Harry Partch adapted the materials of music making to his expressive desires. Nearly everything he wrote involves instruments he created, and his unique instrumentarium offers remarkable sonic possibilities. His instruments were crafted from wood, strings, glass, metal, or other materials. Many are strikingly beautiful. Many had evocative names: Quadrangularis Reversum, Marimba Eroica, Bloboy, Boo. Among his most persistent interests was exploring non-traditional tunings and temperaments, the most essential result being his 43-note scale constructed such that the size of each interval grows until the midpoint of the scale is reached, at which point the size of the intervals decreases in precise retrograde.
Daphne of the Dunes was originally composed as soundtrack music for a film entitled Windsong by Madeline Tourtelot, based on the myth of Daphne and Apollo, in which Daphne’s father, the river god Peneus, transforms Daphne into a tree to rescue her from Apollo’s unwanted amorous advances. Windsong was composed and recorded, with all parts performed by Partch, in Chicago during early 1958 and premiered, as a film soundtrack, on WTTW-TV on March 19, 1958. Partch rewrote the work for live performance in 1967, and Daphne of the Dunes received a live premiere at the University of California at San Diego on May 11, 1968. Daphne uses eight musicians and a prerecorded tape of five short segments that are recorded in real time and then played back at double time (and up an octave).
Mason Bates represents the new generation of American maverick composers, for whom genre mixing is just one factor in the process of developing an authentic voice. Mass Transmission, composed in 2011 (on a commission from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, with generous support from Laurence Corash, in honor of Michèle Corash’s birthday), exhibits what has become Bates’s stylistic signature: the blend of acoustic instrumentalists and/or singers with electronic sounds. Bates prefers the term electronica for his palette of digital samplings and techno beats. These are as much a part of his toolkit as a personal harmonic vocabulary was for the Romantics.
Exploring connections with sensibilities from past generations—and how they resonate for us today—lies at the heart of Mass Transmission. Here, Bates contrasts human vulnerability with the distant reach of technology. He began with a sonic image that involved “ethereal choral sonorities appearing and disappearing into the static haze.” The piece evolved as he searched for a narrative framework in which this image could play a central role. Researching the history of earlier technologies, Bates became fascinated by how the pioneering days of radio intersected with indigenous cultures.
By serendipity, he discovered exactly the pieces needed to construct a narrative that would juxtapose the two key elements from his original image. During the early 20th century, while the Netherlands held colonies in Asia (including the island of Java), young people were sent from Europe to work as colonial pages halfway across the planet. Through a massive radio transmitter operated from a government telegraph office at home, parents attempted to communicate with their children. Bates discovered an obscure Dutch government publication that included transcripts of these conversations as well as recollections gathered from those who had taken part. From this, he adapted the texts that frame the first and last of Mass Transmission’s three sections, all of them woven together. As a counterpart to the voice of the mother we meet in the telegraph office, Bates wanted to include the perspective of her daughter in the central section. The latter he found in an online blog kept by Elizabeth van Kampen, who had lived in Java and recorded her impressions.
Using the chorus as Mass Transmission’s backbone was a given: “The human voice represents the most beautiful animal warmth we have.” Juxtaposed against this natural human sphere is “the cold, lifeless sounds of radio static, of our technology.” A prelude for electronica sets the scene in the Dutch telegraph office. Bates realized the organ would provide an ideal third element for this sound environment. Its range and power could span these two poles, the human and the technological. Thus the organ “inhabits both worlds” and functions as a bridge between them. At first it supports this “choral warmth,” but toccata-like passages, marked mechanistic in the score, conjure technology’s indifferent forces.
In the final section, Bates uses the organ’s capacity to swell into a massive wall of sound, as the mother replays “the ecstasy of having spoken with her daughter.” Near the beginning of the work, its sonority builds “as if you’re tuning into something on the radio, becoming more and more drawn in, until it dominates your emotional spectrum.” Meanwhile, the choral writing in the framing sections evokes the mother’s “strange feelings of this contact with her daughter,” as Bates describes it.
No improvisation is involved in the electronica. “What it provides is a kind of scrim and static haze, which sometimes becomes more precise and rhythmic, as little clips of static accumulate like a tapestry of beads.” The central section set in Java incorporates samples from field recordings in the jungle, occasionally reimagining the sounds of Javanese gamelan or simply of drumming. For Bates, electronica is another source within the composer’s arsenal of sounds.
Mass Transmission might be characterized as program music for the information age. “Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought,” remarks James Gleick in his recent book, The Information. “In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.” The work of artists like Mason Bates sheds light on that process.
David Del Tredici’s early works evinced a strong interest in 12-tone and serial techniques as well as a fascination with texts by James Joyce. Syzygy, from 1966, reflects a degree of this structural influence. In the first of the two Joyce poems, the music reaches its midpoint and then goes in reverse from there to the end, though in re-orchestrated form—essentially a reflection of Schoenbergian retrograde.
Composer John Adams commented of this piece:
The very choice of the title reveals Del Tredici’s attraction to symmetries and designs. The word contains the Greek root for the verb “to yoke together,” and in astronomy one speaks of the syzygy as being either of two opposing points in the orbit of a heavenly body. The idea of a symmetrically swinging body, like a heavenly metronome or pendulum, might then serve as an initial image for the listener. In fact, the image of a tolling bell swinging mournfully in some dark orbit seems to furnish the prime leitmotif for the whole work.
Del Tredici has described the first movement as “a short, rather cryptic, setting of a not dissimilar poem, ‘Ecce Puer.’” He continued: “The second, a much longer, very elaborate setting of ‘Nightpiece,’ is an attempt musically to suggest great distances and the space between: A sort of music of the spheres, an outer space where pale stars wave in gloom, ghost-fires faint illume, Seraphim awaken and a tolling starknell soars.”
—James M. Keller
For more than 40 years, Lou Harrison was one of the Bay Area’s most distinguished musical citizens. He studied with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, and in the 1940s wrote for the New YorkHerald-Tribune, contributed to the journal Modern Music, and conducted. His interest in non-European music led him to compose for orchestras of Asian instruments, Indonesian gamelan, or ensembles that mix Western and “exotic” instruments.
Harrison wrote this of his Organ Concerto:
After I had worked in New York for 10 years and returned to coastal California, and had been teaching at San Jose State University for a number of years, I composed my Organ Concerto with Percussion Orchestra. My friend Anthony Cirone, who play[ed] in the San Francisco Symphony and who direct[ed] the percussion department at San Jose State, asked me for a new percussion piece. At the same time Philip Simpson, organist at the University, asked me for a piece, and I thought ... well, why not combine them, if only because both can make a great deal of noise, and it might be fun. There was an artistic problem, though. I needed a bridge between the fixed sustained tones of the organ and the unfixed and more ephemeral tones of such things as gongs, oxygen tanks, automobile brake drums, wood blocks, and other such. I needed, in short, pianos, vibraphones, celesta, and any other fixed-pitch percussion instruments. The three groups could join together, separate, and combine with the organ in numerous ways. The soloist uses his forearm to play two-octave tone clusters, and a special octave bar made by William Colvig to play clusters of single-octave width. I composed in very simple modes, but the last movement, which is in a special version of an ancient Greek mode, is often taken to be some sort of jazz celebration. Its actual inspiration was the finale of César Franck’s Symphony.