Freedom Caught in Notation

I wrote my “American Composer” column for Chamber Music magazine this month – though it won’t be out till March – on John Halle, one of the eight composers of the Common Sense collective. And, as often happens, I obtained a generous influx of his music, so I uploaded seven pieces to PostClassic Radio. John’s vocal music employs political texts – from Project for the New American Century, Larry Summers, D.C. activist Sam Smith – that sound pretty shocking when set to music with seeming innocence. (Much the way, I suppose, that Allan Kozinn once wrote that Custer’s hate-spewing memoires sound in my Custer and Sitting Bull.) My real interest, though, is in John’s rhythms, a typical example given here from his 1997 piece Spooks (the instruments are flute, oboe, violin, cello, and two guitars): 

Look at that: triplets moving to dotted quarters in the flute, septuplets grouped in sixes in the oboe, triplet quarters grouped in fives and fours in the violin, five-beat patterns in the cello and first guitar, over a dotted-quarter pulse in the second guitar. Pure totalism. You can tell me no such style exists, and I’ll bury you with examples. Call it whatever you want, I don’t care. Metametrics. And that doesn’t at all mean that John’s music sounds like Michael Gordon’s, Ben Neill’s, Evan Ziporyn’s, Mikel Rouse’s, Art Jarvinen’s, mine, and so on. He’s got his own fresh way of speeding up and slowing down through lines nonsynchronously over a pulse that ties everything together, more jazz-sounding than the other totalists (he started out as a jazz pianist), and the music would sound improvised if the harmonies didn’t fit together so snugly. Amazing stuff.
John Halle is a man after my own heart. He used to be an alderman in New Haven, and his political writings are fearless. One of the first things Google attributes to him is an article on the wealth tax, and over at his humble-looking web site, he’s got some excellent articles on musical politics, including the best debunking yet of Joseph Straus’s MQ article claiming that the 12-toners never wielded any power in academia, and a report on the nefarious dealings of Mario Davidovsky. The kind of stuff that, were I to post it here, 20 people would write in to cry foul – and yet it’s god’s own truth. God bless ‘im.


  1. Rodney Lister says

    I was very impressed when I heard John Halle, introducing a piece of his in a concert at MIT, excoriate the baby boomers for producing both Dick Cheney and Charles Wuorinen. As well we all might.
    KG replies: That goes along with the theme of his piece “Apology to Younger Americans.” But you know, I thought the baby boomers were people born between 1946 and 1965. I don’t see why we have to take the blame for Cheney and Wuorinen.
    Only slightly related, I noticed today that Joe Biden and Meredith Monk were born the same day, November 20, 1942. Can we take credit for them?

  2. says

    That piece looks lots of fun to play, though I think it would call for a rehearsal retreat. My group will often do this for rhythmically demanding grooves like this. London’s Icebreaker is similar – cellist Audrey Riley told me they had to go away for a week in isolation to learn Michael Gordon’s Trance rhythms, which is why they sound so, ahem, kickass (sorry).

  3. mclaren says

    Interesting how West Coast composers who’ve been doing this kind of thing since the 1980s never get identified as totalists. They don’t exist. Only folks east of the Hudson actually did this stuff. Maybe it’s because the West Coast composers mainly used computers and sequencers, as in John Bischoff’s “Next Tone, Please,” or my own pieces using 17 against 19 aginst 23 & so forth, or because the West Coast Composers use live acoustic instruments with oddball non-standard notations, as with Bill Wesley’s polymetric totalist pieces.
    Remember: if it didn’t happen east of the Hudson, it didn’t happen, period.
    Never mind me, I’m just cranky now that Obama and Biden are backpedaling on their pledge to proescute the war criminals in this maladministration, and especially since Obama announced that the Guantanamo Bay torture facility won’t be shut down in the first 100 days.
    Not only should Guatanamo Bay’s torture chambers be shut down the instant, Obama takes office, they should be burned down, blown up, plowed under and the ground should be sowed with salt to make sure nothing ever grows there again.
    I guess it’s just me. I’m “ranting and raving,” “in need of therapy,” suffering from “probable mental defect,” and, as those lively lads on Sequenza 21 wisely proncounded, “I doubt you are even a composer.” Standard stuff. Say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss. I’m just waiting for Obama to announce “We do not torture” and then Biden can hold a press conference explaining “We don’t want the first warning sign to be a mushroom cloud” when they invade Pakistan.
    KG replies: Come on, Brian, I’ve been calling West Coasters Art Jarvinen and Chris Brown totalists for years, while I’d never seen any of Halle’s ensemble scores until two weeks ago – and he works in the same building I do! (He’s in the conservatory, I’m in the music department, and they might as well be different planets.) What am I supposed to do, drive to California and make house calls to look at everyone’s scores out there? Is there no mail pickup in California?