|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
On this date April 24th, 1990 the Hubble Space Telescope was launched. After the initial trepidation over the misshapen mirror and the subsequent repair, the images from the Hubble Space Telescope have been inspiring wonder and amazement in me and millions of other fans and viewers for much of those 20 years (the above Deep Field image from Hubble is one of my favorites and I can continually gaze at in astonishment and reverie).
So Happy Birthday Hubble! My hope is that when the 'eyes of our Pale Blue Dot' is retired and replace with the James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch in 2014, that we will, for many more years to come, continue to see the universe in all its beauty, mystery, and glory.
Hubble Deep Field slideshow
And while the Hubble Telescope did not take the famous 'Pale Blue Dot' photo (which also was taken over a series of months, 20 years ago), Carl Sagan's famous essay that describes his feelings upon seeing the image of Earth, as taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it was leaving the solar system, could easily reflect the perspective and humility granted by Hubble.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:00 AM
Yesterday at P.S. 321 we held our 4th annual Walk-a-thon for a Healthy Planet. The entire school, all 1300+ students and staff, not to mention many, many parents and friends, took to the streets of Brooklyn's brownstone neighborhood of Park Slope, making our way around Prospect Park and back to the school. The students took pledges throughout the year which then subsequently are donated to various funds that are helping make the world a better place (this year Rain Forest Action Network, Lambi Fund of Haiti, and East New York Farms will receive the proceeds from the Walk-a-thon). Last year the students raised and donated $16,000!
For me, it always brings back all of those marching band memories because some of the faculty and parents (including me!) form a band that leads the 'parade.' It is always an impressive sight to see that many people walking through the streets of Brooklyn and snaking along the paths of Prospect Park, having a great time. Despite this being the coldest and cloudiest of the four Walk-a-thon's to date, it was (as always) an enjoyable, festive morning and one of the many reasons that P.S. 321 is such a special and unique place; and one of the many reasons I am fortunate and happy to be a teacher there.
(photo credits: by Joseph C. Phillips Jr., scenes from the 2010 P.S. 321 Walk-a-thon for a Healthy Planet)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 9:25 AM
Tomorrow night, April 15th (yes, tax day as if you didn't know!), is the last in the 2009-2010 season of Simone Dinnerstein's Neighborhood Concert Series. Thursday's performance features the wonderful student ensemble Face the Music. Among the recent new music compositions by Nico Muhly, Graham Fitkin, Marcelo Zarvos, and Jacob TV, Face the Music will be premiering my own Liquid Timepieces, commissioned and written for them. The concert takes place at P.S. 321 (180 7th Avenue between 1st and 2nd Streets in Park Slope, Brooklyn) with all proceeds benefiting various programs at the school. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at www.ps321.org or at the door.
This morning Face the Music gave a spirited preview performance of three works, two of which will be on tomorrow night's concert. And from the sounds of it and the reaction of the packed audience of P.S. 321 students and faculty, Thursday evening's performance will be quite exciting. Hope you can join us.
(Photo credits: scenes from the Face the Music preview performance at P.S. 321 April 14, 2010)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 2:49 PM
I saw this sign the other day in Brooklyn and just had to take a photo. Let's hope it'll inspire better haberdasheric impulses in some young men, one of whom I passed today, near the sign, who obviously didn't look up to read it. Maybe he was looking down trying to make sure his pants were still on...Yes, people, "we are better than this!"
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 11:39 PM
Last Monday April 5th one of the movements from Vipassana, "Stillness Flows Ever Changing", was featured on WNYC's New Sounds program (#3059 Music with Mallets). Thanks to host John Schaefer, who has featured us a number of times over the years. If you didn't get a chance to check it out, you can do so at the above link or you can listen to some our other archived appearances (links below) or just listen to some of the other great music and artists on this wonderful new music program:
PROGRAM #2237, The Minimalist Influence (First aired Tues. 1/20/04)
PROGRAM #2922, New Concert Music (First aired on Tues. 4/7/09)
PROGRAM #2940, Mid-sized ensembles (First aired on Fri. 5/22/09)
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 10:20 PM
Next Thursday is the premiere of my composition, Liquid Timepieces, commissioned by pianist Simone Dinnerstein for her Neighborhood Concert Series. It was written for and will be performed by the wonderful student group Face the Music on April 15th 7p.m. at the P.S. 321 auditorium.
The years 2010 and 2011 are the anniversaries of Gustav Mahler’s birth (1850) and death (1911). I wanted to celebrate these so-called ‘Jubilee Years’ by writing a work that honors the profound influence Mahler’s music has exerted on my own musical development and thinking. Liquid Timepieces is my own musical encomium to him and despite some subtle references to musical moments from Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, No. 3, and No. 9, Liquid Timepieces is not meant to sound like Mahler. Rather, I hoped, through my own distinct musical expression and language, to create a similar resonance to the protean spirit of life and the world that permeates his works.
The evocative phrase, "liquid timepieces," comes from a line in the poem "Designer Kisses" by Major Jackson. I heard Major Jackson recite the poem himself last summer at the 2009 River to River Festival Poets House tribute to Meredith Monk. I didn't remember much from the poem at the time except this one phrase that stuck out and I wrote down:
We’re laid out like liquid timepieces, each other’s exercise
In perpetual enchantment, for there is that beach in us that is untranslatable
Liquid Timepieces, scored for Flute, Bb Clarinet, Alto Saxophone, Electric Guitar, 2 Electric Keyboards, and a small string section (violins, violas, cellos, bass), opens with a declarative concert G# played in various octaves by all of the instruments (see above photo of the first page to the score). This iteration of the G# becomes a recurring character throughout the piece: sometimes as a waylayer, sometimes as an interrupter, and other times as a something that just needs to be heard amongst other things. A 'steady state' eighth note pulse begins in the keyboard (which you can also see above) and can be felt in various instruments throughout the first half of the composition, generally in the guise of little cells of rhythmic activity. This forward momentum continues until a longer lined melodic figure slowly becomes emergent; at first only in the cellos and bass, then more prominently in the violins and violas, and later the woodwinds join in as the sweeping melody builds to a higher yet softer place and as the rhythmic motion begins to lengthen, we arrive at a moment of slower repose.
Earlier I mentioned some connections to Mahler's music buried within Liquid Timepieces. At this median point in the music I wanted to highlight one of those connections which is decidedly on the surface.
The counterpoint in the above trio (in concert pitch and in 2/2 meter) between the flute, clarinet, and violin is consciously reminiscent of moments in Mahler's Ninth Symphony where the full orchestral texture is dropped for a more chamber music-like atmosphere. And the melody played by the clarinet above, comes directly from the wonderfully exalted horn melody in the last movement of Mahler's Ninth:
This melody, shown above in concert pitch in its first appearance, is generally marked in the score "stark hervortretend" (in marked prominence). Heard slightly different the few times in the Mahler movement it comes up, this phrase slices through the symphonic background texture like a fiery prophet coming out of the wilderness heralding wisdom and insight at precisely the moment needed. However, in Liquid Timepieces I use the melody more as a wise sage that modestly offers insight clothed as advice in personal choice and direction: it functions either as a sort of cantus firmus, just one part of an egalitarian melodic scheme (see above trio) or as an effect much like a musical palimpsest, where 'ghosts' of the Mahler melody are layered on top of each other to create a texture of weaving melodies. In the below excerpt from my score you can see I'm asking the musicians to gradually improvise with either a version of the actual Mahler melody (Synth 1 and Cello; Violin 2) or a modified retrograde version of it (Synth 2 and Viola). Not improvisation in a 'jazz' sense where the soloist tries to create variations on an original melody often not actually stating the melody, but rather improvisation where the musicians keep the melodic shape and tones intact, but change their rhythmic and temporal approaches to playing it.
The floating texture continues and builds as a simple bass melody enters, but gradually fades as rhythmic pulses, whiffs from the earlier steady state incarnation, begin to break through to the foreground from its background origin. Soon the eighth note pulses and a short, repeating musical cell that is a canon between the keyboard 1 and alto saxophone, clarinet, and keyboard 2, along with a spasmodic occurrence of that octave G# I spoke earlier about, all overlap each other and grow in intensity and excitement. This energy is dissipated somewhat by a final string melodic coda (a distance relative of the Mahler melody above) while insistent eighth note cells are heard in the woodwinds and keyboard 1. However, the melody and pulses soon escalate into a final resplendent flourish on G#.
I've been to a few of Face the Music's rehearsals of Liquid Timepieces, and while this is difficult music, the students are doing a wonderful job tackling not only the technical challenges but the musical and conceptual ones as well. I hope you can make it to next Thursday's premiere performance to hear for yourself.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:00 AM
Who likes tax day? Well maybe you will this year. April 15th, is the next performance, and last until the fall, in pianist Simone Dinnerstein's Neighborhood Concert Series. Each concert has been successful, both musically (with performances by Simone, American Contemporary Music Ensemble, and Clive Greensmith of the Tokyo String Quartet) and financially (each concert was filled to capacity with all the artists donating their services so all the money from ticket sales go to benefit programs at P.S. 321). This upcoming concert is especially exciting because it is the first that features kids as performers and secondly, I'm directly involved.
Simone Dinnerstein's Neighborhood Concert Series
Thursday April 15th, 2010
Face the Music
“Beating Down the Doors”
featuring the premiere of,
by Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
(commissioned by Simone Dinnerstein and the Neighborhood Concert Series),
along with music by Nico Muhly, Graham Fitkin, Marcelo Zarvos, and Jacob TV
P.S. 321 Auditorium
180 7th Avenue, Brooklyn 11215
Tickets: $15 available at the door or www.ps321.org
As regular readers know, in addition to my composerly duties I teach kindergarten music (and math games) at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, one of the finest elementary schools in the entire New York City school system (public or private). And this is how I came to meet and know Simone, since I taught her son when he was just a wee lad. So when Simone wanted to start the concert series, I told her I would help in any way I could. But really, she has been the one to organize, curate, oversee advertising, and overall manage the Neighborhood Series in spite of her busy performing schedule. And it shows her commitment to the importance of connecting the community to classical music. So when she asked me to help by writing a piece for a wonderful ensemble she wanted for this inaugural season of the series, I was extremely honored.
I had first heard that ensemble, Face the Music under the direction of Jennifer Undercofler, when they performed Phil Kline's Exquisite Corpses on a WNYC/WQXR broadcast at the opening of the Greene Space in April of 2009. I enjoyed the performance and when it was announced that Face the Music is "an ensemble of 20 classically-trained musicians ranging from sixth to twelfth grade dedicated to performing today’s most compelling and creative new music," I was doubly impressed. And little did I know at the time that I would be writing a composition for them a year later.
Later in the week I'll write more specifically about Liquid Timepieces, but from the official press release here's a bit more about the concert:
“Beating Down the Doors” brings Face the Music’s youthful energy to works by five living composers. The centerpiece of the concert is the world premiere of Liquid Timepieces by composer and PS 321 faculty member Joseph C. Philllips, Jr. Commissioned for Face the Music by Simone Dinnerstein and PS 321 Neighborhood Concerts, Mr. Phillips’ piece is cinematic in its intensity and expansive sound. The teen members of Face the Music will also present four of their favorite works: Graham Fitkin’s sax-heavy Mesh (1992); Marcelo Zarvos’ foot-stomping “Memory” from Nepomuk’s Dances (2002); Nico Muhly’s stop-and-start How About Now (2006); and Jacob TV’s Lipstick (1998), with a playback mix based on clips from American talk shows.
Face the Music’s young players will talk to the audience between pieces and take questions at the end of the concert, making this an excellent opportunity for families with children.
It will be a fun and compelling evening of music; a great way to wind down after dealing with your taxes (if you are one of those last minute filers). If you can't make the April 15th concert, you'll have a few more chances to catch Liquid Timepieces and some of the other pieces when Face the Music performs at the Brooklyn Lyceum on May 12th, Merkin Hall on May 27th, and June 21st at the West Side Apple Store. You can also catch them at this summer's Bang on a Can Marathon on June 27th, where they'll be performing Graham Fitkin’s Mesh. I hope you can come out and support the wonderful student musicians of Face the Music at one (or all!) of the performances.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 11:56 AM
Just when you think things are going your way and there is some positive momentum, the universe decides that things can't be TOO easy for you.
I am reminded of a story told in Zen master Steve Hagen's wonderful book, Buddhism, Plain and Simple (one of the clearest and cleanest introductions to what Buddhism is, and is not, that I've read). The story is about a wise Chinese farmer whose horse ran off. When [the farmer's] neighbor came to console him the farmer said, "Who knows what's good or bad?" When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses following her, the foolish neighbor came to congratulate him on his good fortune. "Who knows what's good or bad?" said the farmer. Then, when the farmer's son broke his leg trying to ride one of the new horses, the foolish neighbor came to console him again.
"Who knows what's good or bad?" said the farmer. When the army passed through, conscripting men for war, they passed over the farmer's son because of his broken leg. When the foolish man came to congratulate the farmer that his son would be spared, again the farmer said, "Who knows what's good or bad?"
And thus the story continues.
For every time I just barely catch the subway train before the doors close, are those numerous other times when I'm waiting on the platform for 20 minutes because of some train delay. Of course, with my bike I don't ride the subway much anymore, but I think you get the idea. Lately I've been trying to remember, as master Hagen explains it, "Good and bad aren't absolutes. They are beliefs, judgments, ideas based on limited knowledge as well as on the inclinations of our minds." So one goal I have is continually to see things less about being 'the glass half full' or 'the glass as half empty' (if there is even a glass, which is a whole other philosophical kōan I'm not tackling here), but rather thankful that there IS a glass and there is something in it.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:50 AM
Speaking of singing as I did in my last post this afternoon, I just came across these videos of composer Eric Whitacre's virtual choir. An interesting concept where 100-150 people record themselves singing individual parts to one of Whitacre's compositions and then the separate videos are digitally spliced together to create one choir, singing together. He writes on his blog about the genesis behind the idea as well as the technical issues in getting multiple YouTubers to sound like one ensemble.
Seeing all of those little windows of people from around the world singing his certainly pleasant composition Lux Aurumque in a virtual space is definitely striking and somehow touching and beautiful. While this seems like an extension of the YouTube Orchestra and definitely a cool, fun idea, somehow this crowd sourcing one's band, where you don't have any true interaction between members of the virtual group, feels a little detached to me. It seems to go against the social and communal aspects and meanings of music (musicking) that have been and continue to be a part of many world-wide culture's music making. While going against tradition and looking for new, creative ways to produce one's music is always good, maybe this is no different than Conlon Nancarrow creating piano rolls to perform his music without performers or the singular hip-hop musician/producer/auteur creating every detail of an album on their computer without another person. Or no different than sitting down with a CD or mp3 and the 'virtual-ness' of an ensemble or group, receiving the music rather than being a part of it. Maybe the virtual choir is a symptom of the times.
Perhaps the next step is to have Eric Whitacre conduct live in front of an audience, while the multiple screens of YouTubers singing are streamed live, with the audio and video mixed together and shown in a club or concert hall in real time. Technical issues aside, that would be a way to create some kind of interaction between participants. Now having heard the virtual group though, I would be interested to hear live versions of Lux Aurumque and Sleep. I do wonder what my reaction would be?
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 6:32 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.