Saturday, December 31, 2016

The New York School: Then and Now

The New York School: Then and Now
Lecture for LiveWire 7
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Friday, October 28, 2016 
2:00 PM


What follows is a lecture for general audiences I gave on the so-called New York School of Composers (pictured above, left to right: Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, John Cage, Morton Feldman) as part of the LiveWire 7 music festival, at the invitation of my friend and colleague Tom Goldstein who organized the festival. My appearance also included a performance by me of  John Cage's Child of Tree and composer-pianist Curt Cacioppo performing the World Premiere of my complete Preludes for solo piano: World's End Preludes (2015) followed by Devisadero (2007).

Before I begin I want to thank Tom Goldstein for inviting me, allowing me the chance to perform one of my favorite pieces, talk about what I regard as one of the most important moments in the musical history of the last century, give some personal observations about the experimental tradition, which I regard as the most important American contribution to the history of composed classical music, and then end with a performance of my own recent contribution to that tradition. I’d also like to acknowledge two important sources for what follows: Steven Johnson’s excellent collection,  The New York Schools of Music and Visual Art, which includes a very important essay by Thomas DeLio who is present today and whose music will be featured at Stacy Mastrian’s concert on Saturday. And the recently published Selected Letters of John Cage, edited by Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust.



        
Because I only have around fifteen minutes, I've chosen to read this so I don't get sidetracked, an easy thing to do when talking about composers whose music I know and love so much. And I hope if you have any questions, you'll stick around after and feel free to ask. I've also tried to structure this carefully so that you leave with a better idea about what the New York School was, if you don't know already, and about what its influence has been and continues to be, including at the end what it means to me and my own work as a composer.

So to begin: What was the New York School, who was part of it, and when historically did it happen? Normally I'd need to include the where but in this case I think we all understand that it happened in New York City. Let's address these questions in reverse beginning with when. Most scholars consider the dates when the New York School of Composers were most active as beginning in 1950, when John Cage was living on 326 Monroe Street, in what he called the "Bozza Mansion," named after his landlord, and definitely not a "mansion." In 1954, Cage left New York City to join an artistic community founded by ex-Black Mountain College student Paul Williams at Stony Point, on the west side of the Hudson river, about 40 miles north of New York City. And by the time he left for Stony Point, the New York School of Composers, as a group in regular contact with each other, no longer existed. You can probably guess who the composers were just by looking at the music being programmed but I'll list them here: John Cage, already mentioned, born in 1912 and therefore the oldest at 38 in 1950, he is also the reason why the school exists at all. Everything, at least initially, revolved around him in the sense that everyone who is considered part of the New York School, with possibly one exception who I'll mention later, came in contact with each other through him. And, in fact, as the correspondence recently published makes clear, the relations were not always so congenial between the others and often the relations were one-on-one to Cage. I'll explain this in some detail in what follows, but first let me introduce the other composers, or instead why don't we have Morton Feldman do the honors: "Four composers--John Cage, Earle Brown Christian Wolff and myself--became friends, saw each other constantly--and something happened." (Johnson p.53)

The first contact between composers of the New York School was between John Cage and Morton Feldman, on January 26, 1950 to be exact, at Carnegie Hall where they heard Webern's Symphony Op. 21 conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. According to Feldman, he walked over to Cage, whom he had never met, and said "Wasn't that beautiful?" and they immediately made arrangements to meet. At that time, Cage was an already established and well-known composer; Feldman on the other hand, born in 1926 and 24 at the time, was completely unknown, studying composition with Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe. Their relationship was definitely the closest of any of the group, unless you include David Tudor, who also studied with Stefan Wolpe and who Cage met through Feldman. Tudor is a special case and I won't include him here because his connection to the New York School, and Cage in particular, is really a subject to itself. You can get a very good sense of the closeness between Cage and Feldman by listening to conversations that were recorded at WBAI radio in NYC, between July 1966-January 1967, which you can hear for yourself on the Other Minds Audio Archive.


Clearly by then they knew each other well. When they first met, they would talk for hours at a time, and often more about painting than music. Their shared love of art was a strong initial attraction, with Feldman in particular being interested in the Abstract Expressionists and especially close to the painter Philip Guston. 

Phillip Guston, Attar (1953)


And the term New York School originates with those same artists, among others active in New York in the 1940s and early 1950s, with art historian Irving Sandler being the initial champion of the label, even though his work hasn't aged particularly well. There are many strong connections between the New York Schools of Art and Music but perhaps the one most important to mention here is one the British musicologist David Nicholls posits, that, both in music and art, it was the first time a group of composers and visual artists from the United States had a truly international impact.


Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923)
Jasper Johns, Flag (1954-55)
Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting (1951)










Cage, though knowledgeable about the Abstract Expressionist artists was less enthusiastic than Feldman, his preference being the work of Marcel Duchamp and his connection to younger artists, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, along with his partner dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, allowed Cage to promote what the great literary scholar Marjorie Perloff has called "A Duchamp unto Myself" ("'A Duchamp unto Myself': Writing Through Marcel" found in John Cage: Composed in America), meaning that it was Cage's enthusiasm for Duchamp and his own interpretation of Duchamp's work, which may not necessarily coincide with what Duchamp had in mind, that brought Duchamp's work to the attention of most American artists, and particularly to the attention of Rauschenberg and Johns who, in turn, took Cage's own ideas into the visual art they made in the fifties and became both famous and wealthy as a result. Cage and Cunningham, working along the same lines in dance and music were not anywhere near as successful financially. But their work together, the four of them that is, was in many ways more fruitful and longer lasting then that of the so-called New York School of composers. And for that reason outside the scope of further discussion for the purposes of my talk today.

Feldman's relations with Cage were both close and volatile, as their correspondence, in part, shows. There are no letters in the published correspondence prior to 1954, where Cage writes "it has been a great source of sorrow to me to lose your friendship." And after that only three others, all business-like. According to Laura Kuhn, the relations were increasingly strained by Cage's bringing Earle Brown to the group in 1952. And the break between Cage and Feldman, with both leaving the Bozza Mansion, Feldman to Washington Square, Cage as mentioned to Stony Point, is where scholars draw an end to the New York School.

The second composer to enter Cage's circle was Christian Wolff, born in 1934 and thus only 16 years old. They met in April of 1950, not long after the first meeting between Cage and Feldman, through Wolff's piano teacher Grete Sultan, a good friend of Cage, who would eventually compose a monumental piano work for her, his Etudes Australes. She sent Wolff to Cage in order for him to study composition. Cage was especially fond of Wolff and his music. In the correspondence there are more letters (seven) written to Wolff than all the other composers combined. And they often happen at important moments in Cage's career, so much so that I'll mention some of them briefly: the first is in 1951 as Cage was writing the second part of his Music of Changes; and it is important to note that Wolff, whose father was the publisher of Pantheon books, gave Cage as a gift one of his father's publications, a newly translated edition, with a forward by Carl Jung, of the I-Ching, which Cage was using to write his Music of Changes and which he used to compose for the rest of his life; the second in 1956, while living at Stony Point, just as he had finished his ill-fated book on Virgil Thomson (which Thomson didn't like); the third was in 1960 where he writes "Your music remains my favorite music"; the fourth in 1961 only months before his first book "Silence" is published; the fifth in 1974, a long letter on the subject of "power" during a time when Christian Wolff was deeply involved in politics, a lifelong concern of his, and particularly the work of Cornelius Cardew. Cage writes that he's "not as optimistic as a musician, as I was. At least I do not see that by my continuing my work that society will change. They why do I go on? I think the going on is partly habit, partly some continuing energy, and partly hope of discovery." (Selected Letters, p.444) 1974, it should be noted, is when Cage finished his Empty Words,  a work I regard as where he finally "silenced the self" from the writing of poetry, something you can read more about in my Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the American Experimental Tradition, which recently came out in a second edition published (again) by Northeastern University Press. 


And it is after this that Cage composes Child of Tree, an important piece for Cage, as result of his "hope for discovery" which I see as "what comes after the silence of nothing," where sound and silence, intention and non-intention co-exist. And Cage's enthusiasm for Wolff's music was life long. In 1988, I organized a retrospective concert of Cage's music when he was the headlining composer at the John Donald Robb Composers' Symposium, the beginning of what has been, for me, a lifelong study of his work. It is a tradition to take the headlining composer to lunch on the last day of the festival and ask for recommendations as to what composers we might invite in the future. John Cage had only one recommendation: Christian Wolff. It took us until 1993 to take him up on that recommendation, I organized the festival that year, and it was my first of many meetings with Christian Wolff.

So now, I've moved from scholar to participant in a way, by letting the audience know of my personal associations with Cage and Wolff. I only met Morton Feldman once, at Darmstadt in 1986 and he died, way too young, the following year. The only composer in the group I never met was Earle Brown and I definitely know less about him than the other three, though I think his work of the four is the most in need of becoming better known. Even Feldman, who liked him least, felt that his work had been appropriated without credit by composers like Berio and Lutoslawski who became better known using some of Brown's original ideas. His music was perhaps the most visually connected to the arts of the time, he was especially interested in the improvisatory "all-over" painting methods of Jackson Pollock, and ever more influenced by the mobiles of Alexander Calder which he used as models for compositions he wrote. 

Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)

Alexander Calder, Yellow Sail (1950)

Brown came late to the group, through Cage's invitation, after meeting in Denver following a Cunningham dance concert, likely for practical reasons: Earle Brown would come to assist Cage in the thankless task of putting together Cage's piece for magnetic tape Williams Mix and his wife at the time, Carolyn Brown would become a lead dancer for the Cunningham Dance Company. The only letter to Brown from Cage predates the couple's coming to New York. Arriving in 1952, as mentioned earlier, Brown was a polarizing figure. Feldman didn't want him to be part of the group, and Brown himself never included Christian Wolff when talking about the group. Cage was the only truly connective tissue holding things together. For someone who once wrote about the composers we now regard as the New York School, "Henry Cowell remarked at the New School, before a concert of works by Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and myself, that here were four composers who were getting rid of the glue," (Johnson, p.21) it is interesting to note that in keeping the New York School intact for as long as it did, Cage himself was the "glue."

But let's not linger regarding the personal difficulties of keeping such an enormously talented group of composers in such close contact together long-term. And there are plenty of opportunities during this festival to hear and draw your own conclusions as to the merits of their compositions, not by listening to me talk about them but instead by listening to the music yourselves. What I would like to emphasize here is how Cage continues, in his "History of Experimental Music in the United States" essay from which I quoted, where he writes "where people had felt the necessity to stick sounds together to make a continuity, we four felt the opposite necessity to get rid of the glue so that sounds would be themselves."

"Sounds would be themselves." Unfix the continuity, between sounds, between present and past, to seek the newness in what one hears directly. This connects the composers of the New York School to themselves, regardless of their differences which were many, connects them with their great predecessors, which makes them part of the American Experimental Tradition, as described theoretically by Henry Cowell in his great New Musical Resources which all experimental composers, then and now, have read and learned from. Cowell as the great "open sesame" to New Music, which is not the same as the German Neue Musik which wants to separate. No Cowell's New Music wants to connect, to bring together all music that seeks to be new by how it sounds, not by how it is made. It was Cowell who introduced everyone to the music of Charles Ives, was the conduit, at least initially of bringing Edgard Varèse to the attention of composers like Cage and Feldman even more so. And Varèse, as well as Stefan Wolpe (teacher of Feldman and Tudor) who, like Cage and Feldman attended the Artist Club meetings where visual artists regularly gave talks in the early 50s, as they themselves did, provide the European connection that wants to be inclusive. In fact Cage once said that if artists hadn't come to his concerts, the halls would have been empty. Painters and composers in the same room, connected by the one thing they share: being an artist in the larger, more inclusive sense. As Morton Feldman once said about Cage, the real question is, "Is music an art form? For that is what John Cage is forcing us to decide." To these composers, and those of us influenced by them, the answer is yes.

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This inclusive world, which whether conservatives here and everywhere like it or not, is perhaps more than anything how the sensibility of the New York School, it's predecessors and successors, influences our present day most. Inclusiveness about sounds, how they are made, who makes them, how they are heard and who hears them, when we think this way it is primarily about openness, which for me at least is grounded in listening. John Cage all the way back when he was a teenager wrote an essay later published in a collection of his writings, about our relation to our Mexican neighbor called "Other People Think", something as relevant and maybe more so now than then and what he said was this: "they don't think like we do." And how to you respond to that? You listen. For me, the great legacy of the New York School, as well as the American Experimental Tradition of which it is part, is that: listening. The composers and performers who I have met, many of whom write and perform differently from me and from each other, if they see themselves as experimental like I do, it comes from listening as primary--aural perception more central than conception.

I've always thought the legacy of the New York School specifically and more generally of the experimental tradition can be thought favoring means versus ends. The means or process as it has often been called, nowadays is often through improvisation, Malcolm Goldstein, headliner for this festival, has been one of the pioneers of this in my opinion, and I also think of Pauline Oliveros who is as well, frequently aided with electronics. And these two combined, live in the moment improvisation with electronics, is where I frequently hear the most interesting experimental music today. I also think Child of Tree is a great example of how Cage embraces both electronics and improvisation, which he used to dislike, by removing what he called one's "taste and memory." Now this is a loaded subject and composer/historian George Lewis has rightly questioned this as a way of erasing memories essential to cultural experiences. But we need not decide for or against what Cage desires and what Lewis criticizes, not anyway if we follow the path of inclusiveness that I find essential to the experimental tradition, which Cage and Lewis both share. Stefan Wolpe, who is also seen by some to be tangentially part of the New York School, I alluded to this earlier, once said "Good is to know not to know how much one is knowing." Or as art historian Dore Ashton once wrote regarding the Abstract Expressionists, "the unknown is of higher value than the known." For Cage, Child of Tree offers one the opportunity of improvising in the context of "not knowing."

The means can also include, as it does for me, location: in other words where you are listening not just what you hear. For me, this happens during long walks and my piano preludes were written during very long walks in the New Mexico wilderness and the Pennsylvania woods. You can read about this in the program notes, preferably before the piece is played.

When I first agreed to be part of this festival, I made some off-hand remark to Tom Goldstein about me not being part of the New York School when considering a performance of my music at this festival. Tom being Tom held on to that thought, which I had completely forgotten, and brought it up last week saying he thought my connection was through this relationship I have with nature. There is some truth to take I think, first of all regarding place as I mentioned but also definitely regarding how I listen when I walk in those mountains and woods. Sounds one hears when silent, how I prepare myself to compose and how these preludes came to be written, is remarkably like what one hears when listening to Cage's masterpiece 4'33". I think also this idea of control is important, to "get rid of the glue" in a sense is a willingness to let go, to let those sounds be themselves, to co-exist, as I've often called it, with your materials, or for that matter with the world you live in. A music that comes out of discovery either of sounds heard on a trail, as in Devisadero, or the voices of spirits heard, leading one to a horrifying story of a displaced people as in my World's End Preludes.*

*(I write about this piece in another blog entry: The Making of World's End Preludes)

Morton Feldman once wrote, regarding what he learned from painting, of a "perceptive temperament that waits and observes the inherent mystery of its materials, as opposed to the composer's vested interest in his craft ... the painter achieves mastery by allowing what is being done to be itself. In a way to step aside in order to be in control." (Johnson, p.109)

Stepping aside, that's what I did when I wrote my Preludes, what I do in woods and mountains, why I listen and co-exist with my materials, how I heard those silenced Native American voices in Pennsylvania that then sent me back to New Mexico where I lived with those other voices for decades, and wrote it down. 

John Cage wrote a four channel text piece titled "Where are we going? What are we doing?" that was later published in Silence. The idea was that if you had all four voices going at once you wouldn't be able to pick up everything that was said and would instead pick out what you could hear and the experience would be determined by listener rather than writer. When we programmed it for the Cage retrospective in 1988 something had radically changed: you could hear all voices at once and the piece became a totality that could be completely understood. For that reason I take a different view regarding history, holding on to memories myself, experiencing the past not as something learned but, during those long walks of mine, something that can be discovered or perhaps a better word in this context, revealed. Those seem like Cage's "whispered truths to me," and remind me of Thoreau in the Maine Woods, lost probably, frightened certainly, as he found himself above the treeline on Mount Katahdin, where he famously exclaimed, possibly with a sense of panic but that now I believe can be seen as both a question as well as a way of being in the world: "Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?" Let's say this at least, I see it as my way of being in the world, in contact: trying to stay in contact with the shifting sands ever present, above the New Mexico tree line experiencing the fearsome power of nature or in the deep woods of Pennsylvania, lost, trying to find your way, all the while asking "who are we?" and "where are we?"

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(Here is the premiere performance of Devisadero by Curt Cacioppo (John Donald Robb Composers' Symposium, Albuquerque, New Mexico 2008) who performed the complete Preludes for solo piano after I read, due to time constraints, a shortened version of this lecture) :

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Post-Election Thoughts and the PASIC Panel Talk I Did Not Give

Late Tuesday evening, 9 November 2016, as results were coming in with the likely outcome being the election of someone whose name I will not here, or ever, put in writing I became violently ill. I will spare you the details but it lasted for hours and by early morning I had to make a decision. I had been asked to serve on a panel at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana being the first state to fall in line for the regime forthcoming, which would be chaired by my friend and colleague Bill Sallak and part of an amazingly diverse Focus Day, "Celebrating the European Avant-Garde," chaired by Andy Bliss.  This was to take place Thursday, November 10, at noon. I was really looking forward to participate, had spent a lot of time preparing my remarks for the panel, and was also excited to hear a lot of music I had not heard before performed by some really great percussionists. 

Here's a description of the panel: 

The Shrinking Atlantic?: Europe and America in Contemporary Percussive Art

This year’s Focus Day theme, addressing the European avant-garde, points toward some broad questions about European and American traditions. For several decades in the late twentieth century, “European” and “American” might have been terms that captured both geographical distance and important aesthetic differences between styles of composition, performance, and pedagogy, but in our current practice (and our increasingly connected world), has this dichotomy outlived its usefulness? Both terms are vulnerable to criticism as being too broad (both America and Europe being too large and diverse to fit under a single verbal umbrella), and too narrow (what about the rest of the world?). However, many people in the new music community feel that the terms encapsulate artistic postures and positions that are difficult to sum up in any other way. Is the American/European distinction still useful? Still relevant? Does a discussion of our art form’s future require a fundamental re-framing away from the American/European dichotomy? Or are there kernels of philosophical truth at the center of the American/European discussion that are worth holding on to? Our panelists will address these and other issues.

But I was very sick, definitely not capable of getting on a plane Wednesday afternoon, and for the first time, I think ever, I had to cancel and didn't attend. I wrote Bill Sallak an email and he was very supportive for which I am deeply appreciative, and I later sent him an angry replacement of the talk I had prepared, which I no longer felt represented my feelings about what it means to be an American in a time like what we are going through now. Bill decided not to read it during the panel, for which I'm grateful, but I've heard that during our annual PASIC scotch drinking night, a ritual I was also sad to miss, it was indeed read by Bill and followed by a toast. I have some very good friends in the percussion world and those gathered that night are among my closest and most treasured friends. 

I include what I sent Bill below, but note that I no longer feel this way at all, in fact, if you're willing to read further, and I hope you will, instead I've come to feel exactly opposite of how I felt when I wrote the following: 

I apologize that I can't be with you today. I had prepared a text comparing how European composers and their music are treated here with how American composers are treated in Europe. The inequality of that relationship is something I've deeply felt concerning myself and others, those of us still writing experimental music influenced by the American Experimental Tradition, which was the most important musical contribution on the American continent, including Canadian and Latin American composers not just those in the United States, of the last century. 

But now America is a word I cannot use, American a name I will not claim. Geography and place are essential to the music I write but the place where I live has now become a danger to the world and its people, Indiana being one of its most fervent supporters, a danger to all of us who believe in the rights and freedoms of all people everywhere and not just white people living primarily in the so-called "heartland" of this nation. Make America great again really means make America white again. I vehemently reject that, have lost friends and family over it, and gladly so. I've been called "anti-American" many times by conservative family and so-called friends, but now that's exactly what I proclaim myself to be.

Bill Sallak asked if he can still read what I wrote, even though I personally cannot, and I will let him decide. I am physically sick as I write this and for me to speak of "America" at a time like this is simply impossible, but perhaps those looking at things more objectively than I can, will see differently. 

Whether he does or does not read it, please know this. I no longer accept the label of being an "American composer" and I no longer write "American music." I stand in opposition to everything the United States has become socially and politically as a result of this racist demagogue being supported by a large swath of this country, racist just like him, not the majority (same as when the last dangerous US president was elected in 2000), but then the majority of this country, diverse like the world is diverse, cannot safely live in most parts of the United States any more. If you want to know why demographics and voter suppression really matter, as well as the gerrymandering of 2010, it is by forcing the diverse majority into urban centers, their only truly safe spaces, thus concentrating their votes into fewer and fewer districts, where their majority votes get marginalized as they did on Tuesday. 

So I guess what I'm saying is that while the labels American and European, German or French, Korean or Japanese, pairing intentionally former enemies together, still exist and are real, I intend to defy such labeling, make the most radical music possible and stand with everyone and anywhere in solidarity toward a music of resistance, of fighting the power, of fighting against the evil of what this tragic election result means to this country and to the world. New Music, Neue Musik, whatever.  I pledge to continue making new and radical music, in service of the now necessary revolution against right wing racist extremism wherever it exists in the world. 

I shared this with only my closest friends and family but now I want to share it on this space with the following caveats: 

1. I still agree with what I wrote in the first paragraph and at the end of this entry I will include what I originally wrote.

2. I do not agree with the first and last sentence of the second paragraph, nor with the second sentence of the fourth. I was angry, as are many other Americans in this country, about what happened. But that doesn't mean I'm anti-American, un-American, or no longer an American composer. The most anti-American act of my lifetime, perhaps in all of American history but certainly in recent history, was to vote for the most unqualified candidate to ever run for the presidency. A truly despicable human being. All who voted for him are truly un-American, and have committed the most unpatriotic of acts by putting their own self-interests and biases ahead of the necessity of having a capable leader in place to handle the many challenges facing our world today.  I realize instead that the true patriots were the ones willing to compromise their beliefs, as I have been doing in every presidential election of my lifetime, by voting for the best possible choice given what has been offered. I'm a committed social democrat and the Democratic party is my compromise. I have no problem with legitimate Republican alternatives but what happened this time is that no one did the right thing and instead allowed a demagogue to take over their party and because of their cynical attempts to suppress the vote helped made it possible for a minority of voters to elect someone who has no business representing anyone, let alone president of the United States. 

I agree with everything else I wrote. 

On Saturday I was able to get on a plane and meet my wife Hee Sook Kim in Venice where she was an artist in residence and made a series of prints at Fallani Venezia. By that time I had decided to have Venice be the place where I would choose texts for the opera I'm writing for the Akros Percussion Collective, of which Bill Sallak is a member, an opera that uses texts written by Henry David Thoreau. This is a collaborative piece I'm creating with Hee Sook Kim who will be making video and handling all the visual elements. 

The opera was originally titled "Henry in the Woods" and I taught a seminar on Emerson and Ives, Cage and Thoreau this past summer at the Universität Heidelberg with legendary Thoreau (and Emerson) scholar Prof. Dr. Dieter Schulz. This enabled me to revisit the writings of Thoreau and my goal was to choose texts prior to what I hoped would be a MacDowell residency which, because it is in New Hampshire, would be nearby Concord, Massachusetts where Thoreau lived and wrote. A perfect place, or so I thought, to complete my opera. Of course I didn't get the residency, guess that means I remain outside "the establishment" even after moving to Philadelphia, one of the most "established" locations in the eastern United States, and I guess I'm not altogether unhappy that my excellent proposal was rejected. I assume I will eventually have a MacDowell, most likely when I need it least. 

And now the election had changed, or better yet, radicalized my opera. Thoreau was himself a radical, nothing like the establishment figure literature departments over time have tried to make him, and certainly only canonical if you allow him to retain his truly radical nature. What was originally to include nature-oriented texts from Thoreau's journal, read by the five percussionists of the Akros group, representing Thoreau, and a soprano singing unworded vocalise representing nature, had now become transformed. The soprano will now sing texts from Thoreau's most radical political writings and the percussionists will continue to read the nature texts but with a complete role reversal: the nature writings will be representative of nature, read by the all-male Akros ensemble, and the political writings will be sung by the soprano. Meaning that Thoreau the political being, the radical who wrote Civil Disobedience and in favor of the abolitionist John Brown, will be voiced by a woman. The soprano will be the "lead singer" of the band, as it were, singing Thoreau's most political words, Thoreau becoming, in effect, a woman. One woman voicing a radical politics, politics stereotypically and especially in our present environment a man's role, at least when it comes to presidential politics apparently, and five men taking on the voice of nature, stereotypically viewed as being a woman.  And I chose those texts in the city of Venice which I read in some tourist book was typically thought of by artists "as a woman", whatever that could possibly mean. Role reversal everywhere in other words and an opera that now plays with such things. 

One role reversal was that now I could write about Thoreau as what Emerson called him, "a true American," or as John Cage once wrote, "No greater American lived than Thoreau." And if Thoreau is an American then I am too. I used to also say I wasn't a Christian because of the abhorrent beliefs and behaviors of fundamentalists here and elsewhere but now that Christians unbelievably and overwhelming supported the most un-Christian presidential candidate in all of American history, I'm taking back that too. Those voters have no business calling themselves Christian if they could do that. So now I'm again calling myself a Christian, meaning someone who follows Christ rather than the social dictates of fundamentalist Christianity which undoubtably Jesus would have regarded in the same light as the Pharisees he blamed for allowing those merchant tables he upended in the Temple. 

I'm going to disappear for several months of isolation as I finish composing the opera now tentatively titled "Lost in the Woods." Reminding me of the great and recently deceased Leon Russell's song of the same title, "Can't tell the bad from the good, I'm lost in the woods." I also plan to follow in the footsteps of another great composer who recently passed away, Pauline Oliveros, and do some very deep listening as I try to hear what needs to be heard and write that down. Hopefully I'll return like the last of the Ten Ox Herding Pictures of Zen Buddhism, an ever present influence on me those pictures: a fat man returning to the village and bearing gifts, minus the fat I hope. The other version of that tenth picture is the void, by the way, kind of how things feel right now. But I will try to follow in the footsteps of another composer I'm known to admire, John Cage, ever the optimist, so I'm holding on to the first picture rather than the second. And to hope as a daily practice rather than the despair I daily feel. 

Meanwhile here's the text I prepared for PASIC, with thanks to Andy Bliss for the invitation and apologies to him, Bill Sallak and the rest of the panel for not being able to attend.

I want to lay out some particulars, historically, that may be useful. Particulars that I think carry some larger, more global perspectives. New Music, as the great American composer Henry Cowell envisioned it, was an inclusive word that included all music that was new. This meant that Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg both wrote new music, regardless of whether one said that in English as "New Music" or in German as "Neue Musik." This isn't true today. Neue Musik in German means something very specific to a German speaking person or to someone who participates in festivals located in German speaking places. I'm going to talk a bit about that in relation to Darmstadt, first because it pairs with the fine introduction to the Focus Day that Andy Bliss wrote for Percussive Notes, where he writes of his attending the summer music courses in 2014, and also because it is historically a location where the divide between New Music on this continent and Neue Musik on the European continent began.  Let's go back to Andy's introduction first, because hopefully you've all read it, and if not it is easy to rectify that, and second because it mirrors my experience first attending a Darmstadt summer course, as a percussionist on a Lord Mayor of Darmstadt stipendium, in 1986. I too brought back lots of music by young composers from all over the world, heard music that I'd admired in recordings for years but had never heard live, and generally was in an environment where young people interested in experimental music congregated in large enough numbers that you wanted to stay there forever just so you could, as it were, "preach to the choir" everyday about what you love.      
           
Anyway the point is, as a performer at the courses you are so busy playing music with other great young similarly minded players that you get the idea that somehow we're in this all together. On the other hand, participation as a composer is another matter altogether. And this dates back to early Darmstadt, 1958 to be exact, when John Cage attended the courses. On this continent it is still not well known how Cage and others were ostracized following that, most famously by Luigi Nono but also, and earlier, by Cage's one time friend Pierre Boulez and eventually Karlheinz Stockhausen chimed in too. For American composers, including I might add American serialists like Milton Babbitt and his followers, the divide has only been bridged if you do the one thing necessary: write like a European. Or to be more specific, because my experience outside of Germany has been much more open: write like a European celebrated at German Neue Musik festivals.
            
So, then let's get to where this has all been leading: I think it's great that European composers get played here at PASIC and I know Andy's right when he says PASICs don't feature enough and this year definitely gives us all a chance to hear more. But, back to a little history: Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez, Xenakis all had important residencies in the United States, important for them and for those here who got to study with them. But where is the equivalent reciprocity of composers from this continent who were invited back to Europe? With the exception of German radio stations in Frankfurt, Cologne, Munich and Bremen, that served as an alternative--at least for American experimental composers of a certain generation--to the festival scene, the answer is none. Zero. If you think there is no longer a sense of European superiority when it comes to such things, just spend some time with Helmut Lachenmann and ask him.  I myself asked Michael Reudenbach, a great European composer of my generation, at Darmstadt in 2008, what American composers he knew and liked and he, not surprisingly, mentioned composers like Cage (dead), Feldman (dead) James Tenney (dead), not one living composer and certainly no composer of his own generation or younger. This is, in my opinion, a big problem because there are composers out there, I definitely know some, and it doesn't mean you have to accept the banality of the most successful composers on this continent. I think percussionists should be seeking out these composers too, those writing music equal to what can be heard in Europe but not known there, or here for that matter, and not just returning from Darmstadt like I did in 1986, sharing what I'd learned there as if I'd heard all there was to hear.
           
 I think that the goal should be a return to Henry Cowell's idea of an inclusive New Music and not the historical and still current dogmatism of "Neue Musik. " As John Cage once wrote, following his own first appearance at Darmstadt, "it will be difficult for Europe to give up being Europe," to which I would add especially as it includes the whole world of music under the rubric of that exclusive club called "Neue Musik." But let's not forget how Cage continued that thought, "the world is one world now," with the necessary addition of the fact that we no longer live in the melting pot universalist world of Cage's generation but instead in the spectacularly diverse world of particulars that is the world of my generation and also yours. I encourage you to explore that world and share it with me. 




Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Making of World's End Preludes (2012-2015) for solo piano



Ridge side of the Devisadero Trail (with view in the distance of sacred Taos mountain)

When I composed Devisadero (2002-2007) for solo piano, from sketches made during walks on a trail of the same name near Taos New Mexico, I regarded it as a piece that would eventually be connected to miniatures I had been commissioned to write, by invitation from member Mollie O'Meara,  for the New Mexico Music Teachers Association (now the Professional Music Teachers of New Mexico), that would be premiered by my colleague Falko Steinbach at their next annual meeting in 2002. Perhaps the most misunderstood of all my titles, Four Romantic Miniatures (2001-2002) was written to be played by students, high school and up, though Falko thought it worthy of performance as part of his recitals and he programmed it many times all over the world. The use of the term "romantic" hearkens back to the 19th century sense of self and world, a philosophical stance well understood at that time, rather than solely as a "style," which was confusing for some since neo-romanticism was (yet again) all the rage and, worse, I was exploring tonality for the first time. Each miniature was influenced by a composer whose work I admired and borrowed from something characteristic of theirs. The first (and best of them I think) was influenced by Miles Davis and borrowed material from the Joseph Zawinul tune (Pharoah's Dance) that opens Bitches Brew. The second and third were influenced by Charles Ives and John Lennon/Brian Wilson respectively with the latter a "mashup" of one of my favorite chord progressions (John Lennon's opening to If I Fell) and the last chord (all vocals) before the final section of Brian Wilson's Good Vibrations. These two don't really stand alone so I didn't plan on using them elsewhere. The final one was the first I wrote, influenced by my favorite composer of the time Robert Schumann, whose work I had begun to explore in great detail following an off-hand comment by my dear departed friend, the great composer and writer Konrad Boehmer, who when discovering that I didn't like Schumann, knowing only the orchestral work and hating his awful (and badly written) timpani parts, recommended I listen to his three violin sonatas. That did the trick and I've been studying him, like the master he is, ever since. You can hear all four of my "romantic" miniatures here:

Four Romantic Miniatures (2002), Falko Steinbach, piano

Devisadero was put aside as I worked on my Songs of Love and Longing (2001-2003) and then after finishing that I started writing a four movement piece for winds and percussion, Openings (2004-2007), dedicated to my father Terry Shultis, who had begun the slow process of dying from Alzheimer's Disease. By then, I was living part time in Pennsylvania and pianist and composer Curt Cacioppo, who teaches at Haverford College, asked me to write him a solo piano piece. I finished Openings in June, sketched in the Manzano mountain wilderness in New Mexico but composed in a chapel inside Ardmore Presbyterian Church in Ardmore Pennsylvania, and using sketches from the Devisadero Trail, I composed Devisadero in that same chapel, completing it just before the end of the year.  Devisadero was premiered first in 2008 by Curt Cacioppo, and my father was well enough to attend the premiere of Openings the following year in 2009. He and I sat next to each other in Popejoy Hall as the UNM Wind Symphony, under the direction of Eric Rombach-Kendall, gave a definitive performance.

By then, I had started walking in the woods of Pennsylvania, the trails along the Wissahickon at first, then the trails near French Creek, and finally along the Appalachian Trail, in particular the section that begins at the Hamburg reservoir, past Pulpit Rock up to the Pinnacle, highest point of the AT in Pennsylvania. I composed two pieces sketched from walks on these trails, (From) Waldmusik: Wissahickon, Pulpit Rock, French Creek (2009) for two pianos, one played by a percussionist and Circlings (2010) for four Gayageums, electronics and video by Hee Sook Kim. You can hear and see them by clicking on these links:

Waldmusik (2008-2009) performed by the Hoffmann-Goldstein duo, video by Hee Sook Kim

Circlings (2010) for Gayageums and Electronics, performed by the Gyeonggi Gayageum Quartet, video by Hee Sook Kim

Both pieces include field recordings, the first, a surprise recording of a siren on the Lenape Trail in the French Creek State Park (which turned out to be a warning siren for a nearby nuclear power plant), the second, field recordings in the mountains of Korea from my first visit there in 2009, including recordings of Buddhist chant (male and female) in temples found in Saraksan (male) and Gonju (female). But the inspiration of Circlings began with a disastrous walk in the woods of French Creek, the same trail where I heard the siren, where Hee Sook and I, suffering from heat stroke on a very hot and humid afternoon, got lost in the woods. A park ranger had to actually seek us out. After years of walking alone in the New Mexico wilderness, with (typically) no real trail markings of any consistency, I got lost on a supposedly well-marked trail in the woods of Pennsylvania. The text that accompanies Circlings goes like this: "In the woods, all directions seem the right ones." I'm spending some time on these two pieces because they along with Devisadero and the piece I will now discuss, the World's End Preludes, together with my electronic work Wind, Water, Walk (2008-2009), recorded on the Spruce Spring trail, the same trail where I sketched Openings, complete the piece I've been working on since 2003: Waldmusik (2003-2015) started during a Wurlitzer residency in Taos in the summer of 2003. That piece began with the following, before I'd ever written a note:

walking in woods
listening ...
what I hear :

Interestingly enough, I wasn't really walking in the woods when I wrote that text, certainly not the thick woods of Pennsylvania where the impenetrable forest changed things drastically for me--used to finding my way by the ever-present sun in New Mexico as well as the confidence of knowing that mountain trails literally go up and down, rather than the more typical circles I've found in the Pennsylvania woods. My Pennsylvania pieces are, I think, some of my very best but they are darker, troubled even. And I began to wonder why ... why such dis-ease walking in the woods? In contrast, my walks in New Mexico were a kind of meditation, a Buddhistic "sitting while walking" as the artist Mayumi Nishida once described it in conversation.

Not long after writing those pieces, I went camping and walking in north central Pennsylvania, finding a great WPA built campground called World's End State Park. It started in July of 2012, when I took this picture and posted it on Facebook:


I thought it was funny--the world's end in north central Pennsylvania?--and immediately decided the new preludes I would add to my "Preludes and Miniatures" project would be called my "World's End Preludes." The piece, finished in Taos, New Mexico three years later, ended up not being funny at all, instead pointing me to a new direction in my life and work.

Spending a few days there camping and walking, a beautiful place. Below is a photo from the highest point, Canyon Vista, looking down into the canyon:



The first clue that I had found myself somewhere I'd never been before, similar to how I felt getting so lost on the Lenape trail in French Creek, was when I started reading the historical markers near the campgrounds. Anyone who knows me, knows I stop for all of them, always wanting to know what they say and what in that place has such historical importance. Here's a photo of the first one I saw:


Maybe I'm the only one who finds this sign's message a bit strange. I understand the significance of the path itself, obviously a main thoroughfare and, as I found out, almost all the great Indian paths are now, like this one, turned into a road. But who was this Moravian Bishop Ettwein, so well known apparently that the sign doesn't even include his first name? And who were these Christian Indians with whom he was traveling in 1772, only one year before the Boston Tea Party sparked an eventual revolution in this country? And finally, what was the significance of this "City of Peace" on the Beaver River? I didn't even know where the Beaver river was at that point. I decided to find out the answers to all these questions and following that story became the path that led to my World's End Preludes.

I spent quite a bit of time reading about John Ettwein and the history of the Moravian presence in this part of the United States and learned about how Ettwein and a group of Lenape (known as Delaware by the Moravians) took the long journey from near present day Wyalusing to what they called Friedenstadt (the Moravian's native language was German) or as the sign translates into English "City of Peace." Here's a map of the Wyalusing Path they followed (World's End State Park is located on the Loyalsock):

At the bottom of the map you can see "to Shamokin" and that's the Great Shamokin Path which Ettwein and his converts used to travel across the state of Pennsylvania. Here's the sign that commemorates their journey on that path:


Now we finally learn that it was John Ettwein (not just his last name) and that he had "200 Indians and their cows" with him. We also now know they were at this point of the trail in July 1772. The Great Shamokin Path was, as mentioned, a major thoroughfare and it was used by Ettwein and his followers to take them most of the way west across what is now the state of Pennsylvania.

The map is so big I'll show it below in two parts:



You can see in the upper right hand corner where they would have picked up the trail west, "to Towanda" can be found on both maps and it is likely they would have reached the Great Shamokin Trail somewhere between Muncy and Montgomery.


From Kittanning (the end of the Great Shamokin) to Friedensstadt, or at least the marker where Friedensstadt used to be, is around fifty miles. The nearest present day town would be Moravia near the Beaver River, alongside which (as the original Wyalusing sign mentioned) Ettwein and his followers settled. To give some basic geographical perspective, Friedensstadt is about forty miles north of Pittsburgh. Altogether, from Wyalusing to Friedensstadt would have been approximately three hundred miles, a long trip. Here is a photo of the marker, taken by me in June 2014 during a drive taken by Hee Sook and I following the path of Ettwein west:


So now more information. Ettwein did not "found"the settlement called Friedensstadt (as described in the Wyalusing Path sign) but instead did something that actually makes more sense, joining a settlement already founded two years earlier by his fellow Moravian Bishop David Zeisberger. But it's another sign, found near this same location that tells the rest of the story:



Friedensstadt was "abandoned" because it was no longer safe for them to stay there. So they moved west where they had connections with the native population. Their settlement in Ohio was called Gnadenhütten (which I translate as "Cabins of Grace") and here Ettwein, Heckewelder and Zeisberger formed a large and successful farming community with their Lenape brothers and sisters. Below is a photo of the countryside just outside of the present day Gnadenhütten, taken in June, 2014:


It is the last sentence of the marker previously shown that brought me here. I knew the story already from my research, which led to my trip west in the first place, but following their path in person and physically being in the places where Ettwein and the Lenape with him had been, convinced me that there was something I needed to do. I stayed in Gnadenhütten and visited the site of the massacre, which is described in some detail in this historical marker:


To be exact, ninety-six were murdered on the site where this marker is located, executed, as mentioned, by Pennsylvania militia who "mistook" them for "Indian raiders who had struck in western Pennsylvania," first with a club to the head, followed by each of them being scalped. The village by the way was "abandoned" because the bishops were accused of treason by the British, who by then were at war with the colonies, and were called away to testify regarding their innocence. The massacre occurred during their absence.

When I was in Gnadenhütten I visited the massacre site several times and also visited the Moravian church that still exists in Gnadenhütten, the John Heckenwelder Memorial Church (named after one of the bishops who came there with Ettwein and Zeisberger), where I was given a very informative tour by Sigrid Miller who works there. As someone who attends a Quaker meeting at home (Old Haverford Friends), I felt a strong connection to the Moravians, who, like the Quakers,  share my pacifist beliefs.

I had by then realized that my uneasy feelings walking the trails of Pennsylvania had to do with the sense of absence I felt walking on them. The trails of New Mexico were made by native peoples who were still there; the trails of Pennsylvania by native peoples who were gone and never coming back. For me, the path of Ettwein and the Lenape became a kind of representation of this forced absence, a great tragedy that served as a symbol of the much larger tragedy of what happened to the native population everywhere across what was, at the time of the massacre in Gnadenhütten, about to the become the United States of America. Traveling to Gnadenhütten was meant to prepare me for a reversal--I planned to walk from Gnadenhütten back to World's End, and when I got there take the sketches, some of which I'd already written, and compose my World's End Preludes.

But as we drove back, intentionally following the path's modern descendent, part of it a several lane highway, I began to understand that it wouldn't be very practical to walk three hundred miles with a heavy backpack on highways, even dangerous in all likelihood, and certainly not conducive to the inspiration I was seeking in order to compose the piece. We stopped at one point, where we had read there was still an original section of the Great Shamokin Path. Here's a photo of the sign that led us directly to it: 

If you look back at the map, you can see Cowanshannock, it's not far from Kittanning, as we followed the road leading to the path, we noticed we were driving into a private neighborhood and when we parked, at the head of this section of the trail, we were met with great suspicion by the person who owned the house at the foot of the trail. And though he was fine after he found out why we were there, I was also feeling increasingly apprehensive about someone like me walking across parts of Pennsylvania that probably haven't changed much in their opinions about outsiders since the eighteen century time period that brought me there in the first place. Here's what that part of the trail looks like, with Hee Sook walking on it to give some idea of its scale: 


We took careful notes, looking for places I could camp, measuring according to miles how long I could walk and if there were no areas suitable for camping looking for motels or churches where I might be able to ask ahead. It was time consuming and frustrating, especially since it was so obvious, as is true almost everywhere in the United States, that travel by anything other than car was simply not going to be a very good option. And then, thanks to the long drive, including a visit to Walden Pond where we were researching the opera we are now writing for the Akros Percussive Collective, I hurt my back and went into a long period of physical therapy. My plan for retracing the walk of Ettwein in reverse was over.

But after I recovered from my injury and started walking the trails of Pennsylvania again, I began to also revisit my sketches. One came from a another visit to World's End, written on the Loyalsock Trail in October 2013, where I took this picture:



Here's that sketch, where I've already written what is essentially the material of the last prelude, "World's End" with the subtitle, borrowing from the last three lines of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men": "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper."


Just recently, the composer Curt Cacioppo (for whom I'd written Devisadero) drew my attention to a recording of Eliot himself reading this poem. I translate the three repeated lines ("this is the way the world ends") into music, not a low D like in the sketch but just above middle C, and played at 40 mm per quarter note, very slow. In Eliot's reading the tempo is quite fast, even faster than my original sketch of 120 to the quarter.

My sketches also provided a very strong sense of form and even back then, long before I visited Gnadenhütten, I had been thinking about connecting the World's End Preludes to Devisadero. While staying at a cabin in French Creek, I sketched out the form and, thinking aloud, tried to decide whether the preludes in their completed version would begin or end with the World's End Preludes, after which I decide ("this is it") in favor of ending with Devisadero.


At this point, I'm still thinking of including the miniatures--MD for five Miles Davis influenced miniatures after the four preludes of World's End, a minute of silence, after which five Schumann influenced miniatures would come before the six preludes of Devisadero to end the complete work. The text above is my writing out of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki's commentaries on the Ten Ox Herding Pictures (number 9 and especially number 10 describing the second version where the fat man returns bearing gifts) which were intentionally being used by me, numerically and otherwise, as a means of making decisions about the form of the piece.

Another important sketch concerns the use of sleigh bells, realizing that I wanted there to be a connection between the World's End Preludes and the "French Creek" movement of my (from) Waldmusik. In fact, the idea of having the same material came to me on the same trail where I wrote that French Creek movement, the Lenape Trail.




Walking the Lenape Trail again, like I am in the picture above, I knew then that putting Devisadero at the end, and the World's End Preludes at the beginning, not only made sense but also told me where I would finish the piece. Not in a place where the trails were empty of native peoples, but back in the place where I lived for more than thirty years, and specifically back to the place where I wrote Devisadero, the high mountains near Taos, home of one of the great Pueblo tribes of New Mexico.


Once I was back above the tree line (above a picture near Gold Hill, altitude around 12,000 feet) things went very quickly. I followed a routine that included long early morning walks into high mountain wilderness and then, thanks to permission from St. James Episcopal Church in Taos, I would spend the afternoons composing in their sanctuary on a beautiful Steinway grand. The movements had already by then been decided, four as previously mentioned, with the titles, "Wyalusing," "Friedensstadt," "Gnadenhütten," and "World's End."Wyalusing" and "Friedensstadt" were composed first, using sketches and then basically improvising at the piano, only writing down in shorthand what was needed to perform and then recording myself after it was finished. In "Friedensstadt" I refer back to the church bell chiming sound found in the second and sixth preludes of Devisadero, there influenced by the sound of church bells as I was composing in a chapel of Ardmore Presbyterian Church, but here related to what will come later in the movement: excerpts from Moravian hymns written at (or before) the time of the massacre found through research in Moravian hymn books at the University of New Mexico library. The Moravians loved to sing hymns and David Zeisberger translated many of them into the Lenape language. I chose three, (in the order shown below with the excerpts I used marked), placed at the end of the "Friedensstadt" movement that moves without pause into the following prelude "Gnadenhütten."








"World's End" was already essentially complete before I came to Taos as can be seen in the pencil sketch I made at St. James (see below):


Here is a recording of me playing the last prelude "World's End" in St. James Episcopal Church, just after I finished composing it (July 2015). https://soundcloud.com/cshultis/worlds-end-preludes-movement-4-worlds-end-by-christopher-shultis

All that was left to compose was the third prelude "Gnadenhütten" which I knew had to be a sonic depiction of the massacre itself. Unable and unwilling to compose this music in a sacred place like St. James, I traveled south to the University of New Mexico where I shut myself into room 1111 in the Center for the Arts, with a piano that had received much abuse from me in the past, and it did that night as well. Ninety six high As, sempre mezzo piano, half note equals forty throughout, with the rest of the instrument played brutally like a percussion instrument--hard mallet on piano interior and left forearm on the keys, gliss on strings. I didn't leave until it was finished, exhausted, I took the long drive back to Taos. It had been only three weeks since I'd arrived and never before had I put a piece of music on paper so quickly.

In March of 2016, I was invited to be part of the John Donald Robb Composers' Symposium and Emanuele Arciuli, for whom I had written the World's End Preludes gave a solo recital during the symposium where he premiered the piece. We also recorded the Preludes in Keller Hall at the University of New Mexico for an upcoming CD. Liz Rincon was the recording engineer and below is a picture of us from that recording session:


You can hear Emanuele's wonderful premiere performance here:


I've always written music out of a necessity, a need inside me, in this case to make peace with the place where I now live and walk by acknowledging those who came before me, those who walked there before me, and who are no longer there.  When I hear the World's End Preludes played alone, I always feel a deep sadness, especially when I hear those hymn excerpts just before what I know is coming next.  But as with the Ten Ox Herding Pictures, the tenth picture has two versions--one is the void, emptiness, but the other is a "fat man returning from the void, bearing gifts." When paired with Devisadero, the one minute of silence after World's End depicts that emptiness, and then, when you hear the "Walking" movement of Devisadero begin, for me (and the opening of the movement is literally the pace of my walking) it is like that second Ox Herding picture, putting the tragic story of the Lenape in contact with Taos--a magical, spiritual and healing place, where I personally was healed long ago and thanks to my own return, now back in Pennsylvania, healed again. And bearing gifts.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Composing "water/peace"


In 1989, artist (and fellow UNM faculty member) Basia Irland asked me to collaborate on what would eventually become "water/peace." I was reluctant. The year before, she and I--along with many others--collaborated on what up to then was the artistic highlight of my life: serving as artistic director for a John Cage retrospective where Cage himself was the featured guest. But 1988 was also the year when I first experienced symptoms of a performance-related injury that, by 1992, would incapacitate me to the point where not only couldn't I play percussion instruments, I couldn't even hold a pencil.  Since percussion was what I knew, and I was losing the ability to play, what could I contribute? Basia wouldn't have known that when she asked; when I agreed it became a way of finding out.

Basia was at that time already a well-established professional artist with a strong sense of aesthetic intention so her invitation came attached with both a general idea--water in relation to peace--and a project: performing at the North American Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution in Montreal, Canada, March 2-5, 1989. Our session was titled "Sculptural and Percussion Performance: Water as Metaphor." Her contribution to the work was the making of light sculptures, which created the environment where the music would be performed, book sculptures included as part of a long list of musical instruments from around the world, and the selection of texts, in some cases hand copied by Basia from the original sources. She also came up with the brilliant idea of wearing spelunking head lamps so we could see our instruments and read our texts in the otherwise darkened space within her light sculptures. I composed the structure: three sections, seven minutes each, with a four-minute collage to begin the work that included all the sounds and texts heard in the following twenty-one minutes.  Much of this was pre-recorded with the assistance of composer Daniel Paul Davis, who also made a computer-generated score by notating all the musical material in the recorded sections, which I myself performed. 

List of musical instruments for Montreal performance:

 
Score page of "water/peace," Davis transcription:


Sketch of collage:


To connect with the themes of water and peace, I included two water sources, provided by Daniel Davis, who as a sound designer for theater productions had a catalog of choices: the first, an up-close recording of a stream; the second, a recording of ocean waves that included the occasional sound of seagulls.  The electronic tape that we made included seven minutes of piano (played inside like a percussion instrument), seven minutes of vibraphone, and seven minutes of crotales.  At that time, in order to not be influenced by my own personal taste in sound selection, I chose pitches according to whether or not they were found in the source words of what I was working on. In this case, water and peace gave me the pitches, A and E (in water) and A, C and E (in peace).  Not fussy about naturals, sharps and flats, these choices provided me with a fairly large number of pitches: A-flat, A-natural, A-sharp; E-flat, E-natural, E-sharp, C-flat, C-natural, C-sharp. In section I, I played the piano interior, using the pitches A and E (water), and improvising my choices, one every eight seconds. In sections II and III, I did the same with vibraphone and crotales (respectively), improvising my choices every seven seconds and using the pitches, A, C and E (peace). These were recorded by Daniel Davis on the spot and became the underlying foundation of the twenty-one minutes that follow the opening collage.

Here is the piano score I used to improvise that first recorded section:


In addition, there were twenty-one texts chosen and read, both by Basia and I, some live and some recorded, one per minute.  On top of all this, Basia and I divided up the instruments, forty-one altogether, and played them--first (rapidly) in the four minute collage section, and then (in a less hurried context) over the course of the remaining twenty-one minutes. 

If pitch was decided somewhat arbitrarily by word choice, the form of the piece was carefully designed by numerical choices, both global and personal.  I mean both literally, as I was not much inclined then (not much now either for that matter) toward symbolic reference. Global references gave me continents (seven) and countries inside those continents. This latter count, in those pre-internet days not likely accurate then and certainly not accurate now, determined how many attacks there would be in each section. If the large scale form was as previously described a simple ABA  structure, the smaller scale division of seven was determined by the continents, three minutes each. With Antarctica placed in the middle, this meant that for those three minutes, because there were no countries, Basia and I stood in silence--no readings, no sounds.

The personal side of this involved the crisis that was happening in my life concurrent to my composing "water/peace," due to my already mentioned physical injury that, in turn, was inflicting enormous psychological and spiritual damage.  Writing and preparing "water/peace" included weeks of practice with Basia in a small make-shift studio using a boom-box to play the tape and placing the instruments on shelves that surrounded the room. Those practice sessions were, in themselves, healing events. Basia and I became closer as friends, and I was also able to continue playing percussion, which up until then was my entire life.  I enjoyed helping her learn to play the instruments. And it was gratifying to hear how good the piece sounded as we played it together. Only the second composition I had ever written in my life (the first was a solo percussionist piece I wrote for a concert in Baltimore the year before, written to replace a composition I could no longer play because of my injury), "water/peace" was clearly going to be a big success. I was so pleased!


"Water/Peace," at twenty-five minutes, still the longest piece of music I've ever composed, is also the last piece of percussion music I ever performed: an artistic marker of the end of my days as a percussionist, as well as, thanks to Basia's invitation, the beginning of my new life as a composer.  For that, and many other things over more than two decades of friendship, I'll be ever grateful.