Because I have been concentrating on folk idioms and non-Western classical forms, I have not reported on new music as thoroughly as I used to, but I still keep track of it as much as I can, and the quality seems to be higher than ever. Moreover, the energy is going out in many different directions at once. In the last months or so, for example, I heard a particularly delightful theater piece, some unusually provocative conceptual music, a new musical instrument with exceptional character, a superb performance of a piece of graphic music, and some of the best computer music I have ever encountered.
The theater piece was Jon Deak’s ‘Passion Be My Destiny.’ For some time Deak has been writing music in which instrumentalists play actual dialogue, imitating the rhythms and intonations of specific sentences. Usually these pieces have been short and the English translations of the music have been provided in program notes, but this recent work is a full evening piece, and here the translation arrives, just at the right moment, via projections. An important improvement. As in other Deak melodramas, the dialogue comes mostly out of pulp magazines and the musical language comes mostly out of old movies and corny tv scores. There are moments of high camp, moments of great hilarity, and a love theme that almost brings tears to our eyes, but most of all there is music, a continuous flow of it, and it knits themes and moods together so smoothly and so inventively that the work transcends its intentionally trivial material. In fact, a week after the concert I realized I had completely forgotten the plot, although much of the music still rang vividly in my ear.
The performance, presented at the Kitchen, was conducted effectively by the composer, and the musicians were strictly first class. Violinist Marilyn DuBow and cellist Jerry Grossman played the star roles of Barbara Banner and Anthony Awestruck with appropriate flair, hornist David Jolley played three or four roles with exceptional control and understanding, and five others all made valuable contributions. To put it in Deak’s own terms, the world may tear apart and still I’ll love ‘Passion Be My Destiny.’ The conceptual music was by Ben Johnston. The Illinois composer presented a variety of works on a recent Experimental Intermedia concert at Phill Niblock’s loft, including his humorous trombone solo, ‘One Man,’ two prerecorded electronic works, and a theater piece for oboe and tape. But the most recent, and for me the most provocative, piece of the evening was ‘Insurgence.’ Here Johnston simply read a verbal score describing an imaginary performance that involved, or would have involved, a number of panelists reading a text, a moderator-conductor-dictator, a few instrumentalists, and some technicians who eventually took over. There were a number of symbols and a zillion details in the rather long verbal description, all of which blended into a carefully constructed commentary on contemporary society and politics. ‘Insurgence,’ like Johnston’s ‘Vigil,’ is really a lecture that describes a musical performance rather than a piece of music per se, and as in the other works discussed in this column, the idea was not new. It was just better done than any conceptual music of the ’60s that I can remember.
The new musical instrument was built by Yoshi Wada, and it was essentially a massive set of bagpipes. The eight pipes were powered by a large air compressor which had to be placed on the fire escape of Niblock’s loft in order not to drown out the sound of the instrument, which itself was quite loud. Some of the pipes came from actual bagpipes while others were jerry-rigged out of plumbing equipment, and each of them could be turned on or off with a little faucet. The ingenious music machine produced a big fat chord of bagpipe sounds that stayed more or less in tune and provided a rich background for Wada’s amplified singing. The piece is a work in progress, and I suspect that both the improvised modal singing and the pipes themselves will go through a number of changes before even Wada himself is totally satisfied with the work, but the instrument, the sounds, and the idea itself are of such massive proportions that I see no point in nit-picking.
The graphic music was by Philip Corner, and like so much graphic music, it was written in the ’60s. But what made the work so relevant to the present was how it was interpreted. I think composers always wanted their graphic scores to be transformed into serious musical experiences, but performers seldom knew how to do this, and sometimes I don’t think the composers were too sure either. By now, however, all of that is much clearer, and a performer like Pete Rose can take a score like Corner’s ‘Sprouting,’ play it on his recorder, and end up with something quite gratifying. Rose worked with a set of about a hundred graphic images scored on little sheets of transparent material. He distributed a handful of these at random on a sheet of music manuscript paper and then played whatever he saw as accurately as he could. It seemed to me that Rose interpreted the piece with exceptional integrity, understanding, and skill. He took close to an hour, played whatever he saw with great care and control, never cheated, never clowned around, never let his ego get in the way, and never allowed himself to worry about what the audience might think. It was a cool, placid, and wonderfully unpredictable hour.
The new computer music I heard was by Laurie Spiegel and Emmanuel Ghent. In this case the value of the pieces had much to do with technological developments. Earlier experiments with computer-generated sound tended to be short, labored, colorless, or all three, but by now those composers who really know how to handle the medium can produce extended works with some ease, and with a variety of color too. Spiegel’s work dealt with long sustained tones that gradually faded in and out in a constantly shifting texture that was often quite dense and rich. Ghent dealt with a lightning-fast melodic line that sputtered away on one set of notes for a while, then moved on to another, then another, and so on, producing the feeling of chord changes without using any chords. Both pieces were joined with computer-generated video images that gradually moved through abstract patterns a little the way the music did. Spiegel had produced her own visuals, while Ghent had collaborated with Ken Knowlton. All of the work had been done at Bell Labs.Note:
It is particularly unfortunate that this collection does not include more about Yoshi Wada’s remarkable instrumental inventions. Often, as here, I heard the pieces before they were fully developed, and before I fully appreciated what he was doing. The bagpipes, like his earlier ‘pipe horns,’ were important experiments, which influenced younger composers such as Arnold Dreyblatt, and were later well received in recordings and in European presentations.