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 describesPhrygian 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.
American composer Terry Riley turned 80 on Wednesday. He was one of the earliest pioneers of minimalism and experimental music. Riley’s music blends a variety of elements, including jazz and Indian music. A Rainbow in Curved Air, recorded in the late 1960s, influenced ambient and rock musicians, including Pete Townshend and The Who.
One of Terry Riley’s earliest and most influential works is the gradually unfolding In C, written in 1964. In C is built on a continuous repeating pulse on the pitch “C,” which serves as a “metronome” for the other parts. Elements of improvisation make In C sound different every time it’s performed. Instrumentation is left open to the performers. The piece’s blueprints call for 53 short, numbered musical phrases which can be played by any performer. In C’s counterpoint and duration are open to chance as each performer controls when they move on. They must stay within two or three phrases of each other.
It’s important to slow down and enjoy the moment as you approach this music. Listen to the way the music gradually develops out of the opening pulse, moving from one spontaneous adventure to the next. There are moments of incredibly exciting tension and conflict as motives collide and the canonic counterpoint becomes dense. Complex rhythms begin to form as the parts weave together.
This 1990 performance by the keyboard ensemble Piano Circus involves a concert grand piano, upright piano, Rhodes piano, harpsichords, and vibraphone:
Now, for comparison, listen to this contrasting recording by the group Bang on a Can. Also check out Jad Abumrad’s In C Remix.
Earlier this month, violinist Hilary Hahn and accompanist Cory Smythe picked up a Grammy award for their 2013 album, In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. The recording came in first in the Best Chamber/Small Ensemble category.
Don’t be deceived by the album’s title. This isn’t yet another CD of violin showpiece warhorses. It’s a collection of completely new music born out of an intriguingly fresh idea. Hahn noticed that, while the violin repertoire is full of short encore pieces from the past, few contemporary composers have ventured into this territory. After careful consideration, she approached twenty six composers (a process she now jokingly compares to asking someone out on a date) for commissions. A twenty-seventh composer, Jeff Myers (The Angry Birds of Kauai), was selected through an online contest. You can check out Hilary Hahn’s informal discussions with each composer at her youtube channel.
It will be exciting to see if any of this music finds its way into the standard violin repertoire. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we have a fun CD to enjoy: Jennifer Higdon’s Echo Dashsounds like its title and suggests the dense counterpoint of J.S. Bach. David Lang’s Light Movingtakes us on an exciting neo-minimalist joyride. Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis’ Coming Toevokes a cinematic atmosphere. Lera Auerbach’s lamenting, romantic Speak, Memorysuggests the twentieth century sounds of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Messiaen.
And that’s one of the more interesting aspects of this recording-the way the present meets the past. Contemporary composers seem liberated from the need to be “new” or to push forward a dogmatic idea. Ukrainian pianist and composer Valentyn Sylvestrov says,
I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists…With our advanced artistic awareness, fewer and fewer texts are possible which, figuratively speaking, begin ‘at the beginning’… What this means is not the end of music as art, but the end of music, an end in which it can linger for a long time. It is very much in the area of the coda that immense life is possible.
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).
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.
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.
Listen carefully to the way Jean Sibelius’Fifth Symphony begins. An expansive opening motive, quiet, awe-inspiring and mystical, sets the entire mighty symphony in motion. The Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) famously insisted on periods of prolonged silence when he was working. Appropriately, the opening of the Fifth almost seems to emerge from the bleak, desolate stillness of a Scandinavian forest. The tympani’s roll from B-flat to E-flat, taken by itself, would suggest a simple dominant to tonic in the symphony’s home key of E-flat major, but the music never quite arrives at this convincing resolution…There’s more left to be said.
You may notice this pattern repeating as the first movement unfolds. Every point of arrival opens up a new door of uncertainty, building tension and plunging us into increasingly frightening territory. At one point the tonal center evaporates completely and the solo bassoon wanders, lost in a sudden, ghostly sea of atonality (6:43). Sibelius’ Fifth breaks down traditional Sonata form, leaving development which is more circular, a phenomenon which musicologist James Hepokoski describes as “rotational form.” Could this altered sense of time be vaguely influenced by Nordic seasonal cycles, where a low midnight sun in the summer transitions to dark, gloomy winters?
Following its completion in 1915, Sibelius revised the symphony. (“Never write an unnecessary note,” he said. “Every note must live.”) The revision included the bizarre and unprecedented innovation of splicing together the end of the first movement and the beginning of the second, creating an uninterrupted symphonic arc. Alex Ross describes this moment (around 9:25 in the clip below) as “a cinematic ‘dissolve’ from one movement to another.” What follows is a thrilling feeling of gradual acceleration and crescendo, as if the brakes have been suddenly cut loose.
Listening to this symphony, I’m always struck by a visceral sense of spin. This sensation is first apparent right after the expansive opening as the motive takes shape before our ears (0:14), as if composing itself and searching for a way forward. In this passage you’ll hear the motive passed between groups of woodwind instruments. Do the voices of the instruments suggest distinct personas?
Listen to the first movement and see if you agree with me about the sense of spin…motion which never arrives anywhere definitive until the end of the movement. This is Leif Segerstam conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra:
At first, you may hear pastoral sounds of the nineteenth century in the second movement-maybe even a nod to Beethoven. But there’s something more ominous lurking beneath the surface, evoking the twentieth century and a world on the brink of war. Consider this movement’s sense of flow and development. Pay attention to the pizzicatos and the contrasting, static, sustained pitches in the woodwinds, with all those strange “wrong” notes hanging over. Notice the way empty musical “space” is filled with increasing complexity and embellishment as the movement unfolds.
Rising out of the trembling iciness of the final movement (music which occasionally brings to mind John Adams’ 1978 minimalist masterpiece, Shaker Loops) is the distinctive “Swan Theme” (25:14). In the recording above, listen to the way Segerstam brings out the deep, organ-like bass notes and notice the hypnotic way they fit together with the horns. The symphony’s transcendent, heroic climax comes with the sudden turn to C major (26:07). It’s a brief but significant moment, which sticks in our minds long after it has passed.
The iconic “Swan Theme” plays an important role in the conclusion of the symphony; but in these final bars, it seems to be surrounded by ambiguity. Before we get there, we experience a hint of the opening of the first movement (30:22), as if to remind us where we’ve been. How do you interpret the end of the piece with its strange silences? Is it even important to try to sum it up in words, or to assign emotional labels to something which transcends description? If you feel inspired, share your thoughts in the thread below.
Come back on Friday to hear echoes of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony in music written in 1990 by contemporary Danish composer Poul Ruders.
Recordings, old and new
I’ve noticed that this piece can sound quite different, depending on the interpretation. Here are a few recordings. Let me know your favorites:
In June the Metropolitan Museum of Art and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary hosted a thought-provoking discussion, Spirit in Sound and Space- A Conversation Inspired by Arvo Pärt, in conjunction with this summer’s Arvo Pärt Project. The discussion brought together architect Steven Holl, neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, and musician and theology professor Peter Bouteneff.
For Steven Holl, one of the most visionary contemporary architects, ideas often emerge through the process of painting watercolors. Buildings like the Chapel of St. Ignatiusin Seattle and the Knut Hamsun Center, two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in Hamarøy, Norway, register the flow of time with constant, subtly changing plays of light and shadow. Holl notes that Arvo Pärt “sees sound as space.”
“Music surrounds you. It’s an immersive experience” says Holl, whose work is influenced by music. “Architecture, space surrounds you.”
Zatorre points out that the parietal lobe of the brain handles our perception of music as well as space. His insights, based on a strictly mechanistic view of the workings of the brain, are interesting, but in the end they leave many questions unanswered. The “spirit” part of the conversation remains elusive. What is the source of a creative idea? How do great buildings suddenly emerge out of Steven Holl’s brushstrokes? Albert Einstein hinted at these questions when he said,
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
A new voice emerges…
The story of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) demonstrates the mysteries of the creative process. At the end of the 1960s, Pärt suddenly abandoned the dissonant, twelve tone music of the mid-century musical establishment. For eight years he was unable to compose beyond musical fragments jotted in a notebook. Then, in 1976 a new and radically different voice suddenly emerged with Für Alina, a three minute piece for piano:
All music flows through time. Listening to the mystical minimalism of Arvo Pärt, there’s an equally powerful sense of time flowing through music. It’s easy to become one with the moment in Pärt’s music. It allows us to “enter inside the sound.” You might be reminded of the meditative, circular flow of Gregorian Chant or the music of Lassus or Palestrina.
Pärt’s style of writing, which suggests the overtones of bells, is known as Tintinnabulation. He describes it here:
Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.
Silentium is the second movement of Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (1977):
Here is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s performance of Canon of Repentance, which took place June 2 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
What inescapable sounds surround us in the twenty-first century and how do they influence music? Nico Muhly’s 2012 album, Drones, is music which seems to emerge from the hum of the refrigerator or vacuum cleaner.
Muhly (b.1981) studied with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse at Julliard, served as Philip Glass’s copyist, and has collaborated with Björk and Usher. Like Gabriel Kahane, his style, which blends elements of rock and electronic music, is hard to pin down. Read an interview with Muhly about the music here.
Listen to Drones and Pianoand consider how the music flows and develops. As I listened, I remembered that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphonyemerges out of silence with a similar open fifth drone…a raw musical element which embraces all possibilities.
Here is what Nico Muhly says about the piece:
I started writing the Drones pieces as a method of developing harmonic ideas over a static structure. The idea is something not unlike singing along with one’s vacuum cleaner, or with the subtle but constant humming found in most dwelling-places. We surround ourselves with constant noise, and the Drones pieces are an attempt to honor these drones and stylize them…The process of idling at the airport, taxiing, and taking off (to say nothing of the flight itself) is a series of changing drones. Idling, for instance, is a constant c#, with an ever-changing top note: f#, e#, or e.
The final track on the CD is called Drones in Large Cycles:
Drones in Large Cycles gradually develops, becoming increasingly complex (listen to the multiple rhythmic layers around 5:08). It’s flowing through time, but is there any musical goal? Like many pop songs, and minimalism, this music is about enjoying the moment.
Silence is wildly important. In fact, something I always remember from one of my very first music teachers is that music begins with silence…I find “observed silence” to be quite beautiful. Think about the moment on a transatlantic flight — a noisy affair — when everybody’s basically asleep? I love that sound. My parents’ house in Vermont in the winter can be as silent as the grave, punctuated by the weird sound of ice melting on the roof. Heaven.
You may have seen New Beginnings, the short film released by New York City Ballet on September 12. It features a moving performance on the 57th floor terrace of 4 World Trade Center at dawn and is intended to be “a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, and a tribute to the future of the city that New York City Ballet calls home.”
The music is Spiegel im Spiegel (mirror in the mirror), written in 1978 by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935). Here is a recording of the piece by violinist Nicola Benedetti and pianist Alexei Grynyuk. As you listen, consider how the music is flowing and what effect it has on your sense of time. Is there a process unfolding throughout the piece? Why do you think it’s called Spiegel im Spiegel, or “mirror in the mirror”?
If you hold a mirror in front of another mirror the reflections become infinite. You probably noticed a similar process happening musically. The violin keeps returning to the pitch, “A.” The piece develops slowly as pitches are added, one at a time in perfect inversions below and above this “A”. Consider how this incremental development influences your sense of expectation.
Spiegel im Spiegel evolves outward, filling up musical “space” and giving us the sense of time flowing through music. This might remind you of the additive process we heard in Steve Reich’s Different Trains in the last “Listeners’ Club” post. In the late 1970’s a handful of American composers such as Reich and Philip Glass were experimenting with minimalism-circular, repetitive music which flowed in a fundamentally different way. Around the same time Arvo Pärt, trapped behind the Iron Curtain and cut off from most outside musical influences, discarded atonality and began writing similar music. Pärt’s meditative minimalism is rooted in mysticism and influenced by early music, especially Gregorian chant.
This episode of the BBC series, Soul Music explores Spiegel im Spiegel and its effect on listeners. Listen a few more times and share your thoughts on the music in the thread below.
[quote]I could compare my music to white light which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener. -Arvo Pärt. [/quote]