09.16.2008

This past Saturday night (9/13) my lovely girlfriend and I attended the Concert for Hope at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The Concert for Hope was produced in conjunction with the opening of the Village of Hope, a new homeless shelter in Tustin. The Village of Hope is a branch of the Orange County Rescue Mission, built on the very interesting premise that beauty motivates people to change their lives for the better. Original artwork, sculpture and architecture were commissioned for the Village, all in hope that if the homeless who are sheltered there are surrounded by beauty, they will be more inspired to achieve self-sufficiency than if they were in a drab, purely functional environment.

In order to raise money and community awareness about this project (which officially opened on Sunday), OCPAC hosted the Concert for Hope on Saturday night, starring the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony directed by Carl St. Clair. All proceeds from ticket sales were donated to the Village. The concert was held in the only two-year-old Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, which is an amazing performance space I’ve greatly enjoyed in the past. The program consisted of some Copland music and a new piece commissioned for the occasion, the cantata From Greater Light, by Californian composer Alva Henderson with a libretto (i.e. text) by Richard Freis (sorry, no link; I couldn’t find a good website on him).

The concert started off with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, a stirring brass ‘n’ percussion tribute to the human spirit (presumably the reason it was included on the program). The acoustics in the hall are superlative, and the Fanfare was flooring. It was followed by a suite from Copland’s ballet Billy The Kid, and some of his Old American [folk] Songs sung by the famous baritone Jubilant Sykes. Why these were programmed was a mystery to my girlfriend and I; Copland’s main distinctive (apart from his music itself) is as the quintessential American composer. It was certainly good music, but in terms of thematic coherency it didn’t seem to apply much to the Village of Hope. It didn’t even fit with the “tribute to the human spirit” idea (the Billy The Kid suite includes the movements “Celebration [due to] Billy’s Capture” and “Billy’s Death”). But we enjoyed it nonetheless.

The first half ended with Sykes singing an uncredited arrangement of “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” and an a cappella spiritual, which brought the house down. The entire second half consisted of From Greater Light, which lasted about 45 minutes.

The piece is a cantata (the Latin word for “sung”) scored for chorus, orchestra, solo baritone and solo tenor. Cantatas are dramatic pieces, often based on sacred texts, that tell a story but don’t fully stage it (there are no sets, props or costumes). Freis’ libretto dramatizes the biblical story of Job, a righteous man who loses all his property, wealth and children in one blow. In the piece, the angel Gabriel (“played” by the tenor) visits Job (“played” by the baritone) and tells of God’s love, proclaiming the message “We all live in one another and in God.” Freis then incorporates Jesus’ parable of the Final Judgment from Matthew 25, in which he states “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,” etc. Gabriel declares that God is in the hungry and the one who feeds the hungry, God is in the thirsty and the one who gives a drink, etc., culminating in “God is in the homeless and the one who gives a home.” The choir sings the refrain “We all live in one another and in God,” occasionally takes a character part on itself (“We are the homeless….”), and generally serves to reiterate and comment on the soloists’ statements, much like the chorus in a classical Greek play. Eventually Gabriel implores that God’s invisible hands be made visible in service to those in need, and Job, no longer mourning for his children but still singing their names in remembrance, joins in, and the piece ends with a quiet “Amen” from the choir.

Henderson’s music was conservative, tonal and accessible, and while not being anything special was certainly good. Apparently Henderson is primarily an opera composer, and that showed in the music for this piece in that it was very dramatic, sometimes overly affected, but generally effective in conveying the emotion of the story. There was some nice word painting, notably shimmering high strings, winds and percussion for Gabriel’s entrance. I was particularly pleased, as well, to note Henderson’s skill in giving the choir several a cappella passages, free of orchestral accompaniment, to highlight the text and allow the singers to shine.

The libretto, however, was very weak in my opinion. The Christian tradition has a rich depth of theology and philosophy on the subject of suffering, which could have provided a wealth of richly meaningful and moving material for the piece, and certainly using Job as a starting point is creative and promising. But Freis opts instead for vague and vacuous sentiment, portraying the grief of Job but offering no consolation. It would seem to me that in the middle of the piece there should be a dramatic turning point, in which Job is comforted and uplifted and turns to service (who would serve others when they’re lost in the depths of unconsoled despair themselves?), but this point never comes. Instead there is no real transition, and thus rather than a coherent storyline arc the form of the libretto is nebulous and unconnected. (“Hey, Job, I know you’re bummed about your kids, but to take your mind off it why don’t you try helping others?”)

Because of this From Greater Light can’t achieve the greatness that it aspires to in the service of its worthy cause. The music is effective and dramatically well done, but the libretto falls far short of what it promises and the music is unable to redeem it. However, I have to emphasize that I fully support the concept–I love the idea that the mere presence of beauty can change lives, and I hope the Village is blessed by the awareness and funds contributed by the concert. Henderson’s music: B; Freis’ libretto: C; concept for Concert for Hope: A+.

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09.14.2008

Clapping Music, Steve Reich

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:58 pm

To close out the week of clapping posts, I present to you Clapping Music, an actual piece of art music by a real-life composer consisting only of clapping. The teacher of my composition class at CSUF, Lloyd Rodgers, told us about a performance of this piece at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles: two grown men holding a concert audience transfixed simply by clapping onstage.

The piece Clapping Music, written in 1972, is by Steve Reich, one of America’s most important living composers. Reich is also one of the most prominent composers of minimalist music. Minimalist pieces usually consist of short cells or motives that are repeated continuously, gradually undergoing slow processes of change. Clapping Music fits this bill and also represents a variation of Reich’s idea of “phasing.” In this concept, two performers begin by playing, say, an 8-note-long melody in unison, and player B begins to speed up very gradually until his second note is in unison with player A’s first note (thus player B is now “out of phase”). They play in unison again for a while, and then player B speeds up slowly again until his third note is in unison with player A’s first note, and so on all the way through the cycle until they are playing the same melody in unison as at the beginning. (The Wikipedia article on Reich’s piece Piano Phase provides a more detailed explanation of how phasing is practially applied in that piece.)

In Clapping Music, the two performers begin by clapping the same rhythm in unison. After a few repetitions of this pattern, player B pauses for one beat and then claps the same rhythm one beat behind. After a few repetitions of that pattern, player B pauses for another beat and then claps the same rhythm two beats behind. The piece cycles through the whole rhythm this way, and it ends with the performers clapping the same rhythm in unison again. (You can see Reich’s handwritten score here.)

If there was a YouTube video of that WDCH concert, I’d love to share it with you; but this one isn’t half bad. Apparently it’s from a doctorate recital at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005. If you’re interested in learning more about the piece, I recommend reading the program note by the performer under “More Info” on the video’s YouTube page. Or you can just watch the video below. I love how the first performer begins the clapping piece by joining in with the audience’s applause.

And that concludes our week of clapping posts! Give yourselves a hand!

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08.20.2008

… I would be remiss if I failed to mention that TLB was honored to receive a visit by Pauline Oliveros herself–the inventor of Deep Listening and the “quotee” of this blog’s header quote. She asked me to clarify some comments I’d made, and we had a brief exchange in the comments section of my last post. I encourage you to check it out, and if Ms. Oliveros happens to stop by this post as well, thanks again!

N.B. Unfortunately the date in the email below will reveal that my previous post and this one were written quite a while ago. I hope you find them intriguing nonetheless.

No sooner had I written my post about comprehensive listening than I saw this email, forwarded to me from the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum (of which I am a member)….


“…the coolest ride of the year…sure to permanently change the way you think about – and listen to – SF” – Nitevibe

“AudioBus create[s] unique participatory sound experiences” – Reyhan Hermanci, SF Chronicle 96 Hours

“…what better place to have a city music festival than on a bus…commuting takes on new meaning…” – Jennifer Maerz, Last Tango in Traffic, SF Weekly

MOVESOUND, SoundwaveSeries’ third season, launches the first of five AudioBus events this Saturday July 12 at New Langton Arts. The AudioBus is a moving venue giving audiences an adventurous sonic experience like never before. The sound artists and musicians curated for the AudioBus compose their San Francisco route and perform live scores to the scenery moving past them.

We are also excited to announce Sennheiser has come on board to become a major sponsor of AudioBus suppling quality microphones and headphones for the series. Sennheiser joins CitySightseeing San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum as crucial support in making AudioBus a reality.

Saturday, July 12, 2008
AUDIOBUS: HUMAN STREET TEXTURES: Live Processed Sound on a Moving Open-Top Double Decker Bus by David Graves (San Francisco) and [ruidobello] (San Francisco)

Composer David Graves & sound artist [ruidobello] devise a tour route collecting live moving street sounds. David & [ruidobello] will mix, and manipulate the soundscapes into an alternate sonic reality for audiences equipped with headphones atop a CitySightseeing open top double-decker bus moving through the city.


Sounds pretty cool to me! Almost makes me wish I lived in San Francisco…. (But not quite.)

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08.09.2008

As I mentioned in my last post, the second event of the concert in Long Beach was a set of guitar pieces by Lou Harrison, performed by John Schneider (of the Partch Ensemble). Harrison (1917-2003) was an American composer who wrote mostly in just intonation, a system of tuning based on pure mathematical ratios, as opposed to the irrational ratios used by the more widespread equal temperament. (As a brief aside: Many hold that just intonation is a purer and more beautiful tuning than equal temperament–the standard in western music from the 19th century to the present day–but the former becomes impractical after a certain harmonic point because some intervals get so out of tune that they become unusable.)

Before Schneider played the pieces (he actually played two suites), he gave a brief talk about Harrison, the tuning he used, and the pieces themselves. The most interesting part of his discussion was his explanation of the guitars he used. Typical guitars use equal-tempered frets, so that they can play with pianos and other equal-tempered instruments, and their fretboards look like this:

However, in order to play just intonation music on a guitar, the fretboard must be modified, to look more like this (the man in this picture, by the way, is Schneider himself):

Remarkably, he showed the bewildered audience that the fretboard was actually a magnet–he slipped it right out from under the strings and held it up to show us. The neck was magnetic, he explained, and the justly-tuned fretboards were put on large magnet boards–just like a kitchen magnet–so they could be interchangeable. The pieces themselves were very good, and held my interest much longer than the other pieces in the concert. I recorded a video of the performance on my cell phone, which you can see below. Neither the video nor the audio quality is too good, but you can hear how the tuning is different from a normal guitar.

Tuning is really a fascinating subject. If you’re interested in learning more, you can find articles and resources at the website of The Just Intonation Network, as well as the excellent Tuning Information page on Kyle Gann’s website.

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08.08.2008

Several weeks ago my lovely girlfriend and I went to a concert in Long Beach. I had received notification of the concert through the LA chapter of the American Composers Forum (of which I’m a member); but when we arrived at the location it almost felt like an underground gathering. It was held at an art gallery that had a stage ringed with red curtains in the back. Plastic folding chairs were set up for the audience, and all manner of interesting folk were there.

The first piece was what (I think) is usually designated “sound art,” where four people made a bunch of noises with different instruments or electronic devices; the noises were picked up by microphones, which ran into sound boards that looped the noises so they would play several times before dying away. Occasionally the noisemakers would adjust various attributes of the sounds as they played, such as the panning (left to right), the delay (echo), etc. It was mildly interesting, but more tiring than interesting, and it seemed to me more like four guys playing around with technology and seeing what they could make their stuff do than artful music, or even artful sound.

The second piece, or rather set of pieces, was the best of the evening: a set of Lou Harrison guitar pieces, played by a musician named John Schneider. But we shall return there in the next post.

The third and final piece (the concert was too informal and not really long enough for an intermission) was some ever-popular Cambodian classical music. It was performed on two marimba-like instruments (except the wooden bars were suspended rather than fixed), two instruments that formed rings around the players and were some other type of pitched percussion, a drummer, a bored-looking woman playing small finger cymbals, and the apparent leader, a flutist playing some sort of straight Cambodian flute (as opposed to the western flute which is played to the side). It was interesting music; the theme of the concert was microtonality–music that uses intervals smaller than a half step, or more informally, music that uses notes that would fit in the cracks between black and white notes on the piano. The Cambodian music was interesting because it was based on a type of pentatonic scale, but somehow a microtonal one. The traditional pentatonic scale is formed of five notes (penta-, five, and tonic, tone) that correspond to the black notes on a piano:

The scale that the Cambodian musicians used was similar to this one, but some of the tones were slightly different than those–a little “off.” That made the music a bit more interesting than typical pentatonic music, which tends to get old fast because there’s very little dissonance and thus few opportunities for tension. But it still grew tiring after a while, because there wasn’t too much variation in the texture and even with the microtonality in the pentatonic scale it still lacked harmonic variety. But, all the same, I was grateful for the opportunity to experience Cambodian classical music, since that opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

Tune in in a few days for part II–”The Well-Tuned Guitar!”

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07.25.2008

John Cage Performing One Of His Compositions

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:13 am

Although he doesn’t post much anymore, in the past I’ve enjoyed reading Greg Wilbur’s blog. Wilbur is the director of music for a PCA church in Tennessee, and his blog most often deals with topics regarding music, worship and the church. He recently posted this video of John Cage performing one of his compositions on an old TV show. John Cage was a controversial American composer of the 20th century (he died in 1992) who experimented conceptually with the line between music, noise and silence. His most famous piece is probably 4’33″, which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence–or, as Cage understood it, of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear for the duration of the piece. He was also famous for the invention of the “prepared piano,” in which objects such as screws, coins and paper were placed in the strings of the piano, altering its sound. The video is nine and a half minutes long, but intriguing, to say the least.

Wilbur’s comment on the video: “This is long, but the absurdity of what is meant as ‘music’ is worth watching.”

I commented on his post and said this: “At least people back then had the good sense to laugh at him. It’s all too easy to imagine a concert hall of musicians and composers from academia sitting and listening quietly today. I take it as a sign of my musical sanity that I laughed as well.”

His response: “I agree. Even the host’s need to express that this was ‘serious’ music but that people would laugh is a far better indicator of musical judgment than ivory tower academicians. It’s an interesting thing to see how someone’s artistic philosophy actually serves to destroy that which they say they value. In this case, broad theories of sound as music replaces that which makes music music.”

It certainly brings up some intriguing questions. What makes music music? What is the line between music and noise? Does that line remain constant through different times and different cultures?

What do you think? Leave a comment and join the discussion!

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06.04.2008

The Vox Balaenae Principle

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:56 am

Forgive me for not posting in a few days; I’ve just moved into a new apartment in Irvine and just started a new job in Costa Mesa, and consequently have had less time and no internet until tonight. Hopefully I’ll be back to posting regularly now. And in the meantime, thanks so much to all who have been commenting–I really appreciate your feedback, insights or random thoughts on what I’ve written. Keep ‘em coming! Now to the real post:

I heard George Crumb’s work Vox Balaenae (Latin for “Voice of the Whale”) several years ago at Cal State Fullerton’s new music festival. It was performed by three members of the incomparable eighth blackbird ensemble (the scoring is for flute, cello and piano, all amplified), as the score specifies, in black half-masks and under deep blue stage lighting. It was an eerie setting for a really cool piece.

I have to confess that I haven’t heard it since then, so my recollections are vague, but the main thing I remember is the subject of this post. The piece utilizes lots of extended techniques to evoke the sea and the whalesong, meaning unconventional ways of playing the instruments–singing through the flute, playing on the strings inside the piano, etc. And (we remember) it’s by George Crumb, which together with the extended techniques means that it isn’t always easy to listen to, often has a random/incoherent feel to it, and denies any kind of resolution most of the time. But in the middle of the piece, it suddenly broke out into a clear, tonal, chordal passage that was absolutely lovely. And because of the style of everything that had come before it, it was heartbreakingly beautiful–much more so than it would have been on its own, without the surrounding material. It was so much a contrast to the preceding music that it was thrown into sharper relief, and the effect was amazing.

The principle proved itself again a few weeks ago. I went to the senior composition recital of a friend of mine named Seán Dunnahoe, and the three pieces on the program were of a similar mold as I’ve described above. The middle piece was entitled Textural Study and was scored for three flutes, clarinets in Bb, A and bass varieties and portative organ. It included lots of aleatoric elements: cells of notes repeated arhythmically playing against other cells in other instruments, and that type of thing. But at several points all the instruments came together and played a few chords of the major and minor varieties, and the effect was similar to the one in Vox Balaenae. It was such a contrast to what had come before that it was beautiful, and it had a very dramatic effect.

Therefore, from henceforth I shall call this “The Vox Balaenae Principle.” I may even try to use it in one of the compositions I’m working on now, an a cappella choral piece about the fall of Rome. Hmm, that would actually work really well….

(If you’re interested, there’s an excellent page on Vox Balaenae on Crumb’s website that lists all the details of the piece and includes program notes and a review.)

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