Euphonious Amalgamation

From Kevin Puts to Nico Muhly, the once unexplored musical territories of the 21st century have finally been heard with mindful ears and has led me to a growing appreciation of this music these past months. Previously, I had the expectation that all 21st century music (contemporary music) had to consist of unfamiliar timbres and out-of-the-ordinary musical structures that challenged classical music from the 19th-century. The fixation on the stark differences that distinguished traditional classical music from contemporary music piqued my interest, however. I should have not just targeted the contrasts of character and style between musical eras, but rather find the similarities between them as well. Caroline Shaw’s compositions, though considered “tamer” than other 21st-century compositions, allows for the past and present to blend together in a manner that effectively grabs people’s attention. From using a range of vocal timbres, cluster chords, and classical forms, Shaw embraces the qualities of traditional classical styles while creating her own voice which can be seen in her work Partita for 8 Voices.

To clarify musical era styles, traditional classical music is identified as Western music that spans from the Medieval Era of Gregorian chant to the last, dramatic breaths of the Romantic Era. On the other hand, contemporary classical music is current music that tends to have influences of traditional Western styles and modernized (eclectic) styles that create a fusion of familiar, yet distinct sounds. During the 20th century, composers and musicians began to break the traditional harmonies and structures of classical music. Tonality in the 20th-century began to shift into the atonal realm, polyrhythms were more common, and instrumentation could include electronics and simple, everyday objects for their timbre and usage. In the 21st-century, I assert that music eventually met half way between the experimental, modern phase, and traditions of the past to create what we now know as “contemporary music” which can be found in Shaw’s compositions.

Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices is a four-movement work named after Baroque dances, yet most listeners will be surprised during their first hearing of this unique composition. Since there is an expectation for the work to reference Baroque dances, it is a bit confusing to hear the movement “Allemande” beginning with voices that rhythmically speak about directions until it bursts into chords. Throughout the work, we are introduced to a variety of vocal timbres as Shaw makes use of as many sounds that can be created by the oral cavity. While we may have expected only clear vocals and chords, Shaw has the performers sing in different vocal timbres such as grunts, Tuvan throat singing, rhythmically recited words, gurgles, sighs, and heavily panted breaths. While the work is rather eclectic in nature, Shaw does make references to Baroque dances as the “Allemande” movement is in 4/4 time and has a characteristic “allemande rhythm” of two pick-up 16th notes that lead into a measure (found within the recited voices in the beginning of the piece). Although the work may have a mix of unusual timbres, there are vocals that are based off traditional classical music. Overall, Shaw allows for the listener to experience a wonderful amalgamation of sounds and “extended techniques” that carry classical music references and traditions.

– Ashley Venegas


References

“20th Century and Beyond.” Classic FM. https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/periods-genres/modern/ (accessed April 29, 2019).

“Caroline Shaw Partita for 8 Voices.” YouTube Video, 25:40. Posted by “Chris Edwards,” February 22, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mukrVsKqTs&list=PLqdFJzgdyvWnzexNx9L4lqY33tHGzt1gg&index=1 (accessed April 30, 2019).

“Music of the 20th Century.” Lumen. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/musicapp-medieval-modern/chapter/music-of-the-20th-century/ (accessed April 29, 2019).

Revelle Team. “Contemporary Classical Music Genres.” Connolly Music. https://www.connollymusic.com/stringovation/differences-contemporary-classical-music-genres (accessed April 29, 2019).

“Suite.” Lumen. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/musicapp-medieval-modern/chapter/suite/ (accessed April 30, 2019).

Mclean, Edwin. “Understanding Contemporary Music.” American Music Teacher 27, no. 1 (1977): 17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43538109. (accessed April 29, 2019).

Murphy, Howard A. “Judgment Values for Contemporary Music.” Music Educators Journal 37, no. 4 (1951): 34-36. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3387358. (accessed April 29, 2019).

Nicholas, Jeremy. “A Brief History of Classical Music.” Gramophone. https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/a-brief-history-of-classical-music (accessed April 29, 2019).

Pàmies, Joan Arnau. “New Music is Not (Necessarily) Contemporary Music.” NMBX. https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/new-music-is-not-necessarily-contemporary-music/ (accessed April 29, 2019).

Pogue, David and Speck, Scott. “Exploring the Classical Music of the 21st Century.” Dummies. https://www.dummies.com/art-center/music/exploring-the-classical-music-of-the-21st-century/ (accessed April 29, 2019).

Tsioulcas, Ana. “Caroline Saw, 30, Wins Pulitzer For Music.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2013/04/15/177348405/caroline-shaw-30-wins-pulitzer-for-music (accessed April 29, 2019).

Mutters and Exhales

Ashley Venegas; 4/24/19

Caroline Adelaide Shaw

So Quietly (Live recording November 20, 2016)

For a cappella choir


Certainly, I have an affinity towards music that implements string, wind, and percussive instruments lest I forget another “voice” within the ensembles. One can narrowly think of the human voice as just a means for conversation and, unfortunately, forget that it, too, has history and traditions in the musical world. As an instrumentalist, I delve into the wind and orchestral areas with a greater fervor, regarding compositions, composers, famous musicians, musical styles, and the overall history that follows them. Since I noticed my inattentiveness to the vocal area, I found it important to review a vocal piece that is by our selected composer of the week. Caroline Shaw, an American composer, is famously known for her creative manipulation of the voice in her a cappella composition Partita for 8 Voices. Shaw’s So Quietly is a commissioned a cappella work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and features a transformative story with percussive breaths and a cycle of dynamic and textual tension and release points that build the overall “character” who struggles to find their “voice” in the world.

Within the introduction of the work, the sopranos and alto voices sing a unison rhythm on the syllables “Da dat” and “Ahh” in a 4/4-time signature. As the work progresses, the sopranos reach up to their head voices, creating noticeable register distance between the altos as they both repeat the same rhythmic motive from the introduction. There is a moment where the choir breaks into a new section by having four groups separately inhaling breaths on beats 1, 2, 3, and 4. After this moment, long-sustained canon phrases and silences create an unpredictable sense of time as the choir beings to build upon thicker polyphonic textures and gradually crescendos to a forte dynamic. The choir returns to a 4/4-time signature as the altos steadily breathe on counts 2 and 4, immediately adding breathes on each 8th note of the measure; the sopranos return to melodic vocal line with clearly articulated words in a softer dynamic.

Throughout the work, the choir constantly switches between sections of stable 4/4-time signatures and areas where there seems to be free time. Within the stable 4/4 time, the choir tends to sing in a unison rhythmic pattern and the voices build a polyphonic texture; the lyrics during this section are enunciated with clarity. During the sections of free time, the choir tends to have a thicker polyphonic texture (more divisi parts), louder dynamics, and the text is often repeated in a canon which makes the words a bit indiscernible. Half way in work, the choir intertwines the 4/4-time signature with the text “I’ll just sit here” as the other half of the choir has “Ah” phrases in free time. The text and these two contrasting sections of the work illustrate a story of a person (or group) that is afraid to be vocal about any issue, but they gradually gain strength to talk (sing) about these issues without worrying about others opinions.

In regards to the text, the first words are simply syllables of “Das” that eventually turn into the monotonous pattern of “Maybes”, symbolizing a person who is unsure of confronting an issue at hand. Following in succession, the imitative polyphony of “Nevermind, you I” and “Could you I think…if maybe” give hint that the person wishes to be vocal, while the next set of words, “I don’t want to be quiet” is sung in a louder dynamic and show the roundabout thoughts and struggle within them. While the person contemplates to “…just sit here” and not confront the issue, the words abruptly shift to “I won’t just sit here” but again there is a cycle of vocals that go back and forth between these two phrases. Ultimately, the person in the story believes that they will make a difference in the world by “ever-singing” and begin to be vocal on issues they find are important. While the words are not complex, the structure of the lyrics in the work is quite impressive. When the choir has percussive breathes or no text (words), the choir helps create a sense of anxiety as the lack of vocals and deep breathes represent a person who is holding back their words and thoughts (although they eventually surface as the work goes on). In addition, when the person in the story is reluctant about voicing their beliefs, the choir has a softer dynamic but as they build strength of their “voice” and character, the choir develops a thick, polyphonic texture and has a strong forte dynamic.

As I further analyzed the work, I understood that the choir was singing a song that could not be considered liturgical or sacred music. Medieval choral music had unaccompanied (a cappella) Gregorian chant that was monophonic and was free in terms of a time signature, but during the latter half of the Middle Ages music began to shift towards using more polyphonic textures and secular texts. Within “So Quietly”, the text of the work is not sacred but rather secular as the lyrics involve a story of a person becoming vocal about their own beliefs and features such polyphonic textures. The use of non-sacred text and polyphony is like the shift towards secular music during the late Middles Ages and Renaissance Era, which included non-religious topics such as love songs and political satire. Shaw does implement 21st-century harmonies that are reminiscent of Eric Whitacre as the cluster of chords that envelop the “room” are thick with textures and sounds. When taken into consideration, the secular text of So Quietly can also be viewed as a change from the following expected beliefs (such as religion) to transitioning towards an independent mindset by the end of the work. Nevertheless, Shaw has created a rather interesting choral work that does not shy away from a mix of traditional features such as imitation, but also includes the “newer” concepts of cluster chords and percussive breaths into So Quietly.

References

“Brooklyn Youth Chorus Sings Caroline Shaw’s ‘So Quietly’.” YouTube video, 5:35. Posted by “WQXR,” February 8, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQgQeA-XuXA (accessed April 24, 2019).

Reconstructing the “Canon”

Although century-old musicians and composers were previously seen on a lower social status, current artists must follow the mentally exhausting upkeep of the idealistic perception that musicians must be “obedient and flawless” for art’s sake. Within the classical music world, the stigma that musicians, conductors, and composers must hold themselves up to the highest standards and excellency in their profession is admirable but nonetheless a bit nonsensical. From performance etiquette to eloquence and musical expression, the demands of classical music require such perfectionism that it ultimately seeps into the daily life and behavior of musicians and artists. Nico Muhly, an American composer, has expressed a concern about the toxic nature of a culture that solely focuses on the classical ideals of such narcissistic behavior and brings attention to the reality that artists are imperfect humans in the global scheme of the musical world.

Prior to the nineteenth century, musicians were “servants to aristocratic circles” and composed music for entertainment to the upper social class and courts. Jason Dobney states that the access and rise of middle-class musicians lead to era of “Romanticism,” which opened up “new opportunities for earning a livelihood as a musician or composer”. Musical entertainment transitioned from small court audiences to large and extravagant events of orchestral and operatic performances that would show off virtuosic and “flawless” musicians who were viewed in a perfect light. The development of musicianship went beyond creating a nice, small atmosphere and thus musicians and composers were able to sell their music to an audience, albeit with the price of perfectionism and sanity. While we are currently in the 21st century, the traditional expectations of maintaining a marketable sound to audiences is ingrained within the rules of etiquette and social rules placed upon classical musicians in their own world.

Within the Cincinnati Metropolitan Orchestra’s rehearsal etiquette guide, a musician must balance between always being prepared at a moment’s notice and being obedient in the thousands of rules that lead to a “perfect” rehearsal. When translated to a performance, if a musician is unable to perform without a single mistake other fellow musician will have a more negative perception of that person (personal experience). Furthermore, the performer who was unable to have a “perfect” performance is left with a lowered sense of self even if they receive praise from fellow musicians or audience members. In the article, “The Role of the Composer,” Nash shows us that even composers are placed into a similar role of producing music that must appease other artists; the failure of producing art that is worthy leads the composer to having lowered self-esteem from the negative criticism and narcissism from other musicians. Additionally, composers may feel pressured to create music that appeals to their audience (other musicians) rather than create music simply because it is enjoyable to themselves.

In his “Thoughts on Being Well” blog, Muhly has expressed his concern about the toxicity that follows a musician in their pursuit to create, and ultimately expect perfection from himself and others. He states that the obsession derived from his “quality control” behaviour lead him to edit his music into the late hours beside his pervasive thoughts of the musicians who will perform his music. Even Muhly himself believed that “Once I get anybody else involved on any level, though, I expect, unfairly, for them to have spent the same amount of time and energy doing their jobs as I’d done mine”, creating an expectation that may be unachievable to some musicians who are not as developed in their skill as others in the field. Unfortunately, this type of negative practice permeates other life situations, such as when Muhly expressed annoyance at people who did not effectively or correctly do their job or task (even outside of the musical world). While Muhly’s shows that anyone, even a composer, can have toxic and narcissistic behaviours, his blog demonstrates that being aware of such actions may be corrected and changed if one is willing to address the “accepted” and “expected” behaviours of classical musicians.

– Ashley Venegas


References

“Rehearsal Etiquette.” Cincinnati Metropolitan Orchestra. http://www.gocmo.org/rehearsal-etiquette/ (accessed April 15, 2019).

Brock, Kev. “How to Recognize a Narcissist Musician in 10 Steps.” K’Brocking. https://kbrocking.com/2017/12/12/how-to-recognize-a-narcissist-musician-in-10-steps/ (accessed April 16, 2019).

Dobney, Jayson Kerr. “Nineteenth-Century Classical Music.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/amcm/hd_amcm.htm (accessed April 15, 2019).

Muhly, Nico. “Thoughts on Being Well.” Nico Muhly. http://nicomuhly.com/news/2015/thoughts-on-being-well/ (accessed April 15, 2019).

Mulcahy, Holly. “How To Alienate Your Audience in 10 Easy Steps: Musicians.” Neo Classical. https://insidethearts.com/neoclassical/2008/12/how-to-alienate-your-audience-in-10-easy-steps-musicians-2/ (accessed April 16, 2019).

Nash, Dennison. “The Role of the Composer (Part I).” Ethnomusicology 5, no. 2 (1961): 81-94. https://www.jstor.org/stable/924322 (accessed April 15, 2019).

Restless Essence

Ashley Venegas; 4/11/19

Nico Asher Muhly

Mothertongue: IV. Monster (released June 16, 2008)

For mezzo soprano, oboe, harp, keyboards, violins, viola, electric bass

Restless Essence

Despite the number of works I have encountered, the genre and style of 21st-century music has yet to grasp an absolute place to call “home” as it constantly travels around diverse musical styles and genres. Although we have only come across a handful of recently influential composers, each one of them has presented us an acquired taste of music that lets the palate become fond of the new flavours and leaves us craving more beyond the mundane notes of the past. Nico Asher Muhly, an American contemporary composer, has shown us his unique ability to blend the sounds of classical and popular music; he is fully aware and capable of writing in a classical style, notably choral music, but he also works with chamber pop and electronic music. With the collaboration of several fine musicians in 2008, Muhly was able to produce a four-movement experimental work that incorporates musical speech, electronic timbres, and classical instruments to create an eclectic atmosphere of sounds.

The album Mothertongue is a large three-suite work with 3-4 movements in each set; the first suite is the Mothertongue suite (4 movements) and it is focused on vocal speech interacting in a musical setting. In the first movement “Archive”, Muhly introduces us to familiar classical instruments, such as violins, violas, an oboe, a harp and a mezzo soprano voice yet he also incorporates synthesized keyboards and an electric bass to create a rock band atmosphere. “Archive” doesn’t necessarily have extreme contrasts in terms of dynamics (softs and louds), but rather the work provides contrast in its rhythmic activity and varying texture based upon the main vocal line. The classical instruments and keyboard are the accompaniment (homophony) as they sustain long tones and interject small, repetitive motives to support the vocal line. The overall timbre of the work is a mix between light sounds produced by the voice and classical instruments and a heavier tone that is derived from the low-registered distorted electric guitar. The addition of the distort guitar allows for the work to have an indie-like style and allows for the work to have depth as the other instrument are performed in the mid-to-high areas of their range.

In terms of the main musical line, the vocals do not have “normal” lyrics and there are little too few areas with a single vocal, melodic line. At the beginning of the work, the mezzo soprano enters in with a whispery tone while reciting the English alphabet in a continuous cycle. The singer layers several versions of this alphabet motive in every measure and each version is sung within the diatonic scale of the work itself (like a broken up melodic line). As the song progresses, the voice takes on a small melodic role by singing on the pitches “Re” and “Do” while simultaneous establishing a straightforward 3/4 time meter, as compared to the beginning of the work. Unexpectedly, the singer switches over to reciting a flurry of telephone numbers and addresses that continuously layer upon while the alphabet motive is recited beneath it.

Although the voice is only repeating letters, numbers, and addresses, the words themselves have become both a percussive and melodic element within the work. The singer must maintain an awareness of pitch as each entering voice is repeating lyrics on specific diatonic tones, rather than relying on regular speech, which often varies in inflection and speed. In addition, while each entrance of the alphabet motive does not always enter on the downbeats of the work, the singer maintains a level of rhythm that is even in note length, which allows for the voice to become a percussive element. There is a melodic vocal part around the midpoint of the work as the tempo beginnings to slow down, but the lyrics are simply the singer counting from 1 to 5. However, the voice here has a sweeter character as the singer’s focus shifts from its previous percussive nature. Remarkably, there is a brief moment where the mezzo soprano does not recite lyrics but rather hums a melodic line, thus providing a long-awaited tension-release point from the constant noise and layers of sounds until it is repeated in another round to the end.

When comparing the “Archive” to classical music, one might not consider it to have any semblance to old musical traditions or practices. The repetitious vocals layer upon each other throughout the work and the words seem to have little meaning beyond letters, numbers, and address and create a flurry of “noise”. However, the mezzo soprano vocals are the driving force within the work as it dictates the overall contour and direction of the first movement. The vocals guide the augmentation and diminution of rhythmic activity for the rest of the instrumentation; as the voice maintains fast-paced rhythms, the texture becomes thicker as the constant sounds overlap (vice-versa for slowed rhythms and thinner textures).

While there is only discussion here, on the first movement, the Mothertongue suite is comprised of four movements that follow each other in a sequence and do reinstate motives from previous movements; “Monster”, the fourth movement of the suite, brings back the vocal motive lyrics (telephone numbers and addresses) of the first movement “Archive”. Although “Archive” is difficult to place, in terms of musical style and genre, Muhly does incorporate classical techniques into the mix with skillful hands and ears. Perhaps we are not accustom to hearing numbers and addresses becoming lyrics, but Muhly is able to capture the listeners attention with small moments of tension-release points and creative ways of incorporating speech into music with classical techniques.   

– Ashley Venegas

References

Muhly, Nico. “Mothertongue.” Bandcamp. https://nicomuhly.bandcamp.com/album/mothertongue(accessed April 10, 2019).

“Nico Muhly – Mothertongue- I. Archive – Abigail Fischer. Visuals by Glenn McQuaid.” YouTube video, 5:48. Posted by “Apeofnaples,” January 14, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cB46mn8Exd8

“Victoire” for All

In our time, women have become increasingly vocal about gender-equality and they hope to create more opportunities for careers outside of “normal” female job positions. Certainly, there has been some growth and additional options for women to have a career in male-dominated positions, yet female musicians, conductors, and composers still have a difficult time with this particular matter. While there is some level of recognition, in regards to female musicians (typically non-classical), female composers are often ignored within their own community. Most individuals in the world, regardless of gender, can name off a few well-known or obscure composers but they are typically male composers; even female musicians struggle to list any female composers, despite understanding the gender disparity themselves. Missy Mazzoli, a female performer and composer, has assisted in creating an environment that is geared towards teaching and including more female musicians while promoting gender-equality in the musician’s workplace.

According to a 2014-2015 Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey, relating to the number of featured women composers in American orchestras, only about 1.8% of the performed works were from female composers and only about 14% of them were living composers. While these statistics are about 5 years old, the survey has brought attention to the lack of diversity, not only in the composition field, but towards female musicians in general. In a recent Donne- Women in Music report, Europe had about “97.6% of classical and contemporary classical music performed in the last three seasons written by men, leaving a paltry 2.3% written by women”. In Niese’s article “Women Composers: Why Are So Many Voices Still Silent?’, we are shown how past female musicians, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, were negatively affected by sexism. Clara and Alma were expected to give up their musicianship for a marriage, both their husbands dismissive of their musical intellect and compositional skills. In the 1994 article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Composers?,” Gates shows us that women have largely been left out music history and music classrooms despite evidence of capable female musicians and composers from the past. While the statistics rack up, it is undeniable that women have had a mixed relationship in musical careers and lifestyle but there is current evidence that women are becoming vocal about this gender situation.

Mazzoli, a living female musician and composer, often commissions music for operas, orchestras, soloists, and chamber ensembles. When she was a young girl, she was pianist but a revelation guided her to choose a composition lifestyle at the age of ten. Thus, for college, Mazzoli attended the Boston University and Yale School of Music for her B.M and M.M., and received a graduate study at the Royal Conservatory of Den Haag. In her most recent years, Mazzoli has gained traction as a musical educator to both youths, and college-level students. She is currently a faculty member at the Mannes School of Music teaching compositional lessons to any gendered undergraduate and graduate-level students. In 2016, Mazzoli and another female composer, Ellen Reid, partnered with the Kaufman Music center in order to create an organization called the Luna Composition Lab (LCL). The organization LCL has a mission to “[provide] mentorship and professional opportunities for female composers”, but they also open their doors to nonbinary and gender-conforming teen students as well. Interestingly, Mazzoli is also the founder of an all-female band called Victoire,which features a chamber-pop instrumental set up and performs in an indie classical music style. Even her operatic works, such as Song from an Uproar and Breaking the Waves, feature female-leads whose lives dealt with sexism, but their roles go beyond the simple “domesticated housewife” or “damsel-in-distress” character type; of course, Mazzoli was commissioned for these works and she understood the storyline beforehand, but she chose these works due to the unique female roles.

Overall, it is clear that Mazzoli is a strong role-model as she teaches young female students that it is possible to go beyond gender stereotypes within the musical world as both a performer and composer. She has expressed annoyance due to gender issues, often stating that “With women, people are always waiting to see proof…before they give you an opportunity” but she challenged and fought against the odds (even becoming 1 out 2 female composers to receive a commission from the Metropolitan Opera). She does not feel that she is a risk, due to her gender, as “[she’s] sold out every opera [she’s] ever put on the stage” and desires to diffuse the stigma that female musicians and composers “aren’t capable” of becoming well-known. It is encouraging, as a fellow female musician, that there are women who seek to establish equality among this musical field and provides a sense of encouragement to future women musicians and composers.       

– Ashley Venegas

References

Brown, Mark. “Female Composers Largely Ignored by Concert Line-Ups.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jun/13/female-composers-largely-ignored-by-concert-line-ups (accessed March 28, 2019).

“Faculty: Missy Mazzoli.” The New School Mannes. https://www.newschool.edu/mannes/faculty/Missy-Mazzoli/ (accessed March 28, 2019).

Fox, MeiMei. “This Musician Is Dedicated To Gender Equity In Her Male-Dominated Field.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/meimeifox/2018/03/22/this-musician-is-dedicated-to-gender-equity-in-her-male-dominated-field/#63cb36167f9e (accessed March 27, 2019).

Gates, Eugene. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Composers? Psychological Theories, Past and Present.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 28, no. 2 (1994): 27-34. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3333265 (accessed March 28, 2019).

London, Samantha. “Missy Mazzoli: Examining the American Dream Onstage.” National Sawdust. https://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/2018/01/18/missy-mazzoli-examining-the-american-dream-onstage/3/ (accessed March 28, 2019).

Looseleaf, Victoria. “Fissures in Opera’s Glass Ceiling: Women in Opera.” KCET. https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/fissures-in-operas-glass-ceiling-women-in-opera (accessed March 27, 2019).

Madonna, Zoe. “Missy Mazzoli Is The 21st Century’s Gatecrasher Of New Classical Music.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2018/11/16/668403281/missy-mazzoli-is-the-21st-centurys-gatecrasher-of-new-classical-music (accessed March 27, 2019).

Midgette, Anne. “Steeped in Guns N’ Roses and Philip Glass, Missy Mazzoli is a leading composer of her generation.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/steeped-in-guns-n-roses-and-philip-glass-missy-mazzoli-is-a-leading-composer-of-her-generation/2018/01/12/e38850de-f567-11e7-beb6-c8d48830c54d_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.54eabff71463 (accessed March 27, 2019).

“Missy Mazzoli.” Foundation for Contemporary Arts. https://www.foundationforcontemporaryarts.org/recipients/missy-mazzoli (accessed March 28, 2019).

“Missy Mazzoli: A New Opera and New Attitude For Classical Music.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2012/11/23/165585232/missy-mazzoli-a-new-opera-and-new-attitude-for-classical-music (accessed March 28, 2019).

Niese, Danielle. “Women Composers: Why Are So Many Voices Still Silent?” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jun/20/unsung-heroines-women-composers-maconchy-bbc4-danielle-de-niese (accessed March 28, 2019).

O’Bannon, Ricky. “The 2014-15 Orchestra Season by the Numbers.” BSO. http://www.bsomusic.org/stories/the-2014-15-orchestra-season-by-the-numbers.aspx (accesssed March 28, 2019).

Oteri, Frank. “Missy Mazzoli: Communication, Intimacy, and Vulnerability.” NewMusicBox. https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/missy-mazzoli-communication-intimacy-and-vulnerability/ (accessed March 27, 2019).

Smith, Steve. “Crackling Vignettes from an Adventurer’s Life.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/27/arts/music/song-from-the-uproar-at-the-kitchen.html (accessed March 28, 2019).

“Victoire.” Victoire. http://www.victoiremusic.com/about-us (accessed March 27, 2019).

Zeilinger, Julie. “An interview with groundbreaking composer Missy Mazzoli”. WMC FBOMB. http://www.womensmediacenter.com/fbomb/an-interview-with-groundbreaking-composer-missy-mazzoli (accessed March 27, 2019).

A Door into the Dark

Ashley Venegas; 3/25/19

Missy Mazzoli

A Door into the Dark (2008, released March 2009)

For clarinet, violin, 2 keyboards, double bass

Toska

Whenever I am presented something new, be musical or otherwise, I do my best to give it an honest insight. I have never heard of Missy Mazzoli, as with every new composer brought up, but her music felt a bit more ruminative and ethereal to me compared to the others. Each work I heard from her had a characteristic that portrayed an element of nostalgic melancholy, something familiar yet distant. She often composes works based on several repetitive, minimalistic motives that shape into a massed character of moods and sounds in “covert” ways. While her music brought restlessness to my heart, I finally chose to review Mazzoli’s work A Door into the Dark as its introduction instantly peaked my interest.

The beginning of A Door into the Dark opens our ears to a light and somber keyboard playing a reverbed, repetitive motive in a minor key; the motive itself eludes to a minor key as it includes a lowered 3rd and there is constant tension within the motive. As the unexpected double bass and violin enter, the contrasting range of the strings draws attention away from the keyboard, which has begun to subtly alter its harmonic structure while keeping its rhythmic pattern the same. Mazzoli has all the voices producing their own persistent motives that are separate from the each other (perhaps polyphonic), yet they do not feel out of place when performed together. The wash of the combined sounds creates a disorienting aural effect due to the music lacking a stable sense of meter, often giving the idea of either 3/4 or 6/8 time signatures. Depending on the perception of the meter, the 3/4 will have vertical hemiolas occurring between the steady keyboard’s 8th notes as the syncopated violins move in a swinging 2-beat motion within the 3/4 meter. There are points where accented notes and harmonic changes occur in different times for each voice, once again allowing the listener to hear alternate angles of the same, “repetitive” work as they attentively take notice of the music.

In another case, A Door into the Dark is able to create noticeable contrast by shifting the style of articulation to create a heavy and dark tone within the middle of the work. At the beginning, each instrument has long, connected phrases that create a floating effect as the notes blend together. In the middle of the work, the clarinet shifts its tone from connected long notes to disconnected, shorter notes, which foreshadows the change of the work’s intensity. The violin’s previous motive increasingly becomes stronger within the syncopated rhythm as the keyboards also have shorter articulations, as compared to the beginning of the work. As the music progresses, the clarinet’s syncopated notes and motive break the sense of meter while the violin heavily grates into their steady rhythmic downbeats. Gradually, the music fades away back into its lighter textures until a voice states that she is “going to her fate”.

Mazzoli’s music hauntingly beautiful is full of dark textures and repetitive motives, yet it is far from being a called simplistic or mundane. Her style of music seems to fall into the minimalistic structure due to the continuously performed motives, but at the same time she has the ability to skillfully place subtle changes as the works progress. Certainly, the unresolved progressions, hemiolas, and constant motives have a relation to classical music, but Mazzoli applies a new sense of direction with them. The motives could be learned and sung by a listener, but its reason was not to be sung in daily life (like you would for other classical melodies). Her music evokes strong emotions and profound thoughts, like the effects of Philip Glass’s work, as they both have a transcendent and meditative aura.

– Ashley Venegas

References

“A Door into The Dark.” YouTube video, 5:21. Posted by “Missy Mazzoli,” December 22, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWI9vGzRIEI&t=74s

A Sincere Approach to Artistry

When you are sitting in the audience, reversed from your position as the performer, do you read the program notes? As the ensemble takes plunge into their own world, are you conscious that someone was inspired to write the harmonies and rhythms that now surround the room or do simply enjoy the sounds? There is truly is no “right or wrong” answer to the questions above, but it does raise some issues on the intentions of a composer as they arrange and unify introspective thoughts into an intangible form called music. In my belief, a notable work should be created with authentic feelings from its composer and must direct its character to an audience with sincerity, regardless if it is positively or negatively received by said listeners. Kevin Puts, skilled in composition, has an ability to capture a person’s attention without stifling his originality to appease the masses. He directs new experiences to musicians and allows himself to express his distinctive musical styles while standing out as a notable artist.

As a rising composer of the 21st century, Puts has caught the attention of journalists, artists, and audiences alike for having a “richly colored, harmonic, and freshly melodic musical voice” in his works. He notes in an interview that a phone call he received from Dale Johnson, artistic director of the Minnesota Opera, changed his life as he was requested to commission music for an opera based on the 2005 film Joyeux Nöel (a true event about a war truce during WWI on Christmas). In the opera, Silent Night, Puts was able to bring life to the characters through his compositions and personal relations to the characters within the set (referring to Audebert’s wife in the “J’ai perdu ta photo” aria and Puts’ own wife being pregnant). The opera’s librettist, Mark Campbell, personally states that people “. . .go to the opera for music, and not for the words”, expressing the idea that Puts’ compositions for the opera is what drove the story and allows for the realities of war to be portrayed by music rather than a vocal description of the past.

While Silent Night, his first opera work, won the music Pulitzer Prize in 2012, let it be noted that a composer cannot simply rely on a “one-hit wonder” to carry their livelihood, nor should they expect an audience to enjoy any of their other compositions. In this instance an authentic composition becomes important as duplication comes off as a hollow object in the false shape of a genuine model. Often, composers attempt to recreate music that has shown promise but its replications will go unnoticed due to lacking character and authenticity that follows the composer’s intent. If music is constantly forced to fit an imagine rather than be its own form, then is the composer aware of how they begin to fade into mundane practice and sound? Puts was once a composer who understood the woes of being labeled as “unoriginal”, as his own work (Network) was once compared to the works of John Adams by his own doctoral professor, Christopher Rouse. It was desperation to “earn” his own voice that drove Puts to explore writing other compositions, such as his Symphony No. 1, which he credits as one of the “private place[s] where [he] can express the spiritual, the epic, the heartbreaking without shame or embarrassment”.

Through his desire to become an original composer, he broke ground within and set fire to create his own music styles that clearly define him as Kevin Puts. He is shown to strive for the blend of traditional writing that is accompanied by contrast between tension and release points as he illustrates and evokes emotion from pure “in-the-moment” feelings. It begs the question: what if Puts was never challenged to “find” his own authentic compositional voice by his professor? Perhaps there would have never been a phone call from Johnson and the Silent Night opera would have only been a thought. Nonetheless, Puts is now a well-known composer that has a clear vision in his mind and is bent on presenting his authenticity into his music without fear of criticism.

– Ashley Venegas


References

“Composer Kevin Puts: SILENT NIGHT Music that Tells a Story.” YouTube video, 2:07. Posted by “Minnesota Opera,” November 11, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeCa9dR_Sa8

“Full Length Biography.” Kevin Puts. Accessed March 11, 2019. http://www.kevinputs.com/bio.html

“Kevin Puts on SILENT NIGHT.” YouTube video, 3:50. Posted by “Unison Media,” October 9, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHs7EfchO_4&t=70s

Mooney, Tom. “”Silent Night” at Wexford: How Opera Woke Up to the Great War.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 104, no. 414 (2015): 185-93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24347762.

Puts, Kevin. “A Pulitzer Winner Asks: Why Write Symphonies?.” NPR. August 5, 2013, https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2013/08/05/208280751/a-pulitzer-winner-asks-why-write-symphonies

“Works: Symphony No. 1.” Kevin Puts. Accessed March 11, 2019. http://www.kevinputs.com/program/symphony1.html

Sweet Light Crude

Ashley Venegas; 3/9/19

David T. Little

Sweet Light Crude (2007/ recording released on November 2010)

For soprano and amplified chamber ensemble

Pervasive Sounds and Idiosyncrasy

Having no previous knowledge of Little’s musical works, I found his compositions rather interesting, as they ranged from solos to choral, opera, and ensemble works. There were a few recordings that were available on his personal website and while the opera works were certainly appealing, I thought Sweet Light Crude was intriguing enough to listen to in its entirety. Sweet Light Crude is composition made of post-rock musical styles that incorporates classical and standard-rock instruments into its work. While this work may simply be described as a just “another rock song”, I believe that there are many intricate details that allow for this work to stand out beyond a standard post-rock vibe and that it should be labeled as a classical composition.

The opening of the song introduces the listener to a droned tonic pitch on the synthesizer and a somber soprano voice that is reminiscent of a post-rock band; however, the entrance of a clarinet, violin, and vibraphone “disrupt” the pre-conceived instrumental arrangement of the standard rock song. As the piece begins to build momentum, the texture becomes thicker with rock-related instruments, such as an electric guitar and drum-set. While the addition of classical instruments might seem out-of-place from the first hearing, the work allows for the listener to “warm-up” to these new timbres. The clarinet and cello have separate rhythmic and melodic lines that constantly repeat (polyphonic texture) and are accompanied by a vibraphone on the downbeats in an asymmetrical meter of 7/8. The repetition of the melodic lines and motive are rather common within (post) rock music and this helps the classical instruments fit into that style. Referring to the rock instruments, the entrance of the electric guitar, drum-set, and synthesizer solidify the overall timbre and rhythm of a post-rock band but allow the classical side to blend in without discomposing the mood.

Although most bands stay within a steady 4/4 meter, the piece continues to capture the listener’s attention with a mix of symmetrical and asymmetrical meter within the first section of the work. The clarinet and cello’s motives in a 7/8 meter allow for some stability due to repetition, yet weak-beat accented notes and rhythmically active areas displace the sense of meter. As the drum-set enters, there is a mix of simple and compound time that constantly switches from 4/4 and 6/8 time meters. The constant motion between all the instruments, though not as rhythmically active now, allows for the music to drive forward into the next abrupt section (second section) that settles into a 4/4 meter as the drum-set keeps a steady rock-motion. Again, the 7/8, 4/4, and 6/8 meter patterns are repeated once again in the third section of the work; however, the transition from the steady 4/4 section into the repeated 7/8 is not anticipated and thus creates an unstable feeling, despite the third section having the same motive as the clarinet and cello from the beginning of the work. These asymmetrical meters and the fluctuation from simple to compound time allows the listener to take notice of the work’s constant changes rather than simply hearing it as background noise.

Lastly, the tone and character of the piece has a serious and unrelenting quality with haunting melodies that move around the ensemble. The soprano’s melody and synthesizer introduce the listener to a minor key, while the clarinet and cello’s melodic motive outline a downward motion, illustrating a depressive mood. Due to the instrumentation, the timbre is smooth and quite hypnotic in the clarinet and cello because of its repetitive nature and legato notes. In contrast, the rock instruments such as the guitar, synthesizer, and drum-set allow for a pervasive and heavy timbre that create tension with distorted, staccato sounds and rolling rock drum-fills (sometimes the vibraphone aids in the steady, rolling rhythm). In terms of vocals, the soprano is uttering words, yet Little seems to use the voice as an instrument in the work for its colors. The voice adds to the haunting melody as it wails in the upper register with somewhat indiscernible words, but there are moments that the lyrics are clearly heard such as “Sweet, light crude what you are to me, my love”, “Without you”, “I cry, I’d die for you”, and “I’d kill for you”. These dark expressions, use of diction, and long somber phrases highlight the serious and foreboding nature of the overall character of the work, showing the desperation in the vocals and how the words become more violent as the song progresses on. The whole work constantly changes in meter, style, timbre, and diction, yet it is alluring because it connects from one change to the next with meaningful intention. The odd meters changes, instrumentation, minor key, and constant dynamic and style fluctuations are meant to give a melancholic mood that is unsettling to the listener.

In my final thoughts, after having several hearings of this work, I find Sweet Light Crude to be exceptionally captivating and consider it to be a well-written composition. When encountered with the word “composer”, it is almost instinctual for a classically-trained musician to think of that composer as someone who creates traditional/ classical music. It is a mindset that is installed when we (classical musicians) focus on our own world that only encompasses said music styles due to our tastes and musically studies. However, a composer should not be classified by this perceived and biased definition of someone stuck in tradition. While Little has included common musical practices such as canons, musical motives, imitation, and polyphony into his works (Sweet Light Crude), he is open to the mix of “uncommon” instrumentation and genres. David T. Little is a creative and interesting composer who has blended together a variety of instruments and styles within his works, demonstrating an open-minded approach in composition and the means to produce something uniquely attractive and intelligent.

–        Ashley Venegas


References

Little, David. “Sweet Light Crude.” David T. Little. https://davidtlittle.com/works/sweet-light-crude/ (accessed March 9, 2019).

Chorus of Light

Ashley Venegas; 2/25/19

Kevin Puts

Chorus of Light (Premiered in December 2003)

One-movement work for Wind Ensemble and voice

Radiant Harmony

While I had briefly listened to a few of Kevin Puts’ compositions, I found Chorus of Light to be intriguing enough for a personal perspective. The given title is mindful of the composition as the entrance of the delicate glockenspiel, bowed percussion, and sparkling (tremolo) woodwinds evoke an ethereal and otherworldly atmosphere; the range of the instruments, around the mid to upper register, has a brightness that is suggestive of cascading light streams from cloudy skies. There are points where a chorus is softly singing and the accompanying instruments blend in with gentle flutters of tones. In contrast, there are moments of high and low brass that introduce a mix of broad ranges and triumphant fanfares that are rhythmically fast-paced when compared to the sustained notes found at the beginning of the work. Interestingly, the composer seems to have the performing musicians sing right after a righteous fanfare that allows the work to “settle” from its previous intensity. Speaking in terms of the timbre, Puts seems willing to include all types of voices and instruments into his composition realm (possibly contras included), but is careful in his selection to allow for each voice to be presented as essential to the overall quality of the work’s sound.  

While I felt as if there was no exact, traditional form for this work, there were generally two sections that had contrasting texture, timbre, and dynamics that resembled an “a” and “b” pattern. The beginning of the piece introduced serene, long tones, and pandiatonic chords with imitative motives strung along from one woodwind to another. The texture of this “a” section feels weightless as the chords are sustained for long rhythmic durations that provide a homophonic sound as the melody floats above the tremolo accompaniment. The “b” section is rhythmically active and has a rich texture of polyphony as the brass, woodwinds, and percussion interact together. A six-note canon becomes a motive between winds instruments and the use of a minor key creates a heavy environment, along with the thick textures from rhythmic diminution and augmentation. When referring to dynamics, the “a” sections are considerably softer and they gradually crescendo into each “b” section until there is a high point that is lead back into an “a” section with a steady decrescendo. The work features several large crescendos and decrescendos with contrasting styles that further highlight the overall tension-release contour of the work.  

In comparison to classical Western music, I felt as though Puts’ composition veered away from traditional standards and may be placed alongside impressionistic music. In a response to forms, the transitions from each section were more of a style or timbre change (including voice) as there was never a moment of rest nor a strong sense of finalized cadences. Even though there are spots of similarity between the sections-motives reappearing throughout the work-the music develops and strives to keep its audience entertained with constant tension and release points. While Western music is categorized into forms, the sections I labeled as “a” and “b” (as shown above) have such particular colors and tonality within separate sections that I do not fully associate it with traditional classical forms. Perhaps the use of polyphony and canons might have some reminiscence of classical music, along with general use of instrumental ranges, but the overall composition did not have straightforward/traditional harmonies and cadences.

Puts’ compositional technique creates a unique timbral effect like some 20th-century and current century tonality. A few years ago, I performed Millennium Canons by Kevin Puts and noticed that he does seem to incorporate similar composition styles into his other works such as his use of imitation. The titles of his works are rather accurate (at least in these two works) in the depiction of the music’s scenes, and he often builds tension by presenting contrasting sections (as shown above) in succession. Puts’ compositions show a level of detail to the aural effect that it presents to its audience, one that transforms the atmosphere and evokes emotions. To me, the expressive nature that Puts presents in his music also reminds me of the currently famous composer, Eric Whitacre.

Though I found this piece enjoyable within moments of listening to it, I find that one listening is simply not enough time nor chances to give any type of composition its “due” time. Each listening of Chorus of Light has something “new” that my ears had not either appreciated or even recognized from my first full listening of the work. I heard it without headphones on my computer and was unable to discern certain timbres and textures within the work. When I decided to use headphones, the overall timbres and transformations were amplified and given a new sense of direction to my perception of it. In any case, if I were to listen to a work that I did not initially enjoy, there may be places that I might admire in respects to its compositional techniques or I may simply become fond of it with enough aural exposure.

   –           Ashley Venegas

References

“Chorus of Light.” YouTube video, 11:57. Posted by “Showa Wind Symphony,” March 1, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eho-FMVtcD4

Smoke and Mirrors: A Composer’s Dilemma

Along with the development of performing-rights licensing, artists (musicians and composers) and organizations have created a way to generate money with something that is intangible and primarily based on sound waves: music.  Though musicians traditionally value their creations as a means of expression and self-sacrifice for art’s sake, they too exist in the economic world in which even artists must make or receive some amount of compensation to survive. While performance-rights organizations are intended to provide royalties and music protection is based on copyright laws, composers are given little compensation for their efforts and often exploited in the name of business profits.

In William Velez’s article, Velez introduces a brief history of performing-rights licensing organizations (ASCAP, SESAC, BMI) and explains that there are advantages and disadvantages in regards to musicians and composers; however, the advantages were thought to be more beneficial for an artist. He mentions that SESAC, founded in 1930, was a for-profit organization that was created to protect its paying affiliates from being exploited by unlawful performances and distributions of their music and works. In 1994, SESAC merged their organization with technology and became capable of pinpointing all musical usage on radios along with watermarking audio recording; the constant tracking of music allowed for composers and musicians to track if their music was legally or illegally being consumed by people and other businesses. While there are some benefits that derive from performance-right licensing, along with copyright protection, composers are still given the “short end of the stick”.

For composers, the Copyright Act of 1909 seemed like some form of insurance that their creations would not be replicated or sold off on false claims for profit; the work may have a form of monetary compensation and self-value for the composer themselves. According to general attorney of ASCAP, Herman Finkelstein, a composer’s work may be perceived by some people as “not as property but rather…a personal right like the right of privacy, or the right to not be defamed”. This notion, whether it may be from a business, or person, devalues the composer and their creative expression in music by insinuating it (the work) may be used as pleased by anyone for personal or financial gain. In addition, the purpose of copyrights only offered a limited amount of legal protection to a composer; if the composer was unable to get an audience and receive recognition or revenue, then what is the point of copyright except for the personal right over that intangible work? Neither copyright nor performance-rights licensing would financially benefit a musician or composer unless their work would blossom and gain a large enough audience willing to buy rights or physical copies (Eg: sheet music or CDs) of the music. Of course, this leads into the route that an artist must work with both rights and licensing to move forward in order to market their goods for any compensation.

In one case, film/screen composers and songwriters are often employed under a contract that is “work for hire”; the composer is employed by a film producer and will create music (lyrics/ scores) for currency. Although the artist may be employed, there are plenty of rules and regulations that work in favor of the film industries finances over the rights of the artist. Leonard Zissu, general counsel for the Screen Composers’ Association (1946), states that due to the music being based on “work for hire”, the producer will have exclusive rights to the music created for said film and the composer will lose copyrights. In a recent ASCAP article, “Music, Money, Success & the Movies: Part Three,” Jeffrey and Todd Brabec reiterate that “the studio becomes the owner of all rights of copyright and is usually free to assign or license those rights to others”; however, composition royalties may be accepted within the contract. Of course, the composer is financially compensated a discussed and fixed sum for their written works and scores for the film. Yet the royalties the composer may receive is undercut by several other fees accrued by publishing and marketing said music to consumers.  For example, music business lawyer, Ned Shankman, shows that the charges of administration fees, marketing fees, foreign fees, and other charges could bring down the total royalties several thousand dollars that eventually goes back to the publishing record. What was once about a total sum of $35,000 for a written composition could plummet down all the way to $14,750, or even less, such as in Shankman’s example of “Sarah Swan and Her Music Publisher”.

Even so, there becomes an even larger cycle of abuse when these composers are typically required to rely on a performing-rights organization membership for their royalties back on a piece of work. Although film composers may have royalty rights from a contract, the composer is not in control of its publication and thus may never receive royalties from performance-rights organizations, such as ASCAP. The composer is thus left with few choices in order to publish their own music, either by a self-sustaining business or by the process of standard marketing business. In the end, most composers opt for the latter and must be willing to create a work for a producer, cut ties with its copyright, and trust on low royalties from performance-rights organizations who will exploit an artist by using their creations (music) for business profit.

–            Ashley Venegas


References

Brabec, Jeffrey and Todd Brabec. “Music, Money, Success & the Movies: Part Two.” ASCAP. https://www.ascap.com/help/music-business-101/music-money-success-movies/movies-part2 (accessed February 19, 2019).

Brabec, Jeffrey and Todd Brabec. “Music, Money, Success & the Movies: Part Three.” ASCAP. https://www.ascap.com/help/music-business-101/music-money-success-movies/movies-part3 (accessed February 19, 2019).

Finkelstein, Herman. “The Composer and the Public Interest. Regulation of Performing Right Societies.” Law and Contemporary Problems 19, no. 2 (1954): 275-93. doi:10.2307/1190491.

Ringer, Barbara A. “Film and Copyrights.” Journal of the University Film Association 23, no. 2 (1971): 35-61. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/20687123.

Shankman, Ned N. “A Brief Study of Legal Problems in the Music Business.” Music Educators Journal 63, no. 7 (1977): 154-55. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/3395251.

Velez, William. “Performing-Rights Collectives: Dinosaurs of the New Millennium?” In Reflections on American Music: The Twentieth Century and the New Millennium. New York: Pendragon Press, 2000.

Zissu, Leonard. “The Copyright Dilemma of the Screen Composer.” Hollywood Quarterly 1, no. 3 (1946): 317-20. doi:10.2307/1209289.

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