New Recordings

Phil Freeman has posted recordings of two of my pieces from the Western Illinois Festival at Burning Ambulance. Look for a new issue of Burning Ambulance soon.



Kenneth Woods wrote a marvelous post on certain passages in Gustav Mahler that don’t seem to “advance the plot”, giving some listeners the idea that Mahler may have needed an editor. Woods’ chief example is the march music (ca. six minutes long) that separates the two songs that make up “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).

In purely musical terms, we are in the same place at the end of this march as at the beginning. It starts in a minor then quickly moves to c minor, which in Mahler’s style isn’t a distant movement. When the march has ended and the second part of the movement begins, we get the same low, soft tam-tam note we got at the beginning of the movement. We haven’t gone anywhere! But, as Woods points out so eloquently, “some profound transformations have occurred. We feel changed by what we have experienced. If I could articulate what that change is, we wouldn’t need Mahler.”

Woods discusses this kind of discursive music as just one of Mahler’s many narrative strategies, but it put me in mind of a very different kind of music, one that uses this transformative discursion/stasis as its very essence.

As an undergraduate I fell under the spell of what was then the very new and quickly developing world of minimalism. My first exposure to contemporary classical music had been the experimental music of composers like Stockhausen, Cage, and Lucas Foss (I heard his For 24 Winds at a concert in the summer of 1971 and was immediately hooked on the soundworld of the piece, which I haven’t heard since). A few years later I heard the famous first recording of Terry Riley’s In C and was immediately hooked. I loved the way it sounded and the way it moved, or didn’t move. It’s a soundworld thoroughly imagined, realized, and inhabited, and what more can we want from music?

I soon got my ears on all the minimalism I could find, which was quite a bit, and was most taken with Steve Reich, in particular his music up through Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. This music embodies the Mahlerian discursions Woods writes so tellingly about, with its delicate balance between process (the setting in motion of ideas and allowing them to play out) and discovery (the in-performance highlighting of the “resulting patterns” that occur as the phasing and other processes play out).

At the end of such pieces (as at the end of the march in “Der Abschied”) we find we haven’y gone anywhere in the strictest musical sense, but we have been moved and changed.



Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the death of Gustav Mahler.  

It should be no surprise to regular readers that Mahler is one of my favorite composers. In a post called “Tightrope”, I recounted a performance of the Second Symphony in which the brass section (during the chorale early in the last movement) was able to get louder and louder, with the sound quality never suffering. The post goes on to liken this thrilling aspect of performance to tightrope walking—the level of the risk/stakes involved can be an important aspect of the performance.

I’m drawn to art and artists whose work/life involves risks and high stakes. Mahler’s life and music embody the tightrope effect—the stakes are high, something is risked. As Director of the Vienna State Opera, Mahler put his stamp on all aspects of a production, ensuring he would get blamed for failures as well as being credited for successes.

His music is full of risk. Its demands on performer and audience alike are well-known, and those demands alone raise the stakes—if your more-than-hour-long symphony fails, the chances of connecting with the next one (especially if it, too, is demanding) are seriously curtailed.

But beyond the audacious length of his symphonies, Mahler’s music is risky in its content as well. He frequently juxtaposed transcendent, other-worldly passages with stretches of quotidian vulgarity, and didn’t privilege the transcendent over the vulgar. His music creates a narrative of life as it is lived, both in everyday existence, and in the life of the mind.

His risks are the same risks we take in putting ourselves out in the world. He takes these risks, our risks, leading us out onto the wire, and makes them art.