Nothing to Fear?

Nothing to Fear?


I don’t have a lot of fears. I walk alone at night feeling foolishly invincible. On a recent tour to Venezuela, I spent 14 hours on a bus, teetering at the edge of the Andes with only a Dramamine and a bus driver named Jèsus to ease any queasiness. I even like spiders thanks to Mr. E.B. White. However, categorization terrifies me. In our efficiency-preoccupied society, we’re obsessed with neatly packaging products, people and ideas. If things don’t fit, we simply create a new category.

One of our classic groupings is age. Every marketing scheme is based on some age demographic. We place age limits on drinking, driving, voting, retiring and, thanks to Tipper Gore and new FCC chairman Michael K. Powell who is on a censoring rampage, we even have to be a certain age to listen to some kinds of music! When looking at the influence that age has on a composer there are several things to keep in mind so that we don’t get lazy and fall into the ruthless trap of overgeneralization; advice that should also be observed when reading Ayn Rand novels.

First, there is always an exception to a category – in this case, composers who are out of their time. Charles Ives (b. 1874) was the perennial “man out of his time.” And dating his music is even further complicated by the fact that he frequently rewrote and reworked pieces throughout his compositional career, as is the case for the miniatures collected on When the Moon. Speaking of miniatures, don’t panic featuring pianist Guy Livingston comprises sixty pieces that are roughly sixty seconds long written by composers from eighteen different countries! The sample here is from American composer Walter Sanchez.

Donald Ashwander (b.1929), a key player in the ragtime revival of the 1950s, is outside of his time in a completely opposite way from Ives, composing music such as 1988’s Perdido Bay Moon Rag, about seventy-five years after the height of ragtime. Singer Philip Chaffin also pays a tribute to the music of yesteryear on Where Do I Go From You? crooning Warren and Gordon’s classic tune At Last, made popular by the Glenn Miller Orchestra about sixty years ago.

Age can be a problematic criterion for categorization when dealing with sources of inspiration because oftentimes the inspiration for a piece comes from outside a composer’s immediate experience and sometimes from outside his/her lifetime all together, nullifying any links to his or her contemporaries. Many composers find inspiration coming from memories of their youth. Michael Lowenstern’s aptly titled 1985, samples a tape made for Lowenstern (b. 1967) by two of his high school buddies. Deriving her inspiration for It Won’t Be the Same River, played by the Mallarmè Chamber Players, from a group of high school students she worked with in Raleigh, North Carolina, Penka Kouneva attempts to address the four topics that the students considered most relevant to their lives: love, fear, sexuality and confusion.

Meyer Kupferman (b. 1926), who asked in the 1970s “Why does music have to be consistent?” shows how inspiration can come from both the past and the present in his two recordings that are available this month. The inspiration for O North Star finds its source in the depth of the night sky and the sea images of Melville’s novels. Flight Alone, written when he was 69 years old, is based on childhood memories of the Holocaust and its effects on his parents.

The Heavenly Feast by Martin Amlin (b. 1953) also uses the Holocaust as a point of departure but he was not even born until the war had been over for eight years. He instead uses the text of a poem about Simone Weil who chose to starve herself to death as an affirmation of her anti-war sentiments and empathy for the war’s victims.

Ezra Laderman (b. 1924), whose Fantasy for Cello was composed in 1998, claims that the most formative years of his career as a composer were the 1930s when he was just in his early teens! He actually quotes a composition from a wind quintet he wrote in high school in his 1985 piece, Pentimento. Even more detached from the theme of his music, Jorge Martìn, whose song cycle The Glass Hammer explores life in an abusive Southern family, claims no personal connection to the text except that it moved him when he heard it read by the poet, Andrew Hudgins. German born Broadway legend Kurt Weill (1900-50) also explores a topic that is foreign to him in the musical adaptation of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country called Lost in the Stars about a family dealing with the racial politics of South Africa.

Other artists attempt to defy the categorization of their music by taking the emphasis off of the finished object and placing it upon the process, such as Marilyn Crispell (b. 1947)’s slow free form tracks on Amaryllis, which sound composed although not one note was planned.

Now that you are somewhat armed against the innate flaws of demographic categorization, we can gingerly move onto examining the similarities that do arise within age brackets. Baby steps…baby steps. We don’t want any chronological bigots, now!

Obviously, the philosophies that arise from life changing events such as war or social upheaval as well as the theoretical trends emerging among composers and the instruments available will bond members of a generation together ideologically and, to a certain extent, stylistically. Therefore, we should expect to see members of certain age groups pursuing similar musical goals or at least using similar tools. This assumption can be partially supported by composers featured this month. For example, composers who are currently writing for electro-acoustic instruments, electronics or computers appear to be clustered in the forty to sixty age group.

Ingram Marshall (b.1942) stirs up (à la Bob Marley) Bach’s Et in Spiritum Sancto from the B-minor Mass using a live digital delay process in Holy Ghosts. (Sorry. I just wanted to put Bach and Bob Marley in the same sentence.) Furthermore, electronic music veteran Paul Lansky (b. 1944) continues to create music using incomprehensible speech patterns in the new and improved Idle Chatter Junior.

Lost Objects, a new collaborative work by Bang On A Can founders Michael Gordon (b. 1958), David Lang (b. 1957) and Julia Wolfe (b. 1958), fuses a traditional oratorio form with the instruments of a rock band and then top it all off with remixes by DJ Spooky. This oratorio explores the experience of losing and finding objects and attempts to find the lost sound of early music by using a Baroque orchestra and choir, fusing the ultramodern with the past. Like Lost Objects, Ted Nash’s Sidewalk Meeting, examines an everyday occurrence: the chance meeting in the street. Combining New Orleans and klezmer influences, Nash (b. 1959) celebrates diversity and recalls a “chance encounter” he had with accordionist Bill Schimmel, who plays with him on this recording. Ruth Crawford (1901-53), whose 9 Piano Preludes written in her own “dissonant counterpoint,” supports the goal of Lost Objects in her 1941 monograph The Music of American Folk Song, saying “Each individual will have his own preferences in respect to what should be lost, modified, or preserved.” In this case, the music has been at once lost and then reclaimed through modification and modernization.

Representing the over 60 group in the realm of computer music (although she was about 35 when this piece was written), is Bog Music by pioneer Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932) who uses a Buchla Series 100 Box to reflect the sounds of the pond outside her 1967 studio at the Mills Tape Music Center in San Francisco.

James Chaudoir (b. 1946) often couples a lyric and rhythmic style with MIDI and analog techniques, although his new CD of chamber works is “unplugged.” Finally, Stephen Perillo uses a variety of synthesizers in combination with expansive orchestration for his Magnificat for a New Millennium. A hodgepodge of musical genres from traditional chant to marching band, spirituals and the jazz combo, the Magnificat also represents par excellence the mixing of styles characteristic of younger composers.

Ohio-native Chris Washburne strikes a balance between the danceable music of Latin America and straight jazz in his album dedicated to the work of Tito Puente featuring arrangements of Puente’s work and original pieces composed in Puente’s spirit such as Titorama. ¡Si quiere bailar, escuche este album! Exploring his Venezuelan heritage through Latin dance rhythms and counterpoint, Efraìn Amaya infuses traditional forms with South American energy in his String Quartet No. 1. Lucius Weathersby (b. 1968)’s Spiritual Fantasy presents organ music with strong classical, sacred, blues and gospel influences as well as a piece by Fela Sowande, the “father of Nigerian Art Music”.

Squeezing some new timbres out of a guitar, bassoon and acoustic bass combination on his album Transience, Joel Harrison honors Jimi Hendrix, saxophonist Jim Pepper who incorporated Native American themes and jazz into his innovative sound and his late teacher Dick Barnes. A new solo album by another guitarist, Ralph Towner (b. 1940), shows a great variety of influences from rock and blues to jazz and classical. Also charting new waters in the realm of writing for the solo instrument, Mat Maneri combines jazz phrasing, a chamber music texture, Baroque, world music and microtonal influences on Trinity. John Harbison (b. 1938) presents a variety of pieces that are strongly influenced by jazz and Baroque music in the new disc of his early works, although his 1978 Piano Concerto finds itself operating within a more romantic language.

Towner and Harbison prove that although stylish among younger composers, this melding of different styles together within one piece is obviously not exclusive to those born after 1950. Many composers of the older generations have found sanctity in the combination of various genres. For example, Lukas Foss (b. 1922) mixes pitched melodies with free melodies, where the singers choose their own notes, and two different texts in his De Profundis, on a disc of his vocal works.

And then there is the issue of wunderkinder, children who begin composing at a very young age. They tend to be pianists and have a penchant for piano music…

Composing by the age of ten, Allen Shawn (b. 1948) uses traditional instrumentation and form to render a colossal work for orchestra that is bold and lyric. Mark Zuckerman (b. 1948)’s On the Edge for solo piano is steeped in rhythmic intensity and manipulations developed using serial theory. His first foray into composition was at age 11. Next, we come to jazz pianist and composer Aaron Parks, the “Wizard”who has produced his third CD at the ripe young age of 17. Another 17-year old, Lukas Previn, son of André Previn, wrote the track “Bye, Bye Sky”, on André’s new disc with David Finck, Live at the Jazz Standard.

Then there are some composers who begin to become more prolific as they become older. The older Previn (b. 1930) claims that he has composed more since 1992 than he had in the twenty years before hand, such as his Diversions for orchestra and a great deal of vocal music. Perhaps he was too busy with his job as a world famous pianist and conductor…

Included on an anthology of American songs sung by Carole Bogard, John Duke (b. 1899) produced over one-third of his art songs after his “retirement” from composing in 1967! The second symphony by Duke’s contemporary Walter Piston (b. 1894-1976) shares a lucid and concise formality with the songs of Duke.

Younger composers Christopher Rouse (b. 1949) and Mark Ettinger (b. 1963) attempt to deal with more nebulous thematic concepts such as the manifestation of dreams into reality and the capturing of the artistic spirit as attempted in Rouse’s Concert de Gaudi; and the flitting moments when reality and dreams interact addressed in Ettinger’s réve no. 31

There are, of course, some themes that are ageless, like making fun of the people in Washington! And, oh, has this theme been exploited recently thanks to Dubya. Ethel Merman contributes by singing Washington Square Dance by Irving Berlin (b. 1888-1989) on the original Broadway recording of Call Me Madam, along with other delightful tunes.

The newest album entitled Foreststorn from drummer and groove guru Chico Hamilton (b. 1921) features many talented guest artists such as the Spin Doctors’ Eric Schenkman on Guitar Willie and celebrates the simple community of playing. Chico reminds us to keep everything in perspective saying, “You know, it takes all kinds of grooves to make a groove.” With that, I wish you happy listening…

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.