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Messe de nostre dame: Kyrie 
Guillaume de Machaut

The Messe de Nostre Dame of the great fourteenth-century poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) is the earliest musical treatment of the Mass by a single composer. In this first movement, Machaut spins out a vast web of music from just three little lines of text: "Kyrie eleison / Christe elesion / Kyrie eleison." (As the first and simplest unit of the Ordinary Mass, the Kyrie has always provoked the most sublime and inventive approaches among composers who have set it to music.) The labyrinthine polyphonic weft of voices, with its jarring dissonances and microtonal inflections, and the raspy, almost guttural vocal timbre of this performance by the Ensemble Organum, create an effect at once visceral and otherworldly—an atmosphere far removed from the stereotypical images of cherubic sweetness with which we are likely to associate medieval music.

Source: Guilaume de Machaut, Messe de Nostre Dame, performed by Ensemble Organum


Played 565 time(s).

June 03, 2013, 12:25pm

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Petr Kotik: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking 

From the album S.E.M. Ensemble

One of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic exponents of musical minimalism, the Czech composer Petr Kotik has lived in the United States since 1969, when he emigrated at the invitation of Lejaren Hiller. Kotik quickly integrated himself into the American new music scene. Working closely with composers such as Frederic Rzewski and John Cage, he relished the proverbially American spirit of experimentation. “In America, there is a tendency to welcome surprises and unusual ideas with much greater openness to it than in Europe,” he noted. “That could be one of the attributes that separates America from Europe.”

Kotik’s mature style is marked by the polyphonic layering of melodic lines, dissonant yet mellifluous, and characterized by a slow, processional rhythmic pulse. Although clearly influenced by American minimalism, Kotik’s music often has an angular and cerebral tone far removed from the modal sweetness of John Adams or Philip Glass. While those composers were driven by an urge for renewed emotional directness, in Kotik’s hands the stripped-down gestures becomes a vehicle of “dispassionate objectivity,” in the words of Petr Bakla. (In this respect, his work could be compared to that of American composer Tom Johnson.) In addition to composing, Kotik leads the S.E.M. Ensemble, an important contributor to contemporary music whose releases include a one-of-a-kind recording of the complete works of Marcel Duchamp.

The process of chance is an integral part of my method, not something that stands separately. Chance operations I use have a direction and are partially controlled. I then take the result and proceed to work on my own. The way I compose could be called a game. It’s a kind of a dialogue between the results of my method and my reaction to it, intuitively correcting, editing and introducing other elements in a quasi-improvised way. This result can be further processed by the method, which can set off a chain of more intuitive interventions. 


Much of Kotik’s music uses modernist prose as its basis, creating striking parallels between tonal and linguistic patterning. His major work in this vein is the six-hour-long Many Many Women (1976-1978), based on Gertrude Stein's book of the same name. The piece also integrates contrapuntal techniques typical of medieval composers such as Perotin and Machaut

Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, composed shortly thereafter, sets the prose of Buckminster Fuller's magnum opus Synergetics. The oracular proclamations of Fuller’s writing match up perfectly with Kotik’s architectural approach to vocal polyphony. The composer dismisses the notion that music can express or illustrate words, instead arguing that the two are governed by independent forms of structural logic: “For me the text and the music are two different entities.”

Music is expressing itself—music, nothing more and nothing less, just as everything else ultimately expresses itself, whether it is a stone, or a human being or a tree. […] Music invokes a situation that can lead to meditation; a personal, poetic and intellectual meditation. It is a field of sound, which we perceive in a time space. Music is not universal, it is always specific, and the ability to “understand” or navigate in this sound field requires education. A real education, that comes through one’s own initiative. 

Played 177 time(s).

November 09, 2012, 3:11pm

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Yma Sumac: “Chuncho (The Forest Creatures)”

From the album Inca Taqui (1953)

Yma Sumac was the adopted name of the Peruvian soprano Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo (1922-2008). Even more sensational than her pedigree—she claimed to descend from Atahualpa, the last Incan emperor—was Sumac’s vocal range, which spanned over four octaves, from a husky baritone in the lower register to a keening coloratura in the upper reaches.

Though she was hugely successful at the height of her career and hailed as one of the most remarkable voices of the 20th century, Sumac is relatively unknown in comparison to famous divas such as Maria Callas. The reason for this neglect? Sumac lent her voice not to the mausoleum music of the European operatic tradition, but to the kitschy, novel, and wildly popular genre of exotica.

Sumac and her husband Moisés Vivanco came to the United States from Peru in 1946, and her first U.S. album was released in 1950, just ahead of the exotica wave that would soon sweep the country. This debut record, The Voice of the Xtabay, was conducted by Les Baxter, who would go on to record some of the genre’s landmark albums. Most of Sumac’s music, however, was composed by Vivanco, whom the liner notes for a 1996 re-release of The Voice of the Xtabay refer to as “an authority on ancient music, especially that of Peru.” This may be true, but the further claim that he “based his compositions and their arrangements on authentic Incan melodies and rhythms” seems unlikely, to be polite. The music of Sumac and Vivanco is thus an interesting example of what could be called auto-exoticism—that is, music produced by members of a culture which reproduces the expected stereotypes and adds the claim of primal, irrefutable authenticity.

Sumac’s most adventurous tracks, such as this one from her 1953 album Inca Taqui (Chants of the Incas), demonstrate the remarkable convergence between the more outré manifestations of popular music and simultaneous developments in the avant-garde: some of the vocal techniques here could be taken from the contemporaneous compositions of Berio or Stockhausen. “Chuncho” purports to mimic the rainforest menagerie of monkeys, jackals, and various birds. “The creatures of the forest taught me how to sing,” she told an interviewer in 1989.

Played 1,639 time(s).

August 03, 2012, 10:16am

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Ernst Krenek: Excerpt from Spiritus intelligentiae sanctus (1955)

From the album Spiritus intelligentiae sanctus / Klangfiguren

In the third and final installment of a series of posts highlighting the early productions of the West German Radio Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, we hear one of the first attempts to blend synthetic tones with the human voice. Ernst Krenek's Spiritus intelligentiae sanctus makes an interesting parallel with Karlheinz Stockhausen's groundbreaking composition Gesang der Jünglinge, created around the same time.

Both compositions combine electronic sounds and vocal timbres, although Krenek’s approach in this regard was relatively traditional in comparison to Stockhausen’s. Both works were also based on religious texts—Krenek and Stockhausen were devout Catholics, and understood their works in the grand tradition of sacred music. Krenek even labelled his composition an “Easter Oratorio.” (This religious sincerity was lost on some critics: the German musicologist Friedrich Blume castigated such works as musical blasphemy in a controversial 1958 lecture portentously entitled “Was ist Musik?”)

Unlike most of the composers working in the Cologne studio in the 1950s, Krenek was a well-established figure in European modern music. Still, his Spiritus intelligentiae sanctus shows a youthful eagerness to explore the new possibilities presented by the electronic medium. Krenek tweaked the sine wave generators to create a slightly “squished” scale with 13 tones to the octave, instead of the customary 12, casting a strangely distended coloration over the music. The combination of pure sine tones, dissonant “tone mixtures,” and angular, ring-modulated vocal lines likewise contributes to an eerie and unsettling musical mise-en-scène.

Played 169 time(s).

January 03, 2012, 8:28pm

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19th-century chant notation from Tibet


"The MS belongs to the ‘Yang’ tradition, the most highly involved and regarded chant tradition in Tibetan music, and the only one to rely on a system of notation (Yang-Yig). The chant consists of smoothly effected rises and falls in intonation, which are represented by complex curved lines. The notation also frequently contains detailed instructions concerning in what spirit the music should be sung (e.g. flowing like a river, light like bird song) and the smallest modifications to be made to the voice in the utterance of a vowel. On the whole, Yang chants are sung at an extremely low pitch and at a lingering and subtly changing pace, allowing full expression of the chanted text. Such texts as these would have been used as a mnemonic device by the Master of Chant in a monastery in leading the monastery in the performance of a chant. This type of graphic notation of the melody line goes back to the 6th century. It records neither the rhythmic pattern nor duration of the notes."

Source: The Schøyen Collection

October 09, 2011, 8:10pm

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Thomas D’Urfey: “Young Collin Cleaving of a Beam”

From the album Thomas D’Urfey’s Pills to Purge Melancholy: Lewd Songs and Low Ballads from the 18th Century

Thomas D’Urfey (also known as Tom Durfey) began his career as a playwright, his first plays being staged in 1676. In spite of being a stutterer, he soon made a career for himself as a singer and performer, and later branched out into music, contributing to the development of a uniquely English genre known as the ballad opera. (One of the earliest examples of this genre, the Beggar’s Opera of 1728, provided the model for the famous Threepenny Opera of Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill.)

But D’Urfey’s true musical legacy, as far as I’m concerned, is as a prolific creator of humorous and bawdy songs. His position as the 18th century’s Weird Al is based largely on his collection Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy, published in six volumes in 1719-20. The set contains over 1000 songs on various off-color topics, including drinking, sex, and numerous bodily functions. (One of D’Urfey’s biggest hits was called “The Fart.”)

Unlike Weird Al, however, D’Urfey wrote most of his own music. Apparently not one for humility, he wrote in the preface to Wit and Mirth that “scarce any other Man could have perform’d the like, my double Genius for Poetry and Musick giving me still that Ability which others perhaps might want.”

The lyrics of this boisterous three-voice catch are fairly representative of D’Urfey’s literary style. The music is attributed to none other than Henry Purcell:

Young Collin, cleaving of a Beam, / At ev’ry Thumping, thumping blow cry’d hem ; / And told his Wife, and told his Wife, / And told his Wife who the Cause would know, / That Hem made the Wedge much further go: / Plump Joan, when at Night to Bed they came, / And both were Playing at that same; / Cry’d Hem, hem, hem prithee, prithee, prithee; / Collin do, / If ever thou lov’dst me, Dear hem now; / He laughing answer’d no, no, no, / Some Work will Split, will split with half a blow; / Besides now I Bore, now I bore, now I bore, / Now, now, now I bore, / I Hem when I Cleave, but now I Bore.

All six volumes of Wit and Mirth can be downloaded from IMSLP.

Played 109 time(s).

September 12, 2011, 4:37pm

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Pérotin: Excerpt from “Viderunt omnes” (c. 1200)

From the album Pérotin - The Hilliard Ensemble

One of the earliest composers we know by name, Pérotin was a prominent figure in the so-called Notre Dame school of music, which flourished in Paris around the year 1200. Pérotin and his younger contemporary Léonin composed one of the earliest forms of notated polyphonic music, a genre known as organum.

The form of Notre Dame organum—and thus the distinctive sound of the music—rests upon a remarkable structural conceit. The lowest voice in the texture (the cantus firmus or fixed voice, which forms the harmonic foundation) sings notes drawn from fragments of Gregorian chant, but stretched to extremely long durations, many hundreds of times their original length. With these sustained tones as the basis, the upper voices sing newly composed melodic filigrees in a quick triple time (known as tempus perfectum, in analogy to the Trinity). There are also brief passages of discant, in which all voices move in rhythmic unison, creating a lighter and more active texture.

First page of the original notation for Viderunt omnes

The sound of this music is striking not only because of the intense droning of the cantus firmus, but also because of the timbral changes that take place with each new syllable in the bottom voice. When this voice changes its pitch, it also changes its syllable and thus its vowel, creating a remarkable acoustic effect that could be compared to the changing of perspective or lighting in the visual field.

(You can experiment with this yourself, singing a continuous pitch and changing from “ah,” “eh,” “ee,” “oh,” “oo” to hear how the timbre of your voice changes. As you sing each vowel sound, your vocal tract is functioning as a complex filter to shape the vibrations generated by your vocal folds.)

In this example, the first such change takes place about one minute into the piece. The second change, about 30 seconds later, coincides with a shift toward a darker, “minor” modality (the term is anachronistic here), creating a wonderful effect that is totally unique to this music.

If you listen closely, you can hear that the cantus firmus very slowly moves through the syllables of the phrase “Viderunt omnes” (Latin for “all the world has seen”) over the course of the first four minutes of this excerpt. Afterward you hear the monophonic Gregorian chant from which the cantus firmus is derived.

Played 289 time(s).

August 25, 2011, 9:04pm

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Boris Blacher: “Angst”

From the work Abstract Opera No. 1 (1953)

This is the first of a two-part feature on the experimental music of the German composer Boris Blacher (1903-1975). Blacher’s first major works dated from the 1920s and his breakthrough came with his 1937 orchestral composition Concertante Musik, but his music was suppressed as “degenerate" by the Nazis. After World War II he became a prominent figure on the European scene, eventually becoming director of the Music Academy of Berlin, where he distinguished himself as a composition teacher during the 50s and 60s.

Most of Blacher’s music shows the enduring influence of the 1920s style of the Neue Sachlichkeit, which favored clear textures, restrained expression, and strong rhythmic profiles. But he had an experimental streak, as exemplified by his enigmatic 1953 composition Abstract Opera No. 1. (The title is deceptive; there would be no number two.)

The opera consists of seven movements, each treating an archetypal emotional situation, such as anger, love, and fear. The libretto, written by fellow composer Werner Egk, is almost entirely wordless, consisting of artfully composed nonsense syllables. The single exception is the movement entitled “Verhandlung” (“Negotiation”), a duet for English and Russian speakers exchanging meaningless platitudes—words, but still no sense. In his preface to the score, Egk states that “the composed words are invented musically and phonetically and are directed at the listener’s capacity for forming automatic associations.”

With craft and humor, Blacher seeks to illustrate how these classic scenarios can be musically conveyed without the verbal substrate of the libretto. The result is a work that both parodies the stereotyped expressive forms of opera (the love duet is especially effective in this regard) and points toward the radical renovations of the musical stage undertaken by later composers such as György Ligeti and Maurico Kagel. Not surprisingly, Blacher’s music was not well received at its premiere in Mannheim in 1953: one reviewer bestowed upon it the singular distinction of being “the worst opera ever written.”

Played 139 time(s).

July 17, 2011, 2:31pm

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Henri Chopin: Excerpt from “Vibrespace” (1963)

From the album Revue OU (2002)

Henri Chopin"Without this machine, sound poetry would not exist." Thus did the French poet and musician Henri Chopin (1922-2008)—not to be confused with that other Chopin of some musical repute—describe the importance of the tape recorder for his foundational experiments on the borderline between voice and music, first undertaken in the 1950s.

While earlier pioneers of “sound poetry” had explored the artistic possibilities created by breaking down words into their constituent phonemes—the paralinguistic sounds of vowels and consonants—Chopin sought to free poetic practice from its connection to language. Using microphones to capture the sonic minutiae of the human vocal apparatus and tape machines to arrange and alter the resulting sound material, Chopin created a new genre of acoustic art he called the audio-poème. Through the encounter between the primordial musical technology of the voice and modern means of recording and manipulation, we hear the human body as an instrument of unlimited potential—in Chopin’s words, a “sound factory.”

This example of Chopin’s work is taken from a wonderful compilation of recordings originally included with the magazine Revue OU, which Chopin edited from 1964 to 1974. It features performances by sound poetry luminaries such as François Dufrêne, Bob Cobbing, Raoul Hausmann, Brion Gysin, and many more.

More of Chopin’s recordings can be found on UbuWeb.

Played 40 time(s).

July 05, 2011, 8:00am

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Joan La Barbara: “Signing Alphabet” (1977), from Sesame Street, with animation by Steve Finkin

You’ve got to love this fusion of avant-garde audiovisuals and classic kid culture from the golden days of Sesame Street. Vocalist and composer Joan La Barbara (who recently gave a stunning performance of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) creates a beautiful sound-poem out the ABCs, accompanied by cleverly morphing animations teaching the hand-shapes of the American Manual Alphabet

June 12, 2011, 1:25pm

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Demetrio Stratos: “Flautofonie ed altro”

From the album Cantare la voce (1978)

Born in Alexandria of Greek parents, Demetrio Stratos (1945-1979) spent most of his adult life in Italy.  He was one of the founding members of the Italian band Area, an experimental progressive rock/jazz fusion outfit that released five studio albums between the band’s founding in 1972 and Stratos’ death in 1979.  (Beyond their music, Area was noted for their left-wing political stance, expressed not only in the band’s lyrics, but also in their appearances at political events such as a concert with Joan Baez in protest of the Vietnam War in 1975.)

Stratos released two studio albums of solo work: Metrodora (1976) and Cantare la voce (1978).  These recordings are remarkable documents of Stratos’ uncanny vocal ability.  Even for those with adventurous ears, this music can be excruciating to listen to.  One cannot help but feel the visceral effort required to invoke these sounds, the incredible duress under which Stratos’ voice is laboring.

(Although Stratos was supposedly able to use overtone-singing techniques to sing up to four parts at once, the distinct vocal sounds on this track were produced through overdubbing in the recording studio.)

Through his research into vocal production, comparative musicology, phonetics, and psychoanalysis, Stratos developed a theory in which the expressive, unconventional, and non-signifying use of the voice as explored in his music came to symbolize the potential for personal and political liberation:

If a new vocality can exist, it must be lived by all, and not singularly: an attempt to get free of the condition of listener and spectator to which the culture and politics have accustomed us. This work cannot be taken up as passive listening, but rather as “a game in which life is at risk.” 

A trove of Stratos’ recordings is available at the ever-resourceful UbuWeb.

Played 89 time(s).

May 03, 2010, 3:17pm

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