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  • November 8, 2006

    Tokyo Kosei

    I’ve just returned home from a trip to the University of Kansas and Lousiana State University. There will be a photo entry soon — probably tomorrow — but first I need to catch up on email. I did receive an exciting thing today — a CD of the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra’s recent performance of “Redline Tango.” It’s kind of astonishing — the sax solo in particular. Lordy lordy, that’s a hell of a band. I posted it on the “Redline Tango” page, if anybody wants to check it out.

    See you tomorow with a real update!

    4 Comments

    November 1, 2006

    Rub-a-dub In the Tub

    I bought a few scores last week, partially just for fun, although for tax purposes, they’re entirely for “study.” The scores are for John Adams’s “Harmonielehre” and “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” and Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” These are three of my “desert island” pieces.

    I first heard “Harmonielehre” live at the Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival in August 2005. “Redline Tango” opened the concert, and “Harmonielehre” was the entire second half. (It runs about 45 minutes.) Marin Alsop gave a crisp and exciting performance, and I fell in love with the piece.

    Here’s a piece that’s 45 minutes long, and to my ear, doesn’t have a single good tune in it — and yet, it’s constantly riveting. I mean, okay, there are “tunes,” but I just don’t think Adams can write a great tune. (I feel safe writing that, as I’m confident he isn’t a reader of this blog. Hard to believe, I know!) The thing is, he doesn’t need any tunes. This piece is all about pacing, pulse, and orchestration — and although I used to think the most important thing in Minimalism was pulse, this piece proves that the most important thing is pacing. Adams knows exactly when to change something. His transitions are seamless. (A colleague of mine in undergrad used to say that you can tell a great composer by their transitions. On that alone, Adams is a great composer. I love listening to a piece and suddenly thinking, Wait, how did we get here, when we were doing something else 60 seconds ago? How and when did that happen?) It was the idea that pacing could be the most important thing in a piece — a realization I suddenly had while sitting at that concert in Santa Cruz last year — that gave me the first idea for “Turbine.”

    (Funny side note. Although the review of that performance of “Redline Tango” was positive, the critic from the San Francisco Gate also wrote, ” ‘Harmonielehre’ outshone everything around it as decisively as a Beethoven symphony would have,” adding that the other works — including “Redline Tango” — were “entertaining and even attractive music, but nothing to challenge Adams’ pre-eminence.” Gotta agree with that one. But come on — how am I supposed to top one of the best orchestra works of the past 20 years?!)

    Adams technique for orchestration is incredible. AEJ described it as getting the feeling that Adams was “playing the orchestra” — like an enormous, single instrument. There’s an incredible ability that allows him to use the full force of the orchestra for the most immense sounds — like huge chords punching you in the chest — or to have 20 simultaneous things happening (as he does in “Slonimsky’s Earbox”) — all of them somehow different — and allow you to hear every line clearly. How does he do this?! How can he write counterpoint like this with so many players, and not make it muddy?

    “Slonimsky’s Earbox” gave me the idea for the very end of “Turbine” — the way it’s all bright and high-register and twinkly for a dozen or so bars, right before the big low-brass and bass drum “bam” at the last beat. Adams does it infinitely better (no doy). Still, without “Slonimsky’s Earbox” and “Harmonielehre,” “Turbine” would be a different piece, if it would have even existed.

    This got me thinking about my other works and their “inspirations.” “Mass” wouldn’t exist had I never heard “Music for 18 Musicians.” Believe it or not, but my parody piece “Under the Rug” wouldn’t exist if I’d never heard a bunch of Berio. “Turning” owes a great deal to Warren Benson’s “The Passing Bell” and Corigliano’s “Circus Maximus.” If I’d never heard Tan Dun, I wouldn’t have written the first movement of my Percussion Concerto the way that I did, with its unabashed Asian and Indian sounds.

    This made me question it on an even larger level. I mean, if I’d never heard the music of John Adams, my music would sound completely different, because that sound makes its way into almost everything I do, usually on a subconscious level. What would Adams say? I mean, what composer’s music did he hear that made him go, “wow, I’ve never thought of music this way before. This takes me in a totally new direction.” I kind of suspect his answer would be Reich. (Adams said of Reich, “He didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride.”) What about Reich? I’m sure there’s an answer — probably Terry Riley, and before him, La Monte Young — but Reich seems to be the first one to really make Minimalism what it is. Those are the “blow-your-mind” artists — the ones who come along and do something so new — and good — and there’s no real telling where it came from.

    So this is a question I now want to ask composers when I meet them. What composer (or even a specific piece) changed the way you thought about music? The next time I see Corigliano, I’m going to ask him. If I’m ever in a room (or bathtub) with Steve Reich again (see below), I want to ask him. Hell, I want to ask Newman and Bryant and Bonney and Whitacre and Wataru — and anybody else who’s willing to take the time to answer.

    (That’s composer Mark Adamo, conductor Robert Spano, John Corigliano, composer Jennifer Higdon, Steve Reich, and me — all in a bathtub at a party for Spano, January 30, 2004.)

    9 Comments