One year ago today, April 19, Freddie Gray died while in police custody. His death inspired protests in Baltimore; in the following days, these protests would combine with escalating tensions, eventually resulting in the Baltimore Uprising of April 27.

12523941_1744113299166935_2710351836599900511_nOne year ago today, April 19, an extraordinary piece with an extraordinary text was being
performed: Rise. With music by Judah Adashi and poetry by Tameka Cage Conley, the work “bears witness to America’s civil rights journey from Selma to Ferguson” [composer’s program notes].

This evening, Baltimore citizens remembered Gray’s death through words, music, and images as Rise received a full performance in Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church.


The Statue Next Door

Mt. Vernon Place UMC is a commonly used venue for events that have a connection to the Peabody Conservatory (Adashi is on faculty at the school), as it is located across the street from the institute’s front entrance. A beautiful, neo-gothic building, the church is also mere steps away from the statue of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.

Laura Kigweba, pastor at Mt. Vernon Place, called attention to Taney’s stony presence in her pre-concert remarks, noting that his rulings continued to deny people of color the human rights that should, indeed, be inalienable. But things do not always remain the same. “Have you ever felt transformation?”, she asked: “This is transformation…you are in the midst of it.”

Art and Activism

Race, activism, and transformation were all key topics in the panel discussion that preceded the concert itself. Moderated by Brittani McNeill, the panel included former pro-Football-player-turned artist Aaron Maybin, actress (of The Wire fame) and screenwriter Sonja Sohn, writer and activist Tariq Touré, and writer, educator, and speaker D. Watkins. Sohn emphasized that “it is the responsibility of artists…to evolve humanity,” and Maybin noted the “symbiotic relationship between art and social movements.”

Integral to the discussion was the question: “How can I help?” This is a complex issue, which the panel readily accessed. All too often, reports surface of would-be helpers swooping into a situation without contacting local advocacy organizations and lacking research and context, potentially leaving suspicion and confusion in their wake. How to reach out, then, when privilege and thoughtlessness have aggravated, as Sohn aptly put it, the pervasive “ancestral trauma” caused by hundreds of years of racism? Watkins emphasized the importance of bridge-building: the answer is not in one-off instances of palliative care, but in fostering relationships, and breaking down our individual egos. Touré advocated acknowledging common cause, but also emphasized the need for continued artistic creation in minority communities: once there are a diversity of artists and a diversity of experiences being represented in poetry, prose, film, and other art forms, then creators and enactors needn’t follow the appointed roles assigned to them by outsider privilege.


Rise is a beautiful example of the potential for such artistic bridge-building. Conley’s texts are potent and expressive, yet crafted with clockwork accuracy to deliver an emotional blow, splitting open a wellspring of empathy to which everyday tragedy has inured us. Adashi’s music is simple (not simplistic); organicism combines with developed subtleties to create a humming harmonic and formal palette. Together, the artists—who met at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts—have crafted a work which upholds the legacy of civil rights and, by creating a community around it, have built a bridge leading towards a better world. As Conley states in the last movement of Rise: “Heaven, a bridge beneath their feet.”

The Beauty of the Protest

The concert itself began with The Beauty of the Protest, a recent work by Adashi for amplified ‘cello, performed by Lavena Johanson. Meditative, but with a slow, thrumming intensity, the work was inspired by photographer Devin Allen, who captured black and white images of the Baltimore Uprising on Instagram. Johanson’s focused and lyrical playing (and voice) combined with Adashi’s modal unfolding to provide a harmonic cornerstone for the evening. A reading of a new poem by Tariq Touré followed, reminiscent in its structure of the Gospel-style rhetoric of King’s “I have a dream” speech, summoning the visage and memory of Freddie Gray. As Conley pointed out following his reading, regarding Gray and the all-too-many young Black men who perished in similar circumstances: “They are here,” in the memories, words, and invocations of the evening.

Rise itself is organized in seven sections, an Invocation and six numbered movements. The work is for chamber ensemble, double choir, and soloists, performed tonight (as well as last year) by the superb group Afro Blue. Conley read the text aloud at two-movement intervals, providing verbal touchstones in the progression of musical events.

Several harmonic progressions and textures act as unifying elements for the work, offset by individual “character pieces.” Movements 1 (“Edmund Pettus Bridge, March 7, 1965”), 3 (“O Light (From Troy to All the Cities)”) and 5 (“Remains”) hint at an undergirding choral texture, homophonic with chromatic-third-relations that provide both stability and color. Movements 2 (“A Blues, in the Light of Overcoming”), 4 (“Alpha & Omega”), and 6 (“MericanAnthem”) each provide a distinct character, though without seeming derivative. Movement 2, certainly Blues-y, has a harmonic richness and verve that engage the listener in the overall arc; Conley’s text in “Alpha & Omega” reveals a keen sense of rhythmic and formal flow, which Adashi skillfully realizes; and “MericanAnthem” gently weaves in triadic hints at our National Anthem, but in a wistful, hopeful strain that effaces any blatant Nationalism.

For me, “Remains” is the dramatic heart of the work. A roughly ten-minute long movement, it incorporates the Invocation’s chaconne-like chordal repetition in the piano and soulful flugelhorn (provided by Roderick Demmings and Christopher Shiley, respectfully) and redolent of the thrumming mass of both The Beauty of the Protest and “O Light (From Troy to All Cities),” replete with ever-so-slightly sour notes between the melodic lines and harmonies. “Remains” examines the heart of loss, the occasional miracles of hope, and the fervent plea: “Nation, can we rise like air?” This question becomes a command in both the title of the work, and in the choir’s fervent chorale that closes the movement:




Now Hear This: Music of Steve Reich


This 2015-2016 season, a new ensemble appeared on the block of East Mount Vernon Place—Peabody’s new contemporary chamber ensemble, Now Hear This. It is appropriate that the name of this flexibly-configured group approaches a command rather than a mere suggestion—the programming of just this first season, consisting of a fall and a spring concert, is gripping. The fall concert featured music of Donnacha Dennehy (with the composer in attendance), Gérard Grisey, and Julia Wolfe; the spring concert, which occurred on Friday, April 15, focused on music of Steve Reich.

The ensemble is directed by violinist Courtney Orlando of Alarm Will Sound and advised by Peabody Faculty member David Smooke, both highly imaginative and invigorating members of the new music community—and, importantly, inspiration mentors to their students. Smooke recently was awarded the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award for 2016, and, when Orlando and Smooke invited their student performers to speak prior to the concert, each spoke with passion, eloquence, and experience regarding their commitment to new music.

As the Nation’s Oldest Conservatory undergoes a variety of renewals—from new paint in the parking garage to streamlined administrative relations—it is beyond satisfying to witness these institution-sponsored performances of living composers. A number of other new music ensembles exist at Peabody (and even more outside of it), including the Camerata and the Peabody Modern Orchestra. The former tends to present bastions of the 20th Century—a recent outstanding concert featured Lisa Perry in a performance of Schoenberg’s Erwartung—and the latter, conducted by Dr. Harlan Paker, recently presented works of Nico Muhly, Libby Larsen, and many other living composers. The opportunity to present cutting-edge chamber works of the 21st century (or close to it) was ready to be seized—and thus we Now Hear This.

The April 15 concert opened with Music for Pieces of Wood, performed by members of the Peabody percussion studio. Notably, this occurred in the foyer of the Grand Arcade as a unnamedpre-concert performance. This proved immensely satisfying: for one, the Mondrian-like symmetries of the foyer paired well with the pulsing, interweaving lines of Reich’s music. Further, this inspired an informal, yet focused, vibe—the audience was here to hear Reich, and they stood, sat, leaned in, leaned back, and grooved along with the percussionists and their mallets. This last is important: the grooving was infectious. Watching the audience listen, one witnessed the varying scales of individual entrainment as audience members latched on to different beat patterns: large scale, small scale, behind or in front of or around the beat. Our individual/collective rhythmic impulses resonated Reich’s musical statement, as the audience ourselves demonstrated the malleability of time and silence, and the amalgamation of the piling on of pulse.

These piled pulses were on full display in the supple clarinet lines of the second pre-concert work, New York Counterpoint, for tape (with ten recorded clarinet and bass clarinet lines) and solo clarinet. The work was artfully and accurately performed by Mellisa Lander, who confidently navigated the treacherous clarino-register passages that ended the composition. In the front row, two groovers in the form of children laughed and smiled along to the pinball-like lines that bounced between registers: the stage was set, not just for a high level of musical performance, but for the child-like sense of wonder that new beauty should inspire.

The concert proper consisted solely of Music for 18 Musicians. One of Reich’s masterworks, this hour-long composition cycles through a series of chordal and rhythmic transformations that, though rigorously planned (in his pre-concert remarks, Smooke reminded the audience that Minimalism was, after all, a brand of Modernism and that this work was “as rigorous as any Modernist piece), seem ultimately natural. The concentration necessary for the performers to navigate this harmonic labyrinth is staggering. With so many layered units, the work also has a flexible, mobile-like existence, as audience members interpret it individually: “Everyone hears it a little differently,” percussionist Christina Manceor mentioned in the pre-concert remarks. However, under the watchful eye and gentle gestures of Orlando, the ensemble seemed to pulse as one organism, clockwork cells whirring and spinning at once independently and in tandem. Reich’s straightforward titles and compositional processes that straddle the simple and complex demonstrate an abstract removal from representation that allows for a blank but visceral palette—the performers grasped this, and lived it.

As Smooke mentioned, this concert was presented just nine days shy of the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Music for 18 Musicians. The work was not published until 1999, but it has taken some time for it to filter into the repertoire of conservatory performance: students of the San Francisco Conservatory performed it in 2013, and both Juilliard and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble in 2010. This creative and invigorating programming is precisely right for Peabody as it looks to its future, granting students, performers, and audiences the opportunity to Hear This: Now.

The Bridge Ensemble @ Light City


On April 1 at 7 pm, the Bridge Ensemble, Baltimore’s newest early/modern choral group, will perform at the inaugural Light City Festival, occurring in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor Area. The Bridge Ensemble joins a wonderfully diverse lineup of musical acts, the “classical” side of things including Convergence Maximus – another must-see occurring under the auspices of the War Memorial Arts Initiative and featuring the Concert Artists of Baltimore and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society – as well as Symphony No. 1. I had the opportunity to listen in on Bridge’s dress rehearsal, and I heartily recommend you hear their sumptuous program.


Gilbert Spencer, Bridge Ensemble Artistic Director

The Bridge Ensemble is directed by Gilbert Spencer, a Baltimore native (his parents are both prominent musicians in the area) and graduate of Northwestern University – though before his college years, he sang in the renowned male treble choirs of St. Thomas, New York and the American Boychoir. The tonal clarity of the Anglican choral tradition infuses the Bridge Ensemble’s sound, which, aptly, bridges older works (specifically those from the Medieval and Renaissance Eras) to contemporary compositions.

The hour-long cappella program (no easy feat – especially as it is to be performed in the dark with only illumination on music stands) includes a wealth of early-versus-modern pairings centered around the theme of Light. Opening with Renaissance composer Louis Bourgeouis’ O Gladsome Light, based on the c. 4th century Greek hymn Phos hilaron, one immediately warms to the group’s balanced tone and responsive, unified interaction with its conductor: it is clear that the homophonic style of this work gels with Spencer’s Anglican choral training. Following this are two contemporary works, O Oriens by Philadelphia-based composer Melissa Dunphy and Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miškinis’ Lucis creator optima. Dunphy’s motet unfolds with a chant-like opening, creating


Melissa Dunphy

an organic link between the modern and ancient, and expanding into lush diatonic clusters and triads. Shimmering seconds in the upper register frequently give way to strong harmonic pillars and a few change-of-mode surprises. In a similar harmonic vain, Miškinis’ work offers unique gestural content to bookend his composition, with invigorating, upward rushing gestures setting off a high-versus-low antiphony, revealing homophonic chords pitted against taught, tenor pedal points. Miškinis’ setting was followed by a Tomás Luis de Victoria work based on the same text, sung with a fluidity that once again showed off Spencer’s Anglican training – this is no stodgy Latin motet, but a living, breathing work with relevance.

For me, the jewel in this program is undoubtedly a new composition by a member of Bridge’s bass section, Michael Rickelton‘s setting of Rage Against the Dying of the Light, based on Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.” I may be biased, but Rickelton’s approach to text-setting reveals a composer who is astutely aware of poetic content, musical form, and vocal timbre. The work opens with terse statements of “rage,”

Michael Rickelton Photo2

Michael Rickelton (Photo Credit: Amber Dawkins)

followed by men’s voices settling lower while the treble lines provide licks of flame that reveal the scope of the work’s musical canvas. Rich harmonic and timbral progressions demonstrate Rickelton’s sensitivity to text, voice, and the interaction thereof–particularly poignant are his settings of “gentle,” alternatingly weeping and nostalgic, clinging and pleading. Echoes of the “rage”-ing opening occur throughout the work, hinting at far-reaching structural elements that weave throughout the piece, a trait which calls to mind music of Michael Hersch and the fraught organicism that undergirds his musical forms. (Rickelton and I both studied with Hersch, and I find one of the long-reaching effects of such study to be a focus on the form and ritual of a composition.)

One of the most impressive aspects in Rickelton’s work is his fusion of personal style and idiom. Though the diatonic clusters that are now almost a given in contemporary choral compositions are certainly present, they feel integrated into the work; likewise, triadic pillars are no mere artifacts, but are part of a spectrum within the complex harmonic palette. The organic, utterly non-formulaic structure of the work ultimately returns to the opening material before gently fading – hoping? dying? transcending? – into the choirboy tones of a soprano duet, weaving between thirds and seconds that ring clearly and truly.

The remainder of the program includes Anglican touchstones by Byrd and Tallis (Christe qui es lux et dies and O nata lux), a motet by Guilluame du Fay, Ebb Tide by Latvian composer  Ēriks Ešenvalds, Joby Talbot’s Wishing Tree (Talbot’s Path of Miracles was recently performed by the Handel Choir of Baltimore – their soloists Sara Woodward and Claire Galloway Weber are members of Bridge), and a setting of Star in the East (Brightest and Best) from Southern Harmony, redolent of Anonymous 4’s treatment of 19th-century American. In all, a choral festival to light up the night, and your aural imagination – don’t miss it.



New Gifts of New Music

If you are anything like me, your December may have been a rather hectic affair, perhaps filled with concerts, gatherings, or grading (or taking) final exams. As the days of seasonal gift-giving hurtle frighteningly closer (or further behind, if we are celebrating Hanukkah), the reasonable question has likely occurred to you:

What should I get the music lover in my life who is a fan of both traditional repertory and performance practice, as well as cutting-edge new music?

Though frequently ignored by some of the major marketing chains at Yuletide (where was the 16th-Century Choral Repertoire float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? The dancing Morton Feldmans presenting their famous choreographed Visual Score Kickline at the Radio City Holiday Spectacular? The John Luther Adams Alaskan Survival Kit and Adventure Pack, complete with a compass and this thing that tells time?), this demographic is one deserving of attention. And it just so happens there are two wonderful CD releases that run with this pairing of new-and-old in passionate ways. Here are a couple gift ideas for the musician-on-the-go:

Symphony Number One

Symphony No 1Symphony Number One is Baltimore’s newest chamber orchestra and new-music collective. Founded in 2014 by conductor Jordan Randall Smith, the ensemble already has an impressive number of performances, commissions, and projects under its belt, and many more exciting things down the road, including a performance at Baltimore’s Light City Festival scheduled for 2016 and a substantial second Call-for-Scores in progress, the culmination of which is planned to yield multiple hour-long-works from emerging composers.

Symphony Number One’s premiere recording features two canonical works (Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp, K 299, and Fauré’s Pavane) and a new commission, Mark Fromm’s Symphony No. 1.

The concerto features two emerging soloists: Jordan Thomas (harp), who made his Carnegie Hall debut following a first-place win in the 2013 American Protégé International Concerto Competition, and Raoul Cho, who is currently in a performance residency program at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. Cho and Thomas offer a crystalline performance of the beloved work, their high level of communication is revealed in the works’ cadenzas as they guide the listener through Mozart’s playful modulations by balancing a sense of improvisatory caprice with clarity and direction.

The orchestra provides a solid accompanimental backbone; its chamber-size-makeup combines with the cathedral-like acoustic of the Baltimore War Memorial (where the CD was recorded) to create both a feeling of intimacy and spaciousness. This creates for a lovely lushness in the Fauré, and a sense of an even larger ensemble in the Fromm.

Fromm’s work eschews movement divisions, spinning out in a half-hour long statement that feels neither terse nor overblown, but with a clear eye (and ear) to structure. It opens with an extended melody high in the bassoon register, paving the way for the reedy, complex timbres that proliferate in the first two-thirds of the work. These complex colors are matches with an equally complex and at times biting language that conjures a sense of rhetorical force and rigor—though non-tonal, it has a sense of propulsion and drive that pair nicely with the two other compositions on the recording. At the two-thirds point, following several compelling and groove-y passages, a shift in texture and color (a shimmering harp glissando and an upwards-rushing, reverse waterfall of flutes) reveals that there is more to be explored. A return to the opening material and harmonic language leads to an apotheosis of the opening melody in the alto sax (performed by Symphony Number 1 co-founder Sean Meyers) soaring through a sudden chasm of orchestral silence. This theme offers a thread that knits together the passages of sometimes disparate material, which in the last minutes of the work hints at a Neo-Romantic lushness juxtaposed with grooves and fractious whirlwinds of tones. The potent restatements of the melodic fragments honeycomb their way throughout the work, leaving one wondering if one is looking from the lush world into the dissonant, or the other way around, creating a compelling and expressive cognitive dissonance that leaves one yearning for a second listen.

The Thirteen: Snow on Snow

Snow on SnowThe Thirteen is one of the newest, tightest chamber choirs on the East Coast. Founded in 2012 and directed by Matthew Robertson (who is also Director of Music at Bradley Hills Church in Bethesda, Maryland—his predecessor was the renowned Donald Sutherland), the choir is redolent of the Anglican Cathedral sound, with richness supplied by exact tuning and exquisitely precise ensemble work rather than vibrato or size of ensemble. This is presented to great effect on their Winter/Holiday/Christmas Recording, Snow on Snow.


Christmas choral repertoire can be difficult to program. One must access the chestnuts that audiences desire, the classics that the ensemble desire, and also to further the development of new repertoire in the genre. Robertson strikes a marvelous balance between these three aspects on this recording. In the “chestnuts” camp, we have Praetorius’ Es ist ein Ros’, a fresh setting of O Come, O Come Emmanuel by Joseph Jennings, and Robertson’s own arrangement of Silent Night. Canonical works familiar to listeners of the Evensongs and Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge include a lovely performance of Howells’ A Spotless Rose (few works so compellingly bring to mind a blustery winter wind, blowing both out of the North and out of time), Gibbons’ sumptuous Magnificat setting from the Short Service, and Britten’s outstanding Hymn to the Virgin. One of my favorites, which is rarely performed or recorded (at least in Maryland) is William Byrd’s Lulla, Lullaby, cleanly and clearly realized and embedded at the heart of the CD.

New carol settings receive an impressive amount of time on this recording. Thomas LaVoy’s (b. 1990) setting of Adam Lay yBounden accesses the chant-like modality of the traditional settings of Boris Ord and Peter Warlock, with some wonderful modern snarls that create a wonderful and wintry feel. My Lord Has Come, by Will Todd (b. 1970) balances soaring lines reminiscent of Wilcocks descants with comfy, warm settlings on add-6 chords that give the work a jazzy touch. These, along with Stanford E. Scriven’s (b. 1988) setting of Christ the Appletree, offer new and worthy additions to the repertoire to give the inquiring listener (or music director) some Yuletide inspiration.

The work ends with a touching tribute to the late David Wilcocks: a beautifully rendered performance of the Nunc Dimittis (the Song of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace) is placed at the penultimate track, followed by the dearly departed choral director’s quietly jubilant setting of Ding, Dong! Merrily On High. A glowing tribute and worthy choral feast for the season.


War Memorial Arts Initiative Highlights Composers With Baltimore Ties

The Memorial Hall of the Baltimore War Memorial

The Memorial Hall of the Baltimore War Memorial

The War Memorial Arts Initiative is off to an ambitious start for its 2015-2016 season. With a number concerts under its belt already (including an art song concert by Claire Galloway Weber and John Henderson; a Blues-Appalachia-Nordic crossover night with Charm City Junction, The Blue Rhythm Boys, and Dovetail Ensemble; as well as the Justin Taylor Trio), the series recently introduced one of its innovative programing elements for this series: the Pitcher-Perfect Happy Hour, featuring its Ensemble-in-Residence, the LUNAR ensemble.

The LUNAR ensemble

The LUNAR ensemble

LUNAR, a Pierrot-based ensemble led by Gemma New, opened its residency at the War Memorial with its program Old Texts Woven Newfeaturing Shakespearean text-setting by Canadian composer David Passmore (Dark Lady Sonnets) and a new work by yours truly (Prospero Variations), all generously funded with a grant from New Music USA. LUNAR continues its residency throughout the season with several large concerts and many touchstone events, namely, the Pitcher-Perfect Happy Hour. Each of these concerts features a different composer with Baltimore ties: its first featured Jason Eckardt, currently a Visiting Professor of Composition at the Peabody Conservatory, and most recently Judah Adashi, a Baltimore native who has spearheaded a number of new music and social justice initiatives in the city, as well being long-time Peabody faculty himself. (Future featured composers include Alexandra GardnerAmy Beth Kirsten, and Michael Hersch.) The concerts are presented an informal atmosphere, lubricated by the presence of National Bohemian (and sometimes snacks), in which concert-goers can get to know each other, the performers, and the featured composer.

A Pitcher is Worth a Thousand Words

Each of these pitcher-portraits offered a compelling foray into the compositional worlds of each composer, which, in the case of Eckardt and Adashi, were thrillingly disparate.

Jason Eckardt, Composer

Jason Eckardt, Composer

Eckardt’s music can be startlingly complex, though this complexity belies an innate sense of organicism that organizes fraught rhythms and textures into a coalescence of sound and sense. This was beautifully realized by Stephanie Ray (flute) and Peter Kibbe (‘cello) in Ekcardt’s Flux, which explored the dynamism created between these instruments of (ostensibly) different qualities—though the moments in which the flutey harmonics of the cello and woody low tones of the flute melded together revealed the magic intrinsic in the music. Here, we see Eckardt’s interest in creating “ecosystems” of unpredictable elements bearing fruit, as they unify into a single pattern or state from their chaotic beginnings. The rhythms are dangerous, tight-rope-walking affairs, where the pulse seems razor thin, ready to snap its tether, but always in control under the deft hands of Ray and Kibbe.

This primordial chaos was particularly present in Dithyramb, performed by soprano Lisa Perry. This is a movement from a larger work (Tongues) that explores “glossolalia” (“speaking in tongues”). The work is made up completely of non-lexical vocables of intense rapidity (“non-sense” doesn’t do the sounds justice, as they move forward with a frenzied force that feels not only utterly appropriate but dizzyingly intoxicating). Perry—incredibly—seemed at ease delivering the mad patter, a supernatural summoning of the spirit Eckardt sought to embody.

Judah Adashi, Composer Photo Credit: Britt Olsen-Ecker

Judah Adashi, Composer
Photo Credit: Britt Olsen-Ecker

Judah Adashi’s music seems redolent of equal intellectual rigor, but with a realization that tends towards a more direct simplicity (one is always careful to use this word—“elegance” also comes to mind, but this is not to suggest Eckardt’s writing lacks such—Brian Barone has suggested a “new sincerity”). The recital included music from the past fifteen years, the earliest work being Meditation (2000, performed with vocal lyricism and complete assurance of craft by Jeremy Lyons, guitar) to “Invocation,” from Rise. Rise is, for me, an utterly essential work to hear in gaining access to Adashi’s output. Premiered in Washington, D.C. on the tragic night of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, Rise is a testament to the ongoing civil rights struggle throughout the country. Its ending movements include some of the most cathartic and heartbreaking uses of C Major I have ever heard. (You can hear portions of it again at the St. David’s Evensong in Honor of Martin Luther King). The Invocation, with its diatonic repetitions in the piano (performed by recent New World Symphony fellowship recipient John Wilson) and lyrical ‘cello line (originally for flugelhorn, but transcribed especially for Peter Kibbe), set the stage nicely for the works to come.

Other compositions included Nina (2011), Adashi’s tribute to Nina Simone, and performed by Wilson. The work builds from an angular, minor-mode line, through to ascending prismatic chords which open a “jam” section that includes piano-percussion, before ascending again into high, soft clusters, the dissonances seeming more effervescent than biting. Lament, for soprano and guitar, performed by Lisa Perry and Jeremy Lyons, was also a tribute, this time to Nicholas Maw, a teacher whom Adashi and I shared at Peabody, and whose world-encompassing lyricism (and British candor) was an inspiration to all who worked with and learned from him. Perry and Lyons’ performance was utterly synchronized, summoning the Orpheus-like text in lilting lines and a heartbreaking ascendancy of chords.

Adashi’s emotional and musical sincerity were most on display in the world premiere work of the evening, amo, dedicated to a child of friends; their offspring lived for only twelve hours, and was born on the night Adashi was sketching the idea used in the piece, a downwards flowering of tearful clusters. At the close of the work a child in attendance at the back of the hall was heard to say to his adult: “I love you.” A fitting sincerity to close the concert.

Upcoming Concerts

There is much more in store for the LUNAR ensemble and the Baltimore War Memorial this season. In addition to their upcoming Happy Hour performances, LUNAR is also performing on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Pulse series on November 12. Upcoming events at the War Memorial include the Exit 17 Trio and an art song program entitled “Confessions.”

The musicians, after a successful performance of Jason Eckardt's music.

The musicians, after a successful performance of Jason Eckardt’s music.

Review: Michael Hersch’s “On the Threshold of Winter”

Michael Hersch, Composer

Michael Hersch, Composer

Reviews are, to a greater or lesser extent, testimonials. Any review that attempts to claim some sort of aesthetic fixity or infallibility thus misses the point: hopefully, a writer might illumine or otherwise offer perspective upon a work, a perspective that is ultimately derived from a personal (if informed) experience. These are important aspects to keep in mind when considering the music of Michael Hersch, and namely his monodrama On The Threshold of Winter, premiered first on June 25, 2014 in Brooklyn, NY, and receiving its second performance this past weekend on Saturday, October 3 at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, MD. Both performances featured the Nunc ensemble (the fearless artistic director Miranda Cuckson is a frequent Hersch collaborator), with the expressively precise force of Tito Muñoz conducting, and Ah Young Hong as the sole singer onstage. (NB: There were revisions to the score for the new performance, but I don’t claim the eiditicism necessary to speak to the differences—the cavernous realms explored in the first performance certainly echoed with similarity in the second.)

Personal experience, illumination, and fixity are, to me, central issues in approaching Hersch’s music (if not the works themselves—though I believe their relevance), more so, perhaps, than questions of harmonic language. This is not to dismiss any sort of harmonic, melodic, or motivic content that, ultimately, makes up the foundational elements of our interactions with his (or any) musics. Hersch’s soundscape has frequently been referred to as “searing,” “intense,” or “dissonant,” which are more than apt descriptors, particularly for those passages which utilize dense chromatic clusters. Personally—and here we enter the testimonial—though the searing intensity of these clusters is a potent element (e.g., throughout The Vanishing Pavillions, or the dashing linear clusters in the winds in his Third Symphony and his trumpet concerto Night Pieces—figures which are displayed prominently in Threshold), the harmonic element that drives my understanding of Hersch’s music is this:

Untitled #1

This chord (“simultaneity” in the argot of 21st-century theory), a perfect fifth with a minor second, seems a better harmonic summation than the cluster for approaching Hersch’s work, mainly because it accesses tonal and voice-leading elements that may (at first) seem to be at odds with dense chromaticism. Behind the veil of density, Hersch frequently reveals clean, cool fifths, tonal progressions that accrue semitones as metals accrue oxidization, new colors clinging to underlying forms.

Ah Young Hong

Ah Young Hong

Particularly for this monodrama (as well as in his song cycle a breath upwards, also performed by the heroic Ah Young Hong, now fully steeped in Hersch’s music), hearing the interactions of line converge and diverge—creating spaces and objects sometimes exactly repeated, sometimes evaporative—is a central aspect to the experience. For Threshold, the success of the entire work is musically dependent upon the Ah’s realization of that single vocal line—a realization that, through her vocal prowess and artistry, transgresses performance to enter embodiment. Thematically, this is a mirror of the work’s experiential genesis for both poet (the libretto, adapted by Hersch, is from Marin Sorescu’s The Bridge, which delves heartbreakingly into the pains of cancer) and composer (Hersch has confronted cancer, both in himself and in his best friend’s diagnosis). A fixed point, a nexus of cancer, time, and death, creates an undeniable gravitic force throughout, and along with it, a question of how one should treat any sense of self in the face of something so small, so massive, a black hole: “And what should I do with the fire that you gave me, Zeus,” from 13. In the battle…, becomes, perhaps, a questioning of creativity—what to do with such artistic prowess? The answer: “Put the flame to your pyre, the one you’re bound upon.”

The struggle of ephemera against fixity was realized brilliantly by James Matthew Daniel, the director of the 2015 production. Utilizing the sculptures and casts of Christopher Cairns [please visit this link to witness his extraordinary sculptures], and with the assistance of Kevin Tuttle, set designer, and Peabody’s Douglas Nelson, lighting designer, Daniel created an on-stage world of tarp-covered metal scaffolds that orbited about a central obelisk, an 18-foot sculpture with a twisted, perhaps desiccated figure atop, a starkly iconic Cairns-ian model that was reflected in other pieces littered about the stage. When the monodrama begins, sheets and tarpaulins cover most set elements, but these are removed as Hong interacts with her world—a world that, like Hersch’s music, seems to somehow become narrower in focus and wider in scope as the work proceeds. Statues become characters: in 4. This buffeting…, at the final cry of “Mother!”, Hong reaches from a hospital bed (one of the few literal set inspirations) to draw back a sheet-covered figure revealing: something. A seated (swooning?), dead (dying?), wrinkled (shrouded?) figure—victim, memory, or visage, it is a striking, emotional moment that reveals future and past, and their dissolution.

The first act involves Hong’s interaction with the world about her, both musical and physical. Many of Hersch’s “first acts” create a world wherein transformation, repetition, and decay may occur. Threshold seems similar to The Vanishing Pavilions in this way: the first book, a block of granite; the second book, an entropic force that eats away at certainty and fixity like acid. (Even the introduction of the titular elements seems to parallel: both works’ texts reference the title about ¾ through the first half; in Threshold, the title is sung against a small, shivering major triad).

Hints of this entropic force are utilized throughout the first act of Threshold: flowers are torn and thrown upon a sheet during 7. I watch with great interest…, where the libretto indicates such an act over a grave, preceding the desperate cries: “Give it another try! Another try!,” followed by 8. A little blood. (I also appreciated the strewn petals as a perhaps-reference to Hersch’s violin work A wreckage of flowers.) Blood does not appear until later, however. Before such viscera, Hong herself must act as an agent of entropy.

Aside: Cairns’ Pennsylvania studio, where Hersch curates an occasional concert series, is an otherworldly realm. The forms and paintings therein lead the eye, the mind, to paths that we normally avoid. Twisted bodies, crumbling walls, all seem to root and transport us into the world and beyond it. The sculptures seem fragile, ready to collapse in upon themselves at a single breath. I am filled with trepidation and wonder among them, for both the fragility of the form, and of self.

To see Hong pick up a cast of a head, then, from a pile of sculpted limbs and bits on the stage opposite the “Mother,” and to see it fall, explode in dust upon the floor, was staggering. Rubbing the dust upon her own limbs, she sings: “On a speck of dust with a window to the sea, that rests on another speck of dust…springing up from the very core of yet another speck of dust…” She climbs upon the scaffolds, trying to see better, the music seeking, something, our there, amidst the dust. And, finally, at the end of the act, she descends, pained, and sings 17. The ram with coiled horns, picking up a limb (a leg?), held in the once-bed-, now grave-sheet, filled with torn flowers and dust, and then: blood, dripping, somehow, from the leg—an offering, perhaps, or a reliquary. And the act coalesces, the dust clears, and we see where all is headed: in an instrumental interlude, Hong exits, pushing the hospital bed “aim[ing] straight” (a cue perhaps derived from the libretto), and returns in a longer gown, with red roses, to finish the act: “’The foot of this bridge is death.’ This bridge.”

Aside: When I began my immersion in Hersch’s music a little less than a decade ago, one of my first impressions was of the unbelievable clarity of the ideas. The ideas seem organic, yet crystallized, growing things whose bounds have seemingly been foretold. It is as if the music exists in a landscape, the details of which I am blind to; but the progression of movements, of motives, guides me through, introducing me to paths and objects that are beyond what I could alone imagine, and can, perhaps, only touch—aurally—and not fully comprehend: a blind monk in the koan seeking to understand an elephant from only one part. Yet, each movement, each passing idea, cyclical though driving forward, peels back one layer, and another, revealing unsought interiors—unsought, perhaps, because they mirror our selves too closely.

The second act breaks down the once-fixed world of the first, through music, characterization, and stagecraft. The act begins with Hong pushing—something—onto the stage, a reincarnation (or dys-incarnation) of the hospital bed, atop which lies a sculpted figure, browned, shriveled. This is the only new element: indeed, Hong pushes away the old fixities—the scaffolds and their coverings—so that the central obelisk, which she has oft approached and left again, looms large in the vacuum. This act makes use of Nelson’s artful lighting on a wrinkled translucence which hangs in front of the back scrim, lacy clouds that catch the sometimes-green, sometimes-sunset-exploding colors which counterpoint the increasingly desperate visions portrayed so completely by Hong. The stage is lonely now—in preparation for 23. A spider’s thread… a single strand of light illumines the obelisk, dust and clouds (fog from offstage) sifting through, leading to the secco, half-spoken and heart-wrendingly delivered “Oh Lord, I lived among your creatures. Was that wrong?” Dramatically, 27. ‘Shoot me my friend…let it be over quickly’ reveals the browned recumbent figure to be clay, as Hong digs into it, launching wet lumps (she had poured water upon it earlier, as if in a burial ritual) onto the floor, slick and sickly slaps against the wood. Like a dream in which one is actor, stage, and audience, Hong seems to be tearing into herself, the very act of cancer.

Such intensity leads to what I have often endeavored to describe, inarticulately, as a “low climax,” a musical nadir that seems to cast shadows with its own darkness, revealing in such strange relief the trajectory we have travelled, and the remaining distance yet to come. This occurs in several works by Hersch. In The Vanishing Pavilions, it is movement 47, “The note pad and over it the candle glass,” occurring, like 28. The light in the eyes has dimmed in Threshold, just a few movements before the close of the work. This intensity takes a different form than any “searing” moments which have preceded; rather, it is a revelatory act, displaying the background bones which have—until these last moments—allowed for ambulation. At “But the day isn’t dark. People go by in the streets, laughing merrily…”, the piano (performed exquisitely and seemingly effortlessly by Michael Sheppard, belying an intensely difficult score with which the pianist has lived in a variety of forms and versions for the past several years) reveals a quiet chaconne-like progression, and, through repeats and alterations, builds—more instruments joining—to an eruption: “Nothing happens in this world except matters of substance, bathed in indifference.” Hong’s stratospheric vocal capabilities are astounding in moments such as these, including the beginning of the work—but it is this moment that seemed to me to be a crux, a turning point, wherein the labyrinthine wanderings of score and stage were now directed—Inward? Outward? Towards something else, a space undiscovered.

Indeed—the remaining movements witness Hong approach the central obelisk, as the air about her glows, intense, and fiery, but cooling—a deep indigo by the last movement that burns out its coolness, until receding into a charcoal blackness against which the stark white monolith glows, implacable and unaffected. At its foot, the mortuary slab with its torn clay resident, and at its foot: Hong sits, leans, wrapping herself in a sheet, declaiming in a low resonance that fades in the last words: “Terrible is the passage into the fold both for man and animal.” The center of the labyrinth, which now itself disappears.

Throughout the work, all the musicians demonstrated the indescribable virtuosity necessary to realize such a complex and riveting score. But Hong faced the lion’s share: if the work is a labyrinth, a landscape created by Hersch through which we are led, then Hong is more than our guide, more than Hersch’s performer: she becomes an avatar through which the composer may speak and we as observers may experience. Her tone, redolent of early-music silver, is also filled with a post-Romantic power that unflinchingly delivers even the most musically and spiritually difficult (and there are many such) passages. The day following the performance, the work was filmed, for which we may all be grateful. The entire performance and production deserves whatever permanence the world can afford, a testament to the musicians’ ability, to Hersch’s vision, and to the experiences of the sick and cancer-ridden, lest we forget.

Playing with Music, Part II: Learning to Play the Game

Let’s Play a Game

One of the universal behavioral similarities between birds and mammals (and some child-rearing reptiles as well) is a tendency to engage in play behavior. This is usually broken down into social (i.e., playing with others), object (i.e., playing with a ball), or locomotor (i.e., chasing your tail) play, or some combination thereof. It seems that for these species the well-being of both the individual and the group are improved by engaging in play, thus building social bonds, reducing group tension, and promoting the development of both muscle and intellect.

In the ubiquitous genre of the “Cute Internet Pet Video,” we have a canine engaging in novel object and locomotor player with an automated ejection device, or “Dog Plays with Ball-Throwing Robot.”

Humans play in uncountable ways. You could probably count a good handful of play behavior patterns throughout the day: linguistic (puns, jokes, water-cooler stories), raffles, competitions, sports, play with children, play with colleagues, and, for musicians, engaging in our art—which hopefully has retained a sense of play and wonder through the years. Retaining playfulness is essential in the ongoing artistic quests of discovery, re-evaluation, self-challenge, and, hopefully, fun.

One of the elements of music-making that sometimes loses a sense of playfulness is concert programming. For programmers and presenters, concerns for vital practical issues—audience attraction, audience retention, rehearsal time, capability of the performers, length of concert versus listener attention, performance and advertising budgets, ethics, demographics, etc.— have the potential to stunt the natural creativity of concertizing. How does one go about crafting a musical presentation—be it a solo concert, a tour, or an ensemble’s or venue’s full season—that also balances a sense of play, engagement, and wonder that leads to the most natural music-making?

One way to address this question is by looking at the way that game designers approach play. Both game designers and musicians are dealing with interactional frameworks that should, at their best, be fun (and/or fulfilling) to engage with, and, for professionals, need to be economically viable. That is, they are balancing experiential qualities with practical quantities. Approaching programming with game design elements in mind can give musicians (and artists in general) a fresh set of variables to consider in the quest to present their art.

Here are the Rules

Most successful games (and you can place your own value on what success is, whether it be cultural endurance or economic viability) tend to have a few things in common:

  • There is some sort of interaction. This interaction might be virtual (with a computer or video game system), with another human player with or without methods of intervention—cards, board, dice, etc.—or possibly even against oneself, in the case of playing solitaire, or practicing (“solo play”) for a sport or art.
Calvinball Image © Bill Watterson

Image © Bill Watterson

  • There is context for understanding what is going on. Typically, this is a rules set, whether explicitly defined or implicitly understood by the players. Sometimes, the rules can be changed (as we saw in the last installment of this series, or as any readers of Calvin and Hobbes know full well), but the common understanding of the players help them to parse the actions of the game.
  • There is a balance between novelty and familiarity. The rules and setting of the game help to create expectations amidst unexpected events, which could be generated either through chance operations (the result of dice rolls, shuffled decks of cards, or computer-generated spawning sites and rates), the actions of another player (“Will she pass the ball?” “Will he tag me?”), or simply novel surroundings (e.g., I have a soft spot for Star Wars Monopoly, despite having played seemingly eternal “Classic” Monopoly games growing up).
  • There are opportunities for fulfilling experiences. Having rules also creates goal-oriented action, the pursuit and attainment of which can lead to a emotional and psychological fulfillment (oftentimes known as “fun”). However, these goals aren’t necessarily always about winning. (which in general is less applicable in the art world, as I and others have written about).

“You Can Learn How to Play the Game…It’s Easy”

This set of game design aspects certainly resonates well with programming in general. Most artists already strive to foster interaction and understanding, balancing familiar and unfamiliar repertoire, and creating fulfilling experiences. These are easy enough to discuss in the abstract, but implementation can prove challenging, whether due to over-generalization of an idea (what is a “fulfilling experience,” anyway, and how does one even approach quantifying it?), or to colleagues, boards, or directors who might not share the same types of programming goals. Over the next few weeks, I’ll break down the above ideas through pertinent questions that offer a fresh look at how we choose to program and present our art. As the Beatles (above) suggest, “all you need is love,” but it’s always helpful to have a few guidelines along the way to figure out the best way to share the music you care passionately about.

Decanting the Descant: In Memoriam David Willcocks

In his novel The Great and Secret Show, Clive Barker writes of a postal worker sifting through “dead” letters, week by week, culling, processing, and moving on. In this process, however, the character begins to find references to a behind-the-scenes magic that is at work, and, by chance, recovers a talisman that is a locus of power for the magical society of which he has read.

This may seem an odd way to begin a memoriam to Sir David Willcocks, the great CTL-Sir-David-Willcocksmusician who passed on September 16. He was a figure who brought “light and life” (to quote from Mendelssohn, one of the many hymn tunes he arranged) to his compositions, recordings, and choirs. A remembrance of any life, though, is not just the mountaintop experiences of well-known works, but also attempts to encompass the passage of days that moves from peak to peak, as any work of mountaintop or talismanic importance is preceded by days of mining the deep in the creative quarries. Briefly, then, I want to meditate on the type of life that led to Willcocks’ body of work, focusing especially on the descant as a metaphor for our own artistic explorations, and such a life affects and can continue to inspire musicians and artists.

Day by Day

Willcocks is remembered foremost as a church musician, having sung as a boy in the Westminster Abbey choir, serving as Organist at King’s College, Cambridge, holding positions at Worcester and Salisbury Cathedrals, the Bach Choir, and (most famously) directing the Choir of Men and Boys at King’s. He was also influential in the general music-making of Britain, directing not only the Three Choirs Festival but also serving as director of the Royal Academy of Music. Few ensembles publicly perform as much music per week as the singers, organists, and directors of choirs in the Cathedral and Collegiate choral tradition that exist throughout Europe, and Great Britain in particular. In the most active parishes and schools, Evening Prayer may be sung almost daily (replete with virtuosic organ voluntaries, introits, hymns, psalm settings, prayer settings, canticles, and an anthem—all just for one service) in addition to performances of morning prayer or Eucharistic services on weekends. This was Willcocks’ world, for decades.

This is not necessarily to extol the virtues of a religious musicality, though that can lend an artist a purposive potency of belief in their writing and performance. What is technically and aesthetically astonishing, however, is to consider the amount of music that passes the hands, minds, and mouths of musicians who engage in this tradition. This is not merely the daily practice of reviewing music in the practice room, but of realizing it in public performance, honing one’s ability to work closely with other musicians in a chamber context, think quickly and expressively, and learn—deeply learn—a wide variety of music at a very rapid rate. This deep and daily interaction with the flow of music from throughout the centuries has a dual effect: on one hand, it scours clean infelicities of sight-reading and the lack of confidence; and, on the other, it creates a build-up of instinctive knowledge—of phrasing, ornamentation, style, harmonization, and general musical interaction.

High and Mighty

It is important to understand this daily interaction with music when we approach what Willcocks is (perhaps) best known for: his arrangements of descants for hymns and carols. Though these certainly were not his sole compositional creations, their proliferation throughout any region of the world touched by British culture is certainly impactful, and his inventive arrangements have now become gold standards.

The fluency that results from daily focused practice or performance allows a musician the type of flexibility akin to a chess master seeing where pieces can and must move to create a desired effect. Rather than playing against someone, though, a composer, arranger, or organist creating a reharmonization or descant must necessarily play with and for multiple people. The only “opponent” (if there is one) is the original material, the melodic line that (whether you’re Bach harmonizing a chorale, Beethoven creating a variation, or Brahms delving into Baroque and Renaissance counterpoint) should be at least somewhat preserved. And, in the case of the descant tradition that arose in the mid-20th century, the crafting of a soaring soprano line above a hymn tune, how to balance the agency of a singing group of amateur of non-musicians with the complexities of chromaticism and counterpoint.

Take Adeste Fidelis, the classic hymn heard at Christmastime as “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The hymn tune lends itself easily to a diatonic progression, the first phrase ending in an open half-cadence. It would be easy to harmonize a simple descant on top, moving mostly in parallel thirds:

Adeste 1

However, ease does not necessarily result in excitement. This descant, though viable in fulfilling the harmonic progression, noodles around the same high point (D and E), and, lacking the melodic directionality heard in the hymn tune, seems to just be harmonic icing rather than a potent spotlight of sound.

Another option can be created by opening with an arpeggio that creates a more dynamic entrance, followed by a fanfare figure that hearkens back to the opening, and an upward scale with occasional, fleeting pitches that do not fit the chord, then breaking the melodic ceiling before arriving at an inverted fanfare for the half cadence:

Adeste 2

A decent offering, and certainly with a modicum of drama.

But more possibilities open with reharmonization, or the inclusion of stronger, lingering dissonances; possibilities branch off, seemingly without end, and it is up to the arranger to bring these possibilities together to create an experience worthy of the text, occasion, audience and performers—a creative process in which Willcocks excelled, as is shown so resplendently in this now-iconic realization (skip to 2’20” for the descant and following reharmonization):


An artistic life is one of multiplicities, of ever-branching possibilities. Willcocks’ was no exception. A veteran of World War II, a life-long musician, conductor, organist, arranger, composer, administrator, and visionary for what things could be—not just in the harmonic variables and equations of arranging, but in what a choir could sound like, what their role could be in the burgeoning international forum of choral recordings. He pursued a musical future, offering to others the opportunity to engage with the same tradition that sculpted his own powerful musical intellect. May we be so lucky to fully engage with our art, day in and day out, and to pursue our own potentials to re-invent, re-harmonize, and re-arrange our lives to a more artistic end.

Review: “A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was,” September 8, 2015

Abecedarian “Baby” Composer Deftly Expresses Fragility, Grace, Hands

Dr. David Smooke (Photo Credit: Britt Olsen-Ecker)

Dr. David Smooke
(Photo Credit: Britt Olsen-Ecker)

Over Labor Day weekend, the New York-based new music ensemble loadbang breathed into Baltimore, filling the newest performance venue at the Peabody Institute, the Centre Street Performance Space, with lung-powered energy and verve. The second of their two concerts, occurring on September 8, was comprised solely of composer and Peabody Faculty member David Smooke’s monodrama commissioned by the group, A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was. The work is based on the abecedarian poem by Baltimore Writer Michael Kimball, and accompanied with video by hometown filmmaker Margaret Rorison.


the loadbang ensemble

loadbang—described aptly by Smooke as “astonishingly good”—includes a baritone vocalist (and occasional percussionist/zitherist), bass clarinet, trumpet, and trombone. Though an unlikely grouping, the ensemble has premiered an impressive number of works, leaving in their trail an amassed repertoire of uniquely orchestrated compositions and arrangements. Though the Pierrot ensemble and its kin remain regular features of contemporary instrumentation (and rightfully so, as one can hear with the LUNAR ensemble, which kicks off its season this Friday in Baltimore), groups like loadbang provide not only richly crafted music acrobatically realized, but also a shining example of an unusual ensemble that is making its way in the new music world—a hopeful sign to younger performers who may be interested in more experimental timbral pursuits.

The monodrama—which (spoilers ahead) eschews a precise plot (though Smooke writes of the “narrator gradually develop[ing] a sense of self, growing up with a doting mother and a nearly absent father”)—creates a series of resonances, emblems and touchstones that allow the listener to alight upon abstract stories-within-the moment. The text proceeds alphabetically, repeating words in sometimes minimalistic patterns with virtuosic grooves spiraling amidst vocal lines (“baby, baby, baby,” bounces buoyantly between my ears, still); sometimes the lines are operatic: the quiet statements of “eyes” give way to a Verdian “face.” Much of the important words are bodily images: “eyes,” “face,” “fingers,” “fat” (its counterpart, in the third part of the work, “thin,” receives similar textural treatment, a sudden emphasis on low, soft, slow tones that somehow convey both adiposity and a skeletal washed-out sensation).

Some of my favorite moments in Smooke’s music are the quietest: here, a natural, unhurried beauty emerges (his nonopera, Criminal Element, has a movement which takes place by the sea that is one of the most beautifully arresting pieces I have experienced). loadbang matches their earlier virtuosic vigor with variegated volume in these tender passages, such as “breathe” and “heart.” Here, Smooke paints words directly, with non-pitched air passing through the instruments for “breathe,” and soft slap-tonguings for “heart.” Though some might suggest such depictions are obvious, they do more than text-paint: they bring the listener into a state where one comes close to embodying the protagonist. In the hall, we are forced to experience the awakening conscious and conscience of bodiliness directly, and the room becomes aware of its own breathing, beating, organicism.

Images Jump, Keyed, Linking Mnemonic Newnesses Onto Performance

Rorison’s images offered living snapshots of Baltimore along with the awakening eyes of the singer/speaker/feeler: Penn Station, Old St. Paul’s parish, flocks of birds diving past swaying branches in local parks. These were accompanied by fingers, hands, feet—though never faces: Rorison was careful to enter into the spirit of the text penned by Kimball and enlivened by Smooke, leaving out anything that would grant the specificity of a personal identity. The images set up an interesting resonance with the text and music, sometimes mimicking onomatopoetically (electrical wires seemed to hum along with “mine, mine, mine”), sometimes suggesting alternative texts (the flock of birds occurs prominently amidst the “F”s). Though the videos were, perhaps, non-essential to the musical realization, they allowed for expanded sensory opportunities that, for me, led to un-looked-for connections.

The murmurations of birds, weaving and spinning and creating new shapes, seemed an apt metaphor for Smooke’s compositional process. In full disclosure, he had spoken with me leading up to the performance, mentioning that the second two parts of the work were re-configurations of the first. Incidentally, the same conversation also touched on his own misgivings of his contrapuntal chops. But, I feel, this work suggests a different sort of counterpoint, a temporal flocking that expands and contracts, shadowy outlines re-envisioned and turned over, revealing slowly pulsating, and, at times, entropic temporal zones (especially as we slowly approach the long-fermata’d “sleep”) that mirror our process as an audience endeavoring to parse the sea of semantic saturation in which we swim for this hour-and-a-bit. Again, we find our consciousness emerging, our surroundings novel, constructing our own meanings from this combination of sound and sense which glimmers and bubbles uniquely, depending upon what angle of incidence the musical ideas are struck by time and form.

Questing Repetitions, Sung Timbral Ululations, Xylophone-esque Yips: Zounds

More could be said about the many aspects of the work that add to the alternatingly hypnotic and dramatic experience: the microtone-and-mulitphonic-infused “no’s” (or is it “nose?” Or “knows?” As listeners, we don’t.) which incite a bell-like timbral recreation that would make any Spectralist composer jealous; the imaginative use of the singer-as-percussionist to provide timbral organization through the recurrence of a glockenspiel, and, especially the (spoiler alert) microtonally tuned zither that is played in place of the words beginning with the final alphabetical sigil; the wonderful “waves” created as we approached the end. But a detailing of these aspects would only desiccate the potential meanings of the work: its power comes from a potential to grow in each person, to interact uniquely with each observer and performer, at once a cipher and alpha-numeric decoder ring, growing in, growing out, growing bigger than up was.

Playing with Music, Part I: Assumptions and Amendments

One of our most difficult tasks, as artists and as people, is understanding our own assumptions. These sets of foregone conclusions define our own realities, and our actions and interactions therein. Many of these assumptions can prove beneficial—“this steaming soup bowl must be hot, better wait to eat it”—or are relics of past learned experiences—for instance, knowing where a friend, colleague, or loved one might be if you want to talk. But some assumptions can negatively impact ourselves and our surroundings when they take the form of prejudices. Taken to extremes, these may prove harmful: here in Baltimore, particularly, the history of racial and class prejudice has been violently brought to the forefront of the city’s cultural consciousness in recent months. But even without such a telescopic view, assumptive acts can hinder an artist’s development because they re- and de-form one’s interactions with the world about one—sometimes with benefits, and sometimes with challenges.

Coming to grips with what we assume can be extraordinarily difficult, as it requires both the intensity of focus to observe what we ourselves are doing, and a broadness of vision to take in a bigger picture with which we may compare and contrast our work. The resulting awareness can certainly benefit the development of an artist’s “voice,” that distinctive and personal way in which the artist uses her or his materials to create and frame their works. For composers, this voices can change throughout a lifetime, but in retrospect frequently has clear technical elements—a widely spaced major chord in first inversion is a common Beethovenian trope in his late works, and an ascending 4th followed by two-three descending steps is common contrapuntal “stuffing” in late Bach (a reference, perhaps, to the passion chorale O Haupt vol Blut und Wunden). For young composers (or artists of any stripe), this process of balancing technique, form, and message (if there is to be one), along with all the other ineffable elements of art-making within an ever-widening global culture can seem inexorable. This magnifies the potential time for self-doubt that seep between individual compositional decisions that might be glossed or taken for granted later in life.

This intense questioning period affords the chance to create novel and individualistic works, setting the composer on a path to find her or his “voice;” at the same time, it can be an aesthetically dangerous time, easy to fall prey to assumptions of how something “should” be or sound, what “should” come next, whether defined by a composer’s peers, teachers, or cultural heroes.

One of my roles at a liberal arts college where I teach is to lead a Composer’s Forum where we explore repertoire of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. To choose the works for the semester’s repertoire list, I try to use a variety of strategies, sometimes moving by time period, or stylistic/technical “movement,” or even instrumentation (a particularly fruitful method that dovetailed well with an orchestration class I was teaching at the time). This year, we are exploring music by continent as a way to expand the students’ (and my own) musical worldview. Through reading and listening, we can also discuss what compositional choices and what creative or sociological forces are shaping composers within different nations.

To demonstrate how pre-existing assumptions can affect personal choices and interactions—casting light on aesthetic evolution on a larger, cultural scale as well as on a smaller, individual one—we took the last half of our first class session together to play a game—Nomic.


Peter Suber

Nomic is a game about creating rules. As such, it makes a good deal of sense to introduce it to composers, who are both working within a certain set of “rules” (or, rather, cultural expectations) in their music theory classes, while at the same time having to create their own, individualistic rules set for their personal creative pursuits (which may or may not be based on or influenced by previous rules sets they have learned). The game was invented by philosopher Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Ammendment, and popularized by Douglas Hofstaddter (the polymath computer-programmer-cum-counterpoint-aficionado who gave us the wonderful labyrinth of a book Gödel, Escher, Bach) in his column Metamagical Themas. The basis of the game is that there are two sets of rules, mutable and immutable, that govern play. Players take turns in which they first propose a rule change (defined as an addition, deletion, or emendation of a rule), and then roll a die, adding the face value to their score. The original game included some very specific definitions of rules and actions which I glossed in the interest of time; also, it included the win condition of “the first player to 100 or more points wins.” For our classroom purposes, here were my rules which I gave to the students:

Immutable Rules:

  • Rules changes may be discussed; following any discussion, they are voted upon. Each player has one vote. Immutable rules must have a unanimous vote to change; mutable rules may have a simple majority to pass.
  • Once a rule is voted on, it is in effect, but is not retroactive.
  • Play proceeds clockwise from the professor.
  • The professor serves as arbiter.

Mutable Rules:

  • One turn consists of: (1) Proposing a rule change (a deletion, addition, or emendation or a rule) and (2) throwing one die and adding the face value in points to your score
  • When a proposed rule change is defeated, the player who proposed it loses 10 points.
  • When a proposed rule change is adopted, the player who proposed it gains 10 points.
  • If a proposed rule passes without unanimity, those who voted against it gain 10 points.
  • Only one player may win. The object of the game is find a way to do so.

Additionally, I instituted a global rule that existed outside the game, forbidding any action which was illegal or disobeyed the school’s code of conduct.

I felt Nomic would be perfect to simulate simplified cultural interactions and evolutions. Change is certainly possible, but requires communal buy-in to take root. For purposes of this class, I had kept win conditions (and several other aspects of the game) open: after all, for artists in the 21st century, “winning” is not nearly as defined as it once might have been—and, if we think it is so defined, we may sometimes find we have painted ourselves into an aesthetic corner.

A brief summary of play:

The early part of the game was spent alternately testing the rules (and, it seems, the other players), as well as vying for points. After several turns, the players realized that, although there were conditions to gain points, there were no actual specifications for winning. A number of proposals for win conditions were suggested, with one eventually succeeding and resulting in a lucky win.

Interesting highlights included:

  • A proposed amendment (defeated) that, in order to win, one must lose the game (this may have been too arcane to gain acceptance)
  • A proposed amendment (accepted) that doubled the points value of a dice roll (a clear “rising tide lifts all boats” amendment)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) that made on of the players the arbiter (a role I had purposefully left nebulous; the gist of the defeat was that there were few tangible “campaign promises,” essentially quid pro quo elements, that would give value to the other players in return)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) whereby a defeated amendment would still garner points (I assume that self-interest trumped egalitarianism here)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) whereby win conditions specified the first player to 50 points was the winner (there was then discussion as to whether this was supposed to be 50 points exactly, or 50 or more points)
  • A proposed amendment (accepted) whereby the win conditions became: the first player to attain a points value which is a multiple of 9 is the winner (this was first 10, but was thought to easy because of the points values of amendments—thus, rules changes are controlled in part by the pre-existing rules)

In the end, luck won out: a player with 5 points rolled a 2, which, due to the multiple rule, resulted in a gain of 4 points, and thus a score of 9: a win!A lucky win.

An observer who walked in post-game saw a certain player’s score who had accumulated a fair number of points: “It’s too bad! You had so many points.” Of course, as the students discovered, when win conditions are created communally, the illusion of value (points) can result in biases that define our actions, e.g., the early push to accumulate points in-game, or the definition of win conditions based on pre-existing points values.

When asked what factors led the students to vote for or against an amendment, one of the overriding factors was allegiance: “did they vote with me or against me last time?” (This is an interesting resonance with the Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario which we’ll look at in the next installment of this article). Self-interest, loyalty, and egalitarianism thus spin together, resulting in a unique web of interactions—demonstrating how competition for the control of ideas can create a specific culture of creation (in this case, rules creation) that both forms and deforms itself—and instructive revelation as we begin to look at musical cultures beyond our borders. Most importantly, however, we found that, as artists, we must (literally) decide what our own win conditions are, and what assumptions we must overcome to create our own worlds.

NB: All identifying marks have been removed and privacy of students maintained in keeping with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99). Permission was gained from students before writing.