On Brains, Babbitt, and the End of the Year

Last Saturday night I saw a concert that paired, more closely than any before, technology with the living composer. The debut performances of the MiND (Music in Neural Dimensions) Ensemble at the University of Michigan this weekend left its audience in awe as the performers used “advanced neurofeedback technology” in conjunction with live electronics to produce an evening of music controlled – literally – by their brain activity. Propelled by its uncharted level of novelty, the concert was a dramatic exploration of music’s relationship with our mind and spirit unified but a spirit of interactivity that extended beyond the neurofeedback to audience participation and elegant live electronics.

MiND is made up of graduate composers David Biedenbender, Suby Raman and Sam Richards along with Robert Alexander, Dan Charette, Laura Gaines and Annlie Huang. Unlike most contemporary music ensembles where composers often work behind the scenes, Mr. Biedenbender, Mr. Raman and Mr. Richards participated actively in the performance as instrumentalists and narrators. Given that their instrumental prowess was limited, the pure musical elements were simple and serene, if not a little cheesy at times. This trance-like character, however, did not detract from the evening’s overall affect, which used meditations led by local T’ai Chi Master Washentha Young to set a tone of connectedness between mind, body and spirit.

The performance’s zen-like mien was a wise creative choice because beating the audience over the head with the science of everything would have desiccated the performance like overcooked chicken. To be honest, it was not always clear how or what part of the music was being influenced by the neurofeedback at any given point. Though on multiple occasions the MiND musicians explained the types of brain data they were using to alter the music, it was not possible to completely discern how much of what we were hearing was live and pre-recorded.

This lack of transparency rested in the primitive quality of the neurofeedback devices, or “brain hats” as the MiND Ensemble members called them. In fact, Friday and Saturday’s performances were as important to the world of music as they were to the scientific research of the brain. I couldn’t resist relating the concert’s equitable significance to science and music drew me to Milton Babbitt’s famous article, Who Cares If You Listen? (I prefer his original title, The Composer as Specialist) wherein the late champion of total serialism compares the state of contemporary music – in 1958 – to the social standing advanced mathematics and science.

One of Babitt’s main points is that specialized music is not isolated from the world for moral reasons – “I say all this not to present of picture of a virtuous music in a sinful world” – but, rather, because the world is, “inapposite”; unprepared to support the kind of music Babbitt advocates. Has the world – unforeseeably to Babbitt and, sadly, just after his death – finally caught up to music? Does the incorporation of neurofeedback technology in a live musical performance finally obscure the, “obvious differences” between music composition and scholarly research?

Clearly, at no other time – to my knowledge – has a concert so soundly straddled the gap between artistic creativity and empirical research. Yet, I don’t believe the MiND Ensemble represents as full a union between science and music as Babbitt hoped for in Who Cares If You Listen? First of all, Babbitt does not suggest composers should become scientists, rather he proposes a, “total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from [the] public world,” in the manner of scientific researchers. Ironically, though the composers in the MiND Ensemble relied so heavily on science, this neurological crutch was used to engage a public audience more than ever. Not only did the technology make the performance more compelling than a run-of-the-mill new music concert, the image of Sam Richards sitting behind a laptop at a given point is infinitely relatable in today’s world where people are much more likely to use a computer than read music. Though I, personally, would have preferred a different prevailing musical style than the indy rock/eastern fusion/pseudo-minimalist hybrid that dominated the evening, Saturday’s performance possess all the depth and drama and eye candy one could hope for in a contemporary music event.

On a different note, composer and NewMusicBox blogger David Smooke recently posted about how musical experimentation is – essentially – no longer possible; that, even if composers attempt to do something totally new, it has already been done. Although I agree with Mr. Smooke that earlier generations of composers pushed the musical envelope pretty much as far as it can go and currently active composers should, instead, attempt to synthesize the results of this experimentation instead of continuing it, the MiND Ensemble proves you can’t foresee the boundaries of music’s frontier.

Although there is real credence to Mr. Smooke’s argument,  I believe it is as erroneous to claim musical experimentation is no longer possible as it was for the United States patent office to close it doors at the turn of the 20th century because  it thought everything imaginable had been invented. Although composers have covered immense ground in the last 100 years, I’m not willing to count out the future of experimentation when new technologies remain undiscovered, and new applications of existing equipment – such as live neurofeedback – can create innumerable and novel musical opportunities in the blink of an eye.

The MiND Ensemble performance I’ve discussed is only one of the several final concerts I’ve gone to in the last two weeks here at the University of Michigan. Given the amount of music I’ve witnessed, I won’t parce through every concert piece-by-piece, but instead will touch on the profound, over-arching trends that were illustrated as the Winter 2011 Semester came to a close.

I’ll keep with the Babbitt theme and identify the first of these threads by reversing the title of one of the late serial master’s more well-known works: my beginnings are my ends.

This idea of circularity arose in multiple places in the many concerts I’ll mention, but most obviously applies to the final Symphony Band concert I went to because it closely resembled the first Symphony Band concert I covered by in September. Two works on the program were by living composers: a transcription of Bright Sheng’s Shanghai Overture and Kristin Kuster’s work for violin and band, Two Jades. As curious as the latter of these may seem, Ms. Kuster balanced the forces at her disposal deftly and agilely, unbelievably finding a way for soloist Xiang Gao to project over the band. Last September, trombonist David Jackson was constantly slathered with brass and winds in John Mackey’s Harvest, yet at the hands of Ms. Kuster, Mr. Gao’s violin was able to shine against and play with the powerful accompanying ensemble.

Last Friday’s season-ending University Symphony Orchestra concert similarly recalled an event from the beginning of the year with the performance of Michael Daugherty’s violin concerto Fire and Blood, performed by concerto competition winner, Anna Skalova. One of the first concerts I went to in Ann Arbor featured a performance of Daugherty’s flute concerto Trail of Tears with soloist Amy Porter backed by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. Despite predating Trail of Tears, Fire and Blood sounds much more mature, combining an expert display of the instrument’s sound with more daring materials and structures than the typical Michael Daugherty composition. To this end, I liken Fire and Blood to Mr. Daugherty’s Grammy-winning piano concerto Deus Ex Machina, which possesses an earnest tone akin to Fire and Blood and separate from other works in Mr. Daugherty’s output that focus on more youthful and nostalgic themes.

This academic year also ended with two strong student composers’ concerts at the University of Michigan. The first of these was the final department-wide performance, the last in the series of composers’ concerts I’ve written about all year. Epically long, the concert was remarkable beyond the consistently high quality of the music; it essentially summarized all the compositional diversity present at the University of Michigan. Works ranged from stylistically retrospective a cappella choral music to folk songs in the ilk of musical theater, more than one multi-media composition (one for video and chamber, another – mine – for narrator and electronics), and dramatic and intimate solos, duos and trios. Every element of the “Michigan sound” was present on stage that evening – from the grand scale and more mainstream sounds of Joey Kern’s brass choir work Blast Furnace, to the post-minimalist methods in Samn Johnson’s Untitled, to Sam Richards‘ abstract electronic score, Sakura.

The second concert was more limited in scope by design: it was an evening of new pieces for organ, all but two written by students from Michigan. Many of the pieces (including mine) were rather traditional sounding – Pierre Derycz performed his counterpoint class assignment! – but there was still an impressive range of styles. Samn Johnson and Bill Zuckerman, for example, wrote pieces that incorporated indy rock and post-minimalist themes (titled The Abyss Stares Back and Recurrence Relics, respectively), while Geoff Stanton’s King Rap and William Albright’s Valley of Fire were more abstractly dissonant and modernist. Though this concert was more focused than the aforementioned final student composers’ concert, its program portrayed the versatility and expressive abilities of a sometimes intimidating and often scoffed-at instrument.

In the end, these two student events displayed the trends in the University of Michigan Composition Department I’ve looked at in my posts all year. While there are certainly pop-rock/indy/post-minimalist (“New Synthetist”), expressive-modernist, neo-romantic and indeterminist presences in the school, the composition students here feel discovering and asserting their own voice is absolutely paramount. Influences are palpable in many students’ cases – as they are with most composers – yet, almost all of us find a way to put our personal imprint of the other musics we reference, rely on and use seek as inspiration.

This article was originally published in April, 2011 on the website Sequenza21.com

CD Review: Flightpatterns

The ominously lit photo on the cover of Flightpatterns – a recent release from Open Graves, a West Coast-based improvisation duo – depicts the uniquely overriding characteristic of the album: where it was recorded. Gas lamps and candles cast soft glows on a variety of percussion instruments resting inside an enormous abandoned water cistern in Port Towsend, Washington, the site where Open Graves’ Jesse Olsen and Paul Kikuchi teamed with renowned trombonist Stuart Dempster for this suspenseful and dark series of improvisations.

The album’s liner notes identify, “a wide range of traditional and invented instruments” and, “unusual acoustic environments”, as two of Open Graves’ strongest artistic pursuits. Yet, it seems the idea for using the cistern as a recording space may have come from their collaborator. Allaboutjazz.com’s Mark Corotto implies as much in his February 2011 review of Flightpatterns, noting that Dempster’s 1995 recording, Underground Overlays From The Cistern Chapel (New Albion), started a trend of site-specific improvisations, to which Flightpatterns may simply be the latest contributor. The sonic fingerprint the performance space lends the album’s four tracks is captivating and indelible, casting a translucence over the music as if we are looking at the sound through wax paper, or listening underwater. Again, Corotto speaks to this rather eloquently in his review, writing, “time must be slowed, giving a protracted feel to the performance. Dempster’s long drawn-out trombone notes act as a blanket…so lovely, that you might find yourself holding your breath.”

To me, the effect of the cistern’s reverberations on the music was twofold. The constant level of echo blurred the lines of musical phrases, much like how shadows projected on a distant cave wall distort an object’s original shape and identity. These resonant acoustic conditions produced music beautiful in a way I had never heard before. Everything sublimely bled together, softened out by the airspace inside the cistern. Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster’s instruments melded together, moving as one amorphous musical body through time, shaded multifariously as the album went along by a constant variety of percussion sounds.

Unfortunately, I felt the obvious intransigence of the cistern’s acoustic undermined much of Flightpatterns’s wonder and beauty. Around three-quarters of the way through the disc my ears were plane tired of the ambience. At its worst, I was reminded of my first forays in electronic music where I sheepishly swathed all my musical layers with the same EQ or reverb, denying the individuality of my components to speak through this acoustic surface. I was pained as Flightpatterns wrapped up because I knew Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster’s virtuosity and musical sensibility are absolutely admirable, but had been largely washed out by the unwavering sonic environment of the recording.

Despite this qualm, I highly recommend the disc to all lover’s of improvised music and supporters of unconventional music presentation. Olsen, Kikuchi and Dempster have hit on an interesting thread in the world of contemporary music with Flightpatterns, even if they just hit a double instead of a grand slam. I’m talking about site-specific performances and other musical-environmental integrations. Again, I’m drawn to the world of electronic music where Roger Reynolds, for example, tediously designs spatial elements into his electro-acoustic scores and has been involved in many site-specific performances including a November 2010 event at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Michael Gordon’s smash multimedia orchestral work, Decaysia, and the recent series of New York Philharmonic concerts at the Park Avenue Armory also illustrate the grandeur certain kinds of physical space can lend a live performance of contemporary music.

Flightpatterns demonstrates the potential value of designing albums around special acoustic environments. Immediately, the album’s intrigue and surface appeal blossoms in light of of Open Graves’ imaginative use of the empty water cistern as a recording studio. Despite the evident danger of casting the music in a monochromatic reverb throughout the length of the disc, Flightpatterns is a bold exploration of physical and musical resonance. Alluring and chilling at once, the CD’s tracks will undoubtedly leave you with aural goosebumps as the blurred identities of Stuart Demptser’s trombone and Open Grave’s multi-instrumental accompaniment will press the boundaries of your music-listening imagination.










Open Graves with Stuart Dempster

Prefecture Records, PREFECTURE004

CD Review: Oasis Quartet


The saxophones of the Oasis Quartet bound through the full range of expression and energy in their new self-titled release on the Innova label. Armed with Ida Gotkovsky’s Quatour (1983), Thierry Escaich’s Le Bal (2003) and a 2007 arrangement of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima), the Oasis Quartet spans the Atlantic, compellingly illustrating strong traditions in saxophone quartet repertoire. The group’s members – James Bunte, Dave Camwell, Nathan Nabb and James Romain – unite the CD’s stylistically divergent content with their collective crispness, obvious instrumental mastery and subtly executed interpretations.

Classifying this CD’s contents as traditional shouldn’t surprise anyone: the saxophone has French origins and its players of historically rely on transcriptions to fill in gaps in their repertoire. As the album’s liner notes describe, even Thierry Escaich’s Le Bal is based on traditional forms – the dance suite. The work is raucous and expansive, slithering between energetic and mysterious sections over its twelve-minute duration. Appropriately, Le Bal is united by a surging rhythmic momentum. When this driving energy finally explodes in the work’s home stretch it sounds as if the piece spirals out of control into oblivion.

Ida Gotkovsky’s Quatour is a large, five-movement work that displays Oasis quartet’s expressive flexibility within an, “approachable and attractive” musical landscape. In addition to the assonant remark I just quoted, the liner notes highlight Gotkovsky’s use of unison passages to create clear textures. Indeed, parallel movement of all kinds appears throughout the work’s foreground and background passages. Observed alongside Quatour’s predilection for ostinati and limited polyphonic passages, it is clear one Gotkovsky’s principle goals is to establish a crystal clear hierarchy between melody and accompaniment. The piece’s bombastic fifth movement, “Final”, challenges this trend with an unprecedented section of wild, independent counterpoint. However, Gotkovsky compensates for this textural outlier with three closing minutes of nearly all unisons melodies or chorale-like harmonic progressions.

The most well-known offering on the CD is obviously Oasis’ adaptation of Philip Glass’ String Quartet no. 3, taken from Glass’ 1985 film-score for a biographical film on Japanese author and activist, Yukio Mishima. Like many of Glass’ other film scores – I am specifically thinking of his soundtrack to Notes on a Scandal – the String Quartet no. 3 is primarily composed of triadic arpeggios, simple, repetitive phrase structures and unbalanced rhythmic layers often playing with competing duple and triple feels.

The harmonic language, though characteristically sparse, tends toward swift major-minor transitions, which, when set in the rhythmic landscape of work, reminded me heavily of John Adam’s score for Nixon in China. A big difference between the two is Glass’ melodies, simple and languid, floating above the babbling triadic latticework below. I doubt I would have made this connection listening to the original instrumentation because the sound of Oasis’ saxophones immediately led my inner ear to associate the work with Adams’ love of flashy brass and wind parts.

On that note, I think Nathan Nabb’s arrangement works really well, and even surpasses the original version in my opinion. The difference is most striking in the third and fourth movements, the first of which is fast-paced and syncopated and the second begins with an extremely slow and reserved mood. Of course, strings and saxophones can achieve the plaintive affect of the fourth movement, but – despite Glass’ use of double stops – a string quartet does not pull off the third movement’s edgy mixed-meter rhythmic minefield as successfully as Oasis’ saxophones.













Oasis Quartet: Glass, Gotkovsky, Escaich

Oasis Saxophone Quartet

Innova Records #744