Gradually, gradually, gradually, gradually, gradually, gradually the, gradually the, gradually the, gradually the, gradually the, gradually the melody, gradually the melody, gradually the melody, gradually the melody, gradually the melody, gradually the melody added, gradually the melody added, gradually the melody added, gradually the melody added, gradually the melody added, gradually the melody added new, gradually the melody added new, gradually the melody added new, gradually the melody added new, gradually the melody added new, gradually the melody added new notes, gradually the melody added new notes, gradually the melody added new notes, gradually the melody added new notes, gradually the melody added new notes.
By the time this process had gone on for a minute or so, it was pretty clear that William Hellermann’s piano piece ‘Row Music: The Tip of the Iceberg’ was a pretty systematic sort of piece, and I became interested in trying to follow the logic of what was going on. But then the music suddenly shifted to a continual stream of 12-tone writing. A static even quality was maintained, and everything seemed somehow related to the simple opening melody, but it was hard to get a grasp of the mechanics behind it all.
There was a logic in the way the piece gradually expanded from the middle of the keyboard to the upper and lower registers. There was a logic about the way pianist Philip Corner carefully varied the rhythms and tempos in this stream of notes too. And there was certainly a logic in the way the piece finally wound itself back to a sort of reverse version of its beginning. But it was not the obvious sort of logic one could crack on first hearing.
The piece did get me curious though—so curious, in fact, that I decided to obtain a score and try to figure out what makes it tick. Now, almost three weeks later, I still haven’t been able to figure the damned thing out, though I’ve learned quite a bit about how the piece divides the twelve notes of the chromatic scale into two groups of six notes, and about the mechanics of the octave changes and rhythmic shifts. Of course, this is not the place for technical discussion, and such details are not especially important anyway. But what does seem important is the simple fact that ‘The Tip of the Iceberg’ provokes this sort of curiosity.
Composers often say that interested listeners should study the scores, but they seldom entice us into actually doing so. Generally I can find out as much as I care to find out about a piece simply by listening to it, and I seldom bother to consult the sheet music except to get the gist of the notation method or to check if the performers were doing it right. But Hellermann’s kinky little piano composition was one of those rare pieces that really made me want to understand how it is made.
The remainder of the all-Hellermann concert, which took place at the Kitchen on October 25, was not concerned with the 12-tone logic so much as with paper clips. Hellermann, who is a fine guitarist as well as a composer, has become fascinated by the curious fact that, if one fastens a paper clip onto a string, the string will vibrate in strange ways, producing sounds far above and far below its normal pitch, and with a great variety of colors.
The longest and best paper clip piece was the guitar solo ‘Still and All,’ which Hellermann performed himself. I suspect there are interesting formal elements here too, but I didn’t hear them because I was so absorbed in the sonorities themselves. Most of the time it was hard to believe I was listening to an ordinary unamplified classical guitar. There were unpitched twangs and buzzes. There were a number of percussive effects, like bizarre drums. There were high overtones with strange colors. There were twangy tunes and odd scrapings. And perhaps most striking of all, there were moments where the guitarist leaned toward a microphone and plucked deep resonant gonglike tones. The piece lasted almost 30 minutes, and Hellermann’s well-paced effects easily held my attention for the full time.
In three other works on this long program, violinist William Mullen and cellist Batia Lieberman also played with paper clips on their strings. Perhaps Hellerman has not figured out the paper clip potential of these instruments as thoroughly as he has figured them out on his guitar. Perhaps these performers have not yet mastered the techniques required, or perhaps the bowed strings simply don’t lend themselves to the paper clip as well as the guitar does. In any case, these instruments sounded strained and uncomfortable with their paper clips, and they didn’t manage nearly as much coloristic variety as the guitar did.
A word about Hellermann’s overall style seems in order, because this 36-year-old composer is a particularly good case against the usual categorizations. Contemporary composers are often divided into two groups. One is supposed to be a brainly university-based group that descended from Webern, has no tolerance for minimalism, and spends most of its time manipulating mathematical systems. The other group is supposed to consist of independent anti-intellectuals who descended from Cage, have no tolerance for formal niceties, and spend most of their time devising weird noise-making devices and meditating on single tones.
I have always disliked this contrast, because it blurs individual distinctions, and because only a small minority of composers actually work at either extreme. In Hellermann’s music, to take only one example, one finds traditional instruments and 12-tone rows on the one hand, but minimal piano pieces and paper clips on the other hand. So much for categories.