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086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

Posted by jeff on Aug 1, 2017 in Classical, Other, Song Of the week

Different Trains (Parts I, II, III)

Need one apologize for listening tastes? You can listen to Justin Bieber or ‘Lawrence Welk Plays Your Polka Favorites’ all you want, I don’t care. I wish you wouldn’t tell me about it, but I don’t deny your democratic or aesthetic right to do so.

So I’m not going to apologize for the fact that in recent months I’ve become quite engrossed in Minimalist music. I realize this may not do much for my popularity at school or for the ratings of this blog, so maybe next week I’ll write about a Motown song, like The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself”, just to keep the Hit-o-meter popping.

Aware of the dangers, this week I’m going to share with you the unique experience I’ve been having with Minimalist music, specifically that of Steve Reich, specifically his composition “Different Trains”.

I admit that my tastes can run at times to the arcane, the rarified, the–well, let’s call a spade a spade–the weird. I try to mix up SoTW, but I’m aware that I’ve been on a run of crowd-displeasers recently, such as Shostakovich and Randy Newman (though I sure do believe that if people of taste made the effort to break through the unprettiness of the veneer, they could get to appreciate and love them as I do. This week we’re going even further. I really don’t think that Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” is for everyone. But it has been speaking very loudly, clearly, and affectively to me, so I want to share it with you. Here come some boring definitions:

Interior, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

‘Minimalism‘ is often applied to designate anything which is spare or stripped to its essentials. Minimalism began as a post-WWII movement in visual arts where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features; it expanded to encompass a movement in music which features repetition and iteration. The term has been used to describe a trend in design and architecture (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more”) wherein the subject is reduced to its necessary elements, often employing functional elements for aesthetic purposes (Buckminster Fuller). It has also been associated with Japanese traditional design and architecture; with the plays of Samuel Beckett, the films of Robert Bresson, the writing of Ernest Hemingway, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Raymond Carver, with poet William Carlos Williams; and even with the automobile designs of Colin Chapman.

Agnes Martin, oil

Hey, I know almost all of those! (Well, I picked mostly ones I know, and I’m sure going to check out that Colin Chapman guy.)

‘Minimalist music‘ began in the 1960s as an underground contemporary classical scene in New York and San Francisco, based mostly on “consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting.” [We may not know all of those terms, but we get the gist, don’t we?] The composers associated with it are John Cage, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Strong Minimalist elements can also be found in contemporary classical music employing traditional stylistic elements, such as that of Arvo Pärt (‘Holy Minimalism’) and John Tavener (‘Mystic Minimalism’), and even reaching back to composers such as Eric Satie, Carl Orff and Anton Webern.

 

Donald Judd, sculpture

New Age and much World music certainly huddle under the Minimalist umbrella. In jazz this aesthetic is rife; there’s even an entire label, EMC, dedicated to minimalist music.

[Here comes the neat part!] Minimal music is also present in pop music. Psychedelic rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s used repetitive structures and droning techniques to express the hallucinations of LSD and other drugs in a musical language. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale had an especially close working connection with La Monte Young. Minimalism also impacted Progressive Rock [a genre I’ve studiously avoided over the years], in artists such as Soft Machine, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream.

[Here comes the REALLY neat part!] In the 1990s Trance dance music was largely influenced by minimalism, based on repetitive instrumental structures. A recent favorite of mine, the ultra-bizarre Antony and The Johnsons, exhibit a completely original style of art songs, what I’d call ‘tone poems’. I’ll introduce you to “him” sometime soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, back to Steve Reich (b. 1936). He studied at Cornell (thesis on Wittgenstein, whom he of course later set to music) and Julliard. While driving a cab for a living, jazz drumming for fun, and living with Phil Glass for company, he began composing experimental music in a variety of contexts in the 1960s. A lot of it employed sampling (which anticipated the emergence of hip-hop by decades) and ‘phasing’, a process whereby two tape loops lined up in unison gradually move out of phase with each other, ultimately coming back into sync. Here are some of his notable early works:

  • ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, a phased piece constructed out of a 13-second sample of a sermon by the minister Brother Walter.
  • ‘Drumming’ (inspired by a journey to Ghana) was scored for four pairs of bongos, three marimbas, three glockenspiels, and voice.
  • ‘Pendulum Music’ which consists of the sound of several microphones swinging over the loudspeakers to which they are attached, producing feedback as they do so.

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s “Point Blank” (1967)

But it’s not all just weird, I promise you. Well, it is weird, but it’s not just weird.

  • ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, one of his seminal works, in a very fine live rendition
  • ‘Clapping Music’ – one performer keeps a line of a 12-quaver-long (12-eighth-note-long) phrase and the other performer shifts by one quaver beat every 12 bars, until both performers are back in unison 144 bars later; here’s a live performance; and here’s a TOTALLY mind-boggling version using a loop from one of the great B-movies of all time, John Boorman’s 1968 “Point Blank”, with the incredible Lee Marvin and the even incredibler Angie Dickinson

In later years, Reich began to draw materials from his Jewish background, such as ‘Tehillim’ (Psalms).

And for our Song of The Week, we’re bringing to you ‘Different Trains’, a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape (1988), which actually won the Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Snippets of recorded speech are used here as a melodic (rather than rhythmic) theme.

The piece is Reich’s attempt, as an American Jew, to explore the legacy for him of the European Holocaust – a theme that has occupied me greatly throughout my life.

Recorded spoken phrases of his governess, a retired Pullman porter, and various Holocaust survivors are interlaid with the playing of the astounding Kronos Quartet. Reich compares and contrasts (“America-Before the War – Movement 1”) his childhood memories of his train journeys between New York and California in 1939–1941 (he traveled between his parents, who were separated) with the very different trains (“Europe-During the War – Movement 2”) being used to transport contemporaneous European children to their deaths under Nazi rule, and then (“After the War – Movement 3”) with the Holocaust survivors talking about the years immediately following World War II.

Kronos Quartet

A leading professor of musicology, Richard Taruskin, called it “the only adequate musical response—one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium—to the Holocaust”, and credited the piece with earning Reich a place among the great composers of the 20th century. Reich has been described by The Guardian as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”, and critic Kyle Gann has said Reich “may be considered, by general acclamation, America’s greatest living composer.”

You can find the definitive version of ‘Different Trains’ by The Kronos Quartet at the top of this page. You might also want to check out this striking rendition of Part 2 by The Smith Quartet from a BBC broadcast, a much more straightforward explication of the Holocaust elements in the piece.

I understand that Steve Reich sells fewer albums than Arrowsmith, and that The Kronos Quartet won’t sell out Madison Square Gardens performing this piece. Nobody’s going to put them on the bill with Justin Bieber, probably not even with Wayne Newton.

But I’m not alone in finding this work riveting, profound and moving.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′

084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as Amazon

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073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1’

Posted by jeff on Nov 13, 2014 in Classical, Song Of the week

I had a visitor in my brain this week, Erik Satie. He drops in every few years, probably during October, though I haven’t kept any statistics. He’s like an old peripheral acquaintance, not an intimate friend, there’s much about him that’s just a bit boring, and he has more to say than I care to listen to.

But he always brings with him this one particular vignette of sound that reminds us why we’re so glad he’s appeared again at our door—a unique piece of music so emotionally precise, so descriptive of a certain autumnal ennui, a state of mind and being, a very particular and fraught set of internal meteorological conditions, wholly irreplaceable, wholly unmistakable.
I first encountered Monsieur Satie on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ eponymous, shallow, lamentably over-popular, first post-Kooper LP. It was as shallow and derivative as it was commercially successful (veryveryvery). The first and last cut on the album were a piano piece by an obscure French composer arranged for guitar, two flutes and bells by BS&T trombonist Dick Halligan.

It took me several years, but as is my wont, I eventually got around to the original by Erik Satie (1866-1925), a French cabaret pianist and avant-garde composer.

Satie was also a creator of hoaxes (an announcement of the premiere of his new anti-Wagnerian opera, which he never wrote), his own compositional system, his own one-man religion (the Metropolitan Church of Art of the Leading Christ, for which he wrote a Grand Mass). He maintained a secret hobby–on small cards he would draw pictures of imaginary buildings made of various metals, and publish ads in local papers offering them for sale. For a number of years he dressed like a priest.

Portrait d’Erik Satie by Suzanne Valadon

He had one intense love affair in 1893 with model, painter and trapeze artiste Suzanne Valadon. He reputedly never touched a woman (or man) after that.

He was associated with Rosicrucianism, radical Socialism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Dada. At various points in his life he hung out with composers Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud, and Stravinsky, as well as artists Cocteau, Duchamp, Picasso, Braque, Man Ray, Breton, dancer Diaghilev and film director Rene Clair. But none of these lasted very long, neither the ideas nor the movements nor the relationships.

He seems to have annoyed most of them; no one entered his apartment for the last 27 years of his life. After his death, 84 identical handkerchiefs were found in his wardrobe.

A joiner and a loner.

He wrote spoofs, ‘melodramas’, humorous miniatures for piano, and a sort of ‘liner notes’ for his compositions. They became better known than the music, and he eventually was forced to demand that they not be read aloud while the music was being performed.

Satie and Debussy (Photo: Igor Stravinsky)

Ironically, Satie’s reputation has done very well in the last half-century. He experimented with what he called furniture music, meant to be in the background rather than listened to.  Here’s a very fine example, the unspeakably beautiful Gnossienne No.1 (Rogé).

This is considered a forerunner to minimalism, which became a dominant approach to classical music throughout the 20th century, and as such has achieved no small degree of repute (from proponents such as John Cage) and popularity (thanks to the jump-start of good old Blood, Sweat & Tears.) Cage performed Satie’s composition ‘Vexations’ (performed here by Aldo Ciccolini).

The manuscript bears the inscription: “Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses” (“In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.”) Cage interpreted as an instruction that the piece should be played 840 times straight. Who knows what Satie really meant? In 1963, it was premiered by a team of pianists in New York. The audience paid $5 to hear some part of the 18-hour marathon. Only one person stayed the route.

Satie by Jean Cocteau

Be that as it may, Satie’s greatest hit is without a doubt the ‘Gymnopédies’, a series of three short compositions published around 1888. These are three variations on the same theme with barely perceptible differences. The effect is somewhat like walking around a sculpture, viewing it from several angles. The first of them is the one we’re offering up as our Song of The Week. It’s performed here by Pascal Rogé (after carefully considering a number of performers–there are few classical works in which I’m so picky about my preferred version). If you really need to, you can read about the various hypotheses regarding the meaning of the name of the piece, but they’re not conclusive, and I sure didn’t feel any better after reading them.

I do, however, feel a whole lot better after listening to the Gymnopédies, a massage for an aching soul.

On the one hand, it’s a landmark piece for proponents of Ambient music such as Cage, Brian Eno, Phillip Glass and Stephen Reich. Ambient music is a genre that stretches from early 20th century minimalism right up to the New Age pap of today. It “focuses largely on the timbral characteristics of sounds, often organized or performed to evoke an atmospheric, visual” or “unobtrusive” quality–what Satie called furniture music, what is today sometimes called airport music. (“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”—Brian Eno.)

But ‘Gymnopédies’ is not the bland background music it may sound like from that description. Less is more, and this particular ‘less’ is a whole lot. It touches me very deeply, in a very tender place in my being. It’s evocative, hypnotic, haunting, and if you listen to it not 840 times, but just a few, don’t be surprised if it becomes part of your musical landscape, and comes back to pay a very welcome visit when your soul needs some breathing space.

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149: Antony & the Johnsons: ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’

Posted by jeff on Oct 5, 2012 in Other, Song Of the week

Antony & the Johnsons — ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’

Within each of us is both the bully and the victim.

You see someone, on hir knees, crying from pain. You walk past. Or you snicker. Or you throw something. Or you tie hir to a fence and beat hir to death. Or you stop and open your heart and and through hir pain embrace your own pain. And perhaps you feel just a bit more in harmony with your own personal universe.

It’s too easy to guffaw at Antony Hegarty (b. 1971) – his ‘questionable sexuality’, his naked candor, his queerness – a British>Californian transsexual who creates  minimalist art vignettes of pain and death and spirit and the universe as Antony & the Johnsons.

Art isn’t created by adhering to conventions, and Hegarty is an artist to be reckoned with. Since 2001 he has composed a heavenly host of ephemeral miniatures, which he plays on piano accompanied by a small string section, singing in the tremulous voice of a tortured angel. Each song is a prayer.

He can wrench you in a straightforward love song, such as ‘Hope There’s Someone’, or in a cover of a hackneyed contemporary standard, such as ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ or even ‘Imagine’.

But more frequently he moves in liminal, harrowing climes, such as in ‘Cut the World’.

For so long I’ve obeyed that feminine decree/I’ve always contained your desire to hurt me/But when will I turn and cut the world?//My eyes are coral, absorbing your dreams/My skin is a surface to push to extremes/My heart is a record of dangerous scenes/But when will I turn and cut the world?

From the video ‘Cut the World’, directed by Nabil, starring Willem Dafoeand Carice van Houten. The person at the end of the video is performance artist Marina Abramović.

‘Cut the World’ is the one new song on his brand-new CD of the same name, a collection of his ‘greatest hits’ (‘I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy’, ‘Cripple and the Starfish’), lushly accompanied by the Danish National Chamber Orchestra (oh, those great Danes!). This video is a horrifying harbinger of his vision of matriarchal systems of government overthrowing the world.

Be forewarned: this video is seriously disconcerting. It’s not for everyone, watch it only if you’re feeling very strong. Or very weak. I’m not going to comment on it — you don’t need me to explain the obvious, and I can’t explain the mysterious.

From his monologue ‘Future Feminism’: “I’ve been thinking all day about the moon. Is it an accident that women menstruate once a month and that the moon comes once a month? We’re made of 70% water. The whole ocean reacts to the full moon. I must be having a homeopathic relationship with the changing cycles of the moon. I’m made out of this place…The world menstruates.”

One of his most indelible creations is the perplexing ‘The Spirit Was Gone’. The video portrays a dance in the style of Butoh, an avant garde post-WWII Japanese performance aesthetic, often danced ultra-slowly in a sparse, grotesque setting in white makeup. One of the founders was Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010!!!), a captain in Hirohito’s army, a Baptist, and a gym teacher at a girls’ high school till the age of 86. In his 90s, unable to walk, he continued performing – moving only his hands. His picture is on the cover of Antony’s finest CD, “The Crying Light”. The dancer in this video is Kazuo Ohno’s son, Yoshito.

The spirit was gone from her body/Forever had always been inside/That shell had always been intertwined/And now were disentwined/It’s hard to understand.

If you’ve gotten this far, I assume you’re not laughing.

Antony and the Johnsons is a wonderful example of just how effective minimalism can be in genres as ranging far as contemporary classical music, trance, architecture, design, art. I discussed minimalism as an aesthetic in SoTW 086, Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’.

In Hegarty’s work, less is so clearly more. The power of his songs and videos derives from the strength of the visuals, the directness of the passion, and the restraint in presenting them devoid of any distractions. He stares unflinchingly into the eye of his own soul; and, if you allow it, into yours.

For our Song of The Week then, let’s unflinchingly choose one of his more challenging pieces, ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’, a subjective portrayal of an epileptic seizure. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, one of my favorite authors, describes some epileptic seizures as inducing “the flow of involuntary ‘reminiscence,’ the sense of revelation, and the strange, half-mystical ‘dreamy state’ that could be characteristic of these.” “Epilepsy is often associated with religious or mystical feeling.”

Epilepsy is dancing/She’s the Christ now departing/And I’m finding my rhythm/As I twist in the snow//Cut me in quadrants/Leave me in the corner/Ooh now, it’s passing/Ooh now, I’m dancing

Here’s the video of ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’. If I were going to have a religious epiphany, I hope it wouldn’t include cavorting gay satyrs and nymphs, but who knows what subconscious party favors he/she harbors within? Antony says he’s been thinking in terms of ‘molecular crystal formations’. I have no idea what that means. He gave a concert in Manchester in which the concert hall was transformed into a crystal cave filled with laser effects, and I’m truly sorry I missed that one.

But when he sings “Cut me in quadrants, leave me in the corner”, that I do get. It’s not a comfortable place, but it’s a very real one. I don’t listen to Antony and the Johnsons every day. But when I do, I sure don’t laugh.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

021: Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, ‘Snake Out’
086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)
110: Mongolian Throat Singing (The Occidental Tourist)

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