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Disparate Stairway Radical Other (excerpt, 1995)
Lucia Dlugoszewski

American composer Lucia Dlugoszewski (1931-2000) cultivated a distinctive voice amidst the chaotic chorus of avant-garde music in the second half of the 20th century. She studied with Edgard Varèse in the early 1950s, and her music shows his influence, as well as that of New York School composers such as John Cage, who became advocates of her work. Dlugoszewski favored the use of unconventional instruments, such as the “timbre piano” (a systematic expansion of that instrument’s acoustic potential by means of Cagean “preparations” as well as unorthodox methods of exciting the strings) and a series of custom-built devices—some 100 in number—constructed according to her designs. Like many in her milieu she was powerfully affected by Eastern philosophy and its calls to reclaim the immediacy of experience. Through extremely subtle nuances of timbre, provocative silences, and brusque juxtapositions of sonic material, Dlugoszewski sought to circumvent perceptual habits and confront the listener with the immediacy of sound. She writes, “The first concern of all music in one way or another is to shatter the indifference of hearing, the callousness of sensibility, to create that moment of solution we call poetry, our rigidity dissolved when we occur reborn—in a sense, hearing for the first time.”

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Source: Disparate Stairway Radical Other


Played 229 time(s).

June 21, 2013, 1:57pm

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Franco Donatoni: Algo IV (1996)

From the album Chamber Music

In a compositional milieu where so many artists succumb either to the Scylla of late-romantic necrophilia or the Charybdis of bloodless avant-garde epigonism, it is refreshing to discover music that uses the old classical instrumentarium to novel effect. Such is the work of the Italian composer Franco Donatoni (1927-2000).

Like so many of his European contemporaries, Donatoni cut his teeth in the 1950s at the Darmstadt summer courses, a crucible of avant-garde musical thought. Here he was introduced to many of the major figures of the scene, such as Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez, and Cage. Although Donatoni viewed Cage with suspicion, he shared the American’s radical critique of compositional agency. His response to the crisis of ungrounded subjectivity in contemporary music was not to be found in chance procedures, but in a systematic process of recomposition through rules of substitution and permutation derived from the parametric analytical principles of serialism.

Donatoni’s music is generated by the ruthless cannibalization of earlier works, as fragments of scores are subjected to permutational schemes in order to form new material in a manner inspired by the alchemical process of sublimation. (Musicologist David Osmond-Smith’s description of Donatoni’s techniques includes such graphic anatomical metaphors as “cancerous proliferation” and “dismemberment.”) This method could of course be brought to bear on any music, not just Donatoni’s own. For example, his 1967 composition Etwas ruhiger in Ausdruck (1967) is based on a multidimensional analysis of eight bars from Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, No. 2.

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While the transmutation of pre-existing material follows certain strict rules, its subsequent rearrangement into new configurations is done more or less according to taste. Following the moment-to-moment logic of musical transmutation, without a preconceived vision of how the composition is to unfold, Donatoni sought a musical flow that emerged from the very notational labor of composition, from the “juggling” of notes and proportions to which critics might attempt to reduce this eminently writerly form of music. For Donatoni there is no such thing as creation, only transformation: He declares, “I am not an artist but an artisan.”

After a fallow period in the early 1970s, in which he battled a spell of depression aggravated by the deaths of his mother and his old mentor Bruno Maderna, Donatoni returned to composition. Rejecting the conventional model of composing big orchestral pieces that were performed once and then forgotten, he now focused on producing works for soloists and chamber ensembles with whom he had a direct personal connection. His music from the late 1970s on is marked by deft complexity and cerebral playfulness. Algo IV, one of the last works Donatoni wrote before his death in 2000, is derived from the earlier work  Algo, a 1977 piece based in turn upon the recomposition of a guitar lick by Django Reinhardt.


Played 251 time(s).

May 08, 2013, 2:19pm

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Univers Zero: “Rouages”

From the album The Hard Quest (1999)

Since the 1970s, the Belgian band Univers Zero has been forging an idiosyncratic synthesis of pseudo-medievalism, dark metal, and 20th- century chamber music. (The band’s homepage bears the motto, “If Stravinsky had a rock band, it would sound like this.”) A vital part of the important and under-appreciated European progressive rock scene, Univers Zero has maintained an unmistakable sound over 35 years of activity and a constantly shifting roster of musicians. 

The band’s first albums, 1313 (originally released as Univers Zero in 1977) and Heresie (1979) were anchored by drummer Daniel Denis and guitarist Roger Trigaux. Their distinctive chamber-rock sound emerged with the addition of Michel Berckmans (oboe and bassoon) and keyboardist Emmanuel Nicaise. Univers Zero made a name for itself in the early 1970s by opening for French prog-juggernaut Magma. Later in the decade they toured with another pioneering group, Art Zoyd, and became active in the “Rock in Opposition" (RIO) movement, a cabal of mutually supportive progressive/experimental bands active from 1978.

Trigaux left the group at the end of the decade in order to start his own band, Present. Univers Zero’s three albums from the 1980s, Ceux de dehors (1981), Uzed (1984), and Heatwave (1987), marked a shift to a darker tone and a heavier reliance on electronic instruments. After Heatwave, Denis left Univers Zero to pursue a solo career and join up with Art Zoyd for a number of releases. With his departure, the band was effectively mothballed. After a 12-year hiatus, Denis and Berckmans brought Univers Zero back to life in 1999, releasing three new albums over the next five years. A live album, a set of archival recordings from the mid-1980s, and a new studio album have appeared since then.

Drawn from The Hard Quest, the album that launched the group’s third incarnation, the song “Rouages” (meaning cogs or wheels) evokes parallels with the jagged chamber works of Stravinsky or Bela Bartok, the gothic cadences of Dead Can Dance, and the imagined medieval music of Moondog.

Univers Zero


Played 673 time(s).

October 25, 2012, 9:19am

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Erwin Schulhoff: Bassnachtigal (1922)

From the album Divertissement / Concertino

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was a Czech composer of German-Jewish descent whose compositions from the 1920s represent a relatively rare musical manifestation of the Dada movement of Weimar Republic Germany. His highly imaginative works from this period include the early piano piece In futurum (from his 1919 set of piano pieces, Five Picturesques), consisting entirely of rests of varying rhythmic values (see below); the Sonata Erotica for Solo Mother-Trumpet, which features an explicitly notated fake orgasm for soprano voice; and Das Wolkenpumpe (The Cloud Pump), a set of short chamber songs based on an absurdist text by the Dada poet Hans Arp.

In 1929 Schulhoff completed an ambitious operatic tragicomedy based on the story of Don Juan, entitled Flames. Combining musical elements of 19th-century German opera, jazz, and Gregorian chant, this boldly polystylistic work flopped in its premiere and disappeared from the repertoire until a 1995 revival.  In 1932, Schulhoff wrote a massive cantata on the text of the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, a work that signaled his adoption of the doctrine socialist realism propagated in the Soviet Union under Stalin. A simplified, monumental mode of composition would characterize the remainder of his music, in which programmatic symphonies featured prominently. Doubly damned as a socialist and a Jew, Schulhoff was imprisoned by the Germans in 1941 and died the following year in a Bavarian concentration camp.

Schulhoff’s 1922 composition Bassnachtigal (Bass-nightingale) entrusts a virtuosic birdsong to the voice of the typically unlyrical contrabassoon, a gesture at once absurd and touchingly sincere in its attempt to transcend conventional musical associations. The composer penned a short prefatory poem to accompany the score, beginning with the lines, “The divine spark may be present / in a liver sausage or in a contrabassoon.”

Schulhoff’s “silent piece” In Futurum


Played 133 time(s).

May 14, 2011, 5:26pm

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Maurice Ohana: Satyres for two flutes (1976)

From the album Complete Chamber Music

Born in Morocco, raised in Spain, and active most his life in France, Maurice Ohana (1913-1992) was a cosmopolitan composer whose vast and heterogeneous body of work defies easy stylistic categorization. Ohana belongs to what musicologist Harry Halbreich calls the “alternative avant-garde”—those modernist composers who plied their trade in relative isolation, outside the primary institutional channels of support. He was a self-conscious musical outsider, stating proudly that his education “owes more to Andalusian folk music, African, and Berber music, than to Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms.”

In 1947, Ohana founded with three other like-minded composers the group Zodiaque, opposed to both serialist and neo-romantic tendencies and based on the organic development of folksong melodies into a modern compositional idiom. During this time, Ohana’s work was heavily influences by the Spanish traditional music with which he grew up. But by the mid-1960s, he had developed a mature and highly syncretic style that encompassed contemporary avant-garde elements such as extended instrumental technique and microtonality as well as various world music influences, including Afro-Cuban rhythmic structures and aspects of east Asian theater music. He also invented two instruments used frequently in his later music: a ten-string guitar and a zither tuned in third-tones.

The composer with whom Ohana felt the closest affinity was likely Claude Debussy, another great innovator who was hostile to all schools and dogmas. Ohana composed a Tombeau (a musical tribute to a dead composer) for Debussy in 1962, and his later work Sacrale d’Ilx was written for oboe, horn, and harpsichord, the ensemble of Debussy’s planned fourth sonata, which the French composer did not live to write. Satyres evokes inevitably Debussy’s use of the flute in pieces such as Syrinx and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.


Played 149 time(s).

April 27, 2011, 6:25pm

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Carlos Chavez: Energía for nine instruments (1925)

From the album Xochipilli, La Hija de Colquide Suite, Tambuco, Energia, Toccata

Along with Julián Carrillo and Silvestre RevueltasCarlos Chavez was one of the leaders of Mexican musical modernism in the early 20th century. Chavez was a spirited “public intellectual” of modern music, writing copiously for the popular press, collaborating with Edgard Varèse in organizing the Pan-American Association of Composers, and conducting for 21 years the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, the country’s first permanent symphony orchestra. As director of the national conservatory in Mexico from 1928-1933, Chavez oversaw wide-ranging reforms in curriculum, including the study of indigenous musical traditions and a compositional focus on “new musical possibilities.”

Chavez’s position as an visionary of musical modernism was cemented by his 1937 book Toward a New Music: Music and Electricity, which stemmed from a series of writings first published in El Universal in Mexico City in 1932. Although Chavez wrote compellingly of the unlimited possibilities of “electric music,” he did not make use of them in his own work. In this respect, Toward a New Music can be compared to Ferruccio Busoni’s Sketch of a New Aesthetics of Music (1907), another influential piece of writing on music technology by a composer who never touched the stuff himself.

Composed for an unconventional chamber ensemble of piccolo, flute, bassoon, horn, trumpet, bass trombone, viola, cello, and double bass, Energía was commissioned in 1925 by Varèse’s International Composers’ Guild, but not premiered until 1931. Evoking by turns the raw outbursts of German expressionism and the dissonant counterpoint of the American “ultra-modernists,” Energía is strikingly unique in its complete disavowal of repetition. The work fulfill’s Chavez vision of “a music that continually evolves from itself, the entire piece constituting a single, long, main theme.”


Played 102 time(s).

March 28, 2011, 12:28pm

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Josef Matthias Hauer: Zwölftonspiel for violin, cello, accordion, and piano four-hands (October 1957)

From the album Zwölftonspiele

The impression was bizarre enough…  I knocked at the white door. It opened, and before me there stood an old Chinese sage in his long nightshirt.  It was Hauer. He had a white Van Dyke beard. “I’ve already been waiting quite a while for you,” he said without any surprise.” Then he asked me in, got back into bed, and spoke with deep bitterness about Thomas Mann, Darmstadt, and Theodor Adorno. With every word it became clearer to me that here the excess pressure of a volcano brought to the point of eruption by increasing isolation was venting itself. But the strangeness of this man had traces of prophecy about it… The compositions he showed me were all very similar. Most of the pieces were piano duets or string quartets. “Do take it with you if you want to read it,” Hauer said. I did not want to take the responsibility upon myself. “What do you mean?” he asked. “When you’ve read it, just throw it away. I write something new every day.” (H. H. Stuckenschmidt)

The more I learn about Josef Matthias Hauer, the more fascinating he becomes. (This is my second post on the Viennese composer; in October 2009 I shared a movement from Hauer’s 7th Suite for orchestra from 1926.) It is now fairly well known that Hauer shares the distinction of the discovery of twelve-tone composition (albeit of a distinct form) with Arnold Schoenberg—although the Ukrainian composer Yefim Golishev also has claims in this regard.  In spite of their sometimes acrimonious dispute over intellectual priority, Hauer and Schoenberg supposedly considered jointly publishing a book on twelve-tone technique in the 1920s.  

Through his friendship with the artist Johannes Itten, Hauer was involved with the activities of the Bauhaus during its “expressionist” phase in the early 1920s. In the synaesthetic spirit of the times, Itten and Hauer worked together to develop theories on the correspondence of pitch and color. For a time there was talk of establishing a musical equivalent of the Bauhaus in Weimar with Hauer as its director.  

An intense personality convinced of the convergence of rationality and mysticism, Hauer was supposedly the model for a number of characters in contemporary German-language literature, including Magister Ludi in Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (1943).

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Portrait of Hauer by Christian Schad (1927)

Then there is the music: already in his earlier work, Hauer’s version of twelve-tone composition was something quite distinct from the dominant expressionist vein of Schoenberg and company. But later his musical style became even more idiosyncratic. Beginning in 1939, Hauer began calling all of his compositions Zwölftonspiele (“twelve-tone games”). At first, these pieces were numbered, but later Hauer began titling them simply with the date of their composition. In these works, the act of composition is reduced to a kind of self-executing algorithm, and the music takes on a corresponding quality of mathematical clarity and unpretentiousness. As Steffen Schleiermacher writes, “The tonal range of the pieces is as a rule very limited, the melodic and rhythmic figures always remain the same, there are no great agogic phrasing lines, there is neither development to high points nor release of tension, and yet…the music does not remain in one place. Rather, it seems to move sideways.”

In these modest, quotidian compositions, Hauer achieved the most staggering transcendence of basic stylistic assumptions of classical music. The twelve-tone games are a kind of atonal Muzak, which in their disavowal of pathos attain new heights of musical sublimity. Hauer’s music (and not only his) disproves the popular notion voiced by composers such as George Rochberg that atonal music is constitutionally restricted to a single expressive register: this music knows joy, playfulness, and sprightly humor. An anonymous reviewer of this album nicely expressed its effect on the auditor: “These little essays in pure music are like perfect crystals. […]  After listening to this disc, I felt alert, calm, and clear-headed. I felt as though the electro-chemical circuitry in my brain was set straight to run on its proper lines of neural communication by this cerebral music.”

In 1947, Hauer wrote:

I reject all my modern musical ideas of composition which I developed along the path to knowledge because I recognize only the great, complete, cosmic, eternally unchangeable, absolute music— the genuine guardian; the most holy, most spiritual, most precious in the world; the heart and understanding; the satisfactory manifestation of the world order as religion; the original language which directly increases reason; the Spirit conceiving God’s Word; the art of all arts; the knowledge of all knowledges—in short because I recognize only the twelve-tone game.

Distinguishing specious from genuine sources of wisdom, the eternal outsider Hauer signed this manifesto “not from the university, but by grace of the universe.”


Played 80 time(s).

December 17, 2010, 10:16pm

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Pierre Boulez: “Commentaire III de Bourreaux de Solitude”

From Le marteau sans maître (1955)

Although I find much of Boulez’s work to be overrated (the frequently discussed Piano Sonatas in particular are yawns as far as I’m concerned), Le marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master) is to my mind one of the finest products of its decade, and indeed of the 20th century all told.  In spite of the rigorous structural approach— Le Marteau, like virtually all of Boulez’s music, was written using the elaborate precompositional method of serialism— there is a certain jazzy sensibility to Le Marteau, which comes out particularly strongly in movements such as this one.  

Le marteau is written for an alto voice and a chamber ensemble comprising flute, viola, guitar, vibraphone, percussion, and xylorimba (an extended xylophone).  The emphasis on the middle of the frequency spectrum, and the preponderance of plucked and struck instruments, gives the ensemble a brittle, shimmering quality that is without parallel in the usually warm and lush sound world of classical chamber music.  In his idiosyncratic selection of instruments, Boulez was inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s song cycle Pierrot Lunaire of 1912.  

The shifting, prismatic array of tone-colors also suggests the influence of Schoenberg’s idea of Klangfarbenmelodie, according to which the succession of timbres is subordinated to a musical logic akin to that which governs the unfolding of melody.  In the mid-1960s, while brainstorming the design of Don Buchla's first synthesizer units, Morton Subotnick would use a page from the score of Le marteau as an inspiration for the total control of all parameters of sound.

Four of the nine movements of Le marteau have vocal parts; the remaining pieces are conceived as instrumental “commentaries” on the vocal movements.  The texts are from a 1934 collection by the French surrealist poet René Char.  



Played 239 time(s).

October 29, 2010, 10:42am

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James Tenney: Spectrum 6 (2001), for flute, clarinet, percussion, violin, and cello (excerpt)

From the album Spectrum Pieces

In his series of eight compositions bearing the title Spectrum (1995-2001), the brilliant American composer and theorist James Tenney embarked on a new exploration of the musical potential of the harmonic series, a phenomenon that had inspired him throughout his career.

While in many of his earlier works based on the harmonic series, such as his Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow (1974) or Septet for six electric guitars and electric bass (1981), Tenney had methodically introduced the partials in an upward sweep from the fundamental, in the Spectrum pieces the pitches of the series are used all at once.  If the effect of his earlier music had been strongly tonal, thanks to the emphasis on the lower partials of the spectrum, these later works betray their harmonic foundations only in fleeting glimmers; the dominant mood is ungrounded and suggestive.

All the spectrum pieces are written in “time-space” notation, meaning that the duration of each note is determined not by its shape (half note, quarter note, etc.) but by its visually-measured length on the staff, each line of which in this case lasts exactly 30 seconds.  Tenney used a computer program which allowed him to steer the general parameters (density, register, etc.) while the computer automatically generated the actual notes.  This is the principle of stochastic processes, or constrained randomness, which was introduced into music in the 1950s by Iannis Xenakis.

Tenney’s Spectrum pieces sound to me like a distant echo of the most disembodied textures of the early 20th-century Austrian composer Anton Webern: the tones seem to float serenely in a rarefied space, expressive of something profound yet wordless.  


Played 80 time(s).

August 15, 2010, 1:00pm

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Brian Ferneyhough: La chute d’Icare (1988)

From the album La chute d’Icare, Superscription, Intermedio alla Ciaccona, etc.

One of the most successful and notorious composers working in an unapologetically modernist idiom in the second half of the 20th century, Brian Ferneyhough is a British composer who has lived in California since 1987.  

Ferneyhough’s intention is to write scores of such extreme complexity that they are, in many cases, literally unperformable.  The perfect realization of the notes as written becomes an impossible ideal which the musician can at best asymptotically approach.  Playing this music thus becomes a sort of self-abnegating spiritual exercise, in the course of which the performer is likely to become, in the composer’s words, “lost in the forest of his own imperfections.” (Ferneyhough’s scores, which resemble musical labyrinths, remind one of the German word for a maze: Irrgarten, literally ”garden of error.”)  This all sounds rather sadistic, but musicians who have dedicated themselves to the interpretation of Ferneyhough’s work have attested to the exhilaration that comes with each new attempt: these pieces can never be “mastered,” which means they always present new challenges to the intrepid performer.

The title of this work, meaning “The Fall of Icarus,” was taken from a rather strange 16th-century painting by Pieter Brueghel.  La chute d’Icare can be heard as a relatively rare example of modernist program music, with the clarinet part representing the erratic and ultimately doomed flight of Icarus.  To my ears, in spite of its fearful complexity this music has a verve and playfulness far more sincere than that of much other, simpler music which also aspires to these ideals.

The first page of the score of "La Chute d'Icare"


Played 132 time(s).

June 16, 2010, 8:46am

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