Listening to the AACM and Its Ongoing Impact

(A shorter version of this review was originally published on I Care If You Listen on July 20, 2017.)

A Review of Bells for the South Side


Roscoe Mitchell. Bells for the South Side. September 2015. ECM 5711952, 2017. CD.

The album Bells for the South Side, released by ECM Records on June 16, 2017, features multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser Roscoe Mitchell’s four trio ensembles, which are presented individually and combined in new and fresh ways. This album documents two concerts that he gave in September 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago as part of an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)—a collective of African-American musicians founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1965.

A founding member of the AACM, Mitchell later created the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the AACM’s flagship ensemble for many years. As George E. Lewis writes in his 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, the AACM promoted individual development within the context of the community. For instance, Muhal Richard Abrams encouraged AACM members to develop their own compositional style and not to imitate others.

These same principles of cooperation and individuality are also highlighted on Bells for the South Side. The musicians of each trio contribute their own unique sound, and together they create an environment that is supportive of individual expression.

The album begins with “Spatial Aspects of the Sound,” a composition by Mitchell for two pianos, percussion, and piccolo. We hear warm, resonating chords on the two pianos and tubular bells, highlighting the sound of the bell—a theme that Mitchell frequently returns to throughout the album. Midway through the piece, the pianists pluck and strum the strings inside the piano, and the percussionist Kikanju Baku comes on stage and dances with sleigh bells and ankle bells (see the album preview above.) Baku’s dance is a reference to the late Malachi Favors, who often danced during Art Ensemble of Chicago performances. The piece ends with Mitchell performing a whole-tone passage on the piccolo.

The next piece’s title, “Panoply,” refers to a 1967 painting by Mitchell. Many of the AACM members engaged with other art forms in addition to music. Mitchell’s 1967 painting is densely structured with vibrant colors, characteristics that are in turn reflected in the musical composition. The piece starts with an ostinato passage on the xylophone, cymbal, and snare drum—a passage that returns throughout the work. This is the album’s first composition to use all of the musicians from the separate trios. However, the musicians don’t all play at once, but rather are divided into smaller groups. 


Roscoe Mitchell, “Panoply,” 1967, Acrylic on canvas, Collection of Kay Michener.

“Prelude to a Rose” features the album’s first trio: Mitchell, composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey, and trumpeter Hugh Ragin. This work is like a theatrical scenario. Following a slow, somber chorus, the performers engage in a humorous three-way conversation via their instruments. I’m reminded of Paul Steinbeck’s discussion of the intermedia elements incorporated by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Inspired by the happenings and performance art of the 1950s and 1960s, Art Ensemble performances included poetry, costumes, masks, face paint, gesture, and movement.

The second trio—consisting of Mitchell, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and percussionist Kikanju Baku—performs “Dancing in the Canyon,” which begins softly with chimes and Taborn’s mysterious electronics. When Mitchell enters midway through the piece, he leads the ensemble in an intensity structure—a massive buildup to a dense texture in which the musicians simultaneously play contrasting material.

“Ep 7849” is an exercise in transcending genre boundaries. At first, we hear a low brass instrument with thunderous bass drum. Then there is a playful electronic dance music section, followed by some hard rock with heavily distorted electric guitar. We couldn’t be any further from the initial style of “Spatial Aspects of the Sound.” Yet even at this moment, we can hear bells softly chiming in the distance.

Since the previous piece was an elaborate, through-composed transition, the title track “Bells for the South Side” feels like an arrival. It showcases what I take to be the specific bells alluded to in the title—Roscoe Mitchell’s percussion cage and the percussion set-ups of Don Moye and Malachi Favors. (See this video on Mitchell’s percussion cage.) I interpret the piece as a tribute to the Art Ensemble of Chicago—in particular, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, who weren’t alive to celebrate the AACM’s anniversary—and to the community of the South Side of Chicago, which played an active role in the AACM from the beginning. The musical work, which has a ternary form, begins with a short introduction of sleigh bells, an alarm, and chimes. A siren (Varèse?) signals the onset of the first section—a beautiful, majestic theme played on the piccolo trumpet. The contrasting second section has a low, ominous element recalling the previous piece (“Ep 7849”). The final section brings back the piccolo trumpet, though its melodic material is now transformed.

The third trio features two artists with whom Mitchell has collaborated for many years: percussionist Tani Tabbal and bassist Jaribu Shahid. They perform “Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and the Final Hand,” which highlights the bass and drums—normally associated with the rhythm section—as melodic instruments. In the first section, Mitchell improvises over Shahid’s melodic line, followed by a virtuosic drum solo by Tani Tabbal. The last section returns to the initial melodic material, this time with all three musicians.

The fourth trio includes two of Mitchell’s colleagues at Mills College: multi-instrumentalist and composer James Fei and percussionist William Winant. “Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks” begins and ends with an imitative texture. Between these sections, Mitchell is featured as a master of extended techniques (microtones, multiphonics, circular breathing) against a colorful background provided by Fei on electronics and Winant on gongs and woodblock.

In the final piece, “Red Moon in the Sky,” all of the musicians gather to perform an extended intensity structure, like an expanded version of the one found in “Dancing in the Canyon.” The album ends with “Odwalla,” a classic of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

I highly recommend this recording. It demonstrates the same sort of mobility of genre that the AACM was able to accomplish. While celebrating the AACM’s rich history, it also points to the future. Moreover, the album draws attention to music’s potentially transformative role within the community. This is an important lesson for today’s listeners.

Further Reading

Lewis, George E. A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Steinbeck, Paul. Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. [Link to Paul Steinbeck’s writings on the Art Ensemble of Chicago]

Further Listening

Art Ensemble of Chicago. A Jackson in Your House. Sunspots SPOT 543. CD. Original release, BYG/Actuel 529302, 1969. LP.

 Art Ensemble of Chicago. Live at Mandel Hall. Delmark DE 432. CD. Original release, Delmark DS-432/433, 1972. LP.

Mitchell, Roscoe. Roscoe Mitchell Sextet: Sound. Delmark DE-408, 1996. CD. Original release, Delmark DL-408, 1966. LP.

On the Bildungsroman and the Dramaturgy of the Avatar in George Lewis’s “Afterword”


Founded in 1947, the Ojai Music Festival is a four-day music festival held in Ojai, CA every June. This year’s music director is Vijay Iyer (see his artistic statement here), and he will be highlighting the outstanding legacy of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

Program Notes for the Ojai Performance of George Lewis’s Afterword (June 9, Libbey Bowl, Ojai CA)

Premiered in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Afterword is a two-act chamber opera composed by George Lewis to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective of African-American musicians founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1965. The libretto, also written by Lewis, is based on the final chapter of his 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music—a chapter in which he depicts a fictional meeting between past AACM members who are reunited to discuss the organization’s history and hopes for the future. The discussion draws on recordings of past meetings and interviews conducted by Lewis. The opera presents this meeting as a series of episodes in which the same three singers serve as avatars of the organization’s thoughts and beliefs. I argue in these program notes that there are two central ideas for understanding Afterword: Lewis’s critical revision of the traditional bildungsroman and his dramaturgy of the avatar.

George Lewis refers to Afterword as a “Bildungsoper,” a term derived from the “Bildungsroman”—a coming-of-age novel. Lewis’s choice of terms here is especially significant, since the bildungsroman has traditionally been associated with white European values. In the bildungsroman, as discussed by Jennifer Heinert (2009), a young hero is confronted with a series of obstacles that, once overcome, lead him—the protagonist is usually male—to embrace the values of the dominant (i.e. white European) culture. Instead, Lewis presents a revision of the traditional bildungsroman—a revision that critically engages the genre’s values, assumptions, and conventional narrative techniques. In Afterword, the development of the community is just as important as that of the individual. Like the bildungsromans of Toni Morrison (e.g., The Bluest Eye), Lewis eschews the linear and teleological trajectory of the traditional bildungsroman in favor of the juxtaposition of multiple narratives and historical moments. In doing so, Afterword offers listeners a positive model of development that does not reduce African Americans and women to the role of the other.

Particularly important for understanding Afterword is its dramaturgy of the avatar. An avatar is a virtual image that stands in for a person on the internet or in a game. The dramaturgy of the avatar refers to a type of theater in which the characters on the stage are both human beings and virtual selves. Accordingly, Afterword refrains from depicting actual historical figures in the AACM and instead employs the opera’s characters as proxies for the AACM as an organization. As Uri McMillan (2015) writes about black feminist art and performance, the avatar blurs the boundary between subject and object, allowing black female artists to perform objecthood in a way that extends agency and overcomes everyday limitations.

This aspect of the avatar is evident in Afterword’s emphasis on the body as a site of meaning that extends beyond the confines of the verbal language of the libretto. More specifically, in Sean Griffin’s remarkable staging, the singers also appear as movers, performing a sophisticated gestural language in counterpoint to the verbal text. McMillan also alludes to the “polytemporal” nature of the avatar—that is, it permits performers to transcend linear time and to perform the past in the present. One finds this practice in Lewis’s libretto and its interweaving of testimonials and transcripts removed in time. Afterword does not depict the AACM’s history in a sequential fashion, but rather as a series of historical episodes.

Finally, the concept of the avatar enables us to rethink the relationship of the media involved in opera. Just as the avatar blurs distinctions between the real and virtual worlds, opera similarly transcends the boundaries of its constituent media. As Lewis states: “Sung and spoken voices, instrumental music, and movement become heteroglossic avatars, in a process described by Toni Morrison and others as the expression of a community voice.” Ultimately, in expressing the community voice, Afterword contributes to what Guthrie Ramsey (2012) refers to as the outstanding task of “denaturaliz[ing] some of the conventions that have governed blackness’s presence in opera.”

Works Cited

Lewis, George. A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Heinert, Jennifer Lee Jordan. Narrative Conventions and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York: Routledge, 2009.

McMillan, Uri. Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Ramsey, Guthrie. “Foreword: Singing in the Dark.” In Blackness in Opera, edited by Naomi Andre, Karen Bryan, and Eric Saylor, ix-x. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.

(These program notes also appear on the Ojai Music Festival website.)

Some Observations and Suggestions for Rethinking Music Humanities


In the current climate of xenophobia and the desire to cut national funding for the arts, it is an ethical responsibility of teachers—especially at the university level—to reevaluate the way we teach and think about music. This responsibility is particularly relevant in the case of Music Humanities, a Core Curriculum course that all Columbia College undergraduates are required to take. How can we, as Music Humanities instructors, teach music in a way that corresponds with the diverse nature of Columbia’s undergraduate population? How can we respond to the fact that the current administration’s actions have very real consequences for some—if not all—our students? I argue that we should teach the Western art music tradition in tandem with case studies, explicitly drawing attention to the values and ideologies that underlie this tradition. My hope is that this discussion will also be helpful for instructors of similar courses at other academic institutions.

First, I will briefly describe what Music Humanities is and the way that it is currently taught, even though there is some flexibility in the content and approach of the course. Masterpieces of Western Music (“Music Humanities”) is a small, discussion-based class—a maximum of twenty-five students—that provides a basic introduction to the history of Western art music from the Middle Ages up to the present. Students are primarily, though not entirely, non-music majors. The class focuses on particular musical works (“masterpieces”) as a way of developing critical listening skills—that is, in terms of being able to identify genre (i.e. type of composition), place and date of composition, and basic style and formal features (melody, harmony, rhythm, meter, texture, timbre, form). Each instructor has some freedom to decide which musical works are taught and how these works are taught. There is, however, a basic list of works that must be taught by all instructors, and this list is mainly of white men (see list here). Currently, it is up to the individual instructor to expand this canon and/or present it in a critical light. In many cases, this is done in a superficial way or not at all.

In order to combat a highly exclusionary canon and tokenism, it is necessary to refine the aims of Music Humanities, both on the syllabus and the Core Curriculum website. It should be an explicit objective of the course to critically examine the values and ideologies underlying the Western art music tradition. This means investigating how this tradition is bound up with values that exclude and marginalize people in terms of gender, sexuality, class, religion, ethnicity, race, and disability.

One way that I propose to realize this critical aim is to adopt a case-study approach in tandem with a chronological presentation of the Western art music tradition. Each semester, the instructor would be responsible for teaching four or five case studies—these case studies corresponding with the instructor’s expertise. The case studies may examine examples of the interplay of vernacular and Western art music traditions, voices from the margins of the Western art music tradition, and/or traditions from outside Western art music that critically reflect on the latter. These case studies could be discussed during the weekly staff meetings.

I will now provide a sample case study—one that is still an ongoing project for me. This semester, I taught a session on Will Marion Cook, William Grant Still, and Duke Ellington. My objective for this session was to highlight how African-American composers were barred from participating in the Western art music tradition. In some cases, early 20th-century African-American composers were able to overcome racial boundaries through the interplay of vernacular and Western art music traditions. For instance, in William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, he incorporates blues into sonata form in a way that does not negate the difference of the two traditions.

I offer these observations and suggestions as one possibility of how Music Humanities can respond to the current political climate. By arguing for a critical approach to the Western art music tradition, I’m not saying that this tradition should be removed from the syllabus. On the contrary, my point is that the Western art music tradition should remain the focus of Music Humanities, but in a way that explicitly articulates the need to present this tradition in a critical light.

Afterlives of May 1968 in the Bayreuth Centennial Ring Cycle

A Preview of My MLA 2017 Paper

In May 1968 and the months following it, France experienced widespread student protests and the largest worker strike in French history, affecting all parts of France and all sectors of the economy. I adopt the term “afterlives” from Kristin Ross (2002) to refer to how the legacy of May 1968 was subjected to new interpretations for personal and political gain during the 1970s in France. These afterlives were apparent not only in concert music – as documented by Eric Drott (2011) – but also in opera stagings, in particular of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. The theme of Wagner the revolutionary – Wagner’s participation in the Dresden Uprising of 1848/9 and the revolutionary content of his works – was especially conducive to assessments of current events and memories of the 1968 events.

Dammerung1 copy

The final scene of Chéreau’s Götterdämmerung. Workers watch as Valhalla burns to the ground.

Both Chéreau and Boulez participated in the May events, albeit in different ways. Chéreau experimented with collective theater and bringing theater to local schools and factories in Sartrouville. On May 13, 1968, Boulez gave a lecture (“Where Are We Now?“) in Saint-Etienne that proposed sweeping changes to the new music landscape in France.

By the mid-1970s, memories of May 1968 had undergone a significant transformation. Many former radicals disavowed their revolutionary past and Marxism in general, as exemplified by the New Philosophers. Chéreau and Boulez were similarly disappointed with and wished to forget their experiences of May 1968. In spite of their desire to forget the past, both Chéreau and Boulez adopt ideas and themes of the May 1968 period in the Bayreuth centennial Ring. (For further background information on the Bayreuth centennial Ring, see my previous blog post.) Chéreau’s critique of Wotan as a metaphor for an oppressive state is in keeping with the anti-authoritarian impulse of the 1968 years. Boulez repeatedly draws on ideas from his 1968 lecture, in particular the idea of discovering a new musical language and establishing a research center outside of the traditional concert system.

(My MLA 2017 paper is entitled “Visions of Wagner and Memories of May 1968 in the Bayreuth Centennial Ring Cycle” and will take place on Thursday, January 5 at 5:15-6:30pm, Franklin 12, Philadelphia Marriott. See the abstract here.)

(This blog post and conference paper are based on Chapters One, Three, and Four of my dissertation. The material is under copyright. All rights reserved.)

George E. Lewis and Zora Neale Hurston’s Notion of Adornment

georgelewisThis past weekend at the American Musicological Society annual conference in Vancouver, George E. Lewis was elected an honorary member of the society (see the official announcement here). Lewis, who is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University, has been a central figure in the AMS, most notably his plenary lecture “Putting Scholarship into (Art) Practice: Four Cases” at the annual meeting in Louisville in 2015. In addition to having served as an outstanding mentor to me and many other young scholars and musicians, Lewis has greatly contributed to the AMS’s willingness to engage with important issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and diversity. In doing so, he has fostered a culture of open dialogue and tolerance, both of which are key for academic scholarship. I was very happy to hear that the AMS has formally recognized Lewis’s outstanding achievements and contributions.

In order to celebrate George Lewis’s award, I would like to revisit his composition The Will to Adorn, a work that he composed for his Composer Portrait concert at Miller Theatre in November 2011. The work’s title refers to Zora Neale Hurston’s 1934 essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” which reflects on the nature of African-American identity with regard to literature, art, and music. Hurston writes:

The will to adorn is the second most notable characteristic in Negro expression [after drama and mimicry]. Perhaps his idea of ornament does not attempt to meet conventional standards, but it satisfies the soul of its creator. In this respect the American Negro has done wonders to the English language. It has often been stated by etymologists that the Negro has introduced no African words to the language. This is true, but it is equally true that he has made over a great part of the tongue to his liking […]. The stark, trimmed phrases of the Occident seem too bare for the voluptuous child of the sun, hence the adornment. It arises out of the same impulse as the wearing of jewelry and the making of sculpture – the urge to adorn. […] Whatever the Negro does of his own volition he embellishes (56f).

In this passage, Hurston identifies the “will to adorn” as a key feature of African-American expression. As Cheryl A. Wall explains, Hurston saw culture as a living phenomenon and stressed the creativity, adaptability, and variety of African-American expression. Adornment is a creative embellishment, enabling the possibility of a mutual cultural enrichment.

George Lewis’s composition The Will to Adorn highlights this idea of adornment as creative embellishment and mutual enrichment. He writes the following about the work:

The title comes from a 1934 Zora Neale Hurston essay, “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” The piece is not meant as any kind of direct homage to Hurston, and the music doesn’t indulge in period quotes or related essentialisms. Rather, what I’m interested in is recursive adornment as a compositional attitude or method that valorizes instability and even breakdown (Lewis on Lewis).

Though not intended “as a direct homage to Hurston,” George Lewis nevertheless takes up and further develops the notion of adornment as a type of cultural exchange that doesn’t negate difference. The music is dense and complex, consisting of many layers juxtaposed alongside one another. Lewis achieves great variety by breaking down the piece into a number of smaller sections, each featuring a different set of instruments and its own rhythmic, melodic, and timbre profile. My favorite moments are when Lewis presents an ostinato in the foreground and then disintegrates it into the background. At times, the music alludes to jazz and postwar avant-garde styles, suggesting a mutual exchange between the two. Yet Lewis embellishes both styles to create his own musical language.

In place of a conclusion, I offer the reader the following question: Might the notion of adornment be a fruitful model for considering broader issues of diversity in musicology?

Congratulations to George on his AMS Honorary Membership!

Further Reading

Hurston, Zora Neale. “The Characteristics of Negro Expression.” In Sweat, edited by Cheryl Wall, 55-71. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Lewis, George E. “Guest Post: Lewis on Lewis.” The International Contemporary Ensemble Blog, November 11, 2011. Accessed November 7, 2016.

Wall, Cheryl A. “On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: Debating Aesthetics and/as Ideology in African American Literature.” In Aesthetics and Ideology, edited by George Levine, 283-303. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

(This blog post is based on a paper that I presented at the German Academic Exchange Service Music Conference in Berlin in 2012.)

A “Tristan” in the Style of Lars von Trier?

Some Observations about the New Tristan Production at the Met Opera

mettristanimage2This past Thursday, October 13, I attended the new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Met Opera. My expectations were very high and – for the most part – I was not disappointed. Apart from the superb singing and conducting, what struck me the most about this production was its cinematic qualities and its use of association to create a thick web of visual imagery in keeping with the films of Lars von Trier, in particular the 2011 film Melancholia.

Mariusz Trelinski’s staging, which shifts the setting of Wagner’s work to a modern-day warship, was cinematic in its simultaneous use of multiple spaces. For example, in Act One, as Isolde (Nina Stemme) and Brangäne (Ekaterina Gubanova) converse in the ship’s cabin, Tristan (Stuart Skelton) and his men stand on the deck directly above them. Also cinematic is the use of video projections, especially during the Prelude to Act One. These video projections are imaginative in their juxtaposition of abstract shapes and figures, a view from the ship’s periscope, and footage of a solar eclipse. The solar eclipse was a not-so-subtle reference to the planets that collide in Trier’s Melancholia, and the periscope reminded me of the 1981 German epic war film Das Boot. The video projections continue throughout the opera, and Trelinski is very adept at blurring the boundaries between staged action and the video. In general, Trelinski adopts a visual language of quotations, at times to film and elsewhere to other stagings of Tristan. For instance, Act Two is set in a missile storage facility, a curious mixture of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”) and Heiner Müller’s powerful staging of Tristan at Bayreuth in 1993. In Act Two of Müller’s staging, Tristan (Siegfried Jerusalem) and Isolde (Waltraud Meier) walk between rows of steel armor, suggestive of rearmament and imminent catastrophe. The result of Trelinki’s visual language of quotations is that the viewer focuses more on looking for and identifying the allusions and less on the plot.

To summarize my observations about Trelinski’s staging: the production doesn’t have a clear, over-arching concept but rather works through association. By association, I mean the juxtaposition of recurring images (e.g., the ship, the moon, a solar eclipse, warheads) and allusions to film and other stagings. Trelinski’s emphasis on association rather than a single concept or narrative is what makes this new Met production so like Trier’s Melancholia, even more so than the staging’s direct visual references to the film. And this is where staging and film become a matter of personal taste: I don’t think a staging has to have a clear narrative in order to be successful. A juxtaposition of contrasting images allows the viewer to create his or her own meaning of the production.

The singing and conducting were excellent. Sir Simon Rattle’s conducting was always transparent and very supportive of the singers. (Read here about how Rattle consulted Mahler’s score in order to increase the transparency and lightness of the music.) Yet, ultimately, Rattle’s conducting was missing any real bite. I would have preferred more flexibility in his tempos, although he did push forward in the Prelude to Act Two. It was the chance of a lifetime to hear Nina Stemme perform the role of Isolde. Stemme’s sound is fuller and more polished than Waltraud Meier’s, yet I still prefer Meier’s greater emphasis on dramatic delivery. Stuart Skelton is wonderful as Tristan: a full-bodied sound with intelligence and great delivery. It is indeed rare to have a production in which both Tristan and Isolde are so superbly performed.

In conclusion, I highly recommend the Met’s new Tristan. I had high expectations and was not at all disappointed. The staging was a bit gloomy at times, and the lighting was not ideal from my balcony seats. Most likely, the staging works best on the HD movie-theater transmissions, and I look forward to watching the DVD. While this staging was not the best that I have seen, it was both imaginative and thoughtful. If you haven’t seen the production yet, do not miss out on this wonderful experience.

A Musical Adventure Novel Set in the Mountains: Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony”

CD Review of Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (Kent Nagano, Göteborgs Symfoniker)


Kent Nagano. Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie. Recorded with the Göteborgs Symfoniker, November 2014. Farao Classics B 108091, 2016. CD.

The Alps are only a short train ride from Munich, where Richard Strauss was born and lived for a great part of his life. In fact, as I recall from living there, you can see them from the window on a clear day, hovering along the horizon just out of reach. The experience of living in close proximity to the Alps – Strauss later settled in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, at the foot of the Zugspitze – strongly affected his music and his view of life in general. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Alpensinfonie, op. 64, composed between 1911 and 1915. This excellent new CD by Kent Nagano and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra keeps listeners on the edge of their seats as they follow the protagonist in his perilous journey in the Alps.

The Alps and mountains in general have long fascinated German writers and artists: Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell; the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich; Nietzsche; Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain; and, Bergfilme, a film genre about mountains (Ireton and Schaumann 2012). As the musicologist Christopher Morris states, Strauss’s conception of the mountains was mediated by ideas of his time period, which saw the birth of the nature-oriented German Youth Movement and the proliferation of numerous alpine societies (Morris 2012). Equally influential for Strauss were Nietzsche’s writings, as demonstrated by the 1896 tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. The initial title for Op. 64 was “The Antichrist. An Alpine Symphony,” alluding to a passage in Nietzsche’s Der Antichrist: “One must be skilled in living on mountains, seeing the wretched ephemeral babble of politics and national self-seeking beneath oneself.” Yet we must be careful not to reduce Strauss’s work to Nietzsche’s philosophy. Strauss was also responding to other musical works that depict nature, in particular Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (“Scène aux champs”), and Mahler’s First Symphony. Finally, Strauss provided a musical counterpart to the alpine novel, a type of adventure novel set in the Alps that was popularized by such authors as Ludwig Ganghofer and Ludwig Thoma. Like Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, these alpine novels often featured a life-and-death struggle with nature resulting in self-enlightenment (Morris 2012).


Part of the Bavarian Alps, the Zugspitze is the largest mountain in Germany (9,718 ft). Richard Strauss had a villa in Garmisch, which is at the foot of the Zugspitze.

This recording was not my first time listening to Kent Nagano conduct Strauss. Nagano was the General Music Director at the Bayerische Staatsoper when I lived in Munich in 2006/2007, and I heard him conduct nearly every week. Nagano has a deep understanding of Strauss’s operas and orchestral works, a type of mastery that can only be achieved through many years of experience conducting Strauss’s works. Nagano presents Strauss as a modernist composer that uses an enormous orchestra to create a highly differentiated sound palette. Nagano keeps the rich orchestral textures transparent enough so that one can always hear the contrapuntal treatment of the melodic voices and Strauss’s ability to create seamless transitions between contrasting episodes.

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (GSO) has long been one of my favorite ensembles. I grew up listening to their superb recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. I was nevertheless surprised to read about their long tradition of performing Strauss’s works. The GSO performed Don Juan in their 1905-1906 inaugural season. In 1917, Strauss visited Sweden and praised the city of Gothenburg for its outstanding musical culture. Over the years, the GSO has performed Strauss’s works many times. In order to celebrate the composer’s 150th anniversary in 2014, Nagano and the GSO have been performing and recording all of Strauss’s major orchestral works (many of these performances are available on the GSO’s Vimeo channel.)

(A short promotional video about this CD)

In my opinion, the best part of this recording is “On the Summit” (Auf dem Gipfel), at which point the protagonist has reached his goal (listen to a preview on iTunes.) The Zarathustra motif sounds above a bed of shimmering tremolo strings. This is followed by a reference to the oboe melody from the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (“Scène aux champs”), when the artist is in the countryside and hears two shepherds piping a mountain tune. The Zarathustra motif returns at 1:51 accompanied by a brass choir and percussion. A soaring string melody then appears above pedal tones in the low brass and strings (2:19). The soaring melody is juxtaposed with a countermelody in the brass. This movement of Strauss’s work is a moment of extreme elation after having reached the mountain’s summit. The episode’s majestic major tonality contrasts the extreme chromaticism of the other movements, lending it a feeling of arrival and stability.

According to the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature, the adventure novel is a genre in which the reader follows a protagonist through a series of episodes involving extreme danger and that are overcome through both cunning and hard work. In the Alpine Symphony, we encounter a similar narrative of a protagonist who aspires to ascend a mountain. Like the adventure novel, Strauss’s tone poem is made up of a number of episodes, each one propelling the action forward. Another key feature of the adventure novel is the attention to realistic details, which meant incorporating the latest scientific research and information from real expeditions. We find a corresponding realism in Strauss’s work, more specifically his ability to conjure up the illusion of a real, life-like sonic landscape. For example, we hear such things as a distant hunting party (Der Anstieg), bird calls, a babbling brook, a waterfall, and the intense winds of an alpine storm (Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg). In conclusion, by highlighting the music’s exciting episodic nature and its programmatic details, Nagano and the GSO present the Alpine Symphony as a type of musical adventure novel. I highly recommend this recording.

Further Reading:

Ireton, Sean and Caroline Schaumann. “Introduction: The Meaning of Mountains: Geology, History, Culture.” In Heights of Reflection: Mountains in the German Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Twenty-First Century, edited by Sean Ireton and Caroline Schaumann, 1-19. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012. [Link to book]

Morris, Christopher. Modernism and the Cult of Mountains: Music, Opera, Cinema. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Pub., 2012. [Link to book]

Youmans, Charles Dowell. Richard Strauss’s Orchestral Music and the German Intellectual Tradition: The Philosophical Roots of Musical Modernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. [Link to book]

Boulez, IRCAM, and Bayreuth

In January 1977, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) officially opened its doors to the public. The occasion was marked by a series of important concerts entitled “Passage du XXe siècle” celebrating the music of the 20th century. Part of the Centre Georges Pompidou (CGP), IRCAM is a music center that focuses on computer music production and computer music research. It began as President Pompidou’s vision of a cultural center in Paris that would improve France’s prestige abroad and at home, which along with a music center included a Museum of Modern Art, a large public library, and a center of industrial design. President Pompidou chose Pierre Boulez to create and lead the new music center, since Boulez was France’s most revered musician and composer – even if Boulez had left France after a bitter argument with the former Minister of Culture André Malraux. When Boulez began planning the music center in 1970, he had two models: the Bayreuth Festival and Bauhaus. I will focus on how and why the Bayreuth Festival became a model for Boulez, since Bayreuth seems like an unlikely model for an experimental music research center.


The IRCAM building (seen above) and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus look nothing alike, but Boulez nevertheless saw Bayreuth as a model for IRCAM.

Boulez’s thoughts about creating a new music research center can be traced back to a talk that he gave in Saint-Etienne in May 1968, at the same time that student and worker protests were erupting throughout France (Born 1995). Entitled “Where Are We Now?,” Boulez’s talk calls for sweeping changes to the new music landscape in France:

Contemporary music in fact demands the intelligent participation of the audience … but our concert-hall arrangement, and indeed the whole character of our musical life, implies, as I have said, an attitude of worship … I believe that solutions to this problem can be found only in a common undertaking in which each individual will have his own part to play. I am quite clear in my mind that musicians by themselves cannot solve these problems … but they alone will be capable of determining the direction of any new discovery (Boulez 1986: 462).

Boulez concludes that composers, musicians, and scientists must work together to create new sounds and a new musical language that is shared by musicians and listeners alike.

When Boulez gave this talk in 1968, he had already conducted Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, an experience that had a profound effect on his understanding of music and its place in society. After collaborating with Wieland Wagner on a production of Berg’s Wozzeck at the Frankfurt Opera in April 1966, Boulez accepted Wieland’s invitation to conduct Parsifal at Bayreuth later that year. Both Wieland and Boulez set out to capture a sonic equivalent of the New Bayreuth style, stripping away the layers of tradition that had accumulated at the festival. It seemed all the more shocking then when Boulez said in a 1967 interview in Spiegel that “blow[ing] up the opera houses … would be the best solution.” When asked to comment on his appearances in Bayreuth, Boulez explained that the Bayreuth Festival is an exception – that Bayreuth is a site for experimentation and innovation, since it is not bound by the same constraints as other opera houses.

(In the 1966 Parsifal at Bayreuth, Boulez provided the sonic equivalent of Wieland Wagner’s New Bayreuth style, stripping away old layers of tradition at Bayreuth.)

In Boulez’s writings on Wagner, he frequently repeats his argument that Bayreuth is not bound by the constraints of traditional opera houses. In his essay “Richard Wagner: The Man and the Works” (1975), Boulez writes that Wagner “overturned the existing language of music as well as of the opera” (223), which required not only a different performance space but also a new school of singing. Boulez states that Wagner finally accomplished this task with the Bayreuth Festival. Yet Wagner died shortly afterward, and Bayreuth “was soon to become a blindly conservative rather than an exploratory institution” (229). Here Boulez’s discussion of Wagner’s new musical language mirrors his own call for a new musical language and research center in the 1968 Saint-Etienne talk. In other words, Boulez’s experiences in Bayreuth shaped his plans for IRCAM.

The events leading up to IRCAM’s opening unfolded at the very same time that Boulez was working on the Bayreuth Centennial Ring cycle. (See my post on the Bayreuth Centennial Ring.) Wolfgang Wagner, who had become both artistic and managing director of the Bayreuth Festival after Wieland’s death in 1966, approached Boulez in May 1972 to conduct the Bayreuth Centennial Ring cycle. As documented by Dominique Jameux, Boulez’s nomination as head of the new music center was finalized in 1972 (Jameux 1991). In March 1974, Boulez held a press conference at which he publicly announced the future opening of IRCAM and discussed the center’s organization. There were to be four departments, to which a further one was later added: electro-acoustics (led by Luciano Berio), instruments and voice (Vinko Globokar), computer theory (Jean-Claude Risset), administration (Gerald Bennett), and pedagogy (Michel Decoust). Such a comprehensive music center was unheard of at the time, and Boulez’s selection of personnel was a sign that he wanted a diversity of viewpoints, a collaboration between a group of composers and theorists. In 1975, Boulez published a collection of essays (La Musique en projet) outlining IRCAM’s aims and objectives. The key point of the articles was that musicians and scientists must work together to discover new sounds and musical forms. Later that year, Boulez received additional funding to establish the center’s own ensemble, the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Henceforth, an important aspect of IRCAM became the training of musicians to perform new music and the creation of a concert series in which the public could be educated about new music. The importance of education and communication with the audience were ideas that Boulez had initially articulated in his 1968 talk in Saint-Etienne.

The simultaneous unfolding of both IRCAM’s opening and the Bayreuth Centennial Ring was much more than a temporal coincidence. At IRCAM, Boulez was guided by the idea of Bayreuth as a music center existing outside of the traditional opera and concert-going system. At Bayreuth, Boulez approached Wagner’ music through the lens of IRCAM’s aim of discovering a new music language. In conclusion, the founding of IRCAM and Boulez’s experiences at Bayreuth were inextricably connected: we cannot understand the one without the other. Commentators at the time were also quick to make this connection, likening the construction site of the subterranean IRCAM building to Nibelheim (Jameux 1991). (See photos of the IRCAM construction site here.)

Next year, when we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of IRCAM, we should also remember this connection between IRCAM and the Bayreuth Festival, which was one of Boulez’s greatest accomplishments.

Further Reading:

Born, Georgina. Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde. Berkley: University of California Press, 1995. [Link to book]

Boulez, Pierre. “Where Are We Now?” In Orientations: Collected Writings, edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and translated by Martin Cooper, 445-463. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. [Link to book]

Boulez, Pierre. “Richard Wagner: The Man and the Works.” In Orientations: Collected Writings, edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and translated by Martin Cooper, 223-230. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. [Link to book]

Jameux, Dominique. Pierre Boulez, translated by Susan Bradshaw. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. [Link to book]

(This blog post is based on Chapter Four of my dissertation. All rights reserved.) 

An Homage and Farewell to Wagner: Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder

CD Review of Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder (Markus Stenz, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Brandon Jovanovich, Barbara Haveman)


Markus Stenz, Brandon Jovanovich, Barbara Haveman. Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder. Recorded with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, June 2014. Hyperion CDA 68081, 2015. CD.

The Gurre-Lieder are simultaneously a tribute to Richard Wagner and a farewell to a tradition that Arnold Schoenberg wanted to leave behind. In no other work by Schoenberg is the examination of Wagner’s legacy so evident. Markus Stenz, who manages to make the Gürzenich Orchestra play with the virtuosity of a chamber-ensemble, ultimately highlights the forward-looking aspects of Schoenberg’s music, especially the profound attention to tone-color and the rhythmic sophistication.

A cantata for five soloists, a narrator, three male choruses, a mixed chorus, and an orchestra of 150 musicians, Gurre-Lieder is a work that brings the Wagnerian orchestra to the concert stage. Also Wagnerian is the work’s enormous temporal scale: it lasts one hour and forty-five minutes. Schoenberg’s work is based on a text by the nineteenth-century Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen, who draws on legends surrounding Waldemar IV, king of Denmark from 1340 to 1375. Waldemar falls in love with a young woman, Tove, who is in turn killed by Queen Helvig. According to the legend, Waldemar – who curses God for Tove’s death – is condemned to take part in a wild hunt accompanied by the undead until the end of time. Drawing on medieval myth and legend, Jacobsen’s text shares many features in common with Wagner’s operas – forbidden love, a fatal curse, and a cosmic war between humans and gods. Schoenberg’s work is divided into three parts: the first focuses on the relationship between Waldemar and Tove; the second on Waldemar cursing God; the third on Waldemar’s wild hunt.


Asgårdsreien (The Wild Hunt) by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1872)

Schoenberg began working on the Gurre-Lieder in 1900 but broke off composition in 1903, fearing that he would not have the financial resources to perform such an enormous work. According to the musicologist Brian G. Campbell, the work was more or less finished in 1903 except for the orchestration of Part III (Cambell 2000). A performance of Part I in 1910 led Schoenberg to finish the orchestration between 1910 and 1911. In keeping with the compositional break, Part III features a different orchestration style: Schoenberg now sharply juxtaposes contrasting timbres, as opposed to the smooth transitions found in his earlier style.

This was my first time hearing the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. I was surprised to read that the orchestra has been in existence since 1827, and that it premiered such works as Brahms’s Double Concerto, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote, and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Though no longer in Cologne, Markus Stenz served as Chief Conductor between 2003 to 2014 and is currently Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Brandon Jovanovich, who sings the part of Waldemar, is a native of Montana and has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera, the Wiener Staatsoper, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Equally accomplished, Barbara Haveman (Tove) is a Dutch soprano who specializes in German Lieder in addition to opera. Other singers on this album include Thomas Bauer, Gerhard Siegel, and Claudia Mahnke; and, the narrator is Johannes Martin Kränzle.

My favorite part of this CD is the Prelude and Waldemar’s first song (“Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung). Schoenberg’s model for the Prelude is the beginning of Das Rheingold, except that Schoenberg is depicting a sunset – not the morning, as Wagner does (Cherlin 2007). Like the Prelude of Rheingold, Schoenberg’s opening layers multiple rhythmic figures over a static harmony. As a result, the music suggests flickering light, the imagery of which is further enhanced by the scoring (piccolo, flute, strings, harp) and the syncopation. Stenz’s sensitivity to color is also apparent in Waldemar’s first song, effectively balancing the heroic tenor voice of Brandon Jovanovich. Jovanovich and Barbara Haveman, whose voices are ideally paired on this recording, are both traditional Wagner singers – they have large voices that can be heard over the orchestra and carry well in the opera house – which highlights the Wagnerian nature of Schoenberg’s early vocal writing. Jovanovich and Haveman are the perfect choice for Gurre-Lieder, for it wasn’t until Pierrot lunaire (1912) that Schoenberg really began experimenting with a new vocal style.

In conclusion, Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder has both progressive and traditional aspects, and this recording brings out both sides. In addition to the vocal writing, Schoenberg adopts Wagner’s idea of “endless melody,” creating continuity and larger trajectories by deferring strong cadences and avoiding regular phrasing. Schoenberg also makes use of leitmotivs (recurring motives associated with a person, place, or thing) but not in the structural way that we find in Wagner’s later works. What really makes Gurre-Lieder forward-looking is its orchestration, especially in Part III. Here we find techniques that Schoenberg had developed in the Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 (1909): frequent, abrupt changes of instrumentation, extended techniques, and the solo treatment of instruments in the context of a large orchestra. Ultimately, it is the forward-looking aspects of Gurre-Lieder that are highlighted in this CD through the supreme artistry of Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich Orchestra. I highly recommend this recording.

Further Reading

Campbell, Brian G. “Gurrelieder and the Fall of the Gods: Schoenberg’s Struggle with the Legacy of Wagner.” In Schoenberg and Words: The Modernist Years, edited by Charlotte M. Cross and Russell A. Berman, 31-64. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000. [Link to book]

Cherlin, Michael. “A Passing of Worlds: Gurrelieder as Schoenberg’s Reluctant Farewell to the Nineteenth Century.” In Schoenberg’s Musical Imagination, 20-43. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. [Link to book]

A Rhine Journey in the Company of Rhine Maidens

CD Review of Rheinmädchen (Raphaël Pichon, Ensemble Pygmalion)


Raphaël Pichon. Rheinmädchen. Recorded with the Ensemble Pygmalion, July 2015. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902239, 2016. CD.

This excellent new CD, performed by Raphaël Pichon and the Ensemble Pygmalion, takes us on a journey along the Rhine by exploring depictions of Rhine Maidens in the works of Wagner, Brahms, Schumann, and Schubert. In doing so, Pichon shows that Wagner’s portrayal of the Rhine Maidens was part of a longer tradition that Wagner shared in common with other German Romantic composers.

The Rhine is the second-largest river in Central and Western Europe, and begins in the Swiss Alps and flows for about 865 miles (1,390 km) before entering the North Sea. Throughout its history, the Rhine has served as a means of commercial transportation, a source of electricity, a political and cultural boundary, and a site for tourism. During the nineteenth century, in response to the threat of French invasion, the Rhine acted as a powerful symbol of cultural and political identity for early German nationalists, most famously in Max Schneckenburger’s 1840 poem “Die Wacht am Rhein” (The Watch on the Rhine). Around the same time, the figure of the Rhine Maiden became increasingly popular in German Romantic literature and music. According to the Rhine Maiden legend, a young fisherman’s daughter, betrayed by her lover, was transformed into a mermaid who sits on the banks of the Rhine and sings to the passing sailors, luring them to their death. As the musicologist Annegret Fauser explains, the Rhine Maiden was interpreted as an embodiment of the Rhine Valley and the German landscape in general, protecting the Rhine from foreign invasion (Fauser 2006).


The Rhine. View of the Loreley Rock and the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.

I had not heard of Raphaël Pichon and the Ensemble Pygmalion before listening to this recording. Born and trained in France, the 32-year-old Pichon began his career as a countertenor, singing with such greats as Jordi Savall, Gustav Leonhardt, and Ton Koopman. Simultaneously a conductor, Pichon founded the chamber choir OTrente and a period-instrument orchestra. In 2005, he founded the Ensemble Pygmalion, a choir and orchestra of young musicians specializing in repertoire for period instruments. Since that time, he and his ensemble have performed around the globe and produced award-winning recordings of Bach and Rameau. The current album (Rheinmädchen) is the first part of a trilogy exploring the role of canon in 19th- and 20th-century German music. (A canon is a strict type of counterpoint in which a melody in one voice is imitated note for note in another voice.) The works featured on this album are canons for female voices, at times also accompanied by harp and natural horn. In contrast to the modern-day valve horn, the natural horn has a softer and warmer sound. (Listen to this clip of Anneke Scott playing Siegfried’s horn call on a natural horn.)


“The Rhine’s fair children, / Bewailing their lost gold, weep.” Illustration of the Rhine Maidens by Arthur Rackham (1910)

What I find most exciting about this album is the imaginative programming. Each work presents the figure of the Rhine Maiden in a slightly different way. Pichon divides the CD into six parts: Morpheus’ Daughters, Mermaids, Serenade, Mourning Women, Love’s Grief, and Rhine Maidens. The CD liner notes quote the famous passage from Wagner’s My Life describing how Rheingold’s prelude came to him in a dream of sinking in water. In other words, the Rhine Maidens are the “daughters” of his dream, and the rest of the works included in this section are about sleeping and dreaming – for example, Schumann’s “Wiegenlied” (Lullaby), op. 78/4. The second section (“Mermaids”) begins with Schumann’s setting of a text by Eichendorff about a mermaid whose singing causes sailors to capsize their boats and drown. This depiction of the mermaid as enchantress is then juxtaposed with the Christian imagery of death and salvation in Schubert’s setting of Psalm 23 (“The Lord Is My Shephard”). The final section combines the Rhine Maidens’ song from Götterdämmerung (“Frau Sonne sendet lichte Strahlen”) with Brahms’s Four Songs, op. 17. Not only does Brahms use a similar scoring – female voices, harp, and horn – his songs recapitulate many of the same themes found in Wagner: lamentation, longing for the past, and hope for salvation.

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My favorite work on this CD is the Prelude to Rheingold, here arranged for twenty-four female voices, harp, four horns, and two contrabasses. The form of the Prelude is theme and variations, the theme being a canon in eight parts (0:35, see above). From this theme are derived a number of ostinatos (repeating melodic and rhythmic figures), each longer than the previous. With each successive variation, Wagner adds additional layers of ostinatos, superimposing them on each other (see Warren Darcy’s outstanding 1989 article on the Rheingold Prelude.) The rippling string lines of the original are performed here by the harp, an instrument commonly associated with the Rhine Maiden. The woodwind and upper brass parts are sung by a female chorus, suggesting that the Rhine Maidens embody the river itself. That is, the landscape and the Rhine Maidens are one and the same. As the dynamics get louder and the texture becomes increasingly dense, the listener experiences a strong feeling of disorientation and intoxication (3:43), akin to the effect of Rhine Maidens on a sailor.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this imaginative concept album. Like the sailors described in the Rhine Maiden legend, I was completely enchanted by this magical music. I am very much looking forward to the future parts of this trilogy.

Further Reading:

Darcy, Warren. “Creatio ex nihilo: The Genesis, Structure, and Meaning of the Rheingold Prelude.” 19th-Century Music 13, no. 2 (1989): 79-100. [Link to article]

Fauser, Annegret. “Rheinsirenen: Loreley and Other Rhine Maidens.” In Music of the Sirens, edited by Linda Phyllis Austern and Inna Naroditskaya, 250-272. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. [Link to chapter]