What Up, Wendy Heller?

Posted in Art Music, Experimental by Sam on July 12, 2010

Lately I’ve been getting into a lot of 20th century American experimental composers. I feel like even though part of me still loves blasting Trash Talk or Lady Gaga (fuck the haters) in my car as I drive around town, another part of me is getting kind of bored with that. I feel like my entire (musically-interested) life, I’ve been trying to push my listening boundaries. Initially that took the form of looking for heavier and heavier music. I’ll admit it – I went through the shitty metal phase in middle school, then moved on to grindcore/hardcore in high school (which is probably equivalent in some readers’ minds to the shitty metal, but that’s beside the point). Along with heavier music in high school, my tastes broadened as well. I began to listen to rap, something I would never have done during middle school. I listen to country regularly. I even started cranking a little Rigoletto in my car on occasion. However, during the last few months I’ve felt the growing need to explore even more. Spring semester I took an intro class in music, and the stuff toward the end is really what stuck with me. These composers were and are pushing the boundaries of what music is. I’m not going to try to be super erudite about this shit and I’m definitely not the most informed person in the world on these composers/genres, but I will talk about why I like it and why I think it’s cool.

Philip Glass

Philip Glass

Metamorphosis One // Solo Piano

I heard someone playing this in Frist Campus Center one day at the infamous license-to-be-a-showoffy-douchebag piano, so often populated by people banging out convoluted, complicated pieces that no one but them wants to hear. It was refreshing, because I feel like this is the music that is meant to be played on a piano in a public place – it’s low key, so that it does not distract people who do not want to be distracted. However, it is beautiful to listen to if you don’t mind a little distraction. A lot of the stuff I’ve been listening to falls more or less into the minimalism category, and Philip Glass is generally considered to be one of the best composers lumped into said genre (although I’ve read that he resents being given that categorization). I love how haunting this piece seems, despite (or perhaps because of) the sparseness of the composition. I feel like Glass manages to convey more emotion through fewer notes than any other composer I’ve encountered in my (admittedly brief) foray into the world of experimental art music. The album Solo Piano is the only Glass album I’m super familiar with so far, but I recently obtained a bunch of his works, so I’m sure I’ll be posting on him again eventually.

B-B-B-BONUS TRACK: Knee 2 // Einstein on the Beach
Opera about Einstein. 5 hours, no intermission. Lyrics are numbers. I dig it.

Steve Reich

Come Out // Early Works

Process music. Reich just takes a sample and plays 2 copies of it at slightly different speeds. What I like about this piece is the way that it morphs – what starts of as a clear sample quickly shifts shapes into something entirely different. Reich repeats this phasing effect in many of his works. Another of the ones I really like is Piano Phases, but it’s super long so I didn’t upload it. It’s a piece written for 2 pianists (although according to Wikipedia it’s been played by one guy on two pianos before) that attempts to recreate this phasing effect on an instrument rather than using tapes. I think the phasing is cool because of the way it allows a sort of chaotic, ever-changing sound to evolve from what appears to be order, and the newly-emerging chaos can alter the opening section of the work beyond all recognition.

William Basinski

d|p 2.1 // The Disintegration Loops

In their entirety, the Disintegration Loops I-IV run 4:55:51. I think that’s 5 hours of some of the most haunting ambient composition to ever be recorded. These recordings came about when Basinski was trying to transfer some of his old recordings from tape to a digital format. However, since they were so old the tapes eroded during the transfer process. These albums chronicle that disintegration. They’re very much background-music pieces, in that you can put them on and forget that you’re listening to them. They take a concentrated effort to really listen to, and this effort makes the listening process more rewarding. As a side note, if you mention the Disintegration Loops, you have to mention their 9/11 connection. Supposedly Basinski finished this project on the morning of the September 11th attacks and sat on his roof, listening to these recordings while he watched everything happen. Even without that connection, this would be a haunting piece, but I feel like that lends just an extra bit of heaviness that make this even more worth listening to.

John Cage

Sonata I // Sonatas and Interludes

Sonata V // Sonatas and Interludes

I – Tacet // 4’33”

John Cage is probably the most well-known and controversial composer on this list. He’s famous for pushing the boundaries of music using whatever means he can. He has used every-day objects as instruments, altered instruments to produce new sounds, left the performance of a piece up to chance, and removed the performer entirely from the piece. I think he’s my favorite composer in the post, if only partially because of the absurd number of ways he found to alter the standard perception of what music is.

The first two pieces are from Sonatas and Interludes. I’d say that these are some of Cage’s most musical pieces (to my knowledge), and thus some of the more accessible. As an aside, this is also my favorite music to listen to while studying. Cage “prepares” a piano by sticking pieces of leather, metal, and other detritus at prescribed places between and on the strings of a piano, giving the piano a different sound entirely. I find it amazing how many different sounds he is able to get from a piano. These remain some of my favorite Cage pieces – they’re just plain fun to listen to.

I was debating whether or not to include 4’33” in this post. I ended up deciding to just include the first movement. It’s definitely Cage’s most controversial piece. I feel like a lot of people dismiss it unfairly. Sure, it’s 4’33” of silence. However, that’s not the point. The point is to make the listener examine his own perception of music. By leaving the piece itself blank, Cage calls attention to the everyday noises around the listener, forcing the listener to focus on these noises that so often go ignored. I feel like Cage is saying that there is music in everyday life – we just have to listen for it. And, while a lot of people say this is still just bullshit, I think that Cage’s statement is one worth making. Give it a try and think about it.

Finally, the master at work. John Cage doing what he does best – using random shit to make music. Skip to around 5:40 for the actual piece, but I found the interview at the beginning to be interesting as well.


6 Responses

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  1. jawillisetc said, on July 12, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    I didn’t realize Madlib sampled Steve Reich.

  2. audio said, on July 12, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    just checked out the one man playing piano phases on two pianos video on youtube. it’s ridiculous. video here if anyone wants to see:

  3. the realdeal said, on July 14, 2010 at 7:53 am

    the other johnny cage

  4. dread my comment said, on July 23, 2010 at 2:59 am

    yo the links broken for 4′ 33” and dont tell me its not! cuz i know it is! i tried playin that shit and nothin came up! plus even if u do try to tell me i wont read ur comment anyways! u think i read any of this bs on this page??!

  5. molly said, on July 23, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Wow, Philip Glass. Absolutely gorgeous. And Steve Reich’s phasing technique reminds me a little of Zoe Keating: Her style is more layering than phasing, but it’s still great. She’s a cellist and former member of Rasputina, the all-cello band formed in the early 90s. She plays a sample, loops it, then plays something else over it, continuing the process until she creates a whole piece completely solo.

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