Musical Humidity: Michael Torke’s “Tahiti”

American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961)
American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961)

 

When you listen to the music of the most time-tested, enduring composers, it’s easy to get a sense of effortless perfection, as if the music couldn’t be any other way. It’s impossible to know if Michael Torke, or any other living composer, will one day fall into the “enduring” category. But I often sense this quality in Torke’s music. It speaks with sublime honesty. A strange combination of elements emerge in many of Torke’s pieces: glossy, “even-better-than-the-real-thing” references to the past alongside hints of pop music and endearingly naive melodies.

We hear many of these elements in Tahiti, an eight-movement work written in 2009 and recorded by conductor Clark Rundell and Ensemble 10/10, the contemporary music ensemble of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. According to Torke, Tahiti‘s descriptive movement titles are not intended to paint an image, but to suggest “the idea of humidity: they attempt to capture the perfume of leisure time in a very warm and sunny, beautiful place. In the program notes at Torke’s website, he also quotes this passage from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:

For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

Here is the seventh moment of Tahiti, Huahine: under the moonlight. At moments (like the woodwind-mallot voice at 0:34), the music seems reminiscent of Torke’s 2002 tone poem, An American Abroad. Part of the recording’s unique flavor is the result of decisions made in the recording studio. Torke wanted it to have the glossy, atmospheric sheen of a late 1960s-early ’70s Burt Bacharach track:

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Explore more of Michael Torke’s music in the Listeners’ Club archive.

Phrygian Gates: John Adams, Opus One

(Photo/Eric Risberg)
(Photo by Eric Risberg)

 

John Adams has described Phrygian Gates and its shorter “companion” piece China Gates (written between 1977 and 1978) as his “Opus 1.” Built on an unrelenting sense of pulse and unfolding gradually, both pieces were influenced by the Minimalism of Terry Riley (In C), Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Process (like phasing and gradually building musical patterns with the addition of one note at a time) lies at the heart of early Minimalism. Phrygian Gates and China Gates may be Adams’ most process-oriented works, but there’s also a sense of restlessness. John Adams was once described as “a Minimalist bored with Minimalism.” Even in these first mature works, written around the time Adams turned 30, unexpected disruption of process foreshadows Adams’ later music.

At his blog, Earbox, John Adams describes Phrygian Gates:

Phrygian Gates is a 22-minute tour of half of the cycle of keys, modulating by the circle of fifths rather than stepwise à la Well-Tempered Clavier. The structure is in the form of a modulating square wave with one state in the Lydian mode and the other in the Phrygian mode. As the piece progresses the amount of time spent in the Lydian gradually shortens while that given over to the Phrygian lengthens. Hence the very first section, on A Lydian, is the longest in the piece and is followed by a very short passage on A Phrygian. In the next pair (E Lydian and Phrygian) the Lydian section is slightly shorter while its Phrygian mate is proportionally longer, and so on until the tables are turned. Then follows a coda in which the modes are rapidly mixed, one after the other. “Gates,” a term borrowed from electronics, are the moments when the modes abruptly and without warning shift. There is “mode” in this music, but there is no “modulation”.

The Phrygian and Lydian modes, commonly used in jazz, with roots back to ancient Greece, have a distinctly different sound and “feel” from major and minor scales. (Listen to the sound of the Phrygian and Lydian modes). These scales seem to float in midair because they don’t have the same sense of pull from dominant to tonic we hear in tonal music. In an interview with Edward Strickland, John Adams described the qualities of these modes and their relationship in the music:

I immediately imagined a piece in which modes would oscillate-two radically different church modes, the Phrygian, which is very nervous and unstable, since it starts on the third degree and so opens with a half step, and the Lydian which begins on the fourth degree and so has a raised fourth-very stable and yet ecstatic, used in a lot of New Age music, which is supposed to induce bliss and ecstasy. 

Phrygian Gates is constantly developing and teeming with energy. At the same time, it forces us to slow down and celebrate the moment. Listen to the way the emphasis shifts within its eternal pulse. Here is Ralph van Raat’s recording:

China Gates was written during Northern California’s rainy season, perhaps suggesting the gentle, continuous patter of rain hitting a rooftop. According to Adams, the piece’s structure forms an “almost perfect palindrome,” first alternating between Mixolydian and Aeolian modes, culminating with a similar alternation between Lydian and Locrian modes, and using all four in the middle.

Here is Emanuele Arciuli’s recording:

  • Find Ralph van Raat’s recording of Phrygian Gates at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Emanuele Arciuli’s recording of China Gates at iTunes, Amazon.

Something of Life: Jeffrey Zeigler’s New Album

jz_digitalcoversqCellist Jeffrey Zeigler’s debut solo album, Something of Life, came out last month. The recording, produced on the Innova label, features dynamic contemporary music by Paola Prestini, John Zorn, Philip Glass, Gity Razaz, Glenn Kotche, and Felipe Pérez Santiago. Zeigler recently left the Kronos Quartet after eight seasons to focus on a solo career, teaching, and family.

Paola Prestini’s Listen, Quiet, first performed in 2010, is a multimedia work which blends percussion, amplified cello, and electronic sounds with film and other visual elements. The composer offers the following description of the piece at her website:

“Listen, Quiet” explores the way I feel about water in my life: it nurtures, heals, separates. The work is based on recorded private conversations that struggle with live performance. The piece was inspired by the third panel in “Going Forth By Day” a multi-channel work by Bill Viola. In this specific video panel, water accumulates throughout the thirty minute cycle, and eventually, washes out an entire home, its memories, delusions, stories. The work is divided in two halves.

Listen: I had recorded an artist’s voice this past summer who was dealing with a great deal of pain, thinking that this work would eventually ease her pain, and illuminate her vicious cycle. The work assigns roles to each player: the cellist narrates, the percussionist is the perpetrator and symbolizes the indifference, at times, of life; the manipulated voices recount her story, and the natural elements eventually wash away her voices, leaving only sounds of nature. Perhaps easing the pain, perhaps narrating that these stories are in fact, the everyday, and they are cyclical.

Quiet: is a hymn to voices from my childhood, of my mother. They tell a story of magic, and of the memories that shaped us both.

This work includes staging, video design, a glass sculpture, and sound design.

In Listen, Quiet, the cello provides a mournful and sometimes anguished voice. At times it suggests the passionate, spontaneous intensity of a rock electric guitar (listen around 7:10). Repeated percussion patterns in the first section of the piece give way to a three note ostinato bass line in the second section:

John Zorn’s Babel suggests the edgy, ferocious rhythmic drive of Heavy metal. Listen to the harmony suggested by a rich array of overtones:

The recording also includes Gity Razaz’s Shadow LinesPhilip Glass’ Orbit (which gives a nod to solo Bach), Glenn Kotche’s Something of Lifeand Felipe Pérez Santiago’s Glaub

Jeffrey Zeigler’s Something of Life album showcases some of the exciting, brand new music which is emerging from the New York avant-garde scene. This is music which combines electronic and acoustic elements to reflect the unique sound of the twenty-first century. It will be fun to see how Zeigler’s future recordings follow up on this debut CD.