in drones begin responsibilities

Anna Thorvaldsdottir
When I was an undergraduate, the composition faculty issued an edict that, until further notice, we were not to use ostinatos[1] in the music we were writing for our lessons. The professors clearly believed that we were using ostinatos (and other techniques/devices like tone rows[2] and drones[3]) as crutches to “automatically” generate stretches of music, some of whose details fairly set themselves down onto paper[4] by themselves.

I almost hurt myself rolling my eyes up in my head in response, but I complied. There is no doubt that these and other techniques can take over a composers’ music and that comp teachers do have a responsibility to guide and evaluate the student’s technical abilities. These techniques can, in addition to generating large numbers of notes, mask a great many compositional “sins”.[5] On the other hand, if the music works, and that’s a judgement best made by the composer with the assistance of the teacher, there’s no good reason not to use them.[6]

I started thinking about this subject when I first heard some music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir a few months ago, when she was named the New York Philharmonic Kravis Emerging Composer. Drones are an essential component of Thorvaldsdottir’s art, and she uses them in surprisingly different ways. On her new disc, In the Light of Air,[7] the drones are used in service of a varied and artistically unified expressive landscape.

The sections of In the Light of Air each have titles that point to a measurement of physical condition (“Luminance”), an existential condition (“Existence”), and feeling states or states of being (“Serenity”, “Remembrance”) that animate the sections so titled. Over the course of the 45 or so minutes of Light, Thorvaldsdottir deploys her drones in surprising and expressive contexts, illuminating the idea behind each section clearly and with style, grounding each piece in rich earth.

Though this is not-quite-a-review of this disc, I also wanted to say that Transitions (for solo cello, played beautifully here by Michael Nicolas, for whom it was composed) is a very fine piece. The performance of In the Light of Air, by the powerhouse International Contemporary Ensemble is expert and expressive, and both the Blu-Ray and CD sound is superb.

[1] A short melodic fragment repeated throughout a piece or section of a piece. An ostinato typically remains at the same pitch level and doesn’t vary in other ways, either.
[2] A series of notes (actually, pitches abstracted from any register) that govern the pitch (melody and harmony) of a piece. There are as many ways of doing this are there are composers doing it. More, probably.
[3] A continuous, low sound.
[4] Imagine those professors trying to deal with student composers using sequencers, music-composing notation software, and the other music-generating tools available today.
[5] In much the same way that a great number of footnotes can up the old word count and mask a possible lack of much to say.
[6] Other than to make the professor’s job easier.
[7] Given a much fuller review by Phil Freeman here. Phil’s perspective is very different from mine, one that will be far more useful to most readers.


here and there

Carter: Boosey & Hawkes have posted an interview with noted composer and Elliott Carter scholar John Link, who has some important insight on how and why the composer developed his “late late” style. In addition, Mr. Link lives up to his name with several Carter resources:

#musochat: On Sunday evenings at 9 eastern, any interested party may join in a virtual gathering at twitter under “#musochat” to discuss contemporary classical music[1] and related subjects. Even if you can’t participate in the discussions in real time, the chats are available under the hashtag. Molly Sheridan has more at newmusicbox.


This demure woman . . . declared that "making even one colored mark on a blank piece of newsprint should be an act of moral revolt." More than a revolt: an appeal for grace. All human beings were due a full accounting, but they had to ask for it. Art was a way of asking.
--Richard Powers, Prisoner's Dilemma, p54

[1] It happens that much of this past Sunday’s (16 Aug 15) discussion centered on what to call this thing of ours,* whether that matters, and why it probably does.
*The Sopranos reference is intentional, because another art form, filmed televisual entertainment, often presents its best work on Sunday nights and I believe that one way for us to engage with the contemporary world is to engage with other, more popular, art forms.


interview: jason eckardt

I talked (via email) with Jason Eckardt about the music on his new CD Subject and about his music in general. His answers to some pretty specific compositional questions are open and thought-provoking. The interview is up at BurningAmbulance.


second place is the first loser, loser

Over at On An Overgrown Path, the always-thoughtful Bob Shingleton has a post about the current binary cultural paradigm "forces everything - including art - into the dualistic framework of 0 or 1, good or bad". (Links within quotes from Mr. Shingleton are present in the original.) This dynamic is one in which "[a] classical work is either a masterpieces or an also ran, and as a result audiences are denied permission to like unfamiliar music".

One of my missions in writing about concert music has been to try to open up the cultural space for our music, especially for new music. This kind of zero-sum cultural game does the opposite--it leaves room only for "winners", whatever that might mean.

Please read all of Mr. Shingleton's post. In it, he talks about how not every piece worth hearing has to be one that you want to listen to again and again. That kind of attitude really does open up the space for more music.

While writing this post, I was reminded of a recent post by the also-always-thoughtful Daniel Wolf, in which he writes in favor of writing the occasional occasional piece--that not every piece a composer writes need be an attempt at a chef-d'oeuvre or even a piece in the composer's "normal" style. It should go without saying, but I'm glad Mr. Wolf said it.


jason eckardt - subject

Burning Ambulance has my review of Jason Eckardt's new CD, Subject, Since BA doesn't include disc details as a heading, here they are:

ECKARDT: Subject; Paths of Resistance; Trespass; Flux; Tongues. Tony Arnold, soprano; Alice Teyssier, Eric Lamb, flutes; Grace Hong, oboe; Andrew McCollum Campbell MacDonald, clarinets; Wendy Everett, bassoon; Danielle Bogacz, horn; Matthew Jenkins, Ross Karre, percussion; Marilyn Nonken, piano; Jordan Dodson, Daniel Lippel, guitar; Erin Ponto, harp; Christopher Otto, Ari Streisfeld, Yuncong Zhang, Jeffrey Young, violin; John Pickford Richards, Hanna Shaw, Wendy Richman, viola; Kevin McFarland, Jay Campbell, Gabrielle Athayde, cello; Laura Dykes, bass; Timothy Weiss, David Fulmer, conductors. TZADIK 9006. 70 minutes.

An interview with Mr. Eckardt will appear soon.


just because they say it's music doesn't make it music; but it's not music because i say it's not music!

A few days ago, Alex Ross posted a piece by Amadeus Regucera called  obscured-distorted-redacted, performed by the great JACK Quartet. 

Blogger A. C. Douglas not only took exception to the piece itself, but also to Alex posting it as music. I can think of no non-subjective (or extremely prescriptive) definition of music that Mr. Regucera's composition fails to meet, and Mr. Douglas offers no support for his assertion that that it is not in fact music.

As to the piece itself, It's got some very good stuff in it, especially in terms of texture. It may be a little long for what Mr. Regucera wants to say, but that's a quibble, and hardly definitional.

At any rate, a tip of the hat to Mr. Ross for posting the piece and to Mr. Douglas, for making it essential listening.


a thousand flowers

Is this one flower or two? Beats me. At any rate, we need at least 998 more.

Thanks to the good offices of Will Robin, 21st century orchestra music has taken over Facebook and Twitter, under the hashtag #21cOrch. I've listened to a good bit of this music over the last few weeks, and I have to say that I've been impressed with both the wide stylistic diversity of the music and with its quality. Whether I like a given piece or not (which is one of the least important aspects of writing about music), it's great to take note of the vitality in the field.

When I was in school the last thing anyone would do is write an orchestra piece on spec--American orchestras didn't play new music, at least not if you weren't a big name. (I wrote a piece in the 80s and one in the 90s, both for specific occasions and they both got performed once.)

The recent increase in performance of new music by American orchestras is a good thing. I look forward to hearing more.