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.

Based on a Pop Groove: Michael Torke’s July

Michael Torke Six

On Friday we explored Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus’ adaptive reuse of a bawdy French song by Jacobus Clemens non Papa. It was an example of a composer recognizing a good melody and transforming it for a completely different setting. But what happens when musical influence becomes much more subtle…so subtle that the composer forgets (or remains unaware of) the source?

American composer Michael Torke’s July grew out of a momentary fragment of the rhythmic groove of an overheard pop song. Torke can’t remember the R&B song that inspired July, written in 1995 for the Apollo Saxophone Quartet. He offers this description:

What fascinates me is that this act of translation seems to completely remove the original reference from my music; sometimes I can’t even remember what the original song was that inspired me and, if I do, it’s hard even to hear the connection. But what remains is the energy…Instead of single-mindedly exploring one color, as in earlier pieces of mine, the music now corresponds to an experience of time- the energy and heat we find in the month of July, as well as cooling breezes of repose that come, perhaps, in the evening.

July explodes with arpeggios that might remind you vaguely of the music of Philip Glass (listen to Glass’ Lady Day), or maybe even Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. We hear hints of Steve Reich’s repetition of patterns over a slow moving bass line. But at the piece’s core is a spirited sense of rhythmic groove. Melodic fragments bubble to the surface and then are gone, like a mirage in the hot desert sun. As with other Torke pieces, the music has a mysterious way of transforming without us knowing what’s happening until after it has happened. We suddenly find ourselves in a new place without knowing exactly how we got there.

Here is the Delta Saxophone Quartet’s recording:

Michael Graves’ Postmodern Legacy

Michael Graves' Denver Public Library (1995)
Michael Graves’ Denver Public Library (1995)

 

They say (quoting Goethe) that architecture is “frozen music;” so it seems appropriate to mark the sudden passing of one of the giants of American architecture. Michael Graves passed away yesterday at age of 80 at his home, “The Warehouse,” in Princeton, New Jersey. A member of “The New York Five,” he rose to prominence in the 1980s as one of the leading Postmodern architects. In keeping with postmodernism, Graves’ sometimes controversial architecture defied the formal purity and austerity of modernism and openly drew upon historical precedent. For example, the Denver Public Library (above) brought whimsical turreted towers to downtown Denver. Dignified columns lining the facade suggest the monumentality of ancient Rome.

Michael Graves’ buildings often exhibit cheerfully exuberant colors. Occasionally they play tricks with our sense of scale. The crown of Louisville’s 26-story Humana Building (below) evokes the bridges of the nearby Ohio River. The base of the building echoes adjacent historic storefronts, but at a blown-up scale. The base’s large windows and wacky proportions make the entire composition seem smaller than it actually is, and less overbearing to its neighbors. Simultaneously, it pays respect to history without copying it, creating something exciting and new. Unfortunately, aspects of Graves’ style were quickly (and less artfully) copied in strip malls across the country.

In conjunction with Alessi, Michael Graves was also influential in product design. For years his designs, ranging from tea kettles to clocks, were bestsellers at Target stores. Following a spinal chord infection in 2003, which left him paralyzed from the waist down, Graves developed a passion for improving hospitals and other facilities for the disabled.

Michael Graves' Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky (completed in 1985)
Michael Graves’ Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky (completed in 1985)

Michael Torke’s Musical Postmodernism

There are some key differences and similarities between music and architecture: Music is pure art, while architecture is a mix of art and utility. A bad piece of music is avoidable and short-lived. An architectural mistake is there for a long time, and as Frank lloyd Wright pointed out, planting vines may be the only way to solve the problem. At their best, both music and architecture are “of the spirit.” Elegant solutions seem to flow out of limitations. Ideas emerge in a flash and then develop. From the inner ear of the composer to the architect’s pencil sketch, the same mysterious creative process is at work.

In a previous post we explored the similarities between architectural and musical postmodernism. For me, Michael Torke’s music embodies the same playful postmodern spirit we see in Michael Graves’ buildings. Listen to Javelin (1994) and see if you agree:

And here is Run (1992), a piece in which one exuberant motive finds continuous musical adventure. Listen to the way this motive slowly takes shape in the opening. Torke seems to make an almost cartoonish reference to Steve Reich’s additive process (gradual change by adding one note at at time).

Torke describes the piece saying,

Though this music is not meant to be programmatic, one could imagine the moving panorama and feeling of uplift in a morning jogger breathing in the still fresh urban air.

Bright Blue Music

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As a followup to last Wednesday’s post, here is another exuberant slice of musical postmodernism by American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961).

Bright Blue Music (1985) is a celebration of one of the most basic and fundamental building blocks of tonal music: the pull of the V chord (the dominant) back home to I (tonic). Throughout the twentieth century many composers avoided tonal relationships altogether, which makes the opening of Bright Blue Music, with its conventional dominant-tonic resolution, particularly shocking. Keep listening, and you’ll hear that this music takes great joy in prolonging the dominant, increasing tension and listener anticipation. For all of Bright Blue Music’s fun-loving bombast, the final, lasting resolution comes at one of the piece’s most intimate moments. A few bars later, the final chord evaporates into a surprise afterglow, heard in the woodwinds and string harmonics.

Despite an outward feeling of motion and development, in many ways Bright Blue Music stays in one place. It’s obsessed with a simple, ascending four note motive, which pops up in unexpected places (listen carefully at 2:25). The entire piece is in D major. Torke describes his series of “color” pieces:

you start by establishing a “room.” Then you move out of that room into different musical spaces. But in writing the color music, I wondered what would happen if I just stayed in one room and didn’t leave it. I thought, what happens in life when you don’t want to leave a room? When you go to a really great party, for example, you don’t want to leave—you want to stay and celebrate that room. So I decided to do a composition in the “room” of E-major—which is a powerful green—and to celebrate that bright green “room” for all it was worth.

Since early childhood, Michael Torke has experienced synesthesia, a neurological blurring of senses. Musical keys take on involuntary associations with colors. D major is blue. Here is Torke’s description of Bright Blue Music:

Inspired by Wittgenstein’s idea that meaning is not in words themselves, but in the grammar of the words used, I conceived of a parallel in musical terms: harmonies in themselves do not contain meaning; rather, musical meaning results only from the way harmonies are used. Harmonic language is then, in a sense, inconsequential. If the choice of harmony is arbitrary, why not use the simplest, most direct, and (for me) most pleasureable: I and V chords; tonic and dominant. Once this decision was made and put in the back of my mind, an unexpected freedom of expression followed. With the simplest means, my musical emotions and impulses were free to guide me. Working was exuberant: I would leave my outdoor studio and the trees and bushes seemed to dance, and the sky seemed a bright blue.

That bright blue color contributed towards the piece’s title, but in conjunction with another personal association. The key of D major, the key of this piece (from which there is no true modulation) has been the color blue for me since I was five years old.

At moments, I hear faint hints of the Spanish flourishes of Manuel de Falla. See if you agree. This is David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony:

Even Better Than the Real Thing

Philip Johnson's AT&T Building in New York (now Sony Building)
Philip Johnson’s 647-foot-tall AT&T Building in New York (now the Sony Tower)

In 1984, a bold, new skyscraper emerged on the Manhattan skyline, which captured everyone’s attention and became the subject of intense controversy. The Chippendale-inspired broken pediment crown of architect Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building shocked the architectural establishment because it so profoundly violated the ruling aesthetic of the day. This bizarre new icon seemed to be cheerfully thumbing its nose at the solemn, modernist glass boxes which surrounded it. Postmodernism was born.

Modernism, with its mantras of “less is more” and “form follows function,” was about pure, abstract geometric form. Its clean lines were stripped of ornamentation, historical reference or symbolism. It offered a standardized, mechanized, futuristic, utopian vision. The serene beauty of the modernist, glass curtain wall-clad office building was best exemplified by post-war structures such as Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House.

By contrast, postmodern architecture embraced symbolism and drew upon historical references. Postmodern buildings became signifiers. At their best, the whimsical new icons enlivened skylines and engaged the imagination. At their worst, they became monolithic corporate billboards.

In the early days of the skyscraper, there were plenty of buildings which invoked history. For example, Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building suggested a Gothic cathedral. But these buildings often drew upon past styles as a way of avoiding what were, at that time, unresolved aesthetic challenges of building on such a huge scale. The postmodernism of the 1980s and 90s, championed by architects such as Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, and Johnson, played with historical reference, scale and symbolism to create signifiers. Philip Johnson’s turreted PPG Place says “I’m the Houses of Parliament” and Republic Bank Center in Houston says, “I’m a Dutch canal house.” As glossy symbols, these buildings start to seem even better than the real thing, in the same way an advertisement romanticizes a product.

Interestingly, as postmodernism was sweeping architecture in the late twentieth century, similar trends were surfacing in music. Can you hear the postmodern aesthetic in the examples below?

Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1

At times, Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977) by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) becomes “more Vivaldi than Vivaldi” (listen to the Toccata and the Rondo movements). In this piece, the Baroque Concerto Grosso functions as a signifier in a dark and terrifying drama. Vivaldi-like sequences descend slightly too far and imitation between voices grows into an out of control caricature. Mozart, Beethoven, Tango music and a quote of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (15:57) surface and disappear amid musical breakdown. Hints of Shostakovich emerge in the opening of the Recitativo.

Concerto Grosso No. 1 is filled with voices of lament. Slowly awakening in the first movement, they sometimes shriek out in pain and other times sink into resignation. In the last movement, we hear distant echoes of the Toccata (27:22).

Here is violinist Gidon Kremer’s 1988 recording:

  1. Preludio. Andante (0:00)
  2. Toccata. Allegro (5:01)
  3. Recitativo. Lento (9:27)
  4. Cadenza. [without tempo indication] (16:22)
  5. Rondo. Agitato (18:54)
  6. Postludio. Andante – Allegro – Andante (26:00)

John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music

Grand Pianola Music (1982) started with a dream. John Adams writes:

As with Harmonielehre, which began with a dream of a huge oil tanker rising like a Saturn rocket out of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Grand Pianola Music also started with a dream image in which, while driving down Interstate Route 5, I was approached from behind by two long, gleaming, black stretch limousines. As the vehicles drew up beside me they transformed into the world’s longest Steinway pianos…twenty, maybe even thirty feet long. Screaming down the highway at 90 m.p.h., they gave off volleys of Bb and Eb major arpeggios. I was reminded of walking down the hallways of the San Francisco Conservatory, where I used to teach, hearing the sonic blur of twenty or more pianos playing Chopin, the Emporer Concerto, Hanon, Rachmaninoff, the Maple Leaf Rag and much more.

The majority of Grand Pianola Music is firmly rooted in minimalism. Its opening pulse suddenly emerges, as if the volume has been turned up on something which has always been present. There’s a sense of time moving through the music as it slowly develops, forcing us to become one with the moment. The circular nature of minimalism flows from the isolation and repetition of single chords or progressions. In Four Organs (1970), Steve Reich sustains and elongates a dominant eleventh chord for fifteen minutes. As voices join and drop out we get a changing, kaleidoscopic view of the chord. We anticipate a resolution, but the chord remains suspended in air.

But listen to what happens with the similar, prolonged dominant harmony in the opening of the final movement of Grand Pianola Music (23:01). In a sudden and unexpected move, the chord resolves. The abstract purity of minimalism is shattered and the music takes on postmodern meaning. A melody emerges which suggests Lisztian bravado, Beethoven, and gospel music all blended together. This is the moment where Adams finds the musical equivalent of the AT&T Building’s outrageous Chippendale top. It’s a theme which seems brash and out of place, like the fanciful, arbitrary historical references of a Johnson office tower. It comes out of nowhere, but it’s a voice which demands to be heard.

Grand Pianola Music was so shocking in 1982 that the first performance was met with boos. Adams writes,

True, it was a very shaky performance, and the piece came at the end of a long series of concerts, many of which featured serialist works from the Columbia Princeton school….Grand Pianola Music must have seemed like a smirking truant with a dirty face, in need of a severe spanking.

  1. Part 1A (fast) (0:00)
  2. Part 1B (slow)
  3. “On the Dominant Divide” (fast) (23:01)

Michael Torke’s Ash

In the late 1980s, Michael Torke wrote a series of pieces with titles relating to color. Torke experiences a neurological blurring of the senses, known as synesthesia, in which musical keys and sounds evoke involuntary associations with color.

If you’ve ever heard music in a dream, Ash (1988) may remind you of that experience. This piece is made up of fleeting moments where you might swear you’re listening to the classical orchestration and counterpoint of Beethoven. This is not real Beethoven but a glossy representation of Beethoven. Even “better” than the real thing.

Adjustable Wrench

adjustable wrenchEvery memorable pop song is constructed with two important ingredients: a catchy hook and a satisfying rhythmic groove. These basic musical elements also can be heard in American composer Michael Torke’s Adjustable Wrench, written in 1987. The piece is scored for a small chamber orchestra and includes piano, synthesizer and marimba.

As you listen to Adjustable Wrench, enjoy the feel of the jazz/pop inspired rhythmic groove and the insistent melodic hook. How is the music flowing and developing? Why do you think Torke chose the title, Adjustable Wrench?

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I love the way this piece evolves gradually out of the single clarinet line at the beginning, becoming increasingly complex. We feel the repetitive groove in the same visceral way we would experience it in a pop song. The pulse stays the same, but listen to the way the groove changes subtly and becomes more intense in some places (1:04-1:37).

The piece shifts gradually from one section to another by overlapping voices and allowing old melodic cells to fade out while new ones emerge. You can hear this in the passage after 2:12. Steve Reich uses a similar technique in Eight Lines.

Michael Torke explains the structure of the piece further:

[quote]Each group of four instruments combines with a keyboard: four woodwinds are matched with a piano, four brass with a marimba, and four strings with a synthesizer. The texture is simple- melody and accompaniment. After a melody is introduced, it is then harmonized into four note chords. The chords become an accompaniment for a new melody, which in turn is harmonized to work with the accompaniment. The old chords drop out making the new chords become the new accompaniment for yet another new melody. The keyboard instruments, around which each family of four instruments is grouped, simply double exactly what is being played; the piano, marimba, and synthesizer add no new material. Instead, they provide an extra envelope to the four-note chords as well as reinforce the attacks. The music falls into the kind of four-bar phrases found in most popular music. Overall, the structure of the piece is arranged in four identifiable sections.[/quote]

There are interesting but probably coincidental similarities between Adjustable Wrench and Van Halen’s 1983 rock song JumpIn this interview Torke says that he had not heard any Van Halen at the time, but that another more obscure rock song provided influence.

Adjustable Wrench is a great example of the power of rhythm and the importance of finding the groove.

December

composer Michael Torke
composer Michael Torke

Music occupies the mysterious realm of metaphor, expressing realities which cannot be put into words. For American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961) music is inextricably bound to extramusical associations like colors, memories and feelings. His evocative titles give us a glimpse at these associations. In a previous post we looked at Torke’s synesthesia, a neurological blurring of the senses which allows him to “hear” colors.

December for string orchestra was written in 1995. Why do you think Torke chose this title? Is there something about the music which specifically feels like December? For me, there is something satisfying about the the way Torke’s music neatly unfolds with one small musical cell and harmony spinning into the next. Consider the role of repetition and gradual change in the music:

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Now that you’ve heard December, here is what Michael Torke has to say about the piece. His description sheds some light on mysteries of the creative process. Some questions worth considering: What is the source of a musical idea? Do extramusical associations unlock musical ideas for Torke, or are they just a simultaneous byproduct?

[quote]I remember experiencing a kind of cozy cheer in the early days of winter back in suburban Milwaukee, when, on the rounds of my afternoon paper route, I would anticipate with pleasure the forecast of the season’s first snow. The cold and the precipitation never bothered me; I loved the season: young girls wrapped up in parkas with only their bright faces showing, outdoor Christmas lights being strung out on the front lawns, warm meals waiting when I got back home. Music never literally represents things, but it does evoke feelings, impressions, and sometimes memories. In writing this piece, I noticed that the music that came out didn’t just refer to itself — it is my habit to set up certain compositional operations to give each piece its own profile — but that the music seemed to refer to things outside of itself. This is something I discover as I’m writing; it is not that I set out intending to describe the last month of the year through music; rather, the associations creep up on me, as I’m composing. I had originally called this piece Rain Changing to Snow because at first the listener might hear a kind of musical ‘precipitation’, a resultant wetness that comes from some of the strings sustaining notes that are moving in the other instruments. And as this develops, the music moves to a more tranquil key, where it sounds as though the rain has turned to snow and there is a strange stillness everywhere. But to me the music is about more than meteorological patterns. In my goal to write more thematic music which is less process oriented, I believe this music can afford a wide range of responses in the listener. I am against music that is merely cerebral, and I welcome the simple, physical experience of listening, and responding directly, without undue brain circuitry.[/quote]

December snow

 

Wagner’s Musical Kaleidoscope

Unknown-6Javelin…Michael Torke (b. 1961)

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In my last post we explored a fun, eight minute piece called Javelin by contemporary American composer, Michael Torke.  I asked you to pay attention to the rich orchestral colors in the music.

Now go back and listen a few more times to pick up some new details.  Do you hear bright, shimmering colors?  Do you feel swept along by the music’s motion?  Maybe the leaps and falls of the woodwind and string lines suggest flowing, rippling water or crashing waves?  In the comment thread, one listener heard “a fast moving movie,” constant surprises, and allusions to the music of John Williams (who also wrote music for the Olympics).

In this piece (and other music of Torke) fleeting, momentary cartoon-like references to John Williams, Beethoven, Ravel and other music pop up and then disappear back into a great musical melting pot.  These moments function as musical signifiers.

In his program notes, here is what Michael Torke wrote about the piece:

“I had three goals in mind when I began this piece for the Atlanta Symphony’s anniversary: I wanted to use the orchestra as a virtuosic instrument, I wanted to use triads (three-note tonal chords), and I wanted the music to be thematic. I knew I would welcome swifter changes of mood than what is found in my earlier music. What came out (somewhat unexpectantly) was a sense of valor among short flashes and sweeps that remined me of something in flight: a light spear thrown, perhaps, but not in the sense of a weapon, more in the spirit of a competition. When the word javelin suddenly suggested itself, I couldn’t help but recall the 1970s model of sports car my Dad owned, identified by that name, but I concluded, why not? Even that association isn’t so far off from the general feeling of the piece. Its fast tempo calls for 591 measures to evoke the generally uplifting, sometimes courageous, yet playful spirit.”

Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin…Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

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This music opens Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin.  One of the most influential composers of the Romantic period, Wagner was innovative in the way he used (and enlarged) the orchestra.

The Prelude grows out of (and at the end returns to) a single A Major chord.  Listen to the way the chord changes in color as sections of the orchestra (strings, woodwinds, and brass) merge in and out, like a musical kaleidoscope.  In these moments, it is the pure sound you want to enjoy.

As the music unfolds, what kind of motion do you sense?  How is it similar or different to Torke’s Javelin? Pay attention to the instruments in the opening of the piece.  Do you hear mostly high or low pitches?  As the music progresses, do you notice any gradual change?  Is there a large-scale shape unfolding in the music?  If there is, how is Wagner achieving this?