My Magnificent Seven

My three weeks at Atlantic Center for the Arts flew by in a pleasant blur. Getting tremendous free tech support from the composers who came to work with me, I achieved my long-delayed goal of being able to play keyboards off of my new laptop, and wrote and performed a little 13-limit tuning study, Fugitive Objects, to celebrate the fact. But I was kept busier than the other composers, and composing took second place to a very helpful kind of networking. The nine of us met every afternoon; I taught a lot about microtonality, and they coached me on technological skills, everything from programming the “Dashboard” on my laptop to how to get microtones in Logic, the music software program that’s been declared verboten in the Bard College electronic studio, but that I’m about to buy and start using anyway. The more significant meetings, though, were those we had between 10 PM and 1:30 AM, where, over liberal amounts of single-malt scotch, we listened to tons of music from half a dozen iPods, as well as from my 13,000-mp3 hard drive. I got to know my composers’ music very well, and I am happy to introduce you to them – listing them in reverse alphabetical order:

Scott Unrein, a doctoral student at University of Missouri KC, was the one whose iPod so matched my own new music list that I started exulting when I found a rare piece he didn’t know – a feat in which he reciprocated all too often. He is a devotee of the quiet, atmospheric aesthetic typified by Jim Fox’s Cold Blue label, and his own music has migrated from a rhythmic, Reich-influenced postminimalism to a sustained lyricism of tenatative saxophone lines over tremoloing chords and ostinatos quite elegant in their simply metamorphosing logic. Scott’s also an active podcaster of new music, and his Nonpop station runs parallel to my Postclassic Radio and garners many times as many listeners.

Maria Panayotova, originally from Bulgaria but completing a doctorate at Cincinnati College-Conservatory, used to write soulful, metrically fluid acoustic music, often with vocals that evinced an almost unconscious-seeming influence of Balkan folk music, falling into lovely patterns of quick 5/8. In recent years, however, she has switched entirely to electronics, and has started making her own video as well, based in one case on geometric patterns found in forest images, and in another on a cute children’s story about a traffic light that baffled a town by starting to glow blue. An accomplished pianist, she embedded a section of Schumann’s Kinderscenen in the shimmering electronics of her In the Forest video, which became clearly audible after she pointed it out. She kindly introduced me to Soundhack, showed me how she did it, and now I’m Soundhacking away like a hipster.

Matt McBane recently moved to New York City from Los Angeles, where he has started an ensemble of violin (himself – no fewer than three of our composers were violinists), cello, bass, piano, and drums. The ensemble is yet unnamed, but has several upcoming performances booked, to which I’ll try to alert you. One of his formative experiences was conducting a performance of Reich’s Eight Lines, and his music is often marked by a fanatically detailed sense of slow textural transformation. A new work, Drivin’, replaces rests with notes in a maniacal 5/4 rhythm demanding a concentration that only the fearless enthusiasm of youth could negotiate, but other of his pieces are simpler and more pop-influenced.

Due to her formidable resumé and creative prolificity, Caroline Mallonée, who’s got a doctorate from Duke and teaches at the Walden School, earned for the duration the nickname “Alpha Male.” Carrie’s ambitious chamber pieces, such as Throwing Mountains, play off of permutational schemes developed as an expansion of Reich’s technique in Piano Phase (notice how often that name comes up?). Capable of the kind of bristlingly impressive ensemble works that are good for getting commissions, she also has a penchant for simple pieces exploring clear tonal and microtonal phenomena with a Tom Johnson-like directness, and the violin trio she whipped up for herself and her fellow violinists in the last few days explored the harmonic series in a fetching idiom of light folk fiddling.

Andrea La Rose was familiar to me, and will have been to many readers, as the feisty flutist-composer from New York’s Anti-Social Music ensemble who weighs in with considerable fire at Sequenza 21. She’s completing a dissertation on Rzewski at CUNY, and when a horoscope reading attributed to her an “excess of vitality,” it was considered apt enough to become a running gag. She writes high-energy music that usually forays into improvisation at points – thus the Rzewski interest – combining it with minimalist tendencies, so that some of her pieces achieve the odd effect of differing considerably from performance to performance, but maintaining a strong sense of identity in any one reading. I particularly admire her Concerto for Anyone (PDF available at her web site), an entirely instruction-based piece that so reduces concerto form to its essence that a concerto is bound to result no matter what players are used. Prolific and an expert performer, she’s bouncing among a dozen good ideas, and wherever she lands will doubtless cause merriment, consternation, insight, and possibly the End of Civilization As We Know It.

No description of Teresa Hron will sound very credible. A Canadian living in Amsterdam, Terri plays the recorder, travels with a bass recorder almost her own height – and is one of the most challenging rhythmic minds of the age. She studied Carnatic Indian music in India, absorbed unnerving subtleties of rhythm, and came home to apply them to music she plays with her recorder ensemble, as well as more pop-oriented groups with which she’s associated. So she sets up these long, complex isorhythms (e.g., 7 + 5 + 3 + 3, 7 + 5 + 3 + 3, 7 + 5 + 3 + 1), within which certain rhythmic motives recur at tempos of 4-against-3 and 7-against-5, often over the barline. It’s a notational nightmare, though, as she insists, the music is quirkily melodic, and doesn’t sound complex. I’d have declared her crazy, except that she played recordings of herself and her Dutch Indian-rhythm-aficionado friends performing her scores quite competently. Suffice it to say: I nearly fried my brain trying to disentangle her rhythmic structures, and I wrote the Nancarrow book.

(At the final concert Andrea and Terri played duets they had written using copious quantities of 4/6 and 5/6 meter, and if you think that’s impossible, then go back and read the “Rhythm” chapter of Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources.)

Jim Altieri I’ve written about here before, for he’s the genius who implemented John Luther Adams’s The Place Where You Go to Listen installation in Max/MSP. He’s the kind of guy who, if you muse aloud about some weird transformational effect you’d like to hear, will come to you the next day with a disc containing software he devised to effect it. One of the heirs to the James Tenney aesthetic, he’s writing (among other things) string pieces that glissando slowly through various overtone and undertone series’, elegantly simple in conception and quite sensuous and surprising in effect. He was also the third violinist, and much of his compositional technique is based on the fact that, like Tony Conrad, he can play microtonal intervals on his violin and bring out the difference tones and missing fundamentals quite clearly. (Jim and Carrie play together in a band called Glissando bin Laden and his Musichideen, but you didn’t hear about it from me.)

Along with Mike Maguire, whom I’ve already written about, that was the group. They impressed not only me but the poets, architects, and administrators at ACA with their omnipresent energy and professionalism. The final concert, in which most of them performed, was remarkable for its absence of reference to any 20th-century idiom – no hint was left that modernism had ever existed, and the future sounded wide open. I imbibed their musical optimism and curiosity like a healing nectar, and washed it down with 12-year-old Bowmore. You’ll be hearing more about them all, and not only from me.

(I’d also like to mention two alternate composers, who, had we had world enough and time, I wish could have joined us: Paula Matthusen, a composer of lovely music for voice and electronics, and Jacob Barton, a young take-no-prisoners microtonalist who’s already attracted attention in the pitch-splitting world. I hope to get to work with them someday as well.)


  1. Henry Lowengard says

    It sounds like the Xenoharmonicists, Xenorhythmists and Xenotimbrists were well represented!