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Classical 101

Navigating 20th Century Music: California Mavericks

Music walk around a fountain with pictures on John Cage on a sign
Steve Bowbrick
John Cage MusicWalk at the Proms

This week marks the end of RhythmFest and the performance of the much anticipated California Mavericks.

Since the Johnstone Fund for New Music and New Music at Short North Stage have invited all of Columbus for another free performance, it seems necessary to give a bit of background about the music on the program for Wednesday’s concert. It is certainly not an event to miss whether you are familiar with the music of Lou Harrison, John Cage, and Henry Cowell or not, but a little historical context always helps.

Wednesday’s Program

  • Lou Harrison’s Song of Quetzalcoatl
  • Henry Cowell’s Set of Five
  • John Cage’s One4
  • Lou Harrion’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra

Context is Everything

When explaining to our digital media expert and sports podcast host Thomas Bradley the concepts of John Cage’s ground-breaking piece 4’33″ and his concepts of silence and noise, I reached a realization. Thomas was confused why anyone would listen to four and a half minutes of silence. “I think I would think it was over, and I would just leave,” he said.

That is understandable. Musicians and composers do weird things. Art gets weird, and the avant garde gets even weirder.

My husband and I had a similar experience this past week in Chicago. We went to see my favorite band, Joan of Arc, led by Chicago University Creative Writing professor, Tim Kinsella. The venue was a tiny dive bar. The audience was grade A hipsters.

The music began with an improvisation by the female lead singer accounting her recent experience watching Twin Peaks. The set continued with both rehearsed and improvisational music until it ended with a piece that can only be described as uncomfortable. The band played the same chords and sang: “Thank you. I’m sorry.” for five minutes. Here’s a video of Kinsella’s other project Owls.

Joan of Arc performing in Chicago on March 17, 2015
Credit Kylie Harwell-Sturgill / WOSU
Joan of Arc performing in Chicago on March 17, 2015

That was when it hit me. This is 20th Century Music, well, 21st Century Music, nevertheless it was much like the experimental music of composers such as John Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Pierre Boulez, and even EdgardVarèse. It just had a few more amps and a dash of 90s grunge/shoegaze.

This is music that is experiential, not intentionally aesthetically-pleasing; it has a point, often philosophical or emotional, and it serves just that purpose whether it is immediately gratifying or not. This is music for conversation and understanding rather than easy listening or, goodness gracious, dancing. It can be lovely, it can be harsh, but it is essentially representative in a very Mussorgsky-esque way.

That is perhaps the best context for understanding the kind of 20th Century Music that will be featured on the program for California Mavericks this coming Wednesday; music for your mind and for good conversations.

Who’s Who?

Henry Cowell
Credit American Music Collection, Music Division and The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Portrait of Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell

Born 1897 in Menlo Park, CA, died 1965 New York City

Henry Cowell studied with composer Charles Seeger at UC Berkeley, wrote the first biography of composer Charles Ives, and expanded 20th Century music with the practices of purposeful tone clusters, dissonant counterpoint, and hyper-complex polyrhythms.

The great-grandfather of bands like Tera Melos. He also developed the New Music series, traveled to Japan and brought many techniques and sound concepts back to the U.S., and inspired “trans-ethnic” sounds for later composers such as Lou Harrison and John Cage.

Musical Examples by Cowell

1923-1933: https://youtu.be/yXTnY5taW5g","_id":"00000178-6a1f-ddab-a97a-6a3fd61e0003","_type":"035d81d3-5be2-3ed2-bc8a-6da208e0d9e2"}">https://youtu.be/yXTnY5taW5g" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/yXTnY5taW5g');">Sound pieces written for “String Piano”; The Aeolian Harp; The Banshee

Later career, 1956: Ongaku written for Kangen orchestra, based on the gagaku tradition

Charles Louis Seeger, Jr.
Born December 14, 1886 in Mexico City, Mexico – died February 7, 1979

 Known to many as the father of American folk singer Pete Seeger, Charles Seeger was a noteworthy musicologist, composer, and teacher. Seeger taught at UC Berkeley after discovering a hearing impairment during his tenure as director of the Cologne Opera. He also held teaching positions at Julliard, the Institute of Musical Art, the University of California in Los Angeles and Yale.

Seeger was also the husband of illustrious composer Ruth Crawford Seeger; an equally prolific modernist composer and American Folk Music specialist.

Perhaps his most crucial contribution was, in fact, the many students whom he influenced and who went on to establish the contemporary musical dialect.

Edgard Varèse
Born December 22, 1883 in Paris, France – died November 6, 1965 in New York City

Varèse’s contributions to electronic music and “soundscaping,” were nothing short of groundbreaking. He coined the term “organized patterns of sound.” (exp. “organized patterns of sound moving in time”). The son of an engineer, Varèse enrolled at the Polytechnic of Turin, Italy under family pressure to study engineering. This proved most influential as his own composition-aesthetic evolved to become one of innovative sound-experimentation through acoustics and space. His essay, “The Liberation of Sound,” opens with a wonderful quote:

“Our musical alphabet is poor and illogical. Music, which should pulsate with life, needs new means of expression, and science alone can infuse it with youthful vigor.”und” (exp. “organized patterns of sound moving in time”). The son of an engineer, Varèse enrolled at the Polytechnic of Turin, Italy under family pressure to study engineering. This proved most influential as his own composition-aesthetic evolved to become one of innovative sound-experimentation through acoustics and space. His essay, “The Liberation of Sound,” opens with a wonderful quote:

Musical Examples by Varèse

1921: https://youtu.be/RbPzNBvwnsM","_id":"00000178-6a1f-ddab-a97a-6a3fd61e0004","_type":"035d81d3-5be2-3ed2-bc8a-6da208e0d9e2"}">https://youtu.be/RbPzNBvwnsM" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/RbPzNBvwnsM');">Amériques

1922: https://youtu.be/-PkWdY3cOTo" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/-PkWdY3cOTo');">Hyperprism displays the concept of “sound masses,” with extensive percussion and a siren.

1231: Ionization

For me, the music of Varèse lives on through composers such as https://youtu.be/KrpWZrLVsSI" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/KrpWZrLVsSI');">Michael Pisaro, but even bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer and Chicago were influenced by his electronic pioneering.

Pierre Boulez
Born 26 March 1925 in Montbrison, Loire, France. He celebrates his 90th birthday this year

Pierre Boulez is a musical mathematician in all senses. He first studied mathematics at Lyon before studying at the Paris Conservatoire under Olivier Messiaen and AndréeVaurabourg; both encouraged his exploration of atonality, serialism, and twelve-tone technique.

Boulez was deeply influenced by Messiaen’s work in serialism; rather than applying it to pitch alone, he began using serial computations for rhythm, dynamics, duration, and even the method of touch by the musician on the instrument. Boulez was a leader in the Abstract movement in music and influenced the works of many composers such as Luciano Berio, John Cage, and Karlheinz Stockhausen during the heyday of musical exploration in Darmstadt, Germany.

During the 1950s, Boulez began experimenting with, “controlled chance,” also known as aleatoric music which was also explored by American composer John Cage.

Musical Examples by Boulez

1947-48: https://youtu.be/6KD39Vt7VFk" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/6KD39Vt7VFk');">Second Piano Sonata

1952: https://youtu.be/EmErwN02fX0" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/EmErwN02fX0');">Structures

1965: https://youtu.be/FTstGUUniy4" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/FTstGUUniy4');">Eclat

1957-80′s: Pli selon pli (“Fold by fold”) five movement work with each movement based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé

John Cage
Born September 5, 1912 in Los Angeles – died August 12, 1992, New York City

John Cage
Credit YouTube
Composer John Cage playing amplified cactus with a feather

Cage is best known for his https://youtu.be/pcHnL7aS64Y" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/pcHnL7aS64Y');" style="line-height: 1.5;">4’33″ which explores the absence of sound, as the genius behind the prepared piano, and for his expansion of aleatoric music and music of chance experimentation.

The composer studied and practiced Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism which opened him to the Chinese classical text the I Ching which explores order within chaos. Imagine composing a piece of music based solely on choices made by flipped coins or rolled dice – that is aleatoric music in the vein of John Cage.

Cage may be the most familiar name in 20th Century American music. His music, writings, visual art, culinary art, and influence on dance have continued to be some of the most beloved American contributions to the arts, and his work has been heralded as nothing short of revolutionary. He was taught by two powerhouse composers; Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg.

Musical Examples by Cage

1933: https://youtu.be/mN5CK8aYIHQ" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/mN5CK8aYIHQ');">Sonata for Clarinet

1942: https://youtu.be/ZBBt5lyeUCs?list=PLacx9oazWDkewaVQjldqrW4usd0vqSug4" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/ZBBt5lyeUCs?list=PLacx9oazWDkewaVQjldqrW4usd0vqSug4');">Totem Ancestor, written for collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham; prepared piano

1958: https://youtu.be/y0wRU1QvccM" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/y0wRU1QvccM');">Variations 1; a piece to be performed by any number of performers on any kind of instruments. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The musical score is six transparent squares with lines and points representing sounds in time.

1984: A guest appearance on Nam June Paik’s TV special called ‘Good Morning Mr. Orwell’ shows John Cage and Takehisa Kosugi https://youtu.be/_qWPCoayhjY" onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/youtu.be/_qWPCoayhjY');">Playing Amplified Cacti and Plant Material with a Feather. I think that might be as avant garde as it gets.

Lou Silver Harrison
Born May 14, 1917 in Portland, Oregon – died February 2, 2003 Lafayette, Indiana

Lou Harrison with his gamelan.
Credit Los Angeles Philharmonic Archives
Lou Harrison with his gamelan.

Lou Harrison might be one of the most eclectic composers in American history. His early background included listening to Cantonese opera, Mexican music, Americana, jazz, classical music, and Indonesian music.

During his time at UCLA, Harrison took Henry Cowell’s ”Music of the Peoples of the World” course as well as counterpoint and composition. He also studied with Arnold Schoenberg and collaborated with John Cage on percussive works with “junkyard materials,” such as car parts.

Harrison was later attracted to gamelan music as well as music with specified, numerical values. Most of his music was for percussion ensembles of various instrumentation and music with, “interval control,” which allows only a few intervals to be played in an entire work.

He is well-known for his developments in tuning and for his gamelan instrumentations. Harrison passed away in Indiana while on his way to Ohio State University for a music festival in 2003.

Here, as a preparation for the intentions and beauty that will be offered in concert Wednesday, is my personal favorite piece of music from this modern strain from the late Lou Harrison. I hope to see you at California Mavericks and I hope to hear what you think of the music of these composers and dedicated musicians:

Musical Example by Harrison

1987: Varied Trio for piano, percussion, and violin