|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
The Numinosum Blog
Last night I went to see director James Cameron's Avatar. I did enjoyed the film and its vertiginous use of CGI technological advancements in telling a basic (and often quite predictable, although not unenjoyable) story. And since seeing the film I have had subsequent continued contemplation of the movie's ecological message, with the obvious corollary to our own world. Despite my pleasure at the world James Cameron and crew placed on the screen, there was one aspect of the film which left me a bit disappointed: the music.
James Horner, the composer of the score to Avatar, has worked with James Cameron on a few previous films such as Aliens and of course Titanic (THE-GREAT-EST-MO-VIE-E-VER-MADE!) and he has a controversial reputation in film music circles as a recycler of his own themes and motifs as well as some say a, ahem, 'borrower', of themes and motifs from other composers (in Avatar, I notice a few obvious moments of recycled Horner, such as a snare motif borrowed from 1986's Aliens which in itself, was also used in 1982's Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan). Avatar's music is generally pleasant and serves the film's visuals passably as the sound world James Horner creates certainly having elements from what we've come to expect from blockbuster film music. For example, rousing and rhythmic battle scene music to accompany the hordes of CGI warriors (with a parallel to Howard Shore's score to The Lord of the Rings), an exotic sounding choir matched with ethnic percussion (similar to Ennio Morricone's music to The Mission, with nods to Horner's own Titanic), and the requisite 'hit song' during the closing credits and which, not always but often, seem out of place and jarring, as it did in Avatar (think the song at the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or "My Heart Will Go On" at the end of THE-GREAT-EST-MO-VIE-E-VER-MADE). But in many ways the music is an antipode to the visual technological innovations.
Why do directors, who claim to be breaking boundaries in their films, fall back on using standard movie music memes? In Avatar, sadly there is no musicological equivalent for the stunning visual world saturated with beautiful dendrological, entomological, botanical, zoological, and geological interest and imagination (most things are based on recognizable earthly models such as a glowing forest floor, the 'helicopter' lizard, the white butterfly-like seed from the sacred tree which looked like a cross between a jellyfish and a dandelion seed head, and the Hallelujah Mountains (which all during the film I was speculating on how they would be able to float, perhaps some kind of terrestrial variation on Lagrangian points)). And while there is not much source music in the movie (music that emerges from a source in and from the world on-screen, as opposed to the music score, which is strictly outside it), the few times there were, particularly a scene toward the end where the entire Na'vi tribe chants, musically it was fairly straight-forward and plain. Now this is not to say the music doesn't help the visual images, but if James Cameron's team were able to create such a visually striking alien people, with their own legends and spoken language which was commissioned for the film, why couldn't there also be some hint of an equally imaginative, forward-sounding music, if not in the score at least in those moments in the film when the aliens are actually singing? Maybe I'm a bit unfair since my criticism stems from what James Horner (and James Cameron) did NOT do and what the music is NOT. After all Star Wars was looking back, not forward with its pseudo-Wagnerian romanticism including its one source material moment, the Cantina Band and its galactic-steel-drum electro-swing. However, where John Williams created a great and memorable score for Star Wars which was in the vanguard of helping popularize a return to big, sweeping 'operatic' orchestral music in movies (after a decline in the 1960s and early 1970s due to more pop music being used), James Horner only creates a decent, functional, and prosaic score. And for a film as 'next generation' as the moving-graphic-novel Avatar, that is disappointing.
(Photos from the official Avatar website)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 11:15 PM
Last week ended Maximum Reich, WQXR's radio fest of the music of composer Steve Reich. Hearing much of what Reich wrote over the past 40-45 years, it is hard now to describe how revolutionary his music from the late 1960s and early 1970s was. How refreshing and influential works such as Come Out, It's Gonna Rain, Piano Phase, Drumming, and of course Music for 18 Musicians were, not only on young composers and musicians but also on the listeners, who were treated to music that defied categories of classical by melding it with rock, jazz, and music from other cultures around the world into a decidedly American conception of what music could be, what I call mixed music (music consciously borrowing influences into something that is completely different from the source materials--I could argue that jazz, really was an early form of mixed music though).
Of course Steve Reich did not stop making music after those early works from the 60s and 70s. Some of his later worksDifferent Trains, Electric Counterpoint, Desert Music, Tehillim, Three Tales, and his Pulitzer Prize winning Double Sextet, expanded upon his technique and shows that he still has much that is worthwhile and interesting to say musically. However, after hearing most of the Reich output on WQXR, one question came to mind: does he write the same piece over and over? Hearing works such as his new Mallet Quartet along side Sextet or Daniel Variations along with You Are (Variations), one could make the argument that generally many of his works, particularly the later ones, do sound similar, at least on a superficial sound world level: mallet instruments and keyboards playing short repeating rhythmic cells that are layered and varying; if vocals are added, there is sometimes a juicy astringent, dissonant quality as the voicings sometimes feature close harmonies between voices, often doubled with the wind instruments; a dense texture of multiple sounds with a general energetic forward propulsion of motion. In 2003 I was part of the Steve Reich Festival in the Netherlands, where a number of seminars and symposiums were given, along with many performances of his work, in which Reich spoke about his influences, process, compositions, and philosophy of writing music. I remember one session I attended, where he was saying that he gets some criticism for writing works that "sound the same". He laughed and then asked us in the audience if we thought that was true. Now of course, no one, especially if they were thinking yes, were going to answer him right then and there. Anyway, he went on to talk about whatever it was he was discussing before that question, and the subject of writing the same piece over and over didn't come up again. And frankly, until the moment he posed the question, I hadn't really given a thought whether his works sounded the same. I just enjoyed each piece of his for what it was. However, I've been thinking about that question off and on ever since that day. Or more precisely, I've been thinking what should be a goal of any composer? Is a composer's goal the refinement and distillation of a particular language and sound, with each subsequent piece an expansion of said language, sound and technique or should a composer's language and sound change from piece to piece, with no definable connection between pieces except that the composer wrote it?
This has some relation to the last Composer Salon topic, Mixed Music and Stylistic Freedom, where I discuss this concept further, but it gets to the heart of what composer Daniel Lentz means when he said in an interview,
“style is really just learning how to repeat yourself, sometimes endlessly. If you keep changing your language and what you do, which is a very noble thing to do, nobody will know who you are?”
If a composition (or any work of art) is some representative of a composer's (or artist's) being, then can one create beyond what and who they are? After all, in Steve Reich's case, he is who he is, should he (or could he) ignore who he is and create something that doesn't sound like Steve Reich? In Western art and literature, even during the rise of Romanticism in the 19th century, which prided itself on individual expression, an artist's work was still part of a recognizable personal oeuvre. It has only been recently (20th century?), partly due to the many more sources of inspiration readily available to us than in previous epochs, that eclecticism of personal style became so prevalent. Pianist and writer Charles Rosen wrote in his book The Classical Style,
“What makes the history of music, or of any art, particularly troublesome is that what is most exceptional, not what is most usual, has often the greatest claim on our interest. Even within the work of one artist, it is not his usual procedure that characterizes his personal ‘style’, but his greatest and most individual success.”
In musics from other cultures, the idea wasn't to be so individual as to become unintelligible to listeners. From India to Arabia and Persia one gained esteem and acclaim, not on eclecticism but on how well you adhered to a particular style, yet still able to add something individual to that style (in this regards, it reminds me much of the true spirit of jazz). Generally the practice could be described by the famous saying of Goethe,
"In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister (In limitation, the master reveals himself)."
So the relevant question for this post about Steve Reich's music is, does it sound the same from piece to piece? Does it matter? And if so, is that a function of the refinement over the years of his sound, a variation of the same theme so to speak, or is it just that it is easier to write how and what you already know and harder to find some other way to say what you need to say? Or should you? I think about authors and whether this question is the same for them? Does Jhumpa Lahiri get accused of writing the same story over and over again when her subjects are mostly Indian/Bangladeshi or immigrants from there? Does Toni Morrison, because she writes about African-Americans? When you read a Steve King novel, you know you are reading a Steve King novel, should he write like Philip Roth? Maybe this isn't a true equivalent, but I do wonder if this problem, really is a problem at all. What any composer would want, I think, is to have a readily identifiable sound or style, which would mark it as theirs. While there might be some similarities in language and technique, can't one tell the stylistic differences between Debussy and Ravel, Brahms and Dvorak, Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Beyonce and Mariah Carey? So what is that thing that identifies each artist as distinct? Did they get criticized for writing or performing the same piece or same style over and over? Ultimately though, each artist has to come to grips with the larger personal question of how to balance learning to repeat one's style and language with an exploration of new approaches and techniques, in order to express that which needs to be expressed with one's art or music. And in this regard and in finding the answers for himself, I think there is nothing wrong with being Steve Reich.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 10:00 PM
These last days of December are when some people are not only trying to find that perfect last minute gift but also trying to finish watching their favorite classic holiday movies and TV shows. Are you really allowed to watch It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street anytime besides December? In this age of DVD, Blu-ray, and movies-on-demand, there was always something special about only being able to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and the many great Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass shows Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman when they were shown on network TV in December. If you didn't see it then, sadly you had to wait until next year--and you made sure you did (remember there was also a time when you could eat only vegetables and fruits that were in-season (am I the only one or does 6 inches of snow on the ground and green beans and oranges in the fresh produce aisle doesn't seem to go together?); luckily for me, the one thing that is still seasonal is egg nog and another reason to look forward to this time of year!).
These past couple of weekends we have watched two films, along with some of the above, that have become favorite parts of our Christmastime movie traditions: Love Actually and Millions. Both are British films, from 2003 and 2004 respectively, and while neither are cinematic tour de forces, they are movies that are modest and lovely in their own rights, with charming performances and characters: from Love Actually, the scene with Emma Thompson, when she gets a present from her husband (Alan Rickman, he of another holiday classic, Die Hard) is both beautiful and heart wrenching--one feels the interior anguish of Emma's character as she grapples with multiple emotions, all done with no words, just her facial expressions and the words and music of Joni Mitchell's song "Both Sides Now" (and Wayne Shorter's plaintive and tasteful cooing on the soprano saxophone) the only sounds we hear in the scene; the Liam Neesom character, who at the start of the film is grieving the loss of his wife (watching it now, it is strangely prescient, with the tragic death of Natasha Richardson, Liam Nelson's real-life former wife, in March of this year); the sad call of duty in the life of the Laura Linney character; the joy of happiness that radiates from the character played by Martine McCutcheon, particularly at very the end, makes me smile every time; and the story of the romance of the Colin Firth character and the one played by the beautiful Portuguese singer Lúcia Moniz and from Millions: the little boy who sees and talks and interacts with saints, obscure and known, throughout the film; the scene when St. Joseph helps out during the Nativity play at school; the little boy giving money to Mormon missionaries and what they do with the money.
The full synopsis of both films can be found on-line including here and here but if you haven't seen either film, or even if you have, add them to your holiday lists of films to watch and they might become classics for you too.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 8:52 PM
Here's a slide show of beautiful photos from the Numinous performance of Vipassana on October 28th at the Brooklyn Lyceum. The photos are from Donald Martinez, a wonderful photographer and friend who also took some shots at the Vipassana CD release concert back in May, which you can find on his flickr photo stream. While you are there, you can check out some of his wonderful photos of Colombian singer Lucia Pulido at Joe's Pub this past March, the group Gato Loco at Barbes, as well as beautiful scenes from a recent trip to Rome.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 5:38 PM
This past Wednesday night, December 9th, I went to hear composer/saxophonist Matana Roberts perform her COIN COIN project at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. The project is wonderfully hard to classify, as it is a fountainhead drawing from multiple streams of influences, but Matana describes it as,
"...a large scale 12 segmented sound narrative about my family history [called COIN COIN]. Through research, interviews and loads of family help, I have been able to explore stories, folklore, and mystery surrounding my ancestral history going back to about 1704, covering at least 3 continents, spanning a ridiculous cross section of cultures..."
Coin-Coin was a legendary figure in some mid-18th and 19th century southern African-American lore, but she was a real person: Marie Thérèse Metoyer, a women (and possible ancestor of Matana) born a slave in Louisiana but through various circumstances, became a free women who ended up a successful landowner, slave-owner, and businesswoman at a time when most blacks (men and especially women) were illiterate, uneducated, and poor. Matana maintains a blog, In the Midst of Memory detailing her thought process on different subjects dealing with developingCOIN COIN and you can find out more there, as well as links to interviews discussing the project.
On Wednesday night as I listened, I was reminded of a surface tonal connection between COIN COINand Cormac McCarthy's The Road (which I read a couple of years ago and saw the movie over Thanksgiving weekend). Both have a topical seriousness and desolation in which laughter, joy, or hope seemly is an ancient legend people only could vaguely comprehend. Of course this is to be expected dealing with the horrors and terrors both are dealing with. However after thinking about it more, The Road comparison is only partly accurate and COIN COIN, underneath the surface, probably has more cultural resonance with some other books I've read: The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison's Beloved or A mercy, and Jeffrey Lent's In the Fall. Those powerful and solemn books deal with issues in and around slavery and illuminates the psychic and psychological toll inflicted on all involved and all who survive (both black and white). Each book has a surface theme one could describe, as one character in In the Fall says, "Mostly, people are cruel, given the chance." Now I do believe everyone, given the right circumstances, has the capacity to live up to such a negative statement, however I don't subscribe to that pessimistic view in the reality of day-to-day. I am an optimist but with such depravity in history, it does make one empathetic to the felo-de-se of some who are oppressed and who lack opportunity through no fault of their own. Yet, despite that stream of anguish, one comes away from each book (well, at least me), not with lack of hope or with despair, but with an astonishment at how one can go on and how one does go on when faced with such abjection. How much would you cost? is one of the questions Matana asks in COIN COIN and which I believe she means what is one's own value as a person (both the literal monetary question referenced in slavery but also solipsistically as who one is) but I think another way to think of it is, what would you do or what would you be, placed in a similar horrific situation or circumstance? Would you have the same desire to survive, to continue? Would you degenerate to cruelty and self-destruction or as The Kid says in the movie The Road, would you still be a "good guy?"
Leonard Bernstein said it well in his fifth Harvard University Norton Lecture from the early 1970s, The Twentieth Century Crisis,
"Why are we still here, struggling to go on? We are now face to face with the truly Ultimate Ambiguity which is the human spirit. This is the most fascinating ambiguity of all: that as each of us grows up, the mark of our maturity is that we accept our mortality; and yet we persist in our search for immortality. We may believe it's all transient, even that it's all over; yet we believe a future. We believe. We emerge from a cinema after three hours of the most abject degeneracy in a film such as La Dolce Vita, and we emerge on wings, from the sheer creativity of it; we can fly on, to a future. And the same is true after witnessing the hopelessness of Godot in the theater, or after the aggressive violence of The Rite of Spring in the concert hall...There must be something in us, and in me, that makes me want to continue; and to teach is to believe in continuing. To share with you critical feelings about the past, to try to describe and assess the present--these actions by their very nature imply a firm belief in a future."
Now while I positively enjoyed both COIN COIN and The Road, I didn't feel like I 'flew away' after reading or after seeing it. However, I did feel that desire of humanity to survive, to live, to keep moving on. COIN COIN struck me as sonic consonance of the themes and feelings to be found in books like The Known World. The compositions were often structured improvisations mixed with definite written sections for the ensemble. Sometimes during the performance there was a box passed between the musicians, with color-coded beads inside, which corresponded to color-codes on the musician's parts and determined how they navigated the written music (Nate Chinen, who conducted a post-concert talk with Matana, has some photos of Matana's music here). The music flowed seamlessly from piece to piece for about an hour and a half and was a polyglot of stylistic diversity. Sections of contemporary classical gestures mingled with free jazz, spoken word, and modal jazz (a la mid-1960s John Coltrane, think the Impulse albums Crescent or Coltrane and you get an idea), performed by a wonderful ensemble (Gabriel Gurrerio (piano) and Daniel Levin (cello) stood out, but also featured were Jessica Pavone (viola), Keith Witty (bass), and Tomas Fujiwara (drums)) lead by Matana's sinewy alto saxophone playing and sometimes her speaking, singing, scat-rapping, and on three occasions, issuing a primal, tortured scream, which seemed to emerge from the depths of the spirits of all of her black ancestors. A powerful accompaniment and counterpoint to the music were video projections by Daniel Givens early in the evening but especially later when photos from Matana's family lineage, dating from the late 1800's onward, were shown behind the band. Like most African-Americans today, Matana's family comes in many different hues and shades of black, brown, and white. Seeing the photos of marriages, parties, school photos, celebrations, one had a pride and joy at seeing middle-class African-Americans in the early 20th century, so often seen by history in such stereotypical distress and poverty, being depicted in all manner of complexity in life: with dreams, and loves, and desires, and faults just like anyone else. Of course watching the photos, I couldn't help thinking about my own family history and how I fit into it as well as the larger African-American tapestry, even though that tapestry is only one part of many elements defining who I am. And I think this is one thing that is intriguing and universal about COIN COIN, no matter your 'race': through Matana's exploration of her own history, it helps open up your awareness to connections to your own family past and to one's inner self reflection of what that means to who you are.
Seeing such an unclassifiable project, one that mixed dramaturgy, sociological and anthropological research and study, performance art, and jazz, one could trace influence to some past projects from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), of which Matana, from her own admission is a tangential member (if Chicago's Second City is the incubator of much of American comedy today, then AACM has to be some kind of equivalent for the downtown music scene all over the globe). But Matana's work is singular in its own ambition and powerfully thought-provoking in its scope. I, for one, am happy to know of her work and that she addresses such a subject with clarity, questioning insight and vision and I look forward to seeing COIN COIN develop in the future. It is a project which should be seen and heard and discussed by many more.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 1:00 PM
Who says us New Yorkers don't care about strangers...well, only if they are totally clueless in getting back to their seat at a Knicks game...
This video is another in a series of guerilla theatre done in everyday and unusual places by the group Improv Everywhere. One of their most popular projects, and one that still brings a smile to me every time I see it, is Grocery Store Musical. I bet it is great fun to come across one of their projects while out and about in the real world one day.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 9:30 PM
Tonight is the start of New York City's WQXR's week-long festival of composer Steve Reich's music and influence, Maximum Reich. He has been one of the most influential composers in the last 50 years and one of the most enjoyable to listen to. From seminal and far-reaching works such as "Music for 18 Musicians", "Drumming", and "Different Trains" to "Electric Counterpoint", "Tehillim", "Music for Large Ensemble", "You Are (Variations)", and "Daniel Variations", you can check out all of those and more with streams of much of Reich's compositions on Q2 (the more adventurous (and to me, more interesting) internet version of WQXR). Along with past interviews done on WNYC, new introductions to works by the man himself, and written essay tributes by composers David Lang, Nico Muhly, Evan Ziporyn, and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, there is much to listen and enjoy during the festival.
Back in December 2003 I was involved in the two-week Steve Reich Festival hosted by the Royal Conservatory in the Netherlands, where almost all of Reich's compositions at the time, as well as much that was influenced by him (including a few of my own works), were performed and discussed. That was a wonderful and incredible experience for me to be a part of and I'm looking forward to this similar New York City radio immersion into the composer who is one of my favorites and one whose music and thinking have influenced my musical life and work greatly. Check it out...
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 5:02 PM
Here's the article from the most recent December 2009 BBC Music Magazine featuring myself, Evan Ziporyn, Lisa Bielawa, Philip Lasser, and David Balakrishnan. In the article titled American Dreams, writer Nick Shave asks a number of composers the question where is music heading next? A protean topic with no clear answers, I have been thinking about this for some years now. I do write a bit about this in my posting for the upcoming Composer Salon, but it is interesting reading what the other composers feel is going on in contemporary music circles. My interview with Nick was done back in the beginning of September and while he didn't use much from our conversation (with a few things in the article lacking the context and clarification found in the conversation), it was an honor to be included and fun discussing what I think is happening now in the US music scene and being a prognosticator to speculate on where things seem to be going next.
For old, tired eyes here is what was quoted I said in the article:
"Tonality is a defining feature of much new music; but then it never really went away. You only have to look at the pop and rock world to see people have always been writing tonal music. When Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass started experimenting with minimalism in the 1960s, people in the classical world would look down on them, because they were writing tonal music. But they completely changed the classical world because they said, "Hey, I'm not going to wait for these establishment people', and just played the music they enjoyed. This is very much the way it is today--you have people trying to get their music out there without any labels for classical or jazz audiences. As composers, we've all grown up with this approach, so now it just seems natural to filter into [everything]. But looking around I can see tonal language expanding again--you only have to think of John Adams, whose language is starting to be more chromatic, to sense the way in which composers are re-introducing all sorts of dissonances."
Check out the December 20009 BBC Music Magazine at a favorite music periodical outlet near you.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 3:43 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.