Saturday, January 20, 2018

Coming to terms with ‘Blackstar’

Blackstar (2016) was David Bowie’s last album, released just two days before he died after years of struggling with heart attacks and a cancer diagnosis. For a long time, listening to it was simply too painful. I would listen, but I wouldn’t hear, exactly – I couldn’t turn on my usual listening skills.

A friend told me once how weeks after a serious car crash, he went to the lot where his now totaled car was. Turned the key and the battery still activated – the cassette that had been playing when he crashed was still on, the same spot, and the whole, horrifying memory of accident came back to him with the sound of the music.

My experience with Blackstar was like that. Overwhelming. Too real.

Two years on, and I am listening again, attentively – and I get it. What was confusing to me then through that veil of grief is clear now.

Of course, the album is almost exclusively about the experience of mortality, taking the mature recognition of death and personal suffering that we heard in The Next Day (2013) a step further. Where it gets thorny is in the depth of that personal experience and the pastiche of symbols that he uses. Not content to just say “it hurts to leave,” Bowie carves this incredibly rigorous and painful illustration of solipsistic isolation around the final, terminal, individual human experience and the way we recognize it in others through the invention of rituals. It's me that suffers in the only way I can, it seems to say, just like everybody else

The song “Blackstar” that leads off the album and its accompanying video show us the entire argument. As the “blackstar,” the dying artist is recognized, but unknowable, a blip against the background of dark-space existence. The image was used by one of Bowie's heroes, Elvis Presley, in the exact same way, as a reference to the individual experience of death.

After a vignette of a death ritual in the opening verse (“In the villa of Ormen / stands a solitary candle”), a few lines tie the personal to the universal, merely by emphasizing that he is simply one in an endless chain – “something happened on the day he died / his spirit rose a meter then stepped aside / another took his place and bravely cried, ‘I’m the Blackstar’.”

In the central section of the 10-minute song’s three-part structure, he is the voice of a trickster God who tells us that his purpose is unfathomable, “I can’t answer why / Just go with me / I’m-a take you home / Take your passport and shoes / your sedatives too / you’re a flash in the pan /  I’m the great I am!”

In the video, he is also a prophet for this isolationist religion, standing alone holding up the bible with a black star on the cover, symbolizing his own isolated experience; or standing at the doorway to a passage where dancers shake in rituals of individual suffering and death – involved in their own experiences. The jewel-encrusted skull that becomes the centerpiece of a new ritual shows how the deaths of other travelers are miracles that speak to us across the gulf that isolates us from one another.  (The space suit by the way it is a reference to son Duncan Bowie’s film, “Moon” – such a dad move). The choreography borrows from butoh, the Japanese post-war style of modern dance that trades in suffering, fragility, infirmity.

The song’s free jazz allusions back this up: free jazz is a kind of ultimate individual expression, yet performed together to make a whole sound both predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable. It is the solipsistic experience recognized through ritual as a collective phenomenon. The A-B-a structure itself represents transformation, with the final third (a) a repetition of the opening (A), but inflected by elements of the second third (B).

And there you have it. The rest of the album follows suit, with “Lazarus,” a meditation on his unique life and his legacy-as-a-resonance-as-after-life, the dark murder theme of “Sue,” the self-saturated and vainglorious teenage decadence of “Girl Loves Me” (with lyrics in Nadsat, the made-up slang dialect of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange), the timeless and darkly threatening, teasingly obscene nonsense of “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” (based on a 17th century play of the same name about incest), the dirty nostalgia and regret of “Dollar Days” (“don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you / I’m trying to / I’m dying to”). And of course, the more or less self-explanatory cryptograph “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (it's not just won’t – he really can’t).

In the dance of death we are individuals, chained in isolation, but linked together. I should be so lucky if my someday shuffle off this mortal coil could possess half the value, the truth, the grace of this example – it would be worth its weight in gold stardust.


Januay 20, 2018

Friday, September 15, 2017

'Terrible Twos'

A new work of mine and eight other premieres, duets by living composers, will be performed at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 18 at William Paterson University’s New Music Series, on a program titled “Terrible Twos.” The music was commissioned by Composers Concordance, a group of longstanding currently led by Gene Pritsker and Dan Cooper that regularly performs commissions and performs works by its members. This concert is the first event of Composers Concordance 2017-18 season.
            The program is mostly duets, split between performers Gene Pritsker and Greg Baker, electric guitars; Keve Wilson, oboe, and Kathleen Supové, piano; and Peter Jarvis, multi-percussion and Michiyo Suzuki, clarinet/ bass clarinet. They’ll be performing work by Randall Woolf, Gene Pritsker, Peter Jarvis, Greg Baker, David Saperstein, Dan Cooper, John Clark, and myself. The concert finale will be “a large semi-aleatoric piece” that will include all three duos performing as a sextet. 
My contribution will be in the clarinet and percussion duets, along with new pieces by John and Peter. The title of mine is “Lunatic,” as it was started before the recent total eclipse that captured the attention of all of North America. The event seemed to underscore what feels like a surreal time in American life and culture, one where we’re wrestling with a kind of national psychological complex related to who we were and who we are as a country and a species. The overlay of that superficial fixation onto the underlying forces of creation, symbolized by the eclipse, reveals a colorful, dark landscape of anxiety.
            Admission is free. The concert is in Shea Center for the Performing Arts, William Paterson University, 300 Pompton Road, Wayne, NJ 07470. I hope everyone can come and support both the Composers Concordance and the university’s New Music Series. Both deserve high praise for their relentless efforts to promote new music in high quality performances.

September 15, 2017

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Music Machine

Reading this article from AAAS, it suddenly occurs to me that the common argument about machines vs. humans in music is flawed. As I note in my last post about Liza Lim’s “How Forests Think,” we naturally hear the sounds of the forests as music – it is a human response. We turn the sound into music because we’re musical creatures that come from the forest. That small insight, applied here, provides the key to understanding our future role with technology and the arts.

Music isn’t necessarily in the making – deciding which notes and rhythms go together – but in the human response to organized sound, the enjoyment and participation of in the making and listening. That makes AI seriously less threatening. Will machines make music equal to that of humans in creativity, complexity, even spiritual depth? Sure! Will it matter? Nope.

Because, after all, what’s the point?

We ultimately will be able to teach computers how to respond to music like we do. And they will be capable of making music on par with a human composer or performer. But the musical experience itself is human and the need for humans to make music and to appreciate the music that is made, will never, ever go away. Machines are just us – an extension of us and an extension of that musical impulse.

This idea actually extends a slim hope for the economics of music – a weakly floating board to cling to amid the shipwreck of the music industry. As far back as Marshall McLuhan, students of culture have noted that it is only when an object’s use becomes obsolete that we, as a culture, begin to fully appreciate it. The value of paintings and appreciation for the skill of the illustrator increased with the advent of the photograph. Tape and LPs became highly prized when that had been eclipsed by CDs and digital downloads and streaming. We are seeing a rather sudden appreciation of the physical, printed book, separate from the books we read online (the scores of George Crumb and the rise of the graphic novel are just two examples that spring to mind). Once its usefulness is eclipsed, the human achievement of the old medium becomes the thing itself, a source of admiration and appreciation.

That’s where we’re headed with the use of live performing musicians for entertainment. Already it has become a kind of status symbol – only the poor wedding will have no live music. Musicians now can make a living as cover bands, some focusing on famous old acts like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, but some just cranking out the tunes at parties, human juke boxes – whether imitating artists or rendering them in a more personal style, doesn’t matter, so long as they’re not recordings but flesh and blood, communicating the rhythm.

It is common, too, to see live performance transcriptions of works never designed for live performance, like Frank Zappa’s “G-Spot Tornado” at the 1990s Yellow Shark concerts, or the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” by Alarm Will Sound, or the endless MIDI scores composed for video games performed by orchestras. The subtext there is clear: music is better with living human beings making the sound.

Not better because humans do it better; simply better because human.

It will be no surprise when a future sophisticated robot (like Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) can play Paganini perfectly. But because it’s no surprise, it will also be less valuable than a human achieving the same goal. A player piano can execute rhythms and counterpoints impossible for a human to play. The only reason to care is because a human dreamed up those impossible compositions.

Music is part of our evolution into the creatures we are now and technology is part of that. But the connection between our music and our biology is deep, and it exists now with or without technological aid, offering us immediate union with one another and with the world. We will carry that forward, come what may.

Let’s admit that the Turing Test is merely a landmark on the horizon, and that there will come a day when we literally can’t tell the difference between humans and machines, or the part of us that is human and the part that is machine – no matter how well we know the hybrid. That day is a long way off, but when it comes, the confusion will be best expressed in a song.

August 15, 2017

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Forests and ICE

ICE, photo taken from the group's website

The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) performs “How Forests Think,” 7:30 p.m. Monday, August 14 at Merkin Concert Hall, Lincoln Center

The program – part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart summer festival – takes it’s name from a work for 10 musicians by composer Liza Lim. (Perhaps coincidentally, this is also the title of an interesting book about interconnected rhythms of life experienced by Amazon forest natives.) In addition to Lim’s music, the program includes Pauline Oliveros’s “Earth Ears,” and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Aequilibria.” The ensemble will be conducted by Baldur Brönnimann and musician Wu Wei will perform on the sheng, a Chinese mouth-blown reed organ.

The thread of the program, obviously, is the connection between music and nature, something that is very much on my mind as I prepare for the course, Music and the Natural World, that I teach each Fall for freshman at The College of New Jersey. The topic runs deep and crosses all lines of human investigation, including biological and physical sciences, philosophy, religion, politics, the visual arts, dance, psychology and sociology. 

The reason for this blurring of lines is the root of music is deep in prehistory – it prefigures and shapes many aspects of human activity that reason would typically try to parse into separate channels for analysis. Music doesn't parse. Any part of it interconnects to any other part. (Try defining harmony, for instance, without talking about pitch, time and esthetic impressions.) Music organizes  people like . On the one hand it lifts individuality and makes us conscious of time; on the other, it submerges our individual identities into the pool of the communal response, which holds all of the past, present and future in one bowl.

Those realizations are apparent with very little investigation – just an open set of ears and a heart tuned to an old song. Lim's composition uses for its model the life of the forest itself, the activity, growth and structures that define it. We hear forest sounds as music – is that because an ancestral association of good emotions with the sound of the forest? Or are we anthropomorphizing those sounds, turning them into human-style communication, reflecting our humanness back onto the non-human forest? Or is it because our understanding of music emanates from there, so we are ourselves manifestations of the forest? (Answer: yes. Mark this spot on the map in your brain: this is the approximate place where words stop, while the landscape of music keeps right on going.)

ICE is one of the best new music groups around, so you’re pretty much guaranteed a memorable and probably definitive performance. You can read and watch clips from my 2013 interview with founder and former artistic director Claire Chase on TheStreet’s website [The video link in the article isn't working. Use this one to watch the video.] Tickets to "How Forests Think" are $30 and are available through the Mostly Mozart website ( or by calling CenterCharge at 212-721-6500.

August 8, 2017

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Sō Percussion Summer Institute

Sō Percussion’s Summer Institute begins Sunday, July 16 in Princeton and continues through the end of the month. The group (shown above in a press photo from its website) has eight performances scheduled at various venues on and around Princeton University campus, including a 7:30 p.m. Thursday appearance at Small World Coffee – a typically crowded Witherspoon Street hangout where singer/songwriters and other small ensembles perform.

In particular, the Princeton Composer Concert, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 22, at Matthews Acting Studio, Lewis Center for the Arts, 185 Nassau St., Princeton, will feature the work of seven graduate student composers. The Composers Guild of New Jersey – where I am a board member – has commissioned works by composers selected by Sō Percussion Summer Institute, with the goal of encouraging young New Jersey composers. CGNJ also donated money for other expenses related to the performance, including videotaping.

Donations of nonperishable food, toiletries, and diapers for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) will be collected at specific Summer Institute concerts, including the July 22 performance. Audience members may place their donations in the designated boxes outside the performance space.

For more information, visit

July 13, 2017

Saturday, July 8, 2017

String Quartet premiere – Locrian Chamber Players, June 2, 2017

I've posted the recording below on Facebook and Twitter already, but I'm putting it here as well. This is the June 2 premiere of my second String Quartet, completed in 2016 and performed by the Locrian Chamber Players at Riverside Church in NYC. (The group's photo, above, is borrowed from its Facebook page. You can also follow @LocrianPlayers on Twitter.)

The Locrian performs only music of the last 10 years and the group has been around for over 20 years. Since pretty much everything they do is new, they've developed an unusual sensitivity to the interpretation of never-before-performed works. Like mine. I am deeply grateful to the players for their insightful, skilled and disciplined approach:
Conrad Harris, violin
Calvin Wiersma, violin
Daniel Panner, viola
Greg Hesselink, cello
The four movements are in a single soundfile, with brief silences in between, recorded live.
1. Circle Dance
2. Fantasy
3. Churchyard
4. Drum

All four movements play with materials from folk music, pentatonic scales in particular. The Locrian hand out program notes only after the concert – a practice I fully support. The note on this quartet from the concert:

The four movements are intended as songs of a sort – simple structures, direct language, concise material. Like a dance suite, they are rooted in physical movement. The titles were added long after the quartet was complete. In hindsight, I would say the music reflects an awareness of the way communities express themselves in individual lives, and the way individuals act together. The circle dance could be at a wedding. The fantasy is like a county fair, with doses of joy, sorrow, confusion and weirdness. The churchyard is a stroll among the headstones, the lives lost beneath the grass. The last movement is inspired by a Native American drum team at a pow-wow: the team sits around a large drum, each member has a beater and they keep time together as they sing.
The rest of the program featured similarly wonderful performances. I have to shy away from a proper review, since it would be impossible for me to be impartial. I love everything on the program. But as a composer, with my own work on the same program, there were two pieces that stood out as my favorites. The first was "The Gates of Sleep"  – a gemstone setting of short text by Virgil by Locrian co-founder David Macdonald, which opened the evening. Unpretentious, meditative, concise and powerful – I heard it once and I wanted to hear it again immediately. I just loved it.

The other was the 2007 string quartet "Blossoming" by Toshio Hosokawa. It's a dramatic, far-sighted piece that develops materials less from the traditions of classical music and more from the sounds of the natural world, exploiting a tendency that has been present in Japanese traditional music for centuries. Glissando-ing trills that enter gently, like the whispers of birds in flight over and around the listener, are one hallmark – a stunning performance of an important piece. I need to get the score.

Michael Gordon also had a really interesting string quartet on the program, "Clouded Yellow" (2010). Guitarist Stanley Alexandrowicz (who had a recital in Ewing, NJ, recently which I wrote about in my previous blog post) opened the second half with Brian Fennelly's "Prelude and Maverick Tango" (2014); and mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and pianist Jonathan Faiman played George Crumb's "The Yellow Moon of Andalusia" (2012). The performance of the Crumb had all the dizzying colors, dissolving-into-silence drama and serious whimsy that you expect from him; the score is reminiscent of, but perhaps not equal to, "Ancient Voices of Children." In addition to having a great voice, Jacqueline's acting skills stitched the invisible threads of Crumb's music into a fine carpet.

Here's the complete program.

Love the Locrian Chamber Players – next concert, 8 p.m. August 25, featuring work by Steve Reich, John Luther Adams, Adrienne Albert, Aaron Alter and others.

July 9, 2017

Guitar and Friends at 1867 Sanctuary

Thursday night (July 6) I had the great pleasure of attending a recital by a friend of mine, classical guitarist StanleyAlexandrowicz, at the 1867 Sanctuary, a de-commissioned Presbyterian church in Ewing.

To be accurate, I only heard half of the recital. A family obligation meant I couldn’t get there until 9 p.m. and it started at 8. The bit I missed was some rarely heard 19th century repertoire – when I walked in, Stanley was just finishing up the pieces at the end of the first half.

Composer Kendall Kennison has written a few pieces for guitar and Stanley played two of them on the second half of the program. Kendall is a friend from my Rutgers days when we were both students of Robert Moevs and has for many years now been a professor at Goucher College. He was there with his wife Debbie, also a good friend and a former piano student of mine, and they were celebrating Debbie’s birthday.

The half of the program I heard was worth the trip. Stanley is a excellent player and a thoughtful interpreter of music of all styles. He uses a guitar modeled after 19th century types that uses additional bass strings over a second, unfretted neck. These come in handy in both period music and some contemporary pieces written specifically to take advantage of the extra low notes. Guitar builder Tom Sommerville of Hamilton was also in attendance. [see correction at the end]

Kendall’s music (we heard the difficult Sonata No. 1 and the short romp, “Backanally”) has a jewel-like geometry – Stanley said some people have heard a darkness and unsettled quality, but I don’t hear that. I hear a kind of logical love – a fluid, sparking architecture.

Carlton Wilkinson, Stanley Alexandrowicz and Kendall Kennison. 
Photo courtesy Stanley Alexandrowicz

Also in attendance was composer and conductor Robert Butts, director of the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey []. Stanley played his “Early Morning Suite.” The style here is so conservative as to verge into historic homage (in styles ranging from Ralph Vaughan Williams to J.S. Bach), yet Butt’s music remains surprising and engaging, robust and beautiful.

The 1867 Sanctuary is a newer space and the managers are trying to increase the audience for it, to make the venue an active, vital community center for the arts. Operating costs are roughly $25,000/year, most of which is insurance, putting pressure on the group that now runs it, Preservation New Jersey, to ramp its activities and its visibility as a statewide arts attraction.

For me – who spent nearly 20 years in Trenton, moving away from there about 20 years ago – coming to the former church was the completion of a full circle: we held both my mother’s and her sister’s memorial services there when they died. My Mom went first, way back in 1982. My aunt, who was held in a kind of saintly esteem by the members of my family and her extensive community of friends, died much later, in 2007. My aunt learned the flute late in life, and got a lot of joy from it, turning it, as she did everything else, into an opportunity to make new friends and explore new horizons. I think she (and my mom) would be thrilled to see the church being developed as an arts venue.

It was great to catch up with my friends, if only for a few minutes at intermission and after the concert, sitting on benches in the old cemetery. I look forward to attending other concerts in the space.


CORRECTION: This post originally said Stanley's guitar "was built by Tom Sommerville of Hamilton." That was incorrect and my misunderstanding. See Stanley's note in the comments of this post.
--C. 7/8/17