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 Musicians. You 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 Musicwas 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.
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.
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.
With Christmas just a few days away, here is a short collection of music guaranteed to get you in the holiday spirit. Take a break from the rush of last minute shopping, light the tree, pour some eggnog and explore the playlist:
Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes
Let’s start off with music from the late 12th century. Pérotin was part of a group of composers at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral who were influential in early polyphony (more than one voice occurring at one time). Viderunt omnes is built on Gregorian chant, which was probably used in Paris for the Christmas Day liturgy. Here is a translation of the text:
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Rejoice in the Lord, all lands.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
in the sight of the heathen
he has revealed his righteousness.
The long, sustained pitches of the original chant, known as a Cantus firmus, form the foundation for the musical lines above. Consider the way the music is flowing. Does it feel linear or circular? Listen to the way the voices fit together, sometimes in canon, and the way the music alternates between pure open fifths and octaves and occasional dense, crunching dissonances.
The music of Pérotin influenced modern minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. In Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, repeating musical patterns gradually develop over long, sustained pitches.
The Christmas season isn’t complete without a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Here is a 1987 performance by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with soprano Sylvia McNair, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, tenor Jon Humphrey, and Baritone William Stone:
Christmas texts have been set to the folk song melody, Greensleeves since at least 1686.Here is Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves:
Now listen to the way another English composer, Gustav Holst combines the Greensleeves melody with dance music in the final movement of his Second Suite in F for Military Band. In 1912 Holst adapted the same music for strings in the St. Paul Suite.
Christmas with the Pittsburgh Symphony Brass
The Pittsburgh Symphony Brass has released at least three Christmas recordings since the ensemble was formed in 1994. The group has the sound of a brass choir rather than a quintet, with both bass trombone and tuba. Listen to the rich, powerful harmonic overtones in their playing.
Here is Ding Dong Merrily on High and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:
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.
The past and the present collide in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. The 1971 Broadway musical centers around the final reunion of former chorus dancers of “Weismann’s Follies,” a fictitious revue suggesting the real-life Ziegfeld’s Follies. The two aging couples, Buddy and Sally and Benjamin and Phyllis, have returned to reminisce before the crumbling, old theater in which the Follies once played is demolished. Amid disappointment and unhappy marriages, a sense of lament pervades the story. The ghosts of their younger selves, played by separate actors, occupy the stage around them. Follies is a show about memory, the passage of time, regret, and the fleeting optimism of youth.
The Road You Didn’t Take examines the philosophy expressed in Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road NotTaken, from a different angle.In Sondheim’s song, Ben brushes aside thoughts of what might have been (“You take one road, You try one door. There isn’t time for anymore. One’s life consists of either/or”):
But listen carefully and you might sense irony lurking under the surface. As Sondheim explains,
It is a man saying, “oh, I never look back on the past, it just wouldn’t be worth it.” And he’s doing it to con himself as well as the lady he’s with [Sally, whom he has not seen in years]. In point of fact, he’s ripped to shreds by the past.
The stabbing “wrong” notes and the restless Steve Reich-like vamp, which leaves little time for true reflection, offer clues to Ben’s unsuccessful self delusion. The Road You Didn’t Take is full of sudden, unexpected key changes and wide melodic leaps. Rather than contemplating a new direction, we suddenly find ourselves thrust onto a new road. Harmonically, the song occasionally hints at the hazy, impressionist language of Ravel (0:15).
Another Follies song which is filled with irony and self-delusion is In Buddy’s Eyes. Sally describes the love she and Buddy feel for one another. Meanwhile, their marriage is disintegrating.
The previous example was sung by George Hearn. This one features Barbara Cook:
Every 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?
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 Jump. In 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.
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]