It’s About Time

In the mid-1980s, a generation of composers born in the 1950s emerged with a sense of musical impatience to achieve something new, more immediate and direct. They were attentive to minimalism‘s accessibility and its creation of new audiences in a pluralistic time but also mindful of the intricacies of academic music which attracted more “sophisticated” listeners. This group was uninterested in accepting music’s future as a return to the past by way of a ready-made collage or quotation aesthetic (postmodernism) or a comfortable, organic tonal language that evokes late nineteenth-century Romanticism (neo-Romanticism). Instead, these composers, frequently dubbed “totalists,” matured at a time when European musical traditions have all but lost their privileged status, when recordings or references of non-Western music were more easily obtainable, when there was a rapid development in electronic music devices and techniques, and when jazz and rock had such a profound and continuing effect on American culture. All of these resources were suddenly no longer taboo. Most of the totalist composers have had experience in rock, and it is that constant, driving beat on which they build a complex set of polyrhythms that distinguishes their music. At times, the polyrhythms are simple, often they are much more complicated, but nevertheless, the perceptible conflicts and complexities between the polyrhythms and the steady beats are essential.


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Glenn Branca
Symphony No. 3:
39 seconds

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Because of the difficulties in determining which context some performers and composers were meant to be heard in, or because musicians did not want their work to be categorized at all with respects to classical traditions, older venues were revamped and new outlets were created. As early as 1977, the composer Rhys Chatham, as musical director of the conceptualist and minimalist venue The Kitchen in New York City, took a bold step by programming experimental rock music which by that time was also vying for intellectual approval. Minimalist influenced composers and performance artists Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson were becoming very popular attracting larger, more diverse audiences (the later unexpectedly scored a pop chart hit in 1982 with her single “O Superman”) and punk rocker Glenn Branca began writing “symphonies” for multiple electric guitars which were performed by an ensemble including future members of the rock band Sonic Youth. By the mid-1980s, however, composers such as Larry Polansky, Mikel Rouse, David First, Joshua Fried, and Nick Didkovsky, were not merely crossing over but actually erasing barriers. In 1986, three young composers, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe founded a new outlet for this music, the Bang On A Can Festival which, along with its offspring ensemble, the Bang On A Can All-Stars, has continued to be a popular and indiscriminating outlet for the new music of the 1990s.


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Michael Gordon
Four Kings Fight Five:
55 seconds

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Michael Gordon’s music typifies the totalist trend. It does not entirely concede to rock music or to classical traditions but instead employs an equal synthesis of both. Rhythm is the most immediate of his concerns, especially rhythmic dissonance: irregular rhythms and polyrhythms, abrupt tempo changes, and the implication of different meters played simultaneously. Works written for his own ensemble, the Michael Gordon Philharmonic, include the intricate Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not! (1983) and Four Kings Fight Five (1988); the titles alone suggest conflict. Four Kings Fight Five gradually builds up into an intricate web of simultaneous tempos similar to thick texture of individually layered rhythms of earlier maverick composers such as Charles Ives or Conlon Nancarrow. However, as the rhythmic complexity increases, the harmonic content becomes much clearer. Although the resulting rhythmic texture does not clearly indicate a fundamental, steady beat, the conflict of differing tempos is necessary and easily discernible and not to be muddled by dense harmonies. The texture of Gordon’s later work Yo Shakespeare (1992) is somewhat sparser involving, for the most part, only three independently different meters. What makes Yo Shakespeare so unique is the peculiar triplet quarter-note patterns not divisible in groups of three (i.e. four steady eighth-notes followed by four triplet quarter-notes followed by four eighth-notes, etc.). The notion is rather simple, but in performance, it is a difficult passage to perfect especially when set against entirely different rhythms. David Lang describes this aspect of his colleague’s music as a “simple, easy to understand way of destroying or exploding the tyranny of the bar line.”


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David Lang
The Anvil Chorus:
30 seconds

Rhythm is a major component of Lang’s music but it is for the most part less complex than that of his totalist colleagues. With the exception of rhythmically layered works like Grind to a Halt (1999) for orchestra and the wonderfully annoying I Fought the Law (1998) for chamber orchestra, Lang opts for a more direct approach and regularity. He explains that with his experience in rock and jazz bands, he noticed and appreciated that the “absolute straight-forward power of rhythm is where the action is.” He recognized that in music of the past, rhythm was treated as “the equivalent to melodic ornamentation.” By abolishing all decoration, rhythmic and melodic, he was left with an intelligible surface simple enough on which “something interesting” can be done. This regularity is noticeable in works ranging from the rhythmically aggressive and syncopated works such as Are You Experienced (1987), Cheating, Lying, and Stealing (1993), and Anvil Chorus (1990) to the more contemplative and subdued Orpheus Over and Under (1989). In recent works like Slow Movement (1993) and the passing measures (1998) he does away with an audible rhythmic pulse for an extremely slow and gradual unfolding. The former, with its dense texture, mistuned instruments and glacial development, seems similar to certain aspects of the electric guitar ensemble symphonies of Glenn Branca, while the later evokes a sort of heavy Brucknerian stateliness.


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Lois Vierk
Cirrus:
35 seconds

Besides rock, another major influence on composers of this generation has been the rhythmic complexity of non-Western music. Many composers of the second half of the century have taken inspiration from different musical cultures, but two composers stand out as transcending simple imitation by fusing Western music with other musical customs into their own unique style: Lois V Vierk and Evan Ziporyn. Many of Vierk’s compositions are scored for multiples of the same instrument: e.g. Go Guitars (1981) for five guitars, Simoon (1986) for eight cellos, Cirrus (1998) for six trumpets, etc. Although this concept was utilized by many minimalist and postminimalist composers, Vierk derived her homogeneous sound from her studies and performances of Japanese gagaku court music in which identical instruments play a line each at a different rate of speed. Ziporyn, who is also a member of the Bang On A Can All Stars, has written music for a typical gamelan orchestra (Aneh Tapo Nyata) but his extensive knowledge of various different types of music, their rhythms and their harmonies, have influenced many of his compositions ranging from jazz to Chinese pipa playing to Georgian male choral singing.

Totalist music has returned intuition and inspiration to experimentalism without unyielding, impersonal musical processes or paradigms. Rhythm is no longer the subservient partner to harmonic structure. Rhythms are highly complex yet still direct, they’re on the surface and are easily discernible since they are not shrouded by rigid compositional devices. American vernacular music such as rock is no longer considered low art but is instead used as a foundation on which to build while hoping to gain acceptance from listeners previously disillusioned by modernism’s intricacies, Cage’s chaos, and high art’s elitism. Above all, an extensive range of means were obtainable but used selectively and economically, the result being not a perplexing postmodern eclecticism but a new avant-garde music.

From It’s About Time
by Matthew Tierney
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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