the piano, and she went on to study the instrument in college, eventually turning to composition in her mid-20s. Despite that relatively late start, she developed quickly, and wrote a number of solo, chamber and orchestral works in an avant-garde style enlivened by an individualistic approach to national identity that avoided folkloristic clichés.

Her percussion quartet, De hadas y aluxes, is a good introduction. It comes from a long line of Latin American percussion works that originated with Amadeo Roldán’s Rítmicas 5 and 6 of 1930 (thought to have edged out Varèse’s Ionization as the first modern compositions for percussion alone) and continued through Chávez’s 1942 Toccata (one of the most popular works by any Mexican composer). Agudelo’s title refers to Mayan mythology: an hada is a fairy and an alux is a counterpart to the Celtic leprechaun. The piece rumbles through a zigzagging array of different moods, with textures built from sustained rolls and soft tamtam strokes abutting more active passages featuring mallet instruments. The first steady beat appears at 6:52 in the above track, a soft four-note march in the timpani:

It soon speeds up, other drums joining in at their own tempo, eventually turning into a cacophonous spritely dance. A vibraphone cadenza ushers in a slower, quieter section (the sprites need a breather), then at 11:10, a sudden bass drum stroke sets off a vigorous bacchanal. When this winds down, the coda emerges, based on a pentatonic theme—the only real melody in the piece—which refers back to the earlier march riff:

This piece is so obscure that it has no performance history in the United States, but think it holds its own against many newer, better-known percussion works.

Even when Agudelo’s models are obvious, she still displays invention and craft. Her Arabesco (1990) is inspired by Berio’s Sequenzas, a series of solo pieces written for new virtuosi proficient in both traditional and extended techniques. But whereas Berio wrote for modern instruments, Agudelo applied this zeal for finding new sounds to the recorder, one of the oldest, most hackneyed instruments imaginable. At various points the performer is called upon to sing, perform glissandos and multiphonics, and even play two recorders simultaneously (one with each hand).

Like Arabesco, Agudelo’s suite Meditaciones sobre Abya Yala for solo flute explores a variety of standard and modern techniques, this time in service of an anguished nostalgia. Abya Yala is an indigenous name for all the Americas, and the movements include such suggestive titles as Curare, Guanacos, and Tacuabé (the name of the last surviving Charrúa tribesman of Urugray, captured in 1833 and taken to France where he was displayed as a museum piece). The last movement is entitled Tambor (drum), and befittingly explores a range of percussive and noise effects. In one notable passage, flutist Alejandro Escuer is heard whistling and playing simultaneously.

A highlight of Agudelo’s oeuvre is the 1993 orchestral piece Parajes de la Memoria: La Selva (Places of Memory: The Jungle). It proceeds in moment form, a succession of recollected mental snapshots inhabiting a timbre-centric world that anticipates several recent (and admired) compositions from the US and Europe (compare her bird flock at 3:02 with Georg Frederich Haas’ In Vain). Latin American rattles and drums add a touch of local color, and the music even breaks out into the briefest of bossa novas at the end, but Agudelo constructs her personal rainforest without sentimentality and without backing into full-fledged Villa-Lobos style folklorism.

Besides being a pianist and composer, Agudelo was also one of Mexico’s most important music pedagogues. She considered communal music-making to be an important socialization tool (“music-making is harmonious, not only in an intrinsic sense but also in a social sense”), and fought for musical education in primary schools. She wrote instructional books and music for students, and lobbied for the protection of Mexican traditional and art music against the onslaught of mass media. Her talents even ranged into literature: she wrote numerous short stories, recently gathered into the collection En Los Claros del Tiempo (In the Clearings of Time).

For much of the 20th century, Western art music in Mexico was dominated by the figure of Carlos Chávez (1899–1978), whose style of neoclassicism spiced with indigenous Mesoamerican elements established the first post-Revolutionary paradigm for Mexican composers. But his influence and personality was so towering that little else thrived in its shadows. By the time composers of Agudelo’s generation came of age in the 1960s, it was clear that a new and more contemporary movement was needed, one based on post-WW2 musical techniques meaningfully informed by a Latin American sensibility. It is this legacy that Agudelo—along with her contemporaries Mario Lavista and Julio Estrada—has bequeathed not only to a fresh cadre of 21st century Mexican composers, but also to all of us who enjoy and cherish new music.

Frederic Rzewski at 80: Directions Inevitable or Otherwise

by Michael Schell

Photo by Michael Wilson.

Composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski, who turned 80 on April 13, has had one of the most impactful careers in modern music. He has experimented with, embraced and advanced many of contemporary music’s most significant ideas, and his credits include such landmarks as the minimalist masterpiece Coming Together and the monumental piano variations The People United Will Never Be Defeated!. He’s arguably the most important living composer of piano music, and is surely one of the dozen or so most important living American composers.

Beginnings and Musica Elettronica Viva

To his colleagues he’s “Fred Shevsky,” the silent “R” a marker of his Polish-Jewish parentage. Born near Springfield, Massachusetts in 1938, he studied music at Harvard and Princeton, then went to Italy on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1960. There he joined the circle of Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–1975), a much-admired teacher and composer whose music was an important bridge between the neoclassicism of older Italian composers like Respighi and the post-WW2 radicalism of Berio and Nono. Rzewski quickly made a name for himself as a piano virtuoso capable of performing new and difficult music, and he went on to premiere and record works by Stockhausen, Pousseur, Christian Wolff, and others.

MEV in the 1960s, with ample hair and idealism. (Left to right: Rzewski, Teitelbaum, Curran.)

Living in Rome in 1966, Rzewski and two fellow expatriate Americans, Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, began presenting group improvisations using a mix of acoustic instruments, vintage synthesizers, and homemade electronic gadgets. They called themselves Musica Elettronica Viva, or MEV for short, and their performances, often augmented by a rotating roster of vocalists and other musicians, frequently went on for hours.

SpaceCraft was an early MEV workhorse, ultimately receiving over 80 performances in Europe. Its “score” was an elaborate set of abstract verbal instructions written by Rzewski as an example of what he called prose music (other examples are Pauline Oliveros’s meditation pieces, and Stockhausen’s intuitive music pieces in the collection Aus den sieben Tagen). Conceived in the social and musical maelstrom that was the 1960s, SpaceCraft’s goal was to “create unity and harmony among human beings through the creation of a sound-space environment.”

But heady idealism aside, the sonic results bear comparison with contemporaneous free jazz epics such as Song for Charles (recorded by the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969, when they were based in Paris) as well as more conventionally composed works like Mauricio Kagel’s Acustica (1970). Although MEV’s own inspiration had been primarily drawn from the live electronic music of John Cage and his brethren, they would soon collaborate directly with prominent African-American musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis, helping to link these traditions in anticipation of the international free improvisation movement that rose to prominence in the 1980s.

MEV’s activity peaked in the late 1960s, but its core musicians have continued to perform together over the years, including a 2016 appearance here in Seattle.

Minimalism

Photo via Lovely Music.

Rzewski spent the early 1970s back in the US amid the rising tide of musical minimalism. He had been an evangelist for the movement in Europe (it was Rzewski that introduced Louis Andriessen to Terry Riley’s In C, something that the Dutch composer later acknowledged as a turning point in his career). Rzewski’s own innovation was to combine the rhythmic energy and musical process of a piece like In C with the collectivist philosophy that informed MEV. Several of the resulting compositions have become classics of their genre.

Les Moutons de Panurge is one of those classics. The instrumentation is unspecified, and everyone plays the same 65-note tune. But they play the notes as follows: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3 etc., until the entire melody is heard. Then the musicians begin subtracting notes from the beginning, playing notes 2 through 65, 3 through 65 and so on, holding the very last C♮ until everyone has finished. A key performance direction reads “Never stop or falter…Stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost. Do not try to find your way back to the fold.”

If things go as expected, musicians gradually lose their place, and the unison turns into a multi-voice canon that resembles a line of sheep meekly following one another, hence the reference to the character Panurge and his gullible flock in Rabelais’ Gargantua. Rzewski’s piece succeeds because of the elegant simplicity of its form and because it has a really great tune.

Coming Together, from 1972, is an even more iconic classic. It uses a text adapted from a prison letter written by Sam Melville, an anarchist bomber who was killed in the Attica uprising in 1971 (depending on your politics he was either a political prisoner, a domestic terrorist, or both). 

As usual with Rzewski, the text is declaimed, not sung, to ensure its comprehensibility and emotional impact. Its treatment in Coming Together is similar to the treatment of the melody in Les Moutons de Panurge—that is, we hear the first sentence, then the first two sentences, then the first three and so on (an effect akin to stuttering), after which sentences start getting dropped from the beginning until we’re left with only the last one:

I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

The accompanying music is remarkable for its limited range, constrained to a mere seven pitches in a simple G minor blues scale:

From this, Rzewski spins 392 bars of continuous single-line sixteenth notes. They start out tethered to low G, trying to climb the scale, first to B♭, then as high as C in bar 2 and D in bar 4. But we keep stumbling, falling back to G, starting over…

The incarceration metaphors are obvious: prisoners trying to escape, to find some variety within the drudgery of their daily lives, or even to “feel for the inevitable direction” of their lives. Rzewski is a practical musician, so for textural variety he gives performers the latitude at various points to choose notes to sustain or play in counterpoint with the running bass line. And none of the measures are literal repetitions (this idea of a continually striving but never repeating bass line was embraced more recently by David Lang in his symphony without a hero, which was premiered by Seattle Symphony in 2018).

But though we finally make it to the end of the text, the music winds up where it started: chained to low G. In fact, the ending of the piece is an exact retrograde of the beginning, and the final three-quarters of the piece are constructed from serial-style inversions and retrogrades of material in the first quarter. Whatever inevitability is attained is only partially liberating.

Rzewski’s own musical direction seemed to be inevitably leading him toward postminimalism, but in a remarkable career shift, his next major piece became a landmark of a different kind.

The Composer-Pianist

The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, composed in fall 1975, is an hour-long set of variations on a protest song associated with resistance to the 1973 CIA-backed coup in Chile that ushered in the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Premiered in 1976 and first recorded in 1979, the piece was widely embraced as a breakthrough for what was then called the New Romanticism: a prominent move away from the Darmstadt-era avant-garde toward traditional tonality and forms.

The categorizations of the moment are often simplistic though, and Rzewski’s work, while predominantly tonal, includes enough atonal passages and postmodern devices such as verbalizations, proportional notation, piano harmonics, and noise effects to be more appropriately positioned within the American tradition of eclecticism that originated with Ives. Regardless, it has since become Rzewski’s best-known and most recorded piece, firmly ensconced in the pantheon of the 20th century’s epic piano compositions. So powerful and substantive is the music that Igor Levit’s recording can place it alongside Bach’s Goldman Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with no loss of continuity.

The 36 variations are organized into a unique scheme where every sixth variation (up to No. 30) is a summation of the previous five. Variation 31 in turn summarizes the first variation of every set, while Variation 32 summarizes the second, and so on. It can be tough to follow all this without a score—some variations follow the theme more closely than others, and the theme itself includes two passes through the same melody. Here are a few highlights, with timings referring to the above video:

  • Variations 9 (10:39) and 10 (11:48) present a striking contrast: No. 9 is soft and tonal, suggesting Respighi’s Pines Near a Catacomb, while No. 10 plays homage to Stockhausen’s groundbreaking and unapologetically avant-garde Klavierstück X (which Rzewski once recorded for Wergo).
  • Variation 11 (12:50) continues the “shock value,” with effects such as whistling, crying out, and slamming the keyboard lid shut (with the pedal down) seeming to come out of nowhere. The vocalization effects return in the summarizing Variation 35 (51:50).
  • Variation 13 (15:09) has a gospel/swing feel to it, and ends with a cadenza where the right hand quotes the Italian labor song “Bandiera Rossa.”
  • After a succession of relatively short variations, No. 27 (35:44) begins in a rhetorical style before moving into a funky Herbie Hancock-esque episode that digresses from the theme for two minutes. After a brief return to the opening style the variation ends with a Sibelius-like ostinato that leads directly into the martial Variation 28 (41:12).
  • After the final variation, the pianist is invited to improvise a cadenza (54:50) to transition back to the restatement of the theme (1:00:46).

It’s hard to convey how disorienting this piece was when it was first heard. It’s not a straightforward return to 1930s neoclassicism or 1960s collage/quotation style, but an attempt to construct a new and coherent language from elements previously considered disparate. That it no longer sounds jarring is testament to its success.

Rzewski and his daughter in 1990. Photo by Françoise Walot.

In 1977 Rzewski returned to Europe to take a teaching position at the Royal Conservatory of Liège. Since then he has spent most of his time outside the US, focusing his compositional energy on solo piano music whose reputation owes much to Rzewski’s own skills as a touring performer. Rzewski has been compared to Liszt in this regard, and his career-summarizing The Road (1995–2003), a semi-autobiographical album of 64 pieces lasting nine hours in all, is a postmodern counterpart to Lizst’s Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). In it, Rzewski covers even more stylistic ground than in The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, channeling the rhetorical philosophizing of Ives, the improvisational flourishes of Cecil Taylor, and various folk tune quotations and twelve-tone techniques.

Second Hand, or, Alone at Last (2005) is at the other extreme, an album of six miniatures for left hand alone. Written in a single week when Rzewski was suffering from stiffness in his right hand, it’s a fine sampler of his late style, an American counterpart to Ligeti’s Piano Etudes.

Somewhere in between are the American Ballads, a group of fantasies on folk and political songs that make an easy introduction to Rzewski’s more accessible side. The fourth Ballad, “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” is especially popular, its lively riffs suggesting the constant movement of the spinning machinery. Following the example of Ives, Rzewski holds back on quoting the full song until the very end. You can hear Pete Seeger singing the original tune here.

De Profundis

The most admired of all Rzewski’s post-People works has to be De Profundis (1992), a 30-minute essay for speaking pianist based (again!) on a prison letter, this time written by Oscar Wilde during his incarceration in Reading Gaol in 1897. The piece alternates between textless musical commentaries and accompanied delivery of excerpts from the letter. Despite the despairing tone of the text, the music is often playful, and includes a quote from “London Bridge is Falling Down,” a Bachian four-voice invention, and a body and piano-slapping passage punctuated by toots from a Harpo Marx horn.

Wilde’s narrative—significantly condensed by Rzewski—describes his humiliation and anguish while in custody, reflects on his earlier life (including his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas), and searches for redemption in his sufferings. Eventually Wilde tries to gird himself for the future…

While for the first year of my imprisonment I did nothing else, and can remember doing nothing else, but wring my hands in despair, and say, “What an ending, what an appalling ending!” now I try to say to myself, and sometimes when I am not torturing myself do really say, “What a beginning, what a wonderful beginning!”

…but the music knows better, and the piece ends in a quiet, resigned mood. In real life, Wilde was broken by his physical and emotional ordeal, and he died three years after his release, aged 46.

Retrospective

With Elliott Carter in Berlin in 1965, via Paris Transatlantic.

Minimalism, free improvisation, verbal scores, electronic music, neoromanticism, serialism, pastiche and quotation, indeterminate notation, composer-performer praxis—almost every major trend in postmodern art music is present somewhere in Rzewski’s output. Rather than “an inevitable direction,” his lifetime of exploration seems to have circled and zigzagged in many unpredictable ones. Even as he reaches 80—his younger revolutionary visage transformed into a more grandfatherly persona—he continues to perform and compose, including a new work for the Del Sol String Quartet being unveiled during his birthday week.

True to his socialist leanings, and carrying an unusually modest personality as creative musicians go, Rzewski avoids many of the trappings of musical careerism. Long skeptical about the commercial exploitation of music (“If you write music for a living, you’re doing the wrong thing—it won’t be very good.”), he makes most of his scores available for free at IMSLP and eschews the regimen of self-promotion embraced by many of his colleagues. What he relinquishes in fame and fortune he retains in a sincere independence of thought and action that has enabled him to help define the landscape of contemporary music for half a century.