Steve Reich was achieving acclaim by the early 1970s for his minimalist explorations of rhythm using percussion, melody instruments, and even clapping, sometimes in combination with electronic media. Music for Pieces of Wood, from 1973,represented a progression away from the “phase shifting” of Reich’s earlier minimalist pieces. The first of the five players lays down a simple rhythmic pattern, repeated throughout the piece, everywhere delineating the meter of 12-beat measures. The second player enters with a more complex pattern, which also recurs throughout the piece. Against this the other three musicians enter (one by one), each intoning (staggered rather than simultaneously) an evolving pattern that begins with one note and 11 rests in a measure, then two notes and 10 rests, then three notes and nine rests, and so on. (Each of these measure patterns may be repeated or not, as many times as the musicians wish—within certain parameters—with this decision assigned to specific players at different points in the score.) Texture builds through overlapping of parts; in the second half, the procedure reverses and the full texture recedes to its initial simplicity. The interlocked rhythmic pattern shifts 58 times in the course of the piece, which typically runs between 11 and 15 minutes.
—James M. Keller
Meredith Monk was born in New York City, and grew up in New York and Connecticut. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964, she plunged into a career of artistic breadth that has included her visionary exploration of the human voice as an instrument as well as the creation of interdisciplinary works that weave together music, movement, image, object, light, and sound in an effort to discover new modes of perception. She established herself in New York artistic circles in the mid-1960s, and her reputation grew steadily through the next decade; by the time she founded Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble in 1978, she had long been a touchstone participant in the city’s world of contemporary art.
Realm Variations, commissioned and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony, is an example of Monk’s focus in recent years on creating compositions in which “voices are like instruments and instruments are like voices.” The title reflects the composer’s engagement with the idea of musical “realms,” which in this case refers to the distinct pitch regions over which the performing forces are deployed. Monk explains:
As part of this commission, I was invited to compose a work that would spotlight Catherine Payne, the San Francisco Symphony’s piccolo player. I realized that, as a singer, I didn’t know much about that high treble area, so that was something to explore. Every piece I make is a learning experience. I created a high realm in which the piccolo is joined by the violin and two soprano singers. To balance the piccolo, I chose to use contrabass clarinet at the bottom of the texture, along with bassoon and two low-voiced singers. And then in the middle realm are viola, French horn, and two singers, one of whom is me. The three realms start out distinct, but as the piece progresses they crisscross in webs of activity. Completing the instrumentation is a harp, which crosses all the boundaries; you might say it pulls that web into one realm.
I have never made a piece quite like this, divided into areas of sound, although in the past few years I have been working on the relationship of voices to instruments and vice versa. I’m exploring how a singer and instrument can work together to make a third sound that isn’t like either of them individually. Sometimes I treat the parts in a contrapuntal way and sometimes I layer them.
Catherine Payne is unusual among piccolo players in her capacity for melodic playing. She really can sing with that instrument. In this piece, I have preferred to get away from the usual “sparkling” piccolo writing, though I do make use of her flexibility. I also love how the instrument suggests a spatial quality, how the instrument can extend into a performing space.
Realm Variations derives to some degree from ideas of Buddhism, which Monk has practiced for many years. “In the Buddhist tradition,” she says, “there are different realm categories—this idea of joining heaven and earth by way of the human realm. I certainly don’t intend to illustrate that idea through this piece, but sometimes these principles are inspiring for me. Still, as the piece developed, I had a sense that the realms did suggest aspects or processes of nature.”
The work is cast as a multi-sectional single movement. The variations are not classical in the sense that a single theme is viewed from various perspectives; these variations unfurl kaleidoscopically, as the realms interpenetrate.
The orchestration is by Meredith Monk and Allison Sniffin; score preparation is by Allison Sniffin.
—James M. Keller
In the mid-1950s, Lukas Foss began experimenting with graphic notation, indeterminacy, and compositions that gave performers more or less control over a piece. In later works, he sampled the possibilities of electronic music, minimalism, and cross-fertilization between the Classical tradition and other musical styles.
The four movements of Echoi, from 1963, reveal Foss’s interest in improvisation. Although the score appears “composed” in a traditional way, numerous footnotes detail how the sounds should actually be approached: with a great detail of freedom while observing specific directives.
Foss reflected on Echoi (The Byzantine Echoes) in a voluminous program note. Paraphrased and much condensed, the note describes Echoi Ias“four simultaneous cadenzas” that introduce the four players “in a joint disorderly display of virtuosity”; order is imposed “as if by accident.” Whereas Echoi I was “not yet music,” Echoi II is collected and “completely composed (in every sense of the word).” Echoi III is “a game of sounds”; the music is “dreamlike” and “hallucinatory.” Echoi IVin a senseechoes the chaos ofEchoi I. At the conclusion, said Foss, he wanted “hundreds and hundreds of notes” to convey the sense of an obsession.
—James M. Keller
Morton Subotnick became famous as an electronic pioneer through his 1967 composition Silver Apples of the Moon, the result of a visionary commissioning program by Nonesuch Records; indeed, it was the first tape piece ever commissioned by a record company. Even then, while most composers working in the electronic medium saw an opportunity to create music in a novel sonic world without reference to traditional procedures, Subotnick was firm about imposing a discernable structure on his works.
Jacob’s Room’s origins stretch to 1985, when Subotnick composed its first incarnation for the Kronos Quartet and singer-composer Joan La Barbara, to whom Subotnick has been married since 1979. The work’s subject was holocaust—“the Holocaust” of the World War II era, but also holocaust in the sense of the broader destruction
of humanity. The narrative begins with a passage from Virginia Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room that at first alludes to the British Museum as an enormous brain encapsulating all knowledge, and then depicts the character Jacob, isolated in his room as he reads Plato’s Phaedrus. In a transcendent moment, he grasps his connection to the larger world. Subotnick interlaces a plot line from Nicholas Gage’s 1983 memoir Eleni, in which the narrator grapples with his mother’s long-ago execution, a casualty of the Greek civil war; ultimately, in a parallel to Woolf’s Jacob, the son finds some way to countenance reality.
“The original version had several performances, but the piece was moving in the direction of an opera,” Subotnick explains. “The Minnesota Opera asked me to write a work for their experimental workshop, so I adapted the piece into a larger version with electronics.” Subotnick aborted that project after two years, but the work continued to evolve. “I expanded the Minneapolis version, using video, to make a chamber opera for the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia in 1993, and I thought that was the end. But then I got a commission for an opera from Berlin. I went to my original idea and developed it into a full-length, hour-and-a-half opera, premiered in 2010. This new piece for San Francisco is yet another conception of the whole thing. For this, I went back to the full opera and [adapted material from that] into a monodrama, about 28 minutes long.”
In this new version, music distributed among various characters in the opera is concentrated into a single voice—that of La Barbara, who “throws” her voice around the auditorium by way of the digital possibilities accessed through three microphones. The music’s mood and sound can change suddenly, suggesting dreamlike stream-of-consciousness alternations: serene contemplation of Plato at one moment, the horror of a mother being tortured at another.
The work reaches structural highpoints and moments of psychological clarity in two vocal cadenzas, one near the work’s center, the other near its end. “The second cadenza,” Subotnick says, “is the quietest part of piece, but it is the emotional climax. There is a poignant moment before the epilogue where she articulates just the word alone. The basic notion of Jacob’s Room is that holocausts are not just local catastrophes; they also gradually destroy the thin fabric we have of being human. They deprive us of the artifacts we have created and our empathy as a group. When these things fall apart, we find ourselves alone in the universe.”
—James M. Keller