David Bowie Meets Philip Glass

Philip Glass and David Bowie

The groundbreaking work of David Bowie, who passed away earlier this week, left a profound mark on the world of rock music. But Bowie also influenced some of the twentieth century’s most important minimalist and experimental composers, and in some cases he was influenced by their work.

In 1976, Bowie attended the European premiere of Steve Reich’s monumental Music for 18 MusiciansYou can hear the circular, pulsating, mallet-driven patterns and rhythmic groove of Music for 18 Musicians in Bowie’s Weeping Wall, an instrumental track from his Low album, released in 1977. Both works seem to go in slightly different directions, while exploring sounds that were “in the air” at the time:

Later, Reich’s early phase piece Clapping Music was combined with Bowie’s Love is Lost in James Murphy’s 2013 remix.

In 1992, Philip Glass paid homage to the work of David Bowie and Brian Eno with his “Low” Symphony No. 1, based on music from the Low album. Each of the Symphony’s three movements (Subterraneans, Some Are, and Warszawa) uses music from the album as a jumping off point for something new. Bowie and Glass discuss their collaboration here. In his program notes for the piece, Glass discusses the Low album’s influence:

 The record consisted of a number of songs and instrumentals and used techniques which were similar to procedures used by composers working in new and experimental music. As such, this record was widely appreciated by musicians working both in the field of “pop” music and in experimental music and was a landmark work of that period.

David Bowie’s Heroes album, released in 1977, inspired Glass’s Symphony No. 4 “Heroes,” completed in 1996. Let’s listen to V-2 Schneider, an instrumental track from the Heroes album. (There are highly distorted vocals, but here they function as yet another instrument). This is music which celebrates modern electronic sounds and elevates the mixing and processing of the recording studio to high art.

Now listen to Philip Glass’ take on the same music. Glass’ music is never more exhilarating (or dizzying) than when multiple conflicting rhythmic grooves pile on top of one another, often in three against two. We hear this about halfway through the excerpt. Also notice the rising and falling scales in the bass line. These delightfully irregular scales (never lining up on the “correct” note) resurface in the film score for Kundun, which Glass was writing around the same time.

Peter and the Wolf

David Bowie’s talents extended beyond music to include painting and acting. Here is his legendary 1978 narration of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The recording, released on the RCA Red Seal label, reached number 136 on the US Pop Albums chart.

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.

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:

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.

With Watch Magazine, Music Meets Marketing

Watch! Magazine
Watch Magazine

There was a time when major networks, such as CBS and NBC, employed their own orchestras (watch this clip of Arturo Toscanini leading the NBC Symphony) and television shows included a full minute of credits, accompanied by theme music. Revisit the opening of Cheers, compare it to the fast pace of today’s media and consider what we’ve lost. TV theme music allowed for reflection (even if it wasn’t deep reflection) and established the atmosphere of the show.

Interestingly, as media moves online, CBS’s Watch Magazine may be taking a step back in the direction of musical branding. The entertainment and lifestyle magazine recently hired English violinist Charlie Siem to compose and perform a soundtrack, which will be used for marketing and promotion. You can see how the music fits the branding concept here:

Siem’s music draws upon influences from Philip Glass to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Listen to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas TallisElgar’s Serenade for String Orchestra in E minor Op.20, and Finzi’s Prelude for String Orchestra in F minor Op. 25  for a sample of the rich English string orchestra tradition which Siem modeled.

Charlie Siem’s Canopy was recorded last December at St. Silas the Martyr Church in London. Siem is joined by the English Chamber Orchestra:

[quote]We like to think the magazine is elegant and refined and glamorous and this music hits those highlights.[/quote]

-Jeremy Murphy, Watch editor in chief 

"Spheres" by Daniel Hope

SpheresMusica universalis, or the “music of the spheres” is the ancient philosophical concept that the movements of the sun, moon and planets generate celestial vibrations. Pythagoras accidentally discovered that a musical pitch sounds in direct proportion to the length of the string which produces it. He was interested in the concept of universal harmony rooted in mathematical ratios-a unifying cosmic “music.”

Violinist Daniel Hope’s new CD, Spheres finds inspiration in these big ideas. Spheres puts music of J.S Bach and Johann Paul von Westhoff side by side with works by modern composers including Philip Glass, Lera Aurbach, Michael Nyman and Arvo Pärt. The result is a collection of short pieces which seem to transcend style and time period:

[quote style=”boxed”]In this album my idea was to bring together music and time, including works by composers from different centuries who might perhaps not always be found in the same “galaxy” but yet are united by the age-old question: is there anything out there? -Daniel Hope[/quote]

The CD opens with Imitazione delle campane by Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705), music which may have inspired Bach to write the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. This music could easily be mistaken for the modern minimalism of Arvo Pärt. Hope has some interesting things to say about this piece and the historical significance of Westhoff as a composer and violinist.

Another excerpt from the CD is Musica Universalis by Alex Baranowski, a piece that was commissioned for the album by Daniel Hope:

Spheres also includes I Giorni (2001) by film composer Ludovico Einaudi:

Hope offers a track by track listener’s guide to the CD. For more information on Spheres watch this interview and this clip with composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev). If you’re interested in hearing etherial and expressive new violin music as well as rediscovering a forgotten gem like the Westhoff, you’ll enjoy this recording.

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