There are probably more composers-performers today than ever before. Many composers have had traditional performing skills, but people like Paganini and Rachmaninoff, whose music really depended on their performance abilities, have been rare. Now one could make a long list of avant-garde composers who create works for their own unique performing styles. Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, Charlemagne Palestine, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young are a few obvious examples. The genesis of the performance art category had encouraged this phenomenon, as have other socioeconomic factors. But of course, there are also purely artistic reasons why musicians sometimes prefer to write for themselves instead of for other performers. In some cases composers really seem to find themselves once they begin looking inside their own voices and instruments, and come up with strong personal statements that never quite came through as long as they were creating music for others to play. That seems to be true of both Julius Eastman and Daniel Goode. As far as I know, neither of them produced any particularly striking statements in their early years, but later on they began to concentrate on solo works for themselves, and their art started coming together. I have known Julius Eastman primarily as a versatile singer-actor. I’ve seen him in a variety of roles at contemporary music concerts, and he generally performed well, regardless of whether the occasion called for strictly traditional skills or complete zaniness. Of his own music, I can recall hearing only three pieces, none of which made any lasting impression. So I was not prepared for the completely new Julius Eastman transformation who sat down and began playing in a kind of jazz piano style at Environ on October 9. He didn’t have quite the energy and dazzle of a Cecil Taylor or a Keith Jarrett, but he came close to that, and there was a lot of finesse and control in the way he could ease into brief moments of repetition and then slip off into something completely different. But this high-energy, free-jazz style turned out to be only his base of operations. Later he began singing along in a crazed baritone: ‘Why don’t you treat me like a real woman?’ and later, ‘Open, open wider.’ At another point he began telling a long, fast, and mostly incomprehensible story. Sometimes he would come to an abrupt silence and just wait there for a minute or two. Once his hands left the keyboard, and he just thumped out finger patterns on the wood for a while. During one rather long section, he simply reiterated three soft notes in different sequences. Once he broke away from his jazz base simply to play a slow chromatic scale that didn’t end until he finally reached the top note of the keyboard a minute or two later. Things went on like this for maybe 80 or 90 completely unpredictable minutes, and what should have been a completely incoherent concert was actually quite satisfying. In a way, the music is about incoherence, and about some zany musical place that only Eastman knows how to find. Of course, his 1976/frederic-rzewski-the-people-united solo performance will probably go off in seven other directions, but I have the feeling that this basic approach to solo improvising will be keeping him busy for some time.
Daniel Goode has found his strongest and most personal statements right inside his clarinet. Some time ago he mastered the art of circular breathing, which enables him to hold tones endlessly, and a few years ago he began using this technique with spectacular effect in a piece called ‘Circular Thoughts.’ Here he keeps a lightning-fast modal figure going on and on and on while his lungs and tongue shift the accents from one place to another. Out of extremely limited materials and simple, logical rhythmic progressions, there emerges a tremendous variety of phrasings and syncopations.
But Goode has other interests, too—like listening to birds. For several summers now he has been particularly interested in some thrushes he found in Nova Scotia, whose complex calls he managed to capture on his tape recorder. The calls are too shrill and too fast to hear clearly, but he found that by playing them back at half speed, he could perceive the many little slides and grace notes in some detail. He also found that this brought the bird calls into a very high clarinet range, so he practiced for a couple of years, and now he does them almost as well as the birds do. And these are not free translations, as in Messiaen’s bird call music, but literal imitations of some of the fanciest calls around. Of course, I guess Goode is still just a half-speed cheater as far as the birds are concerned, but from a human point of view, his virtuosity with these many little bird roulades is extremely impressive.
I have heard Goode twice this fall. In a solo concert at the Experimental Intermedia loft he played a recently expanded version of ‘Circular Thoughts,’ along with some clarinet versions of fiddle tunes he has collected from Nova Scotia folk musicians. In a joint concert with Philip Corner at Carnegie Recital Hall on October 5, which opened a series devoted to composers from the Rutgers University system, he was assisted by four other flutists and clarinetists. Sometimes working against a background of Nova Scotia fiddle tunes, they all played the difficult figures of Goode’s Nova Scotian thrushes quite creditably. Only Goode’s own clarinet seemed to catch the most subtle innuendos, however. Come to think of it, I doubt that other clarinetists will ever play ‘Circular Thoughts’ as well as Goode does either. Like Eastman’s current work, it’s really a solo art.